During winter, Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, home of the Northwest Passage, generally fills with sea ice. These ice bridges form in the long and narrow straits between islands. A new paper models ice bridge formation and break-up, showing that ice bridges can only form when ice floating in the strait is sufficiently thick and compact. To form a bridge, wind must first push the ice together and then frictional forces between individual pieces of ice must be large enough to resist wind or water driving them apart. As temperatures drop, the individual ice chunks can then freeze together into solid sheets until summer returns.
The existence of a critical thickness and density of the ice field for ice bridge formation has important implications for climate change. As Arctic temperatures warm for longer periods, these waters may no longer generate ice of sufficient thickness and quantity for ice bridges to form. Since ice bridges serve as important oases for marine mammals and sea birds and help isolate Arctic sea ice from warmer waters, their loss will have a profound impact on both Arctic ecology and global climate. (Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory; research credit: B. Rallabandi et al.; via Physics Buzz)