According to a new paper in Nature, sea ice in the Arctic is now declining at a pace and scale not seen for over a thousand years. It estimates that after decades of decline, the amount of ice locked away in the High North is now 2 million km2 smaller than it was at the end of the 20th Century and that ice-free summers at the Pole are likely sooner rather than later.



© Nick Cobbing/ Greenpeace

The paper also notes that the increasing rate of melting in the summer is slowing the speed that subsequent winter ice is created. Because it has less time to thicken, this thinner winter ice is even more vulnerable to warmer temperatures and melts even faster the following summer. This so-called “death spiral” is probably why the Arctic has experienced its lowest summer sea ice levels in recent years.

The authors say it is clear that “the recent decrease in summer Arctic sea ice is consistent with anthropogenically forced warming” and that the loss of ice since the 1970s are greater than anything seen in the last 1,450 years. In other words, not since the time St. Columba was doing his thing with the Picts and King Arthur was in his Dark Age pomp has there been such a dramatic disappearance of the frozen North.

This new research suggests that because our atmosphere and oceans are both heating up the Arctic has become locked in the middle of a steadily warming vice. It is being "eroded from below and melting from the top" at such a rate that the scientists concluded that "what we are experiencing at the moment seems to be very exceptional…we are entering into the world which has no equivalent in the past."

Scientists recently agreed that the level of summer ice in the Arctic this year was the 2nd lowest ever and that "trends in sea ice extent and thickness continue inexorably downwards as the Arctic responds to increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere." Because of this the North Pole could be ice-free within a decade. Where now there is white, in a few years there will be blue. Instead of ice there will be completely open water.

And what has been the response from governments and oil industry to such a stark warning?

Amazingly most of them seem to think it’s quite a good thing.

In Alaska, Shell is ploughing on with plans to drill new wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas next summer. Cairn Energy looks set to carry on finding no oil off Greenland in 2012 whilst in Russia, energy giant Gazprom has started work on a second Arctic rig to drill alongside the monstrous-looking Prirazlomnaya in the Pechora Sea off Siberia. This is the place that Exxon and Rosneft are looking to drill as part of a project that Vladimir Putin said could cost up to half a trillion dollars.

And even a country as reasonable as Norway’s seems to view the shrinking Polar ice as a potential goldmine, recently describing the industrialisation of the region as the "project of a generation" while looking to open up the protected and indescribably beautiful Jan Mayen island to new oil development.

Never one to miss out on a chance to bend over backwards for industry, the British government is getting in on the act too, lobbying to loosen new EU regulations to ensure that oil companies like Cairn, BP and Shell must meet very strict operating standards whenever they are in fragile areas like the Arctic.

In the face of such seemingly universal lunacy we have to do all we can to make sure the Arctic is kept off-limits to the oil industry. Take action!