August 20, 2019
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The Westbrook ice disc may give us clues about the future of Earth

The world-famous Westbrook ice disc isn’t just another pretty face.

Brown University researcher Chris Horvat is studying the frozen circle with hopes it can provide clues on how Arctic ice moves and evolves. And the fate of the polar ice caps will have a big influence on the rest of the world.

Nearly two weeks ago, Horvat, working with the city of Westbrook, building owner Rob Mitchell and local Ethos Marketing, set up a webcam to watch the ice disc as it freezes, melts and changes shape over time.

[World-famous ice disc may be reaching its end, but city officials hope it has ‘lasting impact’]

“This is one part of a huge concerted research effort, not just by me but by hundreds or maybe thousands of researchers,” said Horvat. The 1,500 images a day collected of the Presumpscot River ice is “more than I’ve gotten anywhere else on the planet.”

“It’s way more than I had before from all ice types,” he said. “We know it’s going to be useful. How big an impact it’ll have, we’re not sure, but it’s definitely useful.”

The ice disc has attracted crowds to the Westbrook riverfront and headlines from all over the globe since the city posted photos online of the moon-like phenomenon on Jan. 14.

At about 100 yards in diameter and an estimated 1,000 tons, the disc is among the largest naturally formed ice circles ever reported, and the hype spurred people around the country to share stories and photos of smaller ice discs they’d encountered in other places over the years.

[Onlookers share theories, find meaning in giant ice disc]

Over the past week, a battery of storms and fluctuating temperatures — as well as a man with an ax — have taken their toll on the disc. It has begun to lose its shape and its crowds.

But it still has scientific value.

Horvat said scientists develop formulas to predict how Arctic sea ice will grow, shrink and move over time, but getting access to those remote corners of Earth to test their theories — or develop new ones — is difficult and expensive.

A day of ship time in the Arctic can cost $100,000, he said. Comparatively, for about $1,000 total, Horvat’s been able to collect nearly two weeks’ worth of data, and counting, in Westbrook using his webcam.

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What he can learn about the life cycles of ice, using the Westbrook ice disc as a test subject for predictive models, could help paint a picture of what the planet will look like in the future. Polar ice represents a massive surface that reflects solar radiation, he said. The more it shrinks, the more the oceans absorb that solar radiation.

And that leads to warmer, rising seas and changes to ocean and coastal ecosystems, not to mention commercial fisheries and property values, among many other things.

For every one degree of expected global average temperature increase, about a quarter of that can be attributed to the evolution of sea ice, Horvat said. So if scientists get better predictive models for how slowly or quickly the sea ice will change, they’ll be better equipped to forecast how the world will.

[Janet Mills praises everything about Bangor except its lack of ice disc]

In the meantime, the ice disc craze has helped in the more basic way of getting people talking about ice.

“One of the things we struggle with a lot as Arctic scientists is being able to connect people to this environment. It’s so alien to people, it might as well be Mars. The polar ice caps are really bizarre places,” Horvat said. “Being able to captivate people is really neat. We can say, ‘This is kind of what we would see up there.’”

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