The Poles in Peril: The Vanishing Arctic

Climate change is an expression with which most of us are now familiar. Stories of changing weather patterns, rising sea levels and vanishing habitats have been around for a number of years and foremost among them headlines about our vanishing Arctic.

The arguments have raged back and forth as to whether the doomsday scenarios described by environmentalists are all hype or apposite prophetic words of warning – but even sceptics were surprised when recent evidence showed the polar ice caps to be melting at a rate surpassing all previous estimates.

Dramatic Ice Decline

In 2007 a study using data from a satellite survey of the polar region, showed that the poles really are in peril because the Arctic sea ice is melting faster than at any other time since records began. Observations showed a decrease of 23% from the previous minimum amount of sea ice in 2005 and a regular diminishing by 72,000 km each year. Using this information, projections for the next few years indicate that by as soon as 2030, there may be no sea ice at all in the summer.

Opening Up of Sea Routes

Just a year later, in 2008, all eyes were once again on the North Pole, as, for the first time in living history, the North-West passage remained free from ice during the summer. Usually almost impassable, even during warmer months, the sea ice is diminishing at such a rate that many scientists now believe it will soon be possible for a boat to sail right across the North Pole via open water.

Melt Ponds

Part of the rapid decline in ice is to do with the way the ice is melting – or put another way, not re-forming. Up ‘until now, part of the polar ‘surface’ ice has melted during the summer period but the multiple ice layers from previous years have remained solid, with a thick additional layer of ice being formed again over the winter.

Now, with higher temperatures, a greater amount of surface ice is melting, causing large standing pools and more ‘gaps’ to appear in the sea ice, so exposing open water. Because these greater expanses of water are dark in colour, they absorb solar rays, (as opposed to reflecting them) thus warming up and accelerating the melt rate. Then in winter months, not enough new ice is re-made. In this way, the layer of thick, valuable permafrost is disappearing and any new ice is thinner and more vulnerable to melting.

Global Warming

The melting ice is largely attributed to global warming of course, which is taking place twice as fast in the arctic than in any other region on the planet. There are areas which have risen by 2.5c with further increases in temperature predicted by at least another 180c if carbon emissions are not checked. The ice tundra of the poles has been described as the Earth’s ‘air conditioner’ as they reflect sunlight into space and without them; scientists fear greater climate changes for the Earth.

Methane Emissions

The real worry for global warming, though, is that after a decade of remaining fairly constant, levels of methane are also on the rise as a result of the polar meltdown. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas ‘stored’ below sea level and which, if released in large quantities into the atmosphere, works to accelerate global warming with potentially dire consequences.

This potent gas is now being released from the arctic seabed in quantities previously unknown. Researchers have recorded funnels of methane bubbling up to the surface of the ocean through the rapidly thinning permafrost which has up to now, acted as a protective layer – or ice cap – preventing the methane from escaping.

Shifts in Weather Patterns

Although scientists do differ in their evaluation of the seriousness of this ice decline and the potential consequences of a warmer Arctic, predictions include:

  • Rising sea levels
  • Heat waves
  • Shifts in ocean currents
  • Disrupted weather patterns
  • Increased exploitation of the arctic lands
  • Loss of habitat for species reliant on sea ice

Whatever you think of climate change theories, perhaps a quote from Mark Serreze of the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre, says it all, “From the viewpoint of science, the North Pole is just another point on the globe, but symbolically it is hugely important. There is supposed to be ice at the North Pole, not open water.”