Arctic ice cover is at a record low due to rapid ice melting this summer, the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) has revealed. Rates of ice melting have surpassed predictions, leaving climate change experts concerned about the effect this will have on global temperatures.
This year at its minimum sea ice covered 3.41 million square kilometres – the lowest seasonal extent since satellite recording began in 1979. That’s 17 per cent below the minimum reached in 2007, a previous record year, and 49 per cent, or an area about the size of India, below the 1979 to 2000 average.
Even more unnerving is the fact that the 2007 record was broken three weeks before the ice cover was supposed to reach its lowest extent. In other words, in 2012, not only was the magnitude of melting enormous but it also occurred at an unprecedented rate.
Scientists believe that it’s the quality of ice itself that fuels this fast and large-scale cover loss. Due to recent big melting events – the last six years marked the six lowest summer minimum extents on record – a significant proportion of the sea ice is now seasonal, forming and disappearing in the same year. This first-year ice is much thinner and thus more prone to breaking and melting away. And as it comes to dominate the sea ice sheets, the even bigger melting events are inevitable.
But why should we be concerned about some ice melting? According to NSIDC, ice-covered Arctic acts as a giant air conditioner, cooling the Earth. The warmer the ocean gets, the more water is evaporated into the atmosphere which then leads to more common but more extreme and less predictable precipitation events in lower latitudes, affecting us all. Losing all that ice will only make it that much harder to catch up with the running away climate change.
But wait, there’s more. We’re losing sea ice at faster rates than anyone has predicted. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007) estimates that the Arctic ocean might be ice-free in summer at the end of this century. But based on the rapidity and extent of melting of recent years, some scientists now believe that we might be looking at the disappearance of summer ice by as early as 2020.
Having an interest in climate change is not merely scientific. It is alarming that most people know very little about what’s currently happening with our climate. But perhaps a lack of knowledge isn’t surprising given that even the record Arctic sea ice melting barely made the news, not to mention front pages.
Moreover, some people see melting of Arctic sea ice as a good thing. Oil and fishing industries are eyeing the opening passages to start exploratory drilling and exploitation of new fisheries. Shell stopped its Arctic drilling programme for 2012 but it could be renewed next year. Oil spill in the region with such harsh and highly unpredictable weather will be likely to have even more devastating consequences for biodiversity and local communities than the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
The Arctic and its inhabitants are in great danger from climate change, oil drilling and territorial conflicts. Various NGOs are working towards ensuring international protection for the region. Several days ago Greenpeace announced that over two million people have signed their online ‘Save the Arctic’ petition. While it might be too late to stop the extreme melting, declaring the Arctic a global sanctuary might be a step in the right direction.
First published in Edinburgh University’s newspaper ‘The Student’ on Oct 9, 2012 (see here)