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Startling photo shows what appears to be sled dogs walking on water

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
June 18, 2019, 2:41:02 PM EDT

Melting Arctic Ice - full image

Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) climate researcher Steffen M. Olsen captured this image in the northwest of Greenland as he and sled dogs traveled on top of sea ice flooded by surface melt water while he went to retrieve the research team's oceanographic moorings and weather station equipment. It appears that the dogs are walking on water. (Photo/Steffen M. Olsen and the Danish Meteorological Institute)

It may appear at first glance that this striking image shows sled dogs trotting nearly on top of the water's surface across northwest Greenland and the Arctic Ocean. That’s not exactly the case — but where that expansive sea of water now lies was once solid sea ice.

The dogs and Danish Meteorological Institute climate researcher Steffen M. Olsen, who captured this photo, are actually traveling across sea ice flooded by surface melt water — a melting which has not only created problems for researchers like Olsen, but also communities in Greenland that depend on the sea ice in its solid state.

The dogs and research team had to travel across the water, which scattered ice patches peeked through last Thursday, to complete the tough task of retrieving their oceanic moorings and weather station instruments on sea ice in this region of Greenland, Olsen’s colleague, Rasmus Tonboe, tweeted. Dog sledding was the chosen method of transport, as it's considered the most practical way to navigate the region this time of year, according to the researchers.

“Rapid melt and sea ice with low permeability and few cracks leaves the melted water on top,” said Tonboe. Olsen said on Twitter that the ice in the area is around 3.9 feet (1.2 meters) thick, with about 2,854 feet (870 meters) of water below them.

The sea ice provides an essential means of transport for Greenland communities that also rely on the ice for hunting and fishing, according to Olsen. “Together with the local hunters, we have been measuring ice thickness from December to now — an ongoing activity for almost a decade,” he said via Twitter.

Olsen added that extreme events such as flooding of the ice by the abrupt onset of surface melt call for an “increased predictive capacity in the Arctic,” referencing the now-viral photo he captured last week in the middle of the Inglefield Bredning fjord.

Danish Meteorological Institute climate researcher Ruth Mottram, who specializes mostly in the elements on Greenland and the ice sheet, said that the project Olsen is working on is in close collaboration with the hunters in the village of Qaanaaq, a settlement located in the extreme north of Greenland, as many people still live a traditional subsistence lifestyle in this region. “They are monitoring sea ice and ocean conditions in Inglefield Bredning, close to Qaanaaq,” Mottram said in a statement given to AccuWeather.

The project involves them placing instruments on sea ice that forms in the bay during winter annually. Researchers collect those instruments around this time of year and into early summer before the sea ice breaks up to avoid losing expensive equipment in the ocean, Mottram explained.

Melting Arctic Ice 2

DMI climate researcher Steffen M. Olsen captured this image in the northwest of Greenland as he and sled dogs traveled on top of sea ice flooded by surface melt water while he went to retrieve the research team's oceanographic moorings and weather station equipment. It appears that the dogs are walking on water. (Steffen M. Olsen / Danish Meteorological Institute)

During this year’s trek to retrieve the instruments, researchers encountered a lot of standing water atop the sea ice. “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,” said Mottram, noting that the week Olsen’s startling photographs were taken saw the onset of “very warm conditions in Greenland” and in much of the rest of the Arctic. “[This was] driven by warmer air moving up from the south,” Mottram said.

The dense and fracture-free ice not allowing the melting water to seep through any cracks posed a challenge for the dog sleds racing across it.

The Danish Meteorological Institute’s weather station nearby at Qaanaaq Airport registered a high of 63 degrees Fahrenheit (17.3 degrees Celsius) on June 12 and 59 F (15 C) on June 13, according to Mottram, “which is pretty warm for Northern Greenland, even in summer.” Nearby Thule Air Base has been at or above 50 F five times so far in June, and as high as 55 F, according to AccuWeather Meteorologist Jesse Ferrell. “Their normal high temperatures are between 35 and 40 F this time of year,” he said.

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Danish Meteorological Institute’s climate model simulations have shown that in the future, there could be a general decline in how long the sea ice season lasts around Greenland. “How fast and how much is very much dependent on how much global temperature rises, but [last] week’s warming is still a weather-driven extreme event, so it’s hard to pin it down to climate change alone,” Mottram said in an email.

Jakobshavn Glacier growth

Jakobshavn Glacier, shown in this photo taken in June 2019, has grown for the third year in a row, and NASA Earth Observatory scientists attribute the change to cool ocean waters. (Photo/NASA)

These kind of warm-melt events are usually expected over Greenland later in the summer during late June or early July, making the scene captured on Olsen’s camera last week quite unusual. However, Mottram said it’s not unprecedented. “A similar event happened in June 2012, for instance, that was, if anything, more extreme than this one,” she said.

Even in the midst of the apparent heat wave in Greenland, NASA scientists have said that the Jakobshavn Glacier in western Greenland continues to grow for the third-straight year, and scientists attribute the change to the world’s fastest-moving glacier to cool ocean waters.

The highly active glacier discharges a large amount of ice from the Greenland Ice Sheet into Ilulissat Icefjord and adjacent Disko Bay, according to researchers, which poses implications for sea level rise.

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