Will Arctic Summer Ice Disappear By 2015?

This image shows the decline in mature ice cover (old ice vs. young ice)Those scientists that predict that the Arctic Summer ice cover will be gone in six years’ time received affirmation for these doom-riddled expectations yet again when last week’s NASA satellite data revealed that Arctic sea ice declined at record pace this past winter.

The cover is getting thinner, setting the scene for a Summer melt of possibly unprecedented levels, according to data backed up by the National Snow and Ice Data Center’s military equipment.

At the very least the latest data affirms the trend that the Arctic is heating up twice as rapidly as the rest of the planet, which was first reported by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007.

But if the message hadn’t sounded loud and clear with the April 4 collapse of the ice bridge that held the Wilkins Ice Shelf in place in the Antarctic,  then the NASA data certainly underscores that Arctic melt-down is way more serious than most scientists have suspected thus far.

Every year, seasonal melt down of the Arctic sea ice cover reaches its height in September and the run up to this moment is followed closely because every day that goes by plays a vital role in virtually every climate model around.

The past winter ice cover was the fifth lowest since 1979, the year in which  scientists started recording polar ice data. That is in itself worrying enough. But what’s simply hair-raising is that a lot of thin first-year ice appears to have thawed in the recent winter months. This means that the summer melt might be a lot worse than other years because first year ice is much more vulnerable than older, thicker layers. And, to make matters worse, the older ice cover has itself shrunk to its record low since 2003. At the moment only 9.8 percent of the total Arctic ice cover is made up of ice that’s older than two years. From 1981 to 2000, that was roughly 30%.

The snow cover in the pole regions is important because it reflects sunlight back efficiently back into space and helps cool the planet. The more the ice disappears, the faster we heat up due to a variety of reasons related to the quantity and thermal expansion of sea water. And there are also heightened risks of  widespread global ecological damage due to warmer polar regions because the food chain in the oceans is severely endangered.

I am wondering whether the Washington Post reporter is on the money who writes that the poles simply are “disproportionately affected” by global warming. Is that a fair assessment, or is the state of the globe’s polar regions an indicator of what we should be bracing ourselves for too? If scientists are right who predict that the Summer Ice might be totally gone by 2015, then the term disproportionately affected will reflect conditions that are too contagious for their own good. The immediacy of the problems on the poles is not mimicked elsewhere temperature wise, but a child can reason that this is set to change if the oceans take a measure of the effects.

Semantics aside, speedy action is what’s needed. It’s only natural to focus on those measures that will remove heat trapping pollution from the poles fastest. That’s a notion which is clear to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who suggested at the Arctic Council last week that the short lived pollutants methane, soot and ozone ought to be tackled first. Her comments were echoed by environmentalists who confirmed that this is what would have rather immediate effects and that it would buy vital time for the poles.

Clinton is not the only one talking about the short lived pollutants. “Reductions in these pollutants would have a greater impact [than curbing CO2 in the next twenty years],” Reuters quoted sources as saying during the global climate talks in Poznan last December. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s implementation of new clean air standards in less than one year from now will likely cover this territory.

For the record, soot or black carbon makes ice soak up more heat, accelerating the melting process. Methane comes from sources including oil and gas and agriculture while ozone is formed from industrial pollutants. Check out this scientific study in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics for detailed information.

Another bit of hopeful news was issued by the National Center for Atmospheric Research which says that if the world achieves a CO2 reduction of 70% before 2100, a lot of the doom scenarios might be avoided, including the massive loss of Arctic sea ice.

NCAR released analysis funded by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, which  showed that global temperatures would increase by 0.6 degrees above current temperatures if we curbed carbon dioxide at 450 ppm by the year 2100.

NCAR predicts that significant melting of ice sheets and glaciers could be halted by 2100 under such a scenario. It also predicted that sea level rises due to thermal expansion of warmer water might take place but that they won’t be higher than 14 centimeters (5.5 inches), instead of 22 centimeters (8.7 inches) under worse CO2 emission conditions. Arctic ice in the summertime would shrink by about a quarter in volume and stabilize by 2100, NCAR says, as opposed a decline of at least three-quarters.

If we stick to a business as usual approach, emissions will reach around 750 ppm by 2100, allowing for temperatures to rise by around 2.2 degrees C (4 degrees F) above current readings.

The NCAR researchers who published their study in the Geophysical Research Letters, say that while we already can no longer avoid significant temperature rises this century (average temperatures have already increased between 0.8 and 1 degree C at this moment), the worst of the worst effects could be mitigated if CO2 output was drastically reduced. “But if the world were to implement [70%] emission cuts, we could stabilize the threat of climate change and avoid catastrophe,” said NCAR scientist Warren Washington.

Image Credit: climatesafety, courtesy flickr

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  1. Given that the Arctic is melting down with the present level of CO2, and that temperatures will rise even if CO2 output were cut by 100% right now, I think it is time to say the game is over.

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