Wednesday, September 19, 2012


In a few days we will all be able to celebrate the autumnal equinox, and the North Pole will enter a period of almost six months of night. Right now it is sunset, and with each passing hour the sun creeps closer to the horizon; it will take almost three days to finally sink below the curvature of the earth. It is the end of a long day there, and on the arctic scale it has been a long hot day.

The melting of the arctic sea ice really stopped a few days ago when the temperatures began dipping into freezing closer to the arctic circle (66N); that far south they have been enjoying several hours of night for each spin of the earth for a couple months now, and they will not know a 24-hour night till December.

Cool chart from Wikipedia

I have written about this year's record sea-ice melt before, and it looks like the final record will be set at 3.4 million square kilometers. This is a big (or perhaps I should say small) number in a number of ways.

First, this represents an ice-pack that is just a hair over half the mean 1979-2000 ice pack size. I think that when we hit that halfway mark everyone who does not own a bicycle immediately gets a gold star to put on the bumper of their SUV.

Secondly there is supposed to be some type of major weather effect. The extra energy is supposed to force the jet stream into some sort of apocalyptic undulation that will intermittently bring shockingly cold air into southern latitudes. I don’t really know about this one, and by “don’t really know” I mean that and not “I really do know but I am skeptical”. It makes sense that having something unprecedented happen on a global scale should have some sort of global effect. I anticipate this winter will be one big event where statistics are collected and compared; kinda like baseball only more exciting, and without the player strikes.

I’ve often pictured the arctic sea ice as a giant white sheet. This image is incorrect for much of the year. I expect that it will be closer to the truth after the first thousand hours of night, but right now it is not. I was recently reading the blog of Julienne Stroeve who is riding through the arctic ice on the Arctic Sunrise (A Geenpeace ship). At almost 83N she was traveling through water that was 60% free of ice.

Instead of a featureless white icefield the arctic sea ice is a fractal-patterned slush. Floes of varying sizes bump and grind until the swiftly approaching darkness will stitch them back together.

Nearer the tip of the globe (The North pole –not the magnetic north pole, but the northernmost point on the globe- is at 90N) some of the ice floes are large enough to appear continuous.

On Friday 20 April 2012 Jamie Morison, principal investigator for the North Pole Environmental Observatory, called out on his Iridium phone to announce that the first of two polar webcams were deployed. Here is a picture from that webcam showing the Arctic sunset.

Camera 1

Unfortunately there is nobody around right now to wipe off the lens for Camera #1, and so we are left with a strangely ironic picture of the sunset partially obstructed with droplets of liquid water.

The next day, Saturday 21 April 2012, Matvei Shparo and Boris Smolin arrived at the Noth pole with their group of seven kids ages 15 to 18. They had skied there. It was the fifth ski trip for Shparo and Smolin, who had been the first to ski to the North Pole under their own power in 2007; they began on 22 December 2007, and arrived at the North Pole on 14 March 2008. The 2007-2008 trip covered over 1000km. The 2012 trip with the kids was considerably shorter.

On Sunday 22 April 2012 Jamie called up to announce that camera #2 was deployed, and it is transmitting better pictures right now.

Camera 2

The exact time of the Autumnal Equinox will be Saturday September 22, 8:49 A.M. mountain time. On this day the setting sun in the northern hemisphere announces the feast of Mabon. Nimble individuals will dance in the flickering shadows of candlelight while serving roasted pumpkin and curried tofu.

And the arctic Webcams will go dark.

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