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Going, going gone: Arctic summers soon to be sea-ice-free

Swimming Polar BearThe Arctic Ocean is likely to be mostly ice-free during the summer within the next 10 years, according to new data released today.

The data, collected earlier this year by researchers on a 450-kilometre trek across the northern part of the Beaufort Sea, indicates the survey area is made up almost exclusively of first-year ice. That’s significant, as the region has typically featured older, thicker multi-year ice.

The information released today by the Catlin Arctic Survey and WWF shows the average thickness of the ice floes measured just 1.8 metres, a depth considered too thin to survive the next summer’s ice melt.

“With a larger part of the region now first year ice, it is clearly more vulnerable,” said Peter Wadhams, who leads the Polar Ocean Physics Group at the University of Cambridge. “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.”

The technique used by the survey team to take measurements on the surface of the ice has the potential to help ice modellers refine their predictions about the future survival or decline of the ice, according to scientists who have studied the data.

“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,” said Pen Hadow, expedition leader for the Catlin Arctic Survey. “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.”

The survey team’s results were unveiled today in London.

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.”

Sommerkorn added, “Such a loss of Arctic sea ice cover has recently been assessed 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.”

Sommerkorn said the results underscore the need for climate negotiators meeting in Copenhagen this December to adopt a global strategy for quickly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Milliband echoed that sentiment.

“The Catlin Arctic Survey and WWF study sets out the stark realities of a rapidly changing climate and illustrates the risk of an ice-free summer in the Arctic in the not-too-distant future,” Milliband said. “This further strengthens the case for an ambitious global deal in Copenhagen in December which the UK is fully committed to achieving.”

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