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NOAA: Arctic will be free of ice within 20 years

Before long, the Arctic will be spending its summers as temperate and ice-free as the rest of the globe, a state of affairs not seen at any time in human history. Whereas the region has always undergone some ice melt during spring and summer—with re-freezing of that melted ice always following in fall and winter—the Arctic will cease to have any ice at all, save for some residual summer ice that will continue to form near Greenland and Canada’s Arctic islands. Furthermore, this stark transformation could come about in just another 10 or 20 years.

That is the forecast of a study that was published February 21, 2013, in the online journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The study’s authors—James Overland, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) oceanographer; and Muyin Wang, a University of Washington meteorologist—arrived at this conclusion three times in a row. They selected three simulation models that climatologists commonly use for forecasting Arctic melt, and they ran their data on ice formation and climate change through each. Each model yielded a forecast of ice-free Arctic summers by the 2060s at the latest.

It could even be as soon as 2020, according to the first model, a “trendsetters model,” whose forecasts rely on extrapolations from past fluctuations in sea ice. The second model, called a “stochastic” model, indicates ice-free Arctic summers by an only slightly later date of 2030. The predictions are based on projections that assume that very large random occurrences of sea-ice melt, such as the unusually drastic Arctic summer ice melts of 2007 and 2012, will occur in decades ahead. The third model, which the researchers call the “modelers approach,” forecasts the Arctic having no more summer ice by 2060, based on global climate data. Overland and Wang said that, unfortunately, the first two models are probably closer to the truth. They rule the third model too optimistic.

A Polar Consensus

Overland and Wang’s study jives with a massive body of scientific studies that show the Arctic’s ice becoming steadily scarcer during the summer months. The decline has been ongoing and gaining speed over the last 40 years, as independent observations from research institutions in the Americas, Europe, and Asia unanimously show.

Earlier in February, Geophysical Research Letters ran another study—this one co-authored by another University of Washington polar scientist, Axel Schweiger— indicating the Arctic’s summer ice levels are a full one-third lower than where they stood a decade ago. Even worse, a related news release in the University of Washington journal UW Today noted that if one combines this study with a compilation of data on Arctic ice that the European Space Agency had released shortly before, it becomes clear that the bare minimum extent for Arctic sea ice today is a mere one-fifth of what it was in 1980.

Global Consequences

The Arctic’s ice-free summers will make it possible, for the first time, for ships to travel across the region during the warm months. Huge expansions of shipping lanes and commercial activity will almost inevitably follow, a likely win for any northern countries with the capacity and the ambition to take advantage of it. And if some studies are correct, lush green forests could emerge across thousands of square miles of the now-barren permafrost of Canada and Russia’s far north.

Oil reserves, which the Arctic appears to have in abundance, are a particularly powerful draw. Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell, and other companies hold licenses granting them the rights to explore in the Arctic, and the head of Russian oil firm Lukoil has been pressing Russian lawmakers to allow his firm and other private Russian businesses to do the same. The region has remained mostly free of oil prospecting thus far mainly because all the ice makes oil drilling and retrieval too difficult, costly, and dangerous. Once the ice disappears, however, oil companies could see the new terrain as suddenly much more amenable.

But for whatever benefits may come to a few northern countries, much larger pitfalls will strike the rest of the globe. The disappearance of the ice will aggravate erratic and extreme weather patterns that are already becoming more routine across much of the globe. As the Arctic warms, it changes the flow of the jet streams, the currents of wind that run across the world’s oceans. We humans experience the changes as steeper waves that bring intensified hurricanes, monsoons, tsunamis, and other destructive weather events our way.

Arctic melt will also exacerbate the planet’s existing warming trends. That ice won’t be around to reflect sunlight back into space, so much more sunlight will reach Earth’s surface and add its heat energy to the atmosphere.

“Rapid arctic sea ice loss is probably the most visible indicator of global climate change; it leads to shifts in ecosystems and economic access, and potentially impacts weather throughout the northern hemisphere,” Overland said in a NOAA news release. “Early loss of arctic sea ice gives immediacy to the issue of climate change.”