Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Arctic sea ice fails to re-form
Sea ice in the Arctic has failed to re-form for the second consecutive winter, raising fears that global warming may have tipped the polar regions in to irreversible climate change far sooner than predicted.
Satellite measurements of the area of the Arctic covered by sea ice show that for every month this winter, the ice failed to return even to its long-term average rate of decline. It is the second consecutive winter that the sea ice has not managed to re-form enough to compensate for the unprecedented melting seen during the past few summers.
Scientists are now convinced that Arctic sea ice is showing signs of both a winter and a summer decline that could indicate a major acceleration in its long-term rate of disappearance. The greatest fear is that an environmental "positive feedback" has kicked in, where global warming melts ice which in itself causes the seas to warm still further as more sunlight is absorbed by a dark ocean rather than being reflected by white ice.
Although sea levels are not affected by melting sea ice - which floats on the ocean - the Arctic ice cover is thought to be a key moderator of the northern hemisphere's climate. It helps to stabilise the massive land glaciers and ice sheets of Greenland which have the capacity to raise sea levels dramatically.
Professor Peter Wadhams, of Cambridge University, who was the first Briton to monitor Arctic sea ice from nuclear submarines, said: "One of the big changes this winter is that a large area of the Barents Sea has remained ice-free for the first time. This is part of Europe's 'back yard'. Climate models did predict a retreat of sea ice in the Barents Sea but not for a few decades yet, so it is a sign that the changes that were predicted are indeed happening, but much faster than predicted."