NASA: Arctic Ice Arch Has Crumbled Months Earlier than It Should Have

An Arctic ice arch has crumbled months earlier than expected, NASA images have revealed. The structure spanning the Nares Strait between Greenland and Ellesmere Island, was found to have disintegrated through a series of images from NASA's Earth monitoring Terra and Aqua satellites, and the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite.

"The timing of the breakup affects the amount of old and thick ice that flows out of the central Arctic," Nathan Kurtz, a sea ice scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement. "The early breakup this year will likely contribute to the overall loss of Arctic sea ice thickness."

Ice arches are natural and temporary formations. The one found in the Nares strait tends to form at the end of autumn and it prevents sea ice from entering the Arctic Ocean. Normally, it disintegrates in June or July. However the NASA images show that this year, it broke up at the end of March.

ice arch
Three images show the break up of the ice arch. NASA Earth Observatory

NASA said the images from March 19 show long cloud streamers to the south of the arch, and that this type of cloud normally forms when there are strong winds. This could have been a contributing factor to the break up. Images from April and May show the arch crumbling and flowing through the Nares Strait.

Kurtz said thin ice and warm temperatures could also have played a role in the early disintegration: "It has been an unusually warm winter for the Arctic, in particular the area in the Lincoln Sea where the ice arch forms.

"Luckily the Nares Strait isn't that large compared to the much larger Fram Strait. The overall impact [of the break up] likely won't be that large, but it's still another contributor to the loss of Arctic sea ice, which has been ongoing for quite some time."

The ice arch in the Nares Strait has broken up early several times in recent years and in 2007 it did not form at all.

The last time it disintegrated early was 2017, when images showed it falling apart in mid May. At the time, Kurtz said the break up was "This breakup is in no way catastrophic, but it is worth noting that the early breakup of this arch puts some of the oldest and thickest Arctic sea ice in a more vulnerable state and will increase the flow of ice through the strait this year."

In a study of the 2017 collapse, researchers found three main contributing factors—strong winds, unusually thin ice and an area of open water that formed in front of the ice. "If the ice in the region continues to thin, early collapses may occur more frequently with implications for the regional as well as the downstream climate and ecosystems," the team concluded.

These images come as record temperatures have been recorded in the Arctic. In Greenland, temperatures soared to 40F above normal. An image showing huskies pulling a sled through melted ice highlighted the changing conditions and the impact it has on communities living there.

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