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Ice Ice Baby? Arctic Ice Cover Shrinks To New Record Low; Could Threaten Seal Pups Survival
September 20, 2012
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It seems like we've been hearing about this forever, and now we're seeing it happen.

The Arctic Ice is melting in a big way.

In fact, the Arctic ice cover has melted to the lowest level ever recorded. Not only that, but scientists say the speed and extent of this year's melt is of great concern.

"It didn't just beat the 2007 minimum, it beat it by a whole lot," said Julienne Stroeve, a scientist from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Stroeve has been onboard a Greenpeace ship north of Greenland, measuring the ice each day and recording its thickness every hour or two.

By seeing the melt first hand, she says satellite images have actually underestimated how fast the ice is disappearing. That's partly because clouds and fog can obscure those images.

"What's surprised me is how much open water there is. And how small the floes are. They're not large," Stroeve said. "We've been looking for floes that were at least 100 metres in length or width. And there's very few large floes. That surprised me. They're really broken up."

Back in 2007, Stroeve's agency said Arctic ice covered 4.17 million square kilometres. Now, it covers 3.41 million square kilometres. That's a big drop.

And just for a little perspective, think about this: over the summer, an area of ice bigger than Alberta simply disappeared.

As well, scientists say a lot of ice in the Arctic used to survive over several years. Not anymore.

"The strong late season decline is indicative of how thin the ice cover is," said Walt Meier, another scientist with the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center.

"Ice has to be quite thin to continue melting away as the sun goes down and fall approaches."

Stroeve now thinks all of the Arctic ice will be gone during the summer, by around 2030. Other estimates says it'll be around 2050.

Either way, it will impact the planet. Right now, the ice helps keep the earth cool because it reflects a lot of the sun's energy. If the ice is gone, there's nothing to reflect the sun, so the ocean absorbs all that heat, which speeds up global warming.

Many scientists say that could lead to changes in weather and wind patterns, and perhaps the jet stream, which could create unusual or extreme weather in parts of the world.

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And of course, if the ice is disappearing, you can't reverse it. It's not as though you can truck in giant sheets of ice every summer.

Government scientists are seeing much the same thing. The Canadian Ice Service has found that just 12 per cent of the Arctic is frozen this season. Normally, it's about 30 to 35 per cent.

The agency says this year's level is the lowest ever recorded since it started keeping records 40 years ago.

"This is a stunning loss of ice. To say that it is anything less than stunning would be an underestimate," said Andrew Weaver, a climate modeller in the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Victoria.

According to his research, it's not just the sea ice that's disappearing. Weaver says the permafrost is also melting, allowing emissions from the earth to escape and speed up climate change.

As far as the federal government, environment minister Peter Kent told the Canadian Press "It is a concern and it is not going to be reversed any time soon. We realize that climate change is a significant contributing factor and we have to adapt."

He says that's why Ottawa is monitoring the ice more than ever and why Canada is pushing for countries with large emission levels to join a global pact on climate change.

"If we do reduce [emissions], we do believe we can slow [the pace of the melt]," Kent said.

But critics say politicians aren't doing enough. Greenpeace, for example, says governments are ignoring what's happening, because once the ice is gone, they can start drilling for oil and gas (thought to be under the Arctic ocean) and use the Arctic as a trade route.

Aboriginal people will be affected by the Arctic melt as well, and could be forced to relocate entire communities. Plus, aboriginal communities depend on many marine species to sustain their culture.

ice-ice-baby-artic-ice-cover-shrinks-to-record-low-feature5.jpg As the ice disappears or becomes less stable, traditional hunters face more danger as they travel. Also, if animals disappear, or change their habitat, it could impact aboriginal communities' food supply. And if oil and gas drilling starts, aboriginal people are concerned about the impact on the environment.

Then, there's wildlife. Many scientists say polar bears are threatened by the melting ice because they'll have to swim longer distances to find stable ice or reach land.

ice-ice-baby-artic-ice-cover-shrinks-to-record-low-feature4.jpg And today, we found a story raising concerns about seal pups. The ringed seal lives in the Arctic and builds caves in snow drifts on the ice to protect its young.

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The snow has to be at least 20 centimetres (8 inches) deep so their caves can hold up. If the ice disappears, the snow has nowhere to pile up. It'll just fall into the ocean and the seals would have nowhere to take care of their pups.

Scientists also say the snow will melt earlier in the year than it does now, so it's possible the caves won't last long enough for the pups to head out on their own.

And as temperatures rise, there could be more rain, which would make the snow wet and potentially cause the caves to collapse.

If there's one bit of good news, scientists say the summer thaw has reached its peak and more ice should start to form as the weather gets colder and winter gets closer.

Related stories on Strombo:
Arctic Sea Ice Levels Expected To Reach Record Lows

Animals Are Fleeing Global Warming Faster Than Ever

VIDEO OF THE DAY: Canada's Arctic Circa 1919

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