Hakai Magazine

satellite photo of an arctic cyclone
A powerful Arctic cyclone hammered the central Arctic in August 2012 and contributed to the breakup of sea ice in the region. Photo by NASA/Goddard/MODIS Rapid Response Team

In the Arctic Ocean, Hurricane Season Hits in the Summer

People are flocking to the Arctic—and right into harm’s way.

Authored by

by Rebecca Boyle

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For the past several years, ships have been taking advantage of an increasingly ice-free Arctic, using polar routes to shave several days off a trip from Asia to Europe or North America. Five years ago, a container ship transited through Russia’s Northern Sea Route for the first time. Two years ago, the first passenger cruise ship—the 250-meter Crystal Serenitypassed through Canada’s Northwest Passage. But as the climate changes, powerful Arctic cyclones—storms that hammer the sea with pounding rain and gusting winds—are expected to grow stronger and more frequent. As these two trends converge, the potential for catastrophe is rising.

A particularly powerful Arctic cyclone that spun into existence off the coast of Alaska in August 2012 is a dramatic example of what is to come. The storm parked itself over the central Arctic for almost two weeks, lashing the sea with rain and 50-kilometer-per-hour winds that broke apart the sea ice. That September, sea ice levels in the Arctic reached the lowest ever recorded, and researchers think the storm was partly to blame.

Cyclones in the Arctic are relatively rare, but as the sea ice opens and people head north, the storms could pose more danger—for visitors, locals, shippers, oil and gas explorers, and rescue crews alike. In the remote and hostile Arctic, even non-cyclonic storms are dangerous. In October 2011, for instance, two experienced Inuit walrus hunters were stranded between Baffin Island and the Melville Peninsula when a sudden storm caused the temperature to plummet and sea ice to form around their small boat. A search and rescue airman who had parachuted in to help died in his attempt to rescue them.

Meteorologists know little about Arctic cyclones compared to their tropical brethren, mostly because there are few weather stations, says Jonathan Day, a climatologist at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts in the United Kingdom. But to an unlucky observer on an boat or island, an Arctic cyclone would resemble a low-category hurricane—as strong as a Category 2 hurricane—with torrential rain and intense winds.

“We have the feeling that these cyclones are different from other types of cyclones in some respects, but we don’t really know,” says Day.

Scientists do understand a few things about the storms, though. Day says Arctic cyclones are driven by the huge difference in temperature between the Arctic Ocean, 0 °C in some spots, and the land, which in summer can rise as high as 7 °C. Coastal land is already warming at double the rate of the adjacent ocean regions, Day says, and this land-sea temperature gradient is expected to grow even wider. “All things being equal, with this change in temperatures across the coastline, we expect that there will be an increase in storminess,” says Day.

In recent research, Day compared the record of Arctic cyclones with sea and land temperatures, using the data to create a model of Arctic coastal storm fronts. According to the model, the biggest increases in storm strength and frequency are expected to hit the already storm-prone Pacific side of the Arctic Ocean, including the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, where the number of storms per month is projected to rise by 11 percent by the end of the century.

A visualization shows the swift cyclonic winds powering the August 2012 Arctic cyclone. Video by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

The finding has important implications for the people flocking to the Arctic.

Kristine McGlinchey-Yap, a spokesperson for Crystal Cruises, which operates the Crystal Serenity, says that for unrelated reasons the company is not planning any future voyages to the region. But William Harber, president for the Americas for Norwegian cruise line Hurtigruten, which specializes in polar expeditions, says two of its ships will traverse the Northwest Passage later this year, sailing from Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

Both cruises booked quickly and one is even sold out, Harber wrote in an email. “We believe that interest in this region will only continue to grow.”

Interest is so high, the company is already booking spots on two brand-new vessels built expressly for polar travel, the MS Roald Amundsen and MS Fridtjof Nansen, which will sail through the Northwest Passage in 2019 and 2020. The 2019 voyage is almost sold out, Harber says.

These ships—and their thousands of passengers—may face the threat of an Arctic cyclone.

McGlinchey-Yap says cruise ships carry a suite of weather- and ice-monitoring equipment. During its 2016 voyage the Crystal Serenity, for instance, had high-resolution radar, forward-looking sonar, and thermal imaging equipment to scan for rocks and ice. The ship was also backed by its own icebreaker and helicopter.

But safety technology varies from ship to ship, and each vessel will need to deal with a storm in a different way, says Ilja Leo Lang, the assistant director of the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators, which represents several companies.

In the Caribbean, cruise liners can outrun hurricanes or are big enough to withstand large waves. In the Arctic, however, with sea lanes choked by ice, escape is tricky. If something were to go wrong, and a ship became stuck in a storm, it would be a major test for search and rescue operations, which in the Arctic are already difficult, dangerous, and largely unorganized.

The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental agency representing governments and people in the region, is working to address these concerns with a wide-ranging plan for emergency prevention and response to coordinate efforts across the region.

Better weather monitoring in the Arctic will be necessary too, says Day, as it will improve meteorologists’ ability to forecast storms. But he says it’s safe to assume that summer in the Arctic, even without ice, will not be smooth sailing.