Oct. 15, 2009 New research, released by the Catlin Arctic Survey and WWF, provides further evidence that the Arctic Ocean sea ice is thinning, supporting the emerging thinking that the Ocean will be largely ice-free during summer within a decade.
The Catlin Arctic Survey, completed earlier this year, provides the latest ice thickness record, drawn from the only survey capturing surface measurements conducted during winter and spring 2009.
The data (1), collected by manual drilling and observations on a 450-kilometre route across the northern part of the Beaufort Sea (2), suggests the survey area is comprised almost exclusively of first-year ice.
This is a significant finding because the region has traditionally contained older, thicker multi-year ice. The average thickness of the ice-floes measured 1.8 metres, a depth considered too thin to survive the next summer’s ice melt. (4)
These findings have been analysed by the Polar Ocean Physics Group (3) at the University of Cambridge, led by Professor Peter Wadhams, one of the world’s leading experts on sea ice cover in the North Pole region.
“With a larger part of the region now first year ice, it is clearly more vulnerable,” said Professor Wadhams. “The area is now more likely to become open water each summer, bringing forward the potential date when the summer sea ice will be completely gone.”
Wadhams continued: “The Catlin Arctic Survey data supports the new consensus view -- based on seasonal variation of ice extent and thickness, changes in temperatures, winds and especially ice composition -- that the Arctic will be ice-free in summer within about 20 years, and that much of the decrease will be happening within 10 years.”
“That means you’ll be able to treat the Arctic as if it were essentially an open sea in the summer and have transport across the Arctic Ocean.”
According to the scientists who have studied the data, the technique used by the explorers to take measurements on the surface of the ice has the potential to help ice modellers to refine predictions about the future survival or decline of the ice.
Catlin Arctic Survey expedition leader Pen Hadow commented: “This is the kind of scientific work we always wanted to support by getting to places in the Arctic which are otherwise nearly impossible to reach for research purposes. It’s what modern exploration should be doing. Our on-the-ice techniques are helping scientists to understand better what is going on in this fragile ecosystem.”
At the unveiling of the results in London, Dr. Martin Sommerkorn from WWF International Arctic Programme, which partnered with the Survey, said: “The Arctic sea ice holds a central position in our Earth’s climate system. Take it out of the equation and we are left with a dramatically warmer world.”
“Such a loss of Arctic sea ice cover has recently been assessed (5) to set in motion powerful climate feedbacks which will have an impact far beyond the Arctic itself – self perpetuating cycles, amplifying and accelerating the consequences of global warming. This could lead to flooding affecting one-quarter of the world’s population, substantial increases in greenhouse gas emissions from massive carbon pools and extreme global weather changes" Dr. Sommerkorn said.
“Today’s findings provide yet another urgent call for action to world leaders ahead of the UN climate summit in Copenhagen this December to rapidly and effectively curb global greenhouse gas emissions, with rich countries committing to reduce emissions by 40% by 2020.”
- More than 6,000 measurements and observations from the expedition were used in the analysis. (“Verification of Catlin Arctic Survey Surface Observation Techniques, N. P. Toberg, P. Wadhams, Polar Ocean Physics Group, Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge, October 2009)
- The survey began on March 1st 2009 at 81.83ºN 129.97ºW and ended after 73 days on May 7th at 85.45ºN 124.84ºW.
- The Polar Ocean Physics Group is part of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge.
- The average (mean) thickness of the total ice cover when incorporating the rougher, compressed ridges of ice increased to 4.8m. Pressure ridges contain a large amount of ice below the surface.
- Reduced ice cover will lead to more greenhouse gases being released from the vast store of carbon currently locked in the frozen Arctic region. Arctic permafrost soils store twice as much carbon as in the atmosphere, and there is more carbon stored as methane hydrates in the frozen arctic seafloors than in all of Earth’s proven reserves of coal, oil and natural gas combined. The warming of the Arctic Ocean surface waters, resulting from more sea ice loss, will accelerate melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, speeding up global sea level rise. Patterns of northern hemisphere ocean and weather will change, affecting access to natural resources, and food production.
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