Arctic sea ice reaches second lowest level ever recorded *Updated

by Mike Gaworecki

September 3, 2008

The Arctic is in the news a lot these days, especially in connection with global warming. That’s due in large part to the fact that the Arctic is the canary in the coal mine that is our planet: as global warming worsens and temperatures rise, melting Arctic sea ice is one of the most stark indicators of the havoc global warming is already wreaking on our planet.

That’s why this recent news report was so alarming (to say the least):

WASHINGTON — More ominous signs Wednesday have scientists saying that a global warming "tipping point" in the Arctic seems to be happening before their eyes: Sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is at its second lowest level in about 30 years.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that sea ice in the Arctic now covers about 2.03 million square miles. The lowest point since satellite measurements began in 1979 was 1.65 million square miles set last September.

With about three weeks left in the Arctic summer, this year could wind up breaking that previous record, scientists said.

Until late last year, scientists predicted that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in the summers as soon as 2030 if we don’t act in time to stop global warming. But new data has led some scientists to predict ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean within the next 5 to 10 years.

But melting Arctic ice is more than an indicator of a “tipping point” in the climate crisis. In fact, it also serves as a catalyst for even more global warming.

Ice is white, and therefore reflects sunlight, helping keep temperatures down. Darker ocean water, on the other hand, soaks up the sun’s rays, which leads to more warming. As more and more Arctic sea ice melts, more dark ocean waters underneath it are exposed, which causes more warming. It’s a vicious feedback mechanism that scientists have dubbed “Arctic amplification.”

And it’s not the only feedback mechanism at work in the Arcitc. Scientists recently reported that global warming has caused large amounts of methane to be released from the seabed underneath the Arctic Ocean. Methane is a much more powerful global warming pollutant than carbon dioxide. Huge releases of methane into the atmosphere from a warming Arctic will serve to further catalyze not just the vicious cycle of Arctic warming but global warming as well.

As the Arctic sea ice reaches its second lowest level ever — just one year after the lowest level on record was reached — the species most in the news these days is the polar bear. The polar bear depends on the Arctic sea ice for every aspect of its life cycle – from breeding to raising its young to hunting and travel. In short, as the sea ice disappears, so will the polar bear. It’s no surprise that recent overflights above Alaska’s Chukchi Sea found nine polar bears swimming hundreds of miles from their ice edge home. What’s ironic is that the overflights were conducted in connection with the push for oil exploration in the Chukchi Sea. Oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea not only threatens polar bears through oil spills and other environmental ills that are a routine part of oil drilling, it also threatens the bears because eventually that oil will be burned, which in turn exacerbates global warming and leads to further melting of their sea ice habitat.

The fact that the Arctic has experienced the lowest and second lowest sea ice melts over the past two years, and polar bears have been spotted swimming hundreds of miles from the sea ice, demonstrates a clear and disturbing trend. Global warming is no longer a concern for the future – it is drastically affecting our planet right now, and we, along with our elected officials, must do something about it.

*Update: The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) has just released it’s latest Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis report. It’s looking less likely that this year will break last year’s record. But, according to the report:

Following a record rate of ice loss through the month of August, Arctic sea ice extent already stands as the second-lowest on record, further reinforcing conclusions that the Arctic sea ice cover is in a long-term state of decline. With approximately two weeks left in the melt season, the possibility of setting a new record annual minimum in September remains open.


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