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Arctic Ocean meltdown: Say goodbye to the Arctic ice cap

It’s been another lean summer for the Arctic Ocean’s sheath of summer sea ice.

Much of the ice in one region is too thin to survive next summer’s melt season, according to an expedition that trekked across the ice in the Beaufort Sea off the coasts of Canada and Alaska.

An expedition by the World Wildlife Fund and the Catlin Arctic Survey found that the average thickness of the ice it measured was roughly 1.8 meters (6 feet). It released the results today.

After reviewing the data the expedition collected, a team at the University of Cambridge’s Polar Ocean Physics Group concluded that the ice cap is on track to vanish during Arctic summers sometime within a generation.

The new data “supports the consensus view — based on seasonal variation of ice extent and thickness, changes in temperature, winds, and especially ice composition — that the Arctic will be ice-free in the summer within about 20 years.” By “composition” he’s referring to the ratio of thick multi-year ice that resists summer melt to become the foundation for the next winter’s freeze and thinner one- or two-year-old ice that fails to make it through the following summer.

Earlier this month, the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., released its end-of-the season wrap-up Oct. 6 and came to essentially the same conclusion.

This year’s summer ice reached the third lowest extent since scientists began tracking the ice with satellites in 1979. But more first-year and second year ice has survived compared with the past couple of summer, notes Mark Meier, a senior scientist at the center.

“If this ice remains in the Arctic through the winter, it will thicken, which gives some hope of stabilizing the ice cover over the next few years,” he said in a statement. “However, the ice is still much younger and thinner than it was in the 1980s, leaving it vulnerable to melt during the summer.”

The center’s director, Mark Serreze, added that “it’s nice to see a little recovery over the past couple years, but there’s no reason to think that we’re headed back to conditions seen back in the 1970s. We still expect to see ice-free summers sometime in the next few decades.”

So where do the latest data leave the matter? Scientists always relish more data. And it’s useful to try to provide ground truth to information satellites gather. But the Catlin-WWF results don’t alter the picture the wider group of polar scientist has been assembling. Global warming continues to take its toll on Arctic sea ice. But natural variability, which plants itself atop the longer-term temperature trends, make precise predictions of an ice-free summer at the top of the world difficult. Hence the “sometime.”

Pete Spotts reports for the Christian Science Monitor.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by dan buechler on 10/16/2009 - 10:29 am.

    Truly scary news. But as a recently converted Republican I am excited about the potential new oil fields we will be able to tap. Drill em broad, drill em deep but drill baby drill. My young college republican friends are having a free showing Sunday at UM Coffman of “Not evil, just wrong” a green astroturf film blasting Al Gore and his tree hugging friends and all those monkey wrenchers.
    Seriously though this also carries great implication for Minnesota and the whole world. We will lose our Boreal forests. Many of the prairie potholes will dry up. The grasslands will encroach on the river valleys and the deciduous will encroach on the coniferous.

  2. Submitted by dan buechler on 10/16/2009 - 10:33 am.

    The previous post blasting Al Gore was brought to you and funded by your national and international oil oligarchs.

  3. Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/20/2009 - 07:51 am.

    Dan: Thanks for bringing up the idea of an oligarchy, a government in which all power is vested in a few persons or in a dominant class or clique. By our own majority choice, we are closer to an oligarchy today than any other time in U.S. history.

  4. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/30/2009 - 10:24 am.

    In light of recent inconvenient truths, perhaps the raw data and the computer models could be made public, so this extrapolation can be examined under the light of day.

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