Few places are changing as rapidly as the Arctic due to global warming. Last year, scientists were stunned when the Arctic’s seasonal ice extent fell to record low that was 18 percent below the previous one set in 2007. But new research in Geophysical Research Letters finds that the volume of ice is melting away just as quickly: satellite and ocean-based measurement have found that Arctic sea ice has fallen by 36 percent in Autumn since 2003. In winter, the ice volume has dropped 9 percent.
“It’s important to know because changes in volume indicate changes in heat exchange between the ice, ocean and atmosphere,” said Nathan Kurtz with NASA Goddard.
According to the study, Autumn sea ice shed about 4,300 cubic kilometers in volume between 2003 and 2012, from an average of 11,900 cubic kilometers to 7,600 cubic kilometers. Meanwhile, winter sea ice lost 1,500 cubic kilometers in the nine-year-period.
Arctic sea ice has been called a “global air conditioner,” as sunlight that hits the ice bounces back into space, cooling the planet. But melting Arctic sea ice is now creating a positive feedback mechanism: as the ice vanishes more sunlight is absorbed into the ocean, warming the waters and melting even more ice.
“The data reveals that thick sea ice has disappeared from a region to the north of Greenland, the Canadian Archipelago, and to the northeast of Svalbard,” said co-author Katharine Giles with the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM) at University College London.
Many iconic Arctic species depend on thick sea ice for hunting and breeding, including polar bears, seals, and narwhals. In addition, new research has found that the loss in sea ice may be impacting weather systems worldwide by influencing the jet stream.
The United Nations’ Environment Programme (UNEP) today warned that the Arctic should be protected from the ongoing natural resource race that is attempting to plunder the region for more oil and gas.
“What we are seeing is that the melting of ice is prompting a rush for exactly the fossil fuel resources that fueled the melt in the first place,” said Achim Steiner, U.N. Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director.
The study’s findings are the result of partnerships between the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 satellite and NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat), in addition to air survey and oceanic sensors.
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