Whether this will come as good news or bad news might depend on whether you are one of those Alaskans who fear global warming or secretly covets it, but the National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reports a minor climate change retreat in the Arctic this summer.
“The summer of 2021 was relatively cool compared to the most recent years and September (sea-ice) extent was the highest since 2014,” according to the September analysis released today.
The 1.9 million acres of ice at the end of last month was the 12th lowest in the 43 years of satellite observations, but that puts it among the iciest summers in recent years.
“The last 15 years (2007 to 2021) have had the 15 lowest September extents in the record,” according to the report.
Officially, the NSIDC said that September 16 marked the date at which the cover over the Arctic Ocean stopped declining and began increasing with coastal Alaska helping to lead the way.
“…Ice extent increased primarily in the Beaufort Sea region, with the large irregular open water region that existed in mid-September filling in with ice,” the report said.
Save the whales
One can only hope someone told the gray whales, given the calendar is now only two days shy of the Oct. 7, 1988 day when Inuit hunter Roy Ahmaogak found three of those whales trapped in the ice near Point Barrow.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) made sure to confuse the outcome on the advice of its authorities on gray whales who privately said at the time that there was no way in hell that a couple of young grays whales that couldn’t make it through thin ice to the safety of the Bering Sea at the start of October were going to make it through tens of miles of broken ice to safety with the Arctic freezing fast.
By then, one of the whales had already disappeared and was presumed dead, given there was nowhere for miles around for an air-breathing mammals to find an opening in the ice to get air.
Its two earlier companions, meanwhile, were surviving only thanks to human efforts to keep a couple of holes open in the ice, and those were in danger of freezing any day.
The Russians, in the form of the then-Soviet Union, saved the day by sending an ice breaker to the “rescue.”
It busted up a bunch of ice. The whales were last seen in the broken ice in the ship’s wake. And NOAA, having refused to attach satellite-tracking devices to the animals because of the “stress” it might have caused them, declared victory.
When the whales left Barrow, the ice beyond the Russians was freezing solid almost as fast as they broke it up, which was then normal.
When winter comes to the Arctic, it has historically come fast and hard.
Many were the whalers of old, who like the young gray whales, ignored this reality and paid the price.
The Whaling Disaster of 1871, which sunk 33 ships stuck in the ice, is credited with dealing the death blow to the whaling industry, although somehow, miraculously, the 1`,200 people on board those ships survived.
Those who ignored the history would not be so lucky.
“There were only 20 vessels in the fleet in 1876, largely as the result of the losses in previous years, particularly in 1871, and from the lack or reinvestment in new whaling ships by the owners.”
Many of them again ended up stuck in the ice. Some got lucky.
“Captured in the ice 20 miles offshore and being swept eastward along the coast of the Beaufort Sea, seeing that all hope of freeing the ships was lost, the captains reluctantly decided to abandon the ships and head for shore,” it is written on the NOAA website.
” Around 300 men, dragging whaleboats and as much of the ship’s provisions as they could, started across the jutting and craggy ice. Fifty men chose to stay with the ships, hoping to for a salvage windfall. The shoreward party finally arrived, exhausted from the trip, and sailed the whaleboats to Point Barrow, where they found the Three Brothers and Rainbow frozen in the ice but otherwise undamaged. They proceeded further down the coast to find the Florence, now also trapped by the ice.
“With the ice thickening, it appeared that the only option available to them was to overwinter, but all knew provisions were insufficient to get a group of this size through the winter, even supplementing with hunting. However, to the surprise of all, September 14th brought an unexpected lead in the ice, and the three ships were freed from the ice, the crews loaded aboard, and they raced for open water.
“While all of the assembled crews aboard these three ships were soon transported to safety, the same could not be said of the fifty that stayed behind. It was later learned that five men made it to shore, but only three survived the winter. So unlike the events of 1871, not everyone walked away from this disaster. Only one of the abandoned ships was salvaged the following year.
“Nine more whaling ships were lost in the following three years, most survivors of the 1876 disaster. Clearly, the 1870’s was the most staggering blow to an industry in decline. Nearly 70 ships were lost during this decade, and most of the rest of the fleet did not come through unscathed, where even the vessels that escaped the ice were damaged in some way, some extensively. Changes and reinvestment would have to be made to sustain the industry, but with oil from the ground starting to be pumped, hard business decision would lie ahead.”
Warmer and friendlier
A lot has changed in the Alaska Arctic in the 150 years since, but the fact remains that the ice, which makes travel passable in places almost impassable in summer, is both a blessing and a curse.
That said, it can always be worse.
At the opposite end of the planet, the Antarctic this year saw its the coldest winter on record. The Antarctic winter comes in June, July and August because of the annual tilting of the planet that decreases the southern hemisphere’s exposure to the sun at the same time it increases the northern hemisphere’s exposure.
A year after the Antarctic saw record heat, it saw record cold.
“Between April and September, a research station sitting on a high plateau in Antarctica registered an average temperature of minus 78 degrees Fahrenheit.”
That was one degree colder than the previous record which dates to 1976.
The polar vortex is being credited/blamed. Many Alaskans are familiar with the polar vortex (Arctic version) which not only spins winds around the planet’s poles but pushes them up and down over the polar regions.
The latter can either push cold, Arctic air south across the 49th state or pull warm Pacific Ocean air north across the 49th state.
The vortex has been messing with Alaska’s “normal” winter weather for a couple of decades now.
Newer Alaskans have become accustomed to somewhat balmier winters than the state has historically known. Is the pendulum now about to swing back a little in the opposite direction?
Who knows. No one has ever had much success at predicting the future.
That is warm for that part of the world.
The whales are safe. At least for now.