Santa not swimming: No lake at North Pole, scientist says

July 22, 2013: A picture of a buoy anchored near a remote webcam at the North Pole shows a meltwater lake surrounding the camera.

July 22, 2013: A picture of a buoy anchored near a remote webcam at the North Pole shows a meltwater lake surrounding the camera.  (North Pole Environmental Observatory)

Santa’s workshop is safe.

Amid all the frenzy caused by photos that appear to show a lake where one would expect to find the polar ice cap, scientists are just now starting to explain what exactly the images are portraying.

The good news: Santa and his elves don't need snorkels. Scientists at the UW Applied Physics Laboratory say that such accumulation of melted water is normal.

"Every summer when the sun melts the surface, the water has to go someplace, so it accumulates in these ponds," said Jamie Morison, a polar scientist and principal investigator since 2000 with the North Pole Environmental Observatory. "This doesn't look particularly extreme."

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There are numerous problems with interpreting the image itself, he said, chief among them the camera that had taken the photo itself, which uses a fisheye lens that resulted in slight distortion. What looks like mountains are actually ridges where the ice was pushed together, according to the head of the laboratory, Axel Schweiger.

The pool eventually drained late July 27, which is the normal life cycle for a meltwater pond. Forming from snow and ice, the pond eventually drains through cracks in the ice.

As for the true size of the melt pond, researchers estimate that it was actually just 2 feet deep and a few hundred feet wide – average for an Arctic ice floe in late July.

Buoys placed in the Arctic record weather, ice, and ocean data, while webcams transmit images via satellite every 6 hours. Throughout the summer melt seasons, images help track the surface conditions. Since 2000, the U.S. National Science Foundation has been funding an observatory that makes annual observations at fixed locations and installs 10 to 15 drifting buoys.

The buoy that first recorded the largely misinterpreted data had been placed approximately 25 feet from the North Pole in April, the beginning of the melt season. A second hole was drilled for a webcam placed in another direction, and shows a more typical scene. The ice floe holding both cameras have drifted over 300 miles south.

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This summer will come close to, but not pass, a 2012 record for minimal ice, according to Morison. But he is having his doubts. Based on the recent photos, as well as his own experience, he says that Arctic ice is fragile.

"I think it's going to be pretty close to last year," Morison said. "Up in the Canada basin the ice looks like Swiss cheese, with lots of holes. Even though the ice extent is pretty good, our thinking is that if there's a big storm event we're going to see a rapid breakup of that ice and it's going to disappear pretty quickly."