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In this fjord the water temperature is nine degrees

Because the ice melts quickly on the underside, the calving happens more often, says international director Kim Holmén in Norwegian Polar Institute. FOTO: Eirik Palm

In this fjord the water temperature is nine degrees

It crackles in the water when the thousand-year-old ice melts into the sea. According to the sea chart, we are half a kilometer inside a glacier.



But we continue to remain floating, and between us and the glacier front of Nordenskiöldbreen there are several hundred meters.
"We can certainly go up there one kilometer farther than the maps show," said Trond Wassbakk, general manager of Polar Charter, the company that owns one of the ships that takes tourists on excursions into the fjord.
The ice is retreating and it is going fast. Up on the bridge, skipper Roy Sebulonsen estimates the longest trips "into the glacier" are one-and-a-half kilometers, and the sonar reveals one of the reasons why the ice is melting: Out in the fjord the water is 8.3 degrees Celsius, and, as the ship goes into Billefjorden, the temperature increases to 9.2 degrees. It is therefore approximately the same temperature in the sea as in the air on Svalbard on this day.

Violent calving
One week later, on Aug. 2, aboard the research vessel Lance, passengers on the deck are gasping as the glacier calves and sends a rare large mass of ice into the ocean. On this Saturday the ship was open to the public for visits in Longyearbyen and an evening voyage. The vessel came to rest at Von Postbreen, and Kim Holmén, international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, has just told passengers they're probably going to see calving and it will be on the north side. One reason is that it is thawing from below.
"The large calving was a great spectacle, but then it also means the ice is going much faster into the sea than by melting," Holmén told Svalbardposten. "It also happens around Greenland and Antarctica."
The massive calving from the ice front makes the sea rise even faster than during normal melting, which is a relatively new phenomenon for scientists.

"An immediate consequence is that this water that has been on land as ice has come out into the ocean and that sea level is rising," Holmén said. "Just now it's that there's already warmer water melting the glaciers from below and that therefore they are calving more, a process that surprised us."
When did he become aware of that?
"If you go back 15 years, you see it was not a process scientists had paid attention to or thought about how fast it could go," Holmén said. "If you go back to the (IPCC's) Third Assessment Report, you saw this was not included. It seems, moreover, that this is becoming an accelerating process."
The IPPC's third assessment report was published in 2001.
Continuing further in
The water coming up from the Atlantic Ocean has been warmer. The ocean current runs like a river under the colder layers and strikes, among other places, Isfjorden and the west coast of Svalbard. Billefjorden is a straight extension of Isfjorden, while Tempefjorden lies as a side inlet. Another influence besides the warm water is wind direction, therefore resulting in temperature differences in adjoining areas. In Tempelfjorden the captain of the RV Lance gets a measurement of only 6.5 degrees in the sea water, but the ice that is floating out of the inlet is crackling sharply during the thaw.

Following the trackings
GPS tracking from previous cruises shows, among other things, that Lance has gone through the glacier on the south side of Nordaustlandet. When the ship rolls after the huge calving of Von Postbreen, the rangefinder determines it is 700 meters to the glacier front. The digital map shows the ship is inside the glacier, as was also determined aboard "Polargirl".
"There is no practical problem for us, because we stick to the regular GPS trackings we have and follow what is on the sonar," Wassbakk said. "We know that the trackings are safe to go with, but the ice itself is constantly retreating further in."

Last stand
It is also not a problem for others who are accustomed to sailing here, but for wildlife it means many challenges, Holmén said. In recent years there has been significantly less sea ice on the west side during the winter.
"Glacier fronts are beginning to be considered as refuges for the high-Arctic species," he said. "When they disappear, there is no habitat for them."
Refuges are smaller places where organisms can survive adverse conditions. It is understood temperatures will rise in most places on earth and that the biggest change is expected in the Arctic.
Towards the end of the year Lance will set off on a mission where it will be allowed to freeze itself into the ice for half a year. The goal is to get a better knowledge of the ice during wintertime.
Researchers believe, however, that halfway through the mission they will be out of the ice and have to go further up and repeat the freezing process again.

Temperature increases
According to the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the temperature is increasing twice as fast in the Arctic as the rest of the world. The temperature increase in the region from 2000 to 2099 is projected to be between 7 and 7.5 degrees Celsius.

The reasons are general temperature increases on Earth and the extensiveness of the sea ice is decreasing. Sea ice plays an important role because it helps to keep the polar regions cool since about 80 percent of the sun's rays are reflected. Since measurements began in 1979, the Arctic sea ice has declined by four percent annually.

The reflection of the sunlight helps reduce the surface temperature of the Earth, which is called the albedo effect. Less ice means less reflection, therefore increasing the temperature which, in turn, causes more ice and snow to disappear, and it becomes a self-reinforcing process.

Sea ice is important for plants, animals and humans because it is full of nutrients. In addition many animals and organisms such as polar bears, seals, seabirds, shellfish and algae rely on sea ice. The significant reduction has led to polar bears recently being listed as endangered species.

For many species, the glacier fronts are about to become a last entrenchment.


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