From storybook snowcapped mountains to the poles, Earth’s cold spots make for an interesting experience. Ski antics and monster sightings aside, ice fields can produce things that scientists have never seen before, clues about history, and even far-reaching disasters that are born in the Arctic.
Tourists travel to remote places to witness fantastic events, while icebergs and shelves behave in ways that scientists cannot explain. But the frozen depths can also hold some of the most terrifying discoveries and disappearances in the natural world.
The 2012–16 California drought was so bad that fish baked to death and boats sat at the bottom of dry lakes. Such brutal extremes have long been linked to carbon dioxide’s role in toasting the planet. The more it rises, the more global warming causes cranky weather.
In 2017, scientists kept CO2 constant in a simulated world and fooled around with the poles. They found something surprising. The California drought could have been caused by ice vanishing from the Arctic Ocean.
When ice dropped below a certain amount, the region failed to adequately reflect the Sun’s heat. Within 20 virtual years, it dialed up the temperature near the equator’s northern waters. This, in turn, drove rainy weather past California and into the Pacific Northwest.
This was similar to an atmospheric ridge that hung in the north Pacific during the drought and also swung storms away and to the north. The effect that Arctic melting has on distant southern weather is a newly identified atmospheric process. Wholly independent of global warming, it could bring more frequent repeats of the 2012–16 drought as Arctic ice continues to melt.