Wispy sea ice patterns off the coast of Greenland - Earth.com

Wispy sea ice patterns off the coast of Greenland

Today’s Image of the Day from NASA Earth Observatory features floating fragments of sea ice which formed intricate patterns as ocean currents carried them south along Greenland’s east coast.

This mesmerizing journey was captured by the MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) on NASA’s Terra satellite on June 4, 2024.

Primary route for sea ice

According to NASA, the ice likely traveled a considerable distance to reach this point. The Fram Strait, a 450-kilometer (280-mile) wide passage between Greenland and Svalbard, connects the Arctic Ocean with the Greenland Sea, serving as the primary route for sea ice exiting the Arctic

After passing through the Fram Strait, the ice is carried south along the Greenland coast by the East Greenland Current.

Wispy sea ice patterns 

As the ice moves, it breaks into smaller pieces and begins to melt in warmer ocean waters. “The smaller the floes, the more ‘wispy’ the patterns,” explained Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). 

These small ice fragments, often only meters or tens of meters across, create hazy, smoke-like curls on the water’s surface in MODIS imagery.

The predominant southward current along the coast is disrupted by the jagged coastline, other offshore currents, and occasionally winds from the Greenland Ice Sheet, Meier added, forming eddies made visible by the ice chunks. 

“With the thinning and breaking up of the ice, it becomes more easily pushed around by the winds and current,” said Meier.

Some ice is too young for the journey 

Larger ice floes appear closer to the shoreline, likely originating locally from fast ice that breaks off and becomes entrained in the swirling waters. Fast ice, anchored to the shore or shallow ocean bottom, is visible at the top of the image and along other coastal sections.

As summer progresses, more ice will drift out of the Arctic. However, Angela Bliss, a sea ice scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, noted that more Arctic Ocean sea ice has become too young and thin to make the journey south. 

“Historically, when more of the Arctic sea ice would survive the summer melt season, growing thicker and older, a larger volume of sea ice would be transported through the Fram Strait,” said Bliss.

Ocean circulation patterns 

The diminished flow of sea ice is being closely monitored by climate scientists. The movement of sea ice and freshwater out of the Arctic is a key component of ocean circulation patterns that distribute heat around the planet. 

The “global ocean conveyor belt” transports cold water south and warm water north, contributing to climate conditions worldwide. “Less ice and freshwater transport have big implications for ocean productivity, as well as warming upper ocean temperatures in the region,” said Bliss.

Rising ocean temperatures

A 2023 study examining two decades of ocean-mooring observations found that the East Greenland Current is moving less sea ice through the Fram Strait, primarily due to sea ice thinning. 

Researchers observed that summertime surface water temperatures off Greenland have risen, partly due to the increased presence of heat-absorbing open water. 

The water column has also become less stratified, making more nutrients available to phytoplankton communities.

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory 


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