Björn Erlingsson studies fracturing sea ice in the Arctic and its impacts on climate modeling. In 1996, Björn pioneered research which discovered new findings on the mechanics of breaking sea ice. The opening and closing in the ice – which we have been observing increasingly for the past decades – causes a warming and cooling effect on the ice field due to changes in the latent heat content. This mechanical impact on the heat content of the ice is poorly accounted for in current models, which depict the ice sheet as plastic, without fissures. Therefore, the model is incomplete as it does not reflect actual changes in the ice. Björn believes this is the main reason for the poor performance of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predictions of sea ice expansion and contraction. While Björn’s papers have been heavily cited in the literature, the impact of sea ice fracturing has yet to be included into climate modeling by the IPCC.
“When I was the first one to suggest the idea that the mechanics of sea ice fractures should be included in the models, I felt embarrassed because it was absent from the scientific literature,” Björn admitted. “I was young and this was a radical discovery. One difficult for other scientists to accept.”
While the data supporting anthropogenic global warming remains irrefutable, some doubt has been cast upon the efficacy and timeliness of the IPCC, the world’s most influential organization projecting climate scenarios. “The Inuit community doesn’t have words for the changes they are seeing in the Arctic in their 4000 year old language,” Björn said, pausing as we sat still in purple-corded chairs under the glassy and puzzle-like walls of the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavík. “Scientists and physicists are single parameter people. Like me, I’m trying to put friction into the models. Inuits are multi-parameter people. They look at the animals, the melting, the changes in the environment, the weather patterns. They understood the urgency of climate change decades ago. Scientists can only see so much.”
Still, reliable scientific data remains important in order to understand climate impacts. Missing data, such as Björn’s discovery, also serves as a stern reminder for rapid mitigation and adaptation. Having been in the weather forecasting business since 1997, Björn has watched Iceland’s climate change. His interest in research science was piqued again by the lack of explanation for the extreme climate forcings being seen in the Arctic. “This is a burning question… that feeling made me decide to have a comeback. Ice cover in the Arctic is a symbol of global climate change. I think I can contribute,” Björn reckoned. “I don’t think I can solve it all, but I can contribute.”