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Earth is losing Arctic sea ice: consequences could be global

Polar bears near the north pole
Polar bears near the north pole
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Satellites began measuring the Arctic Ocean's sea ice in 1979. The all-time lowest quantity of ice was recorded in 2007 and the second lowest was recorded this year on September 9.

Data is gathered from the Special Sensor Microwave Imager/Sounder sensor of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program F17 satellite.

In a September 15 press release, CU-Boulder's National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) revealed the level of the Arctic sea ice content to be 1.67 million square miles, which is over 1 million square miles below the 1979-2000 September average. This is well below the long-term average and is even outside normal climate variables.

Walt Meier, NSIDC scientist of CU-Boulder, explained to Examiner the role Arctic sea ice has on Earth and how the loss of it can have a global impact: "The Arctic sea ice plays an important role in climate because the ice cover acts like a reflective shield during the 24-hour summers to prevent absorption of solar energy into the Arctic climate system. The ice is white and thus reflects most of the sun's energy that hits the Earth during summer.

"When the ice melts away and is replaced by the ocean, much more of the sun's energy is absorbed. This energy heats the ocean and heats the atmosphere. So the presence of sea ice makes the Arctic colder than it would otherwise be and the loss of sea ice is accentuating the warming trend we see.

"However, that warming is not constrained to the Arctic because the climate system is interconnected. Unlike Las Vegas, what happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic. The cold Arctic interacts with the regions further south and this interaction helps define weather patterns. So as the Arctic changes, these weather patterns will change as well: how much it rains and where, how often cold fronts or warm fronts go through different regions, etc.

"We know that there will be such impacts, but what the impacts will be and how large they will be is still a matter of research, so we can't say at this point exactly what they will be. However, there are indications that we may be seeing some effects on mid-latitude winters such as the cold, snowy conditions experienced in the eastern U.S. and Europe the last two years. It's too early to make a direct link between the ice cover and these events, but such phenomena would not be unexpected from the changing sea ice."

The NSIDC director and CU-Boulder professor of geography, Mark Serreze, explained, in a press release, the weather conditions that were the trigger for the 2007 Arctic sea ice low levels: the Arctic, that year, experienced warmer than usual wind patterns that melted ice and condensed the floating ice into a smaller area. However, he stated, "It is interesting that this year, the second lowest sea ice extent ever recorded, that we didn't see that kind of weather pattern at all."

To note, a further concern is that the last five years have also been the five lowest recordings of Arctic sea ice.

By the first week of October, NSIDC will produce an analysis of the 2011 findings and a comparison to the previous yearly data.

NSIDC is part of CU-Boulder's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Studies (CIRES) and is funded by NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as well as other federal agencies. Competitive grants and contracts are part of the process of gaining project funding and CU-Boulder and CIRES are a collaborative research entity.

For more on the Arctic ice research, go to

attributions: Walt Meier and CU press release