Dr. Thea Bechshoft on an ice floe at the North Pole

Photo: Dr. Thea Bechshoft

Dr. Thea Bechshoft on an ice floe at the North Pole. Despite good sea ice coverage in the region Thea visited this summer, the Arctic sea ice extent as a whole is the second lowest on record. What's more, the ice that remains is progressively thinner. The journey reinforced Thea's commitment to working to ensure a healthy Arctic ecosystem.

Thoughts from the Bow of an Icebreaker

By Dr. Thea Bechshoft, Staff Scientist



24 Jul 2019

Earlier this summer, as I leaned over the railing on the bow of our ship for a better view of the sea ice below, I heard a fellow traveler exclaim, with awe in his voice: “That’s some serious ice!” He was, in fact, so fascinated by the ice that he repeated this sentiment a few times. 

I found myself in the odd position of simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with him. If we only looked at the area we were passing through during this particular month and year, what we saw was indeed really impressive sea ice. In fact, the sea ice we encountered was thick enough that reaching our destination—the geographic North Pole—took roughly 1.5 days longer than we’d expected.

The exchange took place during a Quark Expedition trip that I was privileged to join, traveling on the nuclear icebreaker “50 Years of Victory” on a voyage from Murmansk in Russia to the North Pole. While much of my time was spent sharing science and conservation information with passengers, I also used this unique opportunity to spend a lot of time observing the sea ice as we moved through it on our way to the highest of the High Arctic, 90° North.

The view from the bow of the ship

Photo: Dr. Thea Bechshoft

The view from the bow of the ship.

“50 Years of Victory” is a powerful ship of 75,000 horsepower total and the highest possible ice rating, but even she had to back up and find alternative routes through the ice every now and then. However, if we look at the bigger perspective as provided to us by satellite data, the status of the Arctic sea ice as a whole is in fact very far from impressive: not only was the Arctic sea ice extent this summer the second lowest on record, the ice is also getting progressively thinner (see figure at bottom of page).

Across the Arctic, the old multiyear ice is disappearing, being replaced by younger sea ice that is much more susceptible to melting in the summer. This melting sea ice isn’t just a challenge for the polar bears and all the other lifeforms whose survival depends on a healthy Arctic ecosystem—the increased patches of open water also soak up the sun’s heat, which again contributes to more rapidly melting ice. A vicious cycle.

Just like my fellow passenger, most of us often have a tendency to judge the general state of things on specific singular events, especially if we experienced those events in person. This is why satellite data and other historical sea ice records are incredibly important in order for us to identify the long-term trends of what is happening to the Arctic sea ice extent and thickness. Without long-term continuous, impartial monitoring, we may become oblivious to the critical changes caused to the Arctic ecosystem by our warming climate. This “blindness” to change is also known as shifting baseline syndrome: Chronic, slowly degrading changes in ecosystems can be incredibly difficult for us to notice if they happen over a period of multiple decades. This is true for the disappearance of the Arctic sea ice, but also for example for the dwindling number of insects found around the globe.

A polar bear on hummocked sea ice in Franz Josef Land

Photo: Michael Hambrey

A polar bear on hummocked sea ice in Franz Josef Land.

Being onboard an icebreaker for the almost two weeks it took for us to make it to 90° North and back provided a lot of time for thought. Happily, it also brought beautiful Russian polar bears, some of which were curious enough about the ship to come close and check us out. As expected, all our bear sightings happened while we were in the ice around Franz Josef Land—the Russian archipelago is located on the continental shelf, a shallow area of high biological productivity that provides a good feeding area for seals and thus bears too. Starting just north of Franz Josef Land, the deep waters of the Arctic Basin have much lower productivity and thus fewer polar bears—fewer, not none, so we did still keep a lookout.

While it was a relief to see that this year and this month, in this particular part of the Arctic, the sea ice was fine, I am also keenly aware that, taken as a whole, the June sea ice extent in the Arctic was the second lowest in the satellite record, with polar bears in the Chukchi, Beaufort, and Barents seas (the latter of which includes the area around Franz Josef Land) experiencing particularly bad ice years.

As I stood at the bow, looking out over the spectacular and ever-changing icy landscape that surrounded us on all sides, it again occurred to me how important the state of this remote area is to everyone—polar bears and humans included. Traveling to the North Pole was a beautiful experience, but also one that left me with a reinforced sense of urgency and commitment to do all that I can to ensure that our common future includes a healthy Arctic ecosystem.

Sea ice thickness and volume graph from June 15, 2019