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Second Highest Loss of Arctic Ice on Record

Human-caused climate change spurs massive Arctic ice cap melt
September 15, 2011
Oakland, CA —

U.S. scientists confirmed today that the Arctic has lost the second highest annual amount of ice since monitoring began. At a press conference today, Dr. Walt Meier, research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, at the University of Colorado in Boulder confirmed that summer sea ice extent at the end of the summer melt period has reached record low levels for the past five years in a row, this year’s following close behind the low of 2007.

Listen to the September 15 press conference:

Meier called the ice melt “quite unprecedented and it is really the continuing trend of a long term decline. The ice cover in the summer is retreating over ten percent per decade and that has been accelerating in recent years. We’ve also seen that the thickness of the ice cover has been dramatically decreasing, losing approximately 40 to 50 percent of the thickness, which is more susceptible to melting.”

"This is not a random event," said James Overland, research oceanographer with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "It's a long-term change in Arctic climate." Arctic sea ice cools the planet, while providing refuge for much of the region’s wildlife. “Walrus that usually spend all of their time drifting around on ice flows, this year as in several previous years have had to haul out on shore which brings a lot of extra stress on their population,” Overland added.

Scientists say ice loss may be altering weather patterns. Newly open waters, free of sea ice, capture more solar radiation rather than reflecting it from the white ice.
(Florian Schulz / visionsofthewild.com)

This news is another truly important sign of rapid warming at the poles; even though melting of sea ice by itself doesn’t change sea level, the warmer ocean waters that are associated with the loss of sea ice can and do have an impact on melting of continental ice,” said Dr. Robert Dunbar, professor of Earth Sciences, Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions. Continental ice covers land and adds to the volume of sea water when melted. “It is the loss of continental ice that is now causing sea level to rise worldwide at between 3 and 4 millimeters per year.”

“It used to be that Arctic ice melt was something that was in the model prediction but now we see that the reality is upon us,” said Rafe Pomerance, Senior Fellow at Clean Air-Cool Planet. “The loss of ice is an urgent message and requires a comprehensive policy response.”

Earthjustice attorney Erika Rosenthal says the rapid loss of Arctic sea ice “is a powerful indicator of the rapid warming occurring throughout the Arctic. This warming is causing the extraordinary increase in the melting of glaciers and the Greenland Ice Sheet that led scientists earlier this year to project a sea level rise of between 0.9 and 1.6 meters by the end of the century. For low-lying communities from the Pacific Islands to Bangladesh to Florida this would be calamitous.”

Scientists say ice loss may be altering weather patterns. Newly open waters, free of sea ice, capture more solar radiation rather than reflecting it from the white ice. "We’re actually increasing the amount of heat coming into the planet,” Overland said. Overland stated that more research is needed but there is data that suggests that weather patterns could shift to bring more frequent and intense droughts to the U.S., and that more open Arctic water and heat could help supercharge those storms.

The lowest amounts of Arctic sea ice on record since satellite monitoring began in 1979 have all been recorded during the last five years. The remaining ice is less dense and thinner. The thinner the ice, the easier it is to melt.

Recent scientific studies, including an assessment by the United Nations Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organization indicate that it’s possible to slow the pace of warming and melting in the Arctic in the near term by reducing emissions of two common air pollutants: soot and smog. These so-called “short-lived” climate warming pollutants, formally known as black carbon and tropospheric ozone, remain in the atmosphere only days to a few months, compared to a 100 years or more for CO2. “That means that reducing emissions of these climate pollutants would have fast climate benefits, especially in the Arctic where black carbon pollution accelerates the melting of ice and snow,” added Rosenthal who was an author on the recent UNEP/WMO assessment of short-lived climate forcers.

Less sea ice opens the Arctic to more shipping and oil development. Ellen Baum, senior scientist with the Clean Air Task Force said that “the Arctic Council, the Convention on Long Range Transboundary Air Pollution and the International Maritime Organization, which regulates shipping, have looked at the role of short-lived climate forcers in warming and melting and how and where reductions from sources of these pollutants can reduce ice loss.“

Contacts

Erika Rosenthal, Earthjustice, (415) 812-2055

Ellen Baum, Clean Air Task Force, (207) 666-5676

Rafe Pomerance, Clean Air-Cool Planet, (202) 423-6885

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.