Investment Portal of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation

Lard, snezhura and shuga

Why northerners keep a close eye on the ice and plan their logistics

22 november 2022

Global warming is shifting the usual ice drift schedules in Russia's Arctic regions. For northerners, this is of fundamental importance. After all, ice in the Arctic is first and foremost about roads. For most of the year, the Polar region's transport infrastructure relies heavily on winter roads. Then the transition period is finally over, when there are no crossings or winter roads and many Arctic areas are cut off from the 'mainland.' That is why ice formation in the North is monitored as closely as the Football World Cup.

The ice-freeze is the period when the ice on a river stops and covers the entire surface of a water body, from shore to shore, with a thick crust. Previously, in the rivers of the European part of the Arctic zone of Russia, the freezing processes in most water bodies were completed by the end of November, in the Asian part by the end of October. In recent decades, however, in all Arctic regions, the timing of the ice drift has moved further and further away each year.

In Yamal, for example, this year's freeze-up was almost two weeks longer than in many years. Even floating ice appeared later than usual this season. And the freeze-up on the Ob River was the latest in half a century of meteorological observations. Ice in this region is still very thin and growing hard, especially on the smaller rivers. In Komi, rivers had started to freeze by early November, but then the warmth returned and ice formation did not resume until mid-month.

True northerners know without any warning how important it is to keep an eye on the ice. While people living in the southern regions have already forgotten many of the words to describe the stages of freeze-up, in the polar regions they are still in use.

In deep autumn, when the water in the rivers cools and turns dark, almost black, thin sheets of ice appear near the shores in the quietest and shallowest places. They seem to have caught on to the shore by accident. These narrow strips of stationary thin ice are called 'zaberegi,' border ice. Their appearance is a sure sign of the freeze-up.

Shortly after the first border ice, small flat pieces of ice, made up of ice crystals in the shape of thin needles, float down the river. These ice pieces are very visible against the dark background of the water and somewhat resemble frozen fat on the surface of chilled soup, for which they have been nicknamed 'ice lard.'

When it snows at the beginning of winter, the snowflakes no longer melt in the cold water. As they fall to the surface, they float downstream, turning the river into a kind of thick porridge. This 'porridge' also has its own name—'snezhura,' snow sludge.

As the entire water column cools, intra-water ice—an opaque, spongy mass of ice consisting of chaotically intergrown ice crystals—begins to form in it. This ice that appears on irregularities in the river bed is called 'bottom ice.'

The ice lard gradually adheres to the snow sludge, forming loose lumps of water-soaked ice. Not only do they float on the surface but they also sink into the water column to form entire 'ice carpets.' The accumulation of intra-water ice in the form of lumps on the surface or in the river flow column is called a 'shuga,' slush ice.

After a couple of days, the ice is frozen and forms ice floes. They don't melt, but get bigger and thicker every day. They are not yet attached to the shore, so this is when the spectacular spectacle of the autumn ice drift begins. It usually lasts from 7 days to 2 weeks.

Every day, there are more and more ice floes floating and their speed is slowing down. First, the ice fields stop and freeze in the narrowing of the river channel, near islands, in shallow branches and then in the rest of the river. The ice floes stop moving and a solid ice cover forms on the surface of the entire water body—the complete freezing. That's it, the 'river is up.'

Scientists from Lomonosov Moscow State University predict that as global warming increases, the ice on Arctic rivers will last three to four months instead of the six to seven months it used to. This means that they will have to keep a closer eye on the timing and condition of the ice as the winter roads will continue to be the main roads of the North.

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