The Pond at the North Pole

A dramatic photo doesn't say quite as much about the state of the Arctic as it appears to
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The North Pole is supposed to be icy. It's where Santa and polar bears live, after all. 

But, right now, there's a small lake at the North Pole. Here's an image from the wide-angle camera trained on a weather buoy maintained by the North Pole Environmental Observatory.

santashouse2.jpg
Santa better have a floating workshop.

Paired with the long-time decline in sea ice across the arctic due to global warming, it's easy to jump to the conclusion that the Arctic sea ice is in an epic freefall. I mean, when there is a pond at the North Pole, things have gotten bad, right?

And generally speaking, sea ice extent seems to be under considerable pressure. There is less ice during the summer than there used to be. But the specific story about the pond at the North Pole presents us with a little more complex symbol of change. 

Yes, there is a meltwater pond at the north pole, and perhaps in some previous climate states, that would not have happened. But this is not the first time scientists have observed a melt pond at the North Pole, nor is it the largest.

"I have seen much more extensive ponding," James Morison, the principal investigator for the North Pole Environmental Observatory told me in an email. "Because we use wide angle lenses the melt pond looks much bigger than it is."

He pointed out a camera a mere 100 meters away showing the ice looking relatively intact (see below). And the scale of these images is also quite small. You see those striped sticks in the second photo? Each stripe is 10 centimeters (almost 4 inches) high, so what we see of each stick is only 16 inches. Which is to say: we're not seeing a vast patch of the arctic from these webcams. 

othernorthpole.jpg
Or maybe he can build over here.

This year's sea ice melt is not as bad as last year's record-shattering melt. For much of the season, the sea ice was tracking close to long-term norms, though it had a precipitous decline in July, and is now almost two standard deviations away from the long-term average. Still, Morison said, "that probably has limited connection with the... melt pond."

As a symbol, a lake at the North Pole is compelling. But climate change is a planetary problem, and it's not easy to capture its dynamics in one photograph, no matter how wide-angle the lens.

We've got to keep our eyes on the long-term data where the climate signal emerges from the noise of complex, natural systems.

seaiceextent.jpg

Via Live Science

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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