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September 25, 2012

Vanishing Arctic Ice

The National Snow and Ice Data Center has announced that Arctic sea ice melted to its yearly minimum extent last Sunday, which was the smallest extent since measurements began in 1979 and a whopping 49% below the 1979 to 2000 average. With ice vanishing at rates that exceed even the most sophisticated computer models there is one guarantee, that it’s going to shrink even more

We know Arctic sea ice will continue to shrink for two reasons.  First, we are continuing to spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  And second, solar radiation and melting sea ice interact as a system known as a positive feedback loop. Sunlight that hits white arctic sea ice is largely reflected back to space. Throughout modern civilization Arctic sea ice has acted as a sort of thermostat, regulating the earth’s temperature. But as the climate warms, and the Arctic ice melts, the sunlight instead hits much darker seawater. Rather than reflecting that energy back to space, open-ocean waters absorb vastly more of the sun’s energy, which in turn warms the water, accelerating the rate of melt.

But the concept of a feedback loop doesn’t just apply to melting ice and sunlight. As ice melts in the Arctic it is opening up huge new reserves of fossil fuels and minerals to exploitation (as much as 25% of the world’s oil and natural gas reserves lay under the Arctic ice). Already this summer some of the first, faltering steps were taken in that direction as Shell made a foolhardy attempt to drill for oil off of the northern coast of Alaska, before being doomed by failed oil containment tests and unpredictable ice floes. But if those resources are eventually exploited, they will contribute to even more warming from industrial activities in the Arctic and the release of carbon dioxide emissions.

Of additional concern is the potential release of massive deposits of methane which, up until now, have been sequestered in permafrost for millennia. As the Arctic warms rapidly, the permafrost in northern regions melts and releases the gas which is 25 times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide

As the areas in the Arctic become ice-free they will also become opened to shipping. Most container ships burn bunker-fuel, one of the most polluting fuels known to man. Research shows that when carbon soot lands on ice pack it accelerates the rate of melt even more. Oceana is pushing to reduce these and other harmful shipping emissions by petitioning the government to regulate the industryand by promoting ways to reduce emissions by operational and technical measures. Apart from shipping Oceana has also petitioned the EPA to regulate greenhouse emissions more generally because of the detrimental effects of climate change on the Arctic.

The earth is now approaching levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere not seen for tens of millions of years and the arctic has entered a melting period unlike any seen in human history. What effect this will have on our weather and the natural resources people depend on, like our fisheries, is unclear. But recent research indicates, from unprecedented droughts and heat waves to shifting fish populations, is that it will, at the very least, be disruptive (and at the most catastrophic). It’s why Oceana campaigns to stop climate change through legislative advocacy, source control, public education and awareness and ecosystem protection. While melting ice at the poles will increase the length of a day on planet Earth by .6 milliseconds per century that doesn’t buy us enough time. We need to act now if we have any hope of preserving the Arctic for future generations.