Sea ice off the coast of Devon Island in August of 2010. Photo: Eric Solomon.

You may have heard that Inuit have a tremendous number of words for types of snow and ice (30-400 depending on the source). Well, the truth is, that’s an urban legend. It’s rooted in the fact that the various dialects of the Inuktitut language build words by stringing together multiple word chunks (called morphemes) to express entire complex concepts. What I might say in a lot of words separated by spaces, Inuit could say in a single, if not very long, word. It’s quite economical, really. Where I might use 11 words to say, “Hey, there is a fine powdered snow blowing along the ground,” a friend in the north might just say, “Natiruvaattuq.”

The irony is that western science, which initially promulgated the “many words for snow” myth when anthropologists first described the Inuktitut language, actually has 161 terms to describe ice – what it looks like, how thick it is, how it’s moving, how old it is, etc. (I counted).

Here’s the definition of agglomerated brash: An unconsolidated strip or narrow belt of new ice (recently formed ice which includes frazil ice, grease ice, slush and shuga), young ice (ice in the transition between nilas and first-year ice, 10-30cm in thickness and may be subdivided into grey ice and grey-white ice) or brash ice (an accumulation of floating ice made up of fragments not more than 2 m across) that’s 100-5,000 meters across formed at the edge of either floating ice (which includes lake ice, river ice and sea ice, as well as glacier ice) or fast ice (Ice that forms and remains attached to the coast, the initial stages of which consist of nilas or young ice) or at the shore, and that is heavily compacted mostly due to wind action, and that may extend 2-20 m below the surface but does not normally have appreciable topography.

But we only call it that in Canada – the World Meteorological Organization doesn’t distinguish between plain old brash and agglomerated brash…

It may sound like gibberish to all but those in the discipline. There is a lesson in this for the rest of us, though: Ice science considers the age, thickness, distribution, movement, size, degree of compaction, where it was formed, surface type and topography – and much more – when describing and predicting causes and effects of Arctic ice dynamics and climate change. When we hear all the public climate change debate and banter simply citing increasing or decreasing ice as support for one argument or another, keep this in mind: As with nearly all scientifically-based consensuses, it’s just not that simple.

Interested in how ice is observed and reported? Here’s the official manual:
http://www.ec.gc.ca/glaces-ice/default.asp?lang=En&n=4FF82CBD-1

Lots of good information at the Canadian Ice Service site:
http://ice-glaces.ec.gc.ca/

and the National Snow and Ice Data Center:
http://nsidc.org/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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