The Nature of Ice at Sea        

The Nature of Ice at Sea

(from AMSA Report 2009)


Several forms of floating ice may be encountered at sea. The most extensive is that which results from the freezing of the sea surface, namely sea ice; but mariners must also be concerned with “ice of land origin” - icebergs, ice islands, bergy bits and growlers. Both icebergs and sea ice can be dangerous to shipping and always have an effect on navigation.

Young ice: newly formed sea ice less than 30 centimeters thick. It forms extensively in the autumn as ocean surface temperatures fall below freezing and on leads that open in mid-winter due to shifts in the pack ice. It is not a significant safety hazard for most Arctic vessels although, when placed under pressure by winds or currents, it can impede progress.

First-year ice: can easily attain a thickness of 1 meter but rarely grows beyond 2 meters by the end of the winter. It is relatively soft due to inclusions of brine cells and air pockets and will not generally hole an ice-strengthened ship operated with due caution. Under pressure from winds or currents, first-year ice can impede progress to the point where even powerful vessels can become beset for hours or even days.

Old ice: If first-year ice survives the summer melt season, it is then classified as old ice (subdivided into second-year and multi-year ice). It is typically 1 to 5 meters thick and is extremely hard. During the summer melt process, the brine cells and air pockets that characterize first-year ice drain out the bottom of the ice, leaving a clear, solid ice mass that is harder than concrete. Even ice-strengthened vessels are at risk of being holed by old ice. When under pressure, old ice can stop the most powerful icebreakers.

Icebergs: are large masses of floating ice originating from glaciers. They are very hard and can cause considerable damage to a ship in a collision. Ice islands are vast tabular icebergs originating from floating ice shelves. Smaller pieces of icebergs are called bergy bits and growlers and are especially dangerous to ships because they are extremely difficult to detect.


    Arctic Council, 2009, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), Arctic Council.©

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