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Reduction in Arctic sea ice disturbs balance of greenhouse gases

The widespread reduction in Arctic sea ice is altering the balance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, according to researchers from Lund University in Sweden.

This is a problem that climatologists are likely to face sooner rather than later, as the National Snow & Ice Data Center reports that the average sea extent for January 2013 was 5.32 million square miles, which is 409,000 square miles below the 1979 to 2000 average for the month.

The researchers found that the melting of sea ice in the Arctic has a significant impact on the balance of greenhouse gases in the region, both in terms of uptake and release. They came to this conclusion after examining the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane both in the tundra and in the Arctic Ocean.

Dr. Frans-Jan Parmentier, a researcher at Lund University, said that alterations in the balance of greenhouse gases can have “major consequences.” He noted that, globally, plants and the oceans absorb approximately half of the carbon dioxide that is released into the air through human activity. Parmentier warned that the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will change if the “Arctic component of this buffer changes.”

Parmentier and his colleagues discovered that melting sea ice leads to a domino effect in the region. Typically, the white ice reflects sunlight, which then bounces out into space. However, the amount of sunlight reflected is reduced when the sea-ice cover shrinks, which means that the surface of the ocean absorbs more of the sunlight and, as a result, begins to warm. This warming contributes to the rise in air temperatures around the region.

While rising temperatures help plants grow more energetically and therefore more carbon dioxide is absorbed, rising temperatures also contribute to the release of carbon dioxide and methane from the soil, which has a negative impact on the climate.

The study revealed that there is a lot about the effects of the widespread reduction in Arctic sea ice on greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that scientists do not know.

“We know very little about how the shrinking sea ice cover disturbs the balance of greenhouse gases in the sea in the long term,” admitted Parmentier.

The study’s findings were published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Photo credit: NOAA