Yesterday, IFLScience shared a video showing the largest glacial calving event ever recorded on film, as three square miles of thick ice broke off and fell into the ocean. It was met with a lot of skepticism, with many unsure of how one chunk would affect the overall well-being of the planet. With impeccable timing, a video produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was presented this past week at the 2014 Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which helps put into perspective how an isolated glacier calving is related to long-term loss of Arctic ice with very real consequences.
Since January of 1987, NOAA has been tracking the volume of ice up in the Arctic using a combination of satellite data and buoys which provided physical markers of glacier boundaries. The 25 years’ worth of data was put together into a jaw-dropping animated video which shows all those years compressed into only one minute.
While area is an important factor of measuring levels of Arctic ice, it can be somewhat misleading. Last fall, reports of a 29% increase in area of ice in the Arctic swept certain news outlets as they erroneously claimed the Arctic had rebounded and claims of climate change were wrong. Unfortunately, new ice means thin ice. When ice has been present for several years, it has enough time to freeze additional layers and create a thick and stable glacier. Young, thin ice is easily melted away, especially in the increasingly-warm conditions that now face the Arctic.
Not all glaciers are bobbing around the ocean, without particularly affecting sea levels at all. Much of the ice, especially the thicker, older ice, is tied up on land. As the glaciers melt and the water runs off into the ocean, increases in sea level become incredibly problematic for people living on islands or shorelines.
Adding to the problem, wildlife that depend on thick Arctic ice to rest or escape predators are forced to go on land where they are in closer proximity to humans. For animals that startle easily such as walruses, this could have devastating effects. Because they live in herds containing several thousand members, if they get spooked and start to stampede back into the water, smaller walruses will be in danger of getting trampled to death.
Unfortunately, the loss of ice in the Arctic is going to compound the heating problem. With less bright white ice and snow to reflect the sunlight, the dark blue water will absorb more light and heat, expediting the loss of ice.
NOAA ranks the age of the ice on a scale of 1-9. Ice that is less than one year old is given a 1 while ice that is at least 9 years old receives a 9. In the video, the newer ice is denoted with dark blue and the older ice is shown as white, with a variable scale showing the different numbers in between. As you can see, the older ice is being shuffled away from the land into the ocean, where it will melt and add to the global sea level. At the beginning of the video, old and thick ice covered over a quarter of the Arctic. As of 2013, it has fallen to a meager 7 percent.