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Arctic Feeling The Effects Of Climate Change

February 7, 2010

Scientists have announced that climate change is transforming the Arctic environment faster than expected and accelerating the disappearance of sea ice.

The research involved over 370 scientists from 27 countries who spent 15 months aboard a research vessel above the Arctic Circle.  This was the first time a ship stayed mobile in Canada’s high Arctic for an entire winter.

“(Climate change) is happening much faster than our most pessimistic models expected,” David Barber, a professor at the University of Manitoba and the study’s lead investigator, told reporters at a news conference in Winnipeg.

Barber said that a few years ago, models predicted the Arctic would be ice-free in the summer of 2100, but the increasing pace of climate change now suggests it might be as early as between 2013 and 2030.

Higher Arctic temperatures and melting sea ice have been linked to the greenhouse gas effect, which is blamed for global warming. It is generally believed the Arctic can serve as a type of early-warning system. 

“We know we’re losing sea ice — the world is all aware of that,” Barber told Reuters. “What you’re not aware of is that it has impacts on everything else that goes on in this system.”

Barber added that climate change is also bringing more cyclones into the Arctic, dumping snow on the sea ice, which limits how thick it gets, and bringing winds that break up the ice.

Steve Ferguson, a scientist with the Canadian government who took part in the study, told Reuters the loss of the sea ice is taking away areas for the region’s mammals to reproduce, find food and elude predators.

Additionally, whale species that were previously not seen in the Arctic are moving into the region due to less sea ice to restrict their movements.

“I think we will have ice for a long time, at least for part of the year, but it may only be located in a certain area in the world,” Ferguson told The Canadian Press. “These species are going to be crowded into a small area so that’s going to be challenging.”

The study is part of a large scientific program focused on the Arctic and Antarctic called the International Polar Year.  The scientists expect to publish dozens of academic papers on the subject.

The Pew Environment Group reported on Friday that the cost of the Arctic’s rapid melt would be $2.4 trillion by 2050 as the region loses its ability to cool the global climate.  The group sent out a report showing the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet.

Professor Louis Fortier of Laval University said both the Canadian government and the oil and gas industry are keenly interested in the possible environmental impact of development further north in the Arctic.

The development is currently focused on mainland regions like massive gas fields in the Mackenzie River Delta on the Beaufort Sea.  However, receding ice levels may create wider Arctic more accessible to ships and make drilling in more areas available.

“Conclusions will come later, but … up to now there’s no indication that the impacts would be larger (further north) than elsewhere in the Arctic,” Fortier told Reuters.

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