Emma is one of my regular guest bloggers. I feel really thrilled about the possibility to post one educating post of this great blogger once a month over the next couple of months. Thank you so much, Emma, for sharing these great posts with us! If you would like to check out the previous guest posts, this amazing blogger wrote for me, head over here.
Wave activity has been unexpectedly rough up north in the Arctic, an area whose abundant ice flows usually keep the water nice and smooth for sailing. In fact, the waves have been so huge that the captain of the vessel Norseman II could not safely sail against them. Scientists think that the waves might answer the question of why the Arctic ice is vanishing so fast. Even the most extreme models of climate change do not predict the sheer speed at which the ice has been breaking up and melting.
Waves are one of the most powerful forces of nature we know. They can ravage whole towns with tsunamis. They can sweep away overboard sailors and crash over ships. They pound coastlines and are a primary source of erosion. These are all examples of “work” they do, and work requires energy. The taller the wave, the more energy it has. Waves in general have much more energy than does ice, because in order for any substance to exist as a liquid, its particles (molecules) must be moving at high enough speeds within it to break their bonds and slide past each other—which is why liquids flow.
Energy always wants to be transferred from one substance to another so that the two substances reach equilibrium—meaning they have the same temperature, or the same amount of energy. It’s why a stovetop burner will burn your hand—because the heat in the burner moves to your cooler hand, far faster than your hand is ready for. Because water has more energy than ice, it naturally wants to transfer its energy. And what happens then? More energy in the ice causes the molecules to break from their solid form and begin to slide past one another. The ice melts into water.
So just what is the problem there? It sounds like a natural process. The problem is that normally, the Arctic maintains an average amount of ice that drops in the summer and rises in the winter, but shouldn’t decrease dramatically over a large span of time—like a few years. But humans have a bad habit of burning fossil fuels, which creates a layer carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, through which the radiation heat the planet itself emits cannot escape. This warming transfers energy to the planet’s oceans, melting ice sheets faster than they normally should, and making room for much larger waves than usual to form. And with wave height comes more energy.
Such waves have enough power to erode Arctic coastlines and melt the permafrost, releasing carbon dioxide from animals and plants that were frozen beneath it into the atmosphere. And so begins a chain reaction. People produce carbon dioxide, carbon dioxide warms the ocean, the ocean warms the ice, the ice melts and creates more ocean, wind currents create larger waves, the larger waves destroy the permafrost, more carbon dioxide is released, more carbon dioxide warms the ocean, the ocean warms the ice more, the ice melts more and creates more ocean, wind currents create larger waves, the larger waves destroy more permafrost, more carbon dioxide is released, and so on.
Scientists have spent years looking for the missing piece in their models. Even the most extreme climate models have failed to calculate the magnitude of ice erosion and melting that the Arctic is experiencing. But factoring in the unusually large waves the Norseman II encountered in 2014 may bring us closer to the answers. Scientists have never thought to include wave activity in the models; they have focussed more on the chemical aspects of melting. But the physical force of one of the most horrendous forces of nature man has ever faced may open the doors to further discovery.