Arctic Ice Hits Record Low: What Effects Will It Have?

By Amir Khan on August 22, 2012 11:03 AM EDT

Sea Ice
Arctic sea ice typically melts during the summer, but rising temperatures from global warming are bringing the ice to a breaking point. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Arctic sea ice typically melts during the summer, but rising temperatures from global warming are bringing the ice to a breaking point. Researchers expect the sea ice to reach a record-low sometime next week -- a milestone that will be difficult to recover from, given that the ice will keep melting after that.

"A new daily record ... would be likely by the end of August," Ted Scambos, lead scientist at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, told Reuters. "Chances are it will cross the previous record while we're still in sea ice retreat."

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Sea ice is important in this region because it acts like a "global air-conditioner," researchers said. Ice could retreat to less than 1.5 million square miles, which would be an unprecedented low. Before now, the previous low occurred in 2007 when ice shrank to 1.66 million square miles.

However, in 2007, there was a "perfect storm" of conditions, including warmer and sunnier weather than usual and warm ocean water that helped melt the ice that is not seen today.  Researchers worry that this new low can actually become the new normal.

Another factor that is worrying researchers is the speed at which the ice is melting. Typically, the melting slows as August turns into September. This year, however, it has sped up.

"I doubt there's been another year that had as rapid an early August retreat," Scambos said. "Everything about this points in the same direction: we've made the Earth warmer."

The lack of ice may open up the Northwest Passage between Canada and Alaska as well as the Northern Sea Route between Europe and Sibera.

"What you're seeing is more open ocean than you're seeing ice," Scambos said. "It just simply doesn't look like what a polar scientist expects the arctic to look like. It's wide open and the (ice) cap is very small. It's a visceral thing. You look at it and that just doesn't look like the Arctic Ocean anymore."

Researchers attributed the increased melt to global warming.

Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and ozone, trap heat in the atmosphere and act as a blanket, raising temperatures and causing climate change. Global temperature increases could affect sea levels, crops and animal habitats. Scientists expect heat waves, cold snaps, hurricanes and other extreme weather events to increase as temperatures increase, according to EPA officials.

The recent rash of wildfires and droughts across the country are giving a glimpse of what to expect as global warming gets worse.

his is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level," Jonathan Overpeck, professor of geosciences and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona, told the Associated Press. "The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about."

Since January 1, the U.S. has set more than 40,000 daily high record temperatures compared to only 6,000 record lows. Over the last century, the records were set almost equally, but that has changed over the past few years.

"This is what global warming is like, and we'll see more of this as we go into the future," said Jerry Meehl, a climate extreme expert at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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