Visualizations of the Arctic often give the impression that the ice cap is a continuous sheet of stationary, floating ice. In fact, it is a collection of smaller pieces that constantly shift, crack, and grind against one another as they are jostled by winds and ocean currents. Especially during the summer—but even during the height of winter—cracks—or leads—open up between pieces of ice.
That was what was happening on the left side of the animation (below) in late January. A high-pressure weather system was parked over the region, producing warmer temperatures and winds that flowed in a southwesterly direction. That fueled the Beaufort Gyre, a wind-driven ocean current that flows clockwise. The gyre was the key force pulling pieces of ice west past Point Barrow, the northern nub of Alaska that protrudes into the Beaufort Sea.
“A fracturing event in this area is not unusual because the Beaufort Gyre tends to push ice away from Banks Island and the Canadian Archipelago,” explained Walt Meier of the National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC). “Point Barrow can act like a ‘pin point’ where the ice catches and fractures to the north and east.”
In February, however, a series of storms passing over central Alaska exacerbated the fracturing. Strong winds prompted several large pieces of ice to break away in an arc-shaped wave that moved progressively east. By the end of February, large pieces of ice had fractured all the way to the coast of Banks Island, a distance of about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles).
The data used to create the animation came from the longwave infrared (thermal) portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, so the animation illustrates how much heat the surface was emitting as VIIRS surveyed the area. Cooler areas (sea ice) appear white, while warmer areas (open water) are dark. The light gray plume near the cracks is warmer, moister air escaping from the ocean and blowing downwind. Clouds do not show up well in the VIIRS thermal band, so the storms that fueled the fracturing are not readily visible.
While fracturing events are common, few events sprawl across such a large area or produce cracks as long and wide as those seen here. The age of the sea ice in this area was one of the key reasons this event became so widespread. “The region is covered almost completely by seasonal or first-year ice—ice that has formed since last September,” said Meier. “This ice is thinner and weaker than the older, multi-year ice, so it responds more readily to winds and is more easily broken up.”
NASA Earth Observatory images by Jesse Allen using VIIRS day-night band data from the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership. Suomi NPP is the result of a partnership between NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Department of Defense. Caption by Adam Voiland.