Picture a logjam made of ice. And a bottleneck.
The large blocks of ice dam up a narrow passage. And prevent other large blocks of ice from passing through, while allowing smaller ones passage.
The longer that ice stays in place, the less time the ice upstream has to proceed southward.
That sums up the real-life situation on the upper edges of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and Greenland, home to the world’s oldest and thickest sea ice. Canada in 2019 designated the area the Tuvaijuittuq Marine Protected Area. To scientists and others it’s simply called “the Last Ice area.”
The story of that critical ice – critical because of its age and thickness – is the subject of independent videographer Peter Sinclair’s current “This is not Cool” video for Yale Climate Connections.
Think ahead, not just back: ‘This is the high point’
The warming of the Arctic and decline in Arctic ice have come “far faster” than models had been projecting just two decades ago, says Chris Horvat of Brown University.
“Don’t think of it as being the warmest day, or the warmest month, over the past hundred years,” he cautions. “Think of its being the coolest month for the next hundred.”
“It’s not the most anomalously low sea ice extent,” Horvat continues. “It’s the most sea ice we’ll see until we die, and for the next thousands of years, or something like that. So this is just the high point.”
It’s not just that Arctic ice is melting in a warming planet. The video explains that the large ice blocks and resulting jams impeding passage through the Nares Strait simply are not enduring as long each winter as they had been.
“Every year, the reduction in duration is about one week,” says University of Toronto professor Kent Moore, co-author of a recent report in the journal Nature Communications. The ice jam, also called “ice arches,” form huge barriers holding back large blocks of ice from continuing down the Nares Strait (25 miles wide by 373 miles long). Between Greenland and Ellesmere Island, the Nares Strait in effect is a runway for the escaping ice to proceed to the Baffin Bay, west of Greenland. And from there to the Labrador Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
According to Moore, the Last Ice area “is losing ice mass at twice the rate of the entire Arctic,” and he said in a statement that the area “may not be as stable as people think.”
The never could happen … now is happening
The video explains that the old and thick Nares-bound ice is critical to the survival of the region’s polar bears, seals, and other wildlife. It has survived through even the warmest summers. But how long that will continue to be the case is unclear.
Scientists generally had considered a seasonally ice-free Arctic a “pie-in-the-sky, could never happen thing,” Horvat says. But now, “It’s happening.”
Veteran filmmaker Stephen Smith, a frequent visitor to the area over the past 40 years, says he is “stunned at how rapidly it’s changed. I don’t see how ice will persist in this so-called ‘Last Ice area.’ In the space of my lifetime, you can see these things drastically change.”
And that name Tuvaijuittuq? It’s a sad irony that the word, from the language of the Inuktut in the region, means “the place where the ice never melts.”