Arctic ice nears record low

Wednesday 14th Sep 2011 by theWeather Club

New research has suggested that the level of the Arctic ice is at a near record low. Areas of the Arctic with at least 15% sea-ice now total 2.7 million square km, marginally above the record low of 2.6 million square km recorded in 2007. And it is still to be determined whether the sea-ice coverage will be the lowest recorded for the year.

The yearly minimum coverage is usually reached around mid-September, so the jury is still out on the final numbers. "We're getting close, but there's still the potential for further loss of ice," said Dr Walt Meier, a research scientist at the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC). According to Dr Meier the ice coverage could be reduced either through more melt or from winds or both. However, some areas including those near the North Pole were showing signs of ice growth," Dr Meier continued. "Probably there's a little bit of both going on - there's melting and refreezing."

In such a dynamic and complex environment, measurements are difficult and at least one institution has reported that this year's Arctic ice coverage is already the lowest on record. A report issued last week by the German University of Bremen said sea-ice coverage on 8th September had fallen below the 2007 minimum. The University researchers use finer-resolution measurements that can better distinguish smaller areas of ice and open water, Meier said. But he added that the university's methodology also has some drawbacks, suggesting that the results must be treated with a touch of caution. However, they are not going to be enormously wide of the mark, and they do tell the same story as the NSIDC research. Arctic ice cover has diminished dramatically over recent decades. Present coverage is only about two-thirds the average coverage measured from 1979 to 2000.

Reduced sea ice is already believed to be impacting on the climate in the circumpolar north and even lower latitudes. According to a study released by the US Geological Survey, Yupik Eskimo residents in south western Alaska already have to deal with some of those impacts. According to the research published in the journal Human Organisation, elders and long-time hunters from two villages on the Lower Yukon River have spoken of dramatic changes over the years in river-ice thickness.

They told the researchers that this thinning of the ice has led to increased safety risks as there are no roads connecting villages in that part of Alaska, and residents use the frozen rivers for transport during the winter. The residents also pointed to a wide range of other concerns including the changing ranges of several animals such as moose and beavers, changes in vegetation available to both themselves and the local wildlife, and the reduced availability of driftwood that used to be swept downstream by powerful currents of spring melt water.

So while the climate change agenda is normally addressed in terms of mitigating the long term global effects, it should always be remembered that for some it is about dealing with immediate present day issues. Issues that must not be allowed to become lost in the bigger climate picture.