Russia is evacuating 16 scientists from a research station located on an ice floe in the Arctic as the ground beneath their feet has disintegrated.
The scientists had been a month into their year-long posting on the SP-40 research station — symbolically named “Russia,” according to news service RIA Novosti — when the ice floe broke up into six pieces. Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment made the announcement of the evacuation on May 24.
The Arctic ice cap may appear to be a continuous sheet of ice, but is actually a collection of smaller ice pieces at the mercy of wind and ocean currents. They grind up against each other, fracture and crack. The research station was located in the Canada Basin of the Arctic. Nearby, the Beaufort gyre, a clockwise ocean current driven by wind, pulls ice along a circuitous route.
Between January and March this year, an extremely high-pressure weather system loomed over the region. The atmospheric pressure over Greenland reached 1074 millibars in March, just a smidge below the world record of 1083 mb set in Siberia in 1968. High winds activated the Beaufort gyre, which started pulling ice floes along and cracking ice, according to NASA.
The processes intensified in the area around the research station in May. The floe moved 186 miles in a month and broke up due to the intensive drift, said Ivan Frolov, director of Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute or AARI, over the phone.
The researchers belonged to AARI, which began sending scientists on year long expeditions to the Arctic in 1937. The expedition this year, the 40th (the expeditions were suspended following World War II), was to a location on the northwest periphery of the Canadian Basin, unidentifiable except as a point on a map – 85 degrees northern latitude and 142 degrees western longitude. The temperatures last month averaged negative 11 degrees Celsius (12 degrees Fahrenheit). Winds whipped at a swift 10 miles per hour.
The ice floe was between six and 13 feet thick, and was chosen for its sturdiness, said Frolov. The station SP-40 was set up in October last year. The researchers came onboard in April.
They proceeded to set up instruments to study the Arctic from the stratosphere to the ocean’s depths — things like the ocean’s salinity and the plankton species living there. They measured ozone in the atmosphere, used a drone to monitor wind speeds and other parameters.
The conditions are harsh, but manned expeditions are necessary and well suited to the Russian psyche, said Victor Boyarsky, director of the Russian State Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic in St. Petersburg, speaking by phone.
“It looks like kinda ancient way of study. People staying away from their families for one year, but the Russians are used to this way,” he said.
Though this particular incident cannot be directly tied to climate change, Boyarsky observed that it is becoming tougher to find ideal ice floes to locate the stations since the amount of multi-year sea ice is decreasing in the Arctic Ocean. Sea ice shrank by a record 18 percent last year.
On Friday, a Russian nuclear ice breaker will depart at noon for the Canadian Basin to pick up the scientists. They’ll be moved to an abandoned research center on the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago.
IMAGES: Sea-ice fracturing off the northern coast of Alaska. (NASA Earth Observatory)