Arctic Sea Ice Loss Could Have Major Impacts
September 10, 2012

Experts Ponder Possible Global Impact Of Iceless Arctic Ocean

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

As the end of the Arctic melt season ends with the region having already set new records for the smallest amount of sea ice extent and volume, experts this past weekend began to gauge exactly what the implications will be, both locally and throughout the rest of the world.

According to BBC News Science Editor David Shukman, scientists at the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) have reported that the sea ice in the area was becoming considerably thinner, and that the accelerated melting of the Arctic ice is part of a larger trend that will have, in Shukman's words, "profound implications."

"Last month, the annual thaw of the region's floating ice reached the lowest level since satellite monitoring began, more than 30 years ago," he wrote, noting that the experts believe that it could wind up impacting Europe's weather, and that the worst might not be over yet. "The melt is set to continue for at least another week - the peak is usually reached in mid-September - while temperatures here remain above freezing."

Dr. Kim Holmen, International Director of NPI, told the British news agency that the change was "greater than we could even imagine 20 years ago, even 10 years ago." He also told Shukman that the record-breaking warming "has taken us by surprise and we must adjust our understanding of the system" as well as their scientific methods and their understanding of the area.

On Thursday, Philip Bump of Grist, citing information obtained from professor and ice science expert Peter Wadhams, said that the increased absorption of the sun's rays responsible for the ice melting was roughly the same as if an additional 20 years worth of carbon dioxide emissions were released into the atmosphere by mankind.

"As a scientist, I know that this is unprecedented in at least as much as 1,500 years. It is truly amazing - it is a huge dramatic change in the system," Dr. Edmond Hansen of the NPI told Shukman. "This is not some short-lived phenomenon - this is an ongoing trend. You lose more and more ice and it is accelerating - you can just look at the graphs, the observations, and you can see what's happening."

The rapid reduction of the Arctic ice extent ultimately leads to the question: how much longer until it all melts away? Scott K. Johnson of Ars Technica reported on Sunday that some experts believe that it could disappear by 2030, while others feel that summertime Arctic sea ice could persist, in some form, until 2070 or so. Aside from the environmental and climatic impact that would occur in such a scenario, Johnson points out that businesses will also be affected.

"Every time a new sea ice extent record is broken, the same question comes up: how long until it´s gone? That is, how long will it be before the Arctic Ocean is functionally ice-free in the summer, legitimately opening the once-fabled Northwest Passage?" he asked. "The prospects of open shipping routes and newly-accessible resources have corporations chomping at the bit and governments racing to prepare the way."

In addition to the opening of new shipping routes, the newfound access to the area would bring with it other challenges as well, Johnson pointed out. There would be the issues of mineral rights and access to the region's massive reserves of oil and natural gas, as well as defense-related issues.

"Not only will the situation in the Arctic be complicated, but the variables will constantly be changing, often in unpredictable ways," the Ars Technica reporter said. "While scientists worry about sea ice behavior and the implications for climate, weather, and ecosystems, national leaders will be navigating a dynamic geopolitical landscape certain to spawn quarrels."

"And as that permafrost melts, of course, it releases large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, further amplifying the warming that´s changing the Arctic and the rest of the world," Johnson added. "Still, corporations will ply these risky waters because the potential pay-offs are huge."