Climate scientists document ‘extreme conditions on hot day’ in Greenland

In this photo taken on Thursday, June 13, 2019 sled dogs make their way in northwest Greenland with their paws in melted ice water. (Danmarks Meteorologiske Institut/Steffen M. Olsen via AP)

An early start to thawing season in the Arctic has climate researchers in Greenland wading through new territory.

The photo was taken in northwest Greenland on June 13 by Steffen Olsen, a climate scientist with the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) located in Denmark. The stunning shot shows a pack of sled dogs walking through shallow water that had collected on top of a sea ice sheet. The photo gives the illusion that the dogs, and the sleds carrying the researchers, are walking on water.

READ MORE: Scientists capture massive iceberg in Greenland breaking apart

It picked up steam online one day later when a colleague shared it on Twitter.

“Rapid melt and sea ice with low permeability and few cracks leaves the meltwater on top,” Rasmus Tonboe tweeted.

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As the photo garnered attention on Twitter, Olsen chimed in about his work.

He estimated that the remaining sea ice below the water was about 1.2 metres thick and said those living in the area will be among the first to feel the impact of the melt.

“Communities in Greenland rely on the sea ice for transport, hunting and fishing,” he said.

Olsen said he has been working on measuring ice thickness since December and credited a team of experienced local hunters and their dogs for help with navigation and transportation.

“We rely on traditional knowledge in the field though of course insisting on analyzing available satellite scenes in the joint planning,” he said.

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Officials at the DMI said the photo exemplifies “extreme conditions on an unusually hot day.”

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Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist with DMI, attributed a stint of warm conditions last week in Greenland and much of the Arctic led to a great deal of melting ice.

She said the expedition team came face to face with the wet result.

“The ice here forms pretty reliably every winter and is very thick, which means that there are relatively few fractures for meltwater to drain through,” Mottram told The Guardian.

She said that while the balmy June temperatures were strange for Greenland, they were not necessarily new and that their research anticipates a “general decline” in sea ice over time.

“How fast and how much is dependent on how much global temperature rises,” she said, adding it was too soon to say whether climate change is completely to blame.

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The DMI announced on May 3 that Greenland’s melt season had begun, marking the earliest on record in a database that stretches back to 1980. The melt season is from June to August but often starts up around May 26.

On June 13 alone — the day the photo was taken — more than 40 per cent of the island experienced melting. The total ice loss is estimated at two billion tons, according to CNN.

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A majority of the world’s Arctic ice exists in Greenland.

Olsen, for his part, said he was “overwhelmed” by the global interest in the photo and emphasized the need for further research.

“Extreme events, [such as] flooding of the ice by abrupt onset of surface melt, call for an increased predictive capacity in the Arctic.”

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