Summer in the Arctic: “Lake” forms near North Pole weather station

Liquid water at the Top of the World?

We think of the North Pole as a vast frozen wasteland. Most of the time it is just that. But this summer…and in recent years enough summertime “meltwater” has piled up to make what looks like a big lake within an icy shoreline.

North Pole Environmental Observatory webcam, from July 25, 2013.

Minnesota’s lake country with polar bears?

That may be a little extreme. But changes in the Arctic are increasingly gaining the focus of scientists and news watchers around the globe.

The most recent example has been misreported in some circles. The weather station that recorded the “lake at the North Pole” is not actually at the pole anymore. The “North Pole” weather station has drifted several hundred miles south of the Pole…to about 85 degrees north latitude.

Map shows North Pole and location of buoys with webcams in the Arctic. Image: NSF’s North Pole Environmental Observatory.

It is also not the first time Arctic meltwater ponds have been observed at or near the North Pole.

Still the Arctic meltwater ponds are of great scientific interest. What is the process and effect on the Arctic ice sheet overall? How much more frequent are these events as the Arctic warms?

Here’s a great time lapse of this summer’s melt event from the University of Washington and North Pole Environmental Observatory.

And here’s an interesting take on the story from Andrew Freedman at Climate Central.

The pictures are dramatic — a camera at the North Pole Environmental Observatory, sitting in the middle of what appears to be either a lake or open ocean, at the height of the summer sea ice melt season. Set against the backdrop of the precipitous decline in sea ice cover in recent decades due in large part to global warming, this would seem to be yet another alarming sign of Arctic climate change.

These images have attracted media attention, such as this AtlanticWire post and this Daily Mail story, both of which portray the images as potential signs of an intensifying Arctic meltdown.

But before concluding that Arctic climate change has entered an even more ominous phase, it’s important to examine the context behind these images.

First, the cameras in question, which are attached to instruments that scientists have deposited on the sea ice at the start of each spring since 2002, may have “North Pole” in their name, but they are no longer located at the North Pole. In fact, as this map below shows, they have drifted well south of the North Pole, since they sit atop sea ice floes that move along with ocean currents. Currently, the waterlogged camera is near the prime meridian, at 85 degrees north latitude.

“It’s moved away from the North Pole region and it will eventually exit Fram Strait,” said Mark Serreze, the director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colo., in an interview. Fram Strait lies between Greenland and Norway, and is one of the main routes for sea ice to get flushed out of the Arctic Ocean.

The second thing to keep in mind is that melting sea ice at or near the North Pole is actually not a rare event. Observations from the webcams dating back to 2002, and from satellite imagery and nuclear-powered submarines that have explored the ice cover since the Cold War era dating back several decades, show that sea ice around the North Pole has formed melt ponds, and even areas of open water, several times in the past.

The webcam depicting what seems like open water is most likely “just sitting in a big melt pond” that has formed on top of the sea ice cover, Serreze said. This melt pond started forming around July 10, and is likely close to its peak depth and extent. The occurrence of a melt pond at or near the North Pole is “just not that unusual,” Serreze said, and is even less rare at a more southern location such as where the camera is now.

“The whole Arctic sea ice cover does show melt during summer even at the North Pole,” he said, speaking of a typical melt season.

Serreze said it’s usually possible to walk through these melt ponds with hip boot waders on, as opposed to having to swim, since there is ice underneath the meltwater.

Bottom line? This is interesting and visual stuff, but Arctic meltwater ponds are common over the past few decades. We simply don’t know enough yet to say what it means for climate change implications down the road.