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The Arctic: On Thin Ice

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In 2012, scientists from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center confirmed that Arctic sea ice extent has reached a record low. The lowest amounts of Arctic sea ice on record since satellite monitoring began in 1979 have all been recorded during the last six years. Ice thickness has also decreased dramatically, by 40–50%, making it more susceptible to melting


Record Ice Melts—No Random Event

We’ve all been alarmed by the rapid pace of the Arctic ice and glaciers melting. In 2011, scientists confirmed on a conference call with Earthjustice that the Arctic lost the second highest amount of ice since monitoring began. The following year, the Arctic sea ice extent reached a new record low.

Scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, in Boulder, Colorado measured the sea ice at the end of the 2012 summer period of melting and the measurements do not bode well for the extraordinary wildlife, ecology and cultures of the region.

Earthjustice attorney Erika Rosenthal says the rapid loss of Arctic sea ice is important because “it’s a powerful indicator of the rapid warming occurring throughout the Arctic. This warming is causing an 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.”

The lowest amounts of Arctic sea ice on record since satellite monitoring began in 1979 have all been recorded in the last six years. And it’s not just the amount of ice, but the density and thickness. 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,” added Rosenthal, an author on the UNEP/WMO assessment. “This is especially true for the Arctic, where black carbon pollution accelerates the melting of ice and snow.”

Earthjustice works with environmental community allies at home and around the world (see: Reducing Emissions of Short-Lived Climate Forcers (SLCF) Soot and Smog in Latin America: A Civil Society Perspective - English | Spanish) to slow emissions of these short-lived climate pollutants.

About Black Carbon:

Soot, microscopic airborne particles that are also known as black carbon, is the second-leading cause of global warming after carbon dioxide, and it's entirely preventable. Black carbon comes from diesel engines, industrial smokestacks and residential cooking and heating stoves. We already have the technology to avoid producing soot; it's just a matter of using it. Because black carbon air pollution is also a leading cause of respiratory illness and death, controlling emissions will save lives and improve health around the world.

The direct absorption of sunlight by black carbon heats the atmosphere. When black carbon falls on snow and ice, it reduces reflectivity and speeds up melting. The good news: Because black carbon stays in the atmosphere for only days or weeks, moving quickly to expand existing technology can be an effective rapid response to slow warming, buying critical time to achieve reductions in CO2. Learn more about black carbon by watching Stop Soot: The Easiest Way to Slow Climate Change, an animated video.