Arctic Sea Ice is Melting Faster Than Predicted As Commercial Activity Increases

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The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of September 17, 2012, along with daily ice extent data for 2007 and 2005, the previous record low years. 2012 is shown in blue and 2007 in green. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data. Credit: National Snow and Ice Dara Center, Boulder CO[/caption]

The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) recently made a preliminary announcement that Arctic sea ice on September 16 had melted to about 1.32 million square miles, or just 24 percent of the surface of the Arctic Ocean. This is the lowest seasonal ice coverage since satellite measurements began in 1979. Although ice should start building back up now as the Arctic heads into winter, any newly formed sea ice will be relatively thin and more prone to melting in the coming summer. The Arctic is our planet’s air conditioner, and it plays a key role in regulating global climate. Its cold air and water help drive atmospheric and ocean currents that regulate temperatures worldwide.

NSIDC scientist Julienne Stroeve said, “Recent climate models suggest that ice-free conditions may happen before 2050, though the observed rate of decline remains faster than many of the models are able to capture.” This means the actual melting of sea ice is happening faster than what recent climate models predict and an ice-free Arctic could happen even sooner.

The decrease in seasonal sea ice has created the potential for increasing vessel traffic in the Arctic and a dramatic expansion of Arctic offshore oil and gas exploration. Currently, there are few Arctic-specific protective measures in place to improve shipping safety, reduce the risk of accidents, or mitigate environmental impacts associated with commercial vessel traffic such as spills. Likewise, there is no adequate technology, technique or infrastructure to respond effectively to an oil spill in icy Arctic waters. These factors, combined with the region’s harsh conditions, remoteness, and lack of infrastructure, make it difficult for industries to operate safely and responsibly in the Arctic environment. And they place the communities and animals that depend on the Arctic at high risk.

Expanding industrial uses in a region that is already under enormous stress could have dire consequences, not only for the Arctic, but for the planet as a whole. That’s why we support the use of science and a precautionary approach to guide decisions about whether industrial activities occur in the Arctic and, if so, when, where, and how they occur.

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