Three people died in Buffalo, New York yesterday shoveling snow that arrived from the Arctic north. The snow was caused by a southward swing of air from the polar vortex that is all wobbly with large meanders extending far south over eastern North-America where I live. Physics deep below the thinly ice-covered Arctic Ocean hold a key on why we experience the Arctic cold from 2000 km north and not the Atlantic warmth from 100 km east.
The Arctic Ocean holds so much heat that it can melt all the ice within days. The heat arrives from the Atlantic Ocean that moves warm water along northern Norway and western Spitsbergen where the ocean is ice-free despite freezing air temperatures even during the months of total darkness during the polar night. As this heat moves counter-clockwise around the Arctic Ocean to the north of Siberia and Alaska, it subducts, that is, it is covered by cold water that floats above the warm Atlantic water.
But wait a minute, how can this be? We all learn in school that warm air rises because it is less dense. We all know that oil floats on water, because it is less dense. Well, the warm Atlantic water is also salty, very salty, while the colder waters that cover it up are fresher, because many larger Siberian rivers enter the Arctic Ocean, ice melted the previous summer, and fresher Pacific waters enter also via Bering Strait. So, the saltier and more dense Atlantic water sinks below the surface and a colder fresher layer of water above it acts as a insolation blanket that limits the amount of ocean heat in contact with the ice above. Without this blanket, there would be no ice in the Arctic Ocean and the climate everywhere on earth would change because the ocean circulation would change also in an ice-free Arctic Ocean, but this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Some wonderful and new science and engineering gives us a new instant perspective on how temperature and salinity change over the top 700 meters of the Arctic Ocean every 6 hours. Scientists and engineers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution with much support from American tax-payers keep up many buoys that float with the ice, measure the oceans below, and send data back via satellites overhead to be posted for all to see on the internet. Over the last 10 years these buoys provide in stunning detail how the Arctic Ocean has changed at some locations and has been the same at other locations. I used these data in an experimental class for both undergraduate and graduate students to supplement often dry lecture material with more lively and noisy workshops where both I and the students learn in new ways as the data are new … every day.
For well over 50 years the Soviet Union maintained stations on drifting Arctic sea ice that stopped when its empire fell apart in 1991. Russia restarted this program in 2003, but unlike the US-funded automated buoys, the Russian-funded manned stations do not share their data openly. No climate change here …