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Canadian scientists worry over loss of Arctic ice

Arctic sea ice has reached its smallest extent since records began, and is expected to shrink still more in September. The data, released by the National Snow and Ice Data Center in the U.S., triggered strong responses from Canadian scientists.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center, in an August 27 post on its website, reported:

Arctic sea ice appears to have broken the 2007 record daily extent and is now the lowest in the satellite era. With two to three more weeks left in the melt season, sea ice continues to track below 2007 daily extents.

... Arctic sea ice extent fell to 4.10 million square kilometers (1.58 million square miles) on August 26, 2012. This was 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 square miles) below the September 18, 2007 daily extent of 4.17 million square kilometers (1.61 million square miles).

Including this year, the six lowest ice extents in the satellite record have occurred in the last six years (2007 to 2012).

Responses from Canadian scientists have been swift. Dr. Thomas F. Pedersen, executive director of the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions at the University of Victoria, said:

"On August 26, the areal extent of Arctic sea ice reached a minimum that hasn’t been witnessed for tens of centuries. The continuing loss of the summer ice has profound consequences. Arctic sea ice is like a mirror at the top of the world; it reflects back into space four-fifths of the summer sunlight that lands on it. But a darker, ice-free ocean absorbs solar radiation and warms.

"The latest science suggests that the release of that stored warmth to the atmosphere in fall weakens the equator-to-pole temperature gradient and slows the eastward movement of high and low pressure ridges in the Northern Hemisphere. That response can explain the increasing frequency of persistent summer heat waves like those over Europe in 2003 and 2006, Russia in 2010, and central North America in 2006 and now 2012. The extreme drought that has dried up US cornfields, causing the price of corn to rocket beyond $8 USD per bushel––a level never before seen on the world commodity markets––might therefore be related to the physical changes underway in the Arctic.

"These sorts of connections, while not proven and still under investigation by climate researchers, have worrying implications across a range of social and economic concerns that includes international food security and North American energy supply."

Dr. Robie MacDonald, an arctic research scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, predicted an uncertain future for Arctic navigation:

"People have the idea that if it's open up there, it will be much easier to navigate. But the ocean is in a state of transition right now and it may actually become more dangerous. For example, there may be more first-year ice, and loose chunks of ice floating in the ocean. The Titanic didn't go down because it was in an ice-covered ocean, it went down because it hit a floating lump of ice. So, the Arctic may become a riskier place for navigation, especially if inexperienced sailors go there with boats not strengthened for ice. "

"I first went into the Arctic in '74, and it's not the same ocean now that I saw then, and you can ask people who've lived there longer than I've been there, and they'll tell you the same thing."

... "When you have a system that is shifting from one state to another – for example an ice-covered ocean to a seasonally ice-clear ocean, one of the signs you're reaching a tipping point or crisis is that the system goes into large oscillations. So, depending on circumstances, higher variability may be the first clear manifestation that the point has been reached where the system is about to shift to another mode. It certainly would be risky to take such oscillations as a sign that the system is somehow moving back to the 'good old days.'"

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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