Arctic Ice Melting at Alarming Pace as Temperatures Rise

New studies show that the region is warming even faster than many scientists had feared.

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New studies being released this week indicate that climate change is exerting massive and worrying change on the Arctic region—reducing the volume of ice, releasing methane gas into the atmosphere, and dramatically raising air temperatures in some parts of the Arctic.

The findings will give fresh urgency to international deliberations on the next global climate change pact planned for December 2009 in Copenhagen. The studies also will likely intensify international pressure on the incoming Obama administration to embrace major cuts in the emission of greenhouse gases in an effort to help stabilize global temperatures.

NASA scientists will reveal that more than 2 trillion tons of land ice on Greenland and Alaska, along with in Antarctica, have melted since 2003. Satellite measurements suggest half of the loss has come from Greenland. Melting of land ice slowly raises sea levels.

The World Meteorological Organization, a United Nations agency, is also reporting that ice volume in the Arctic this year fell to its lowest recorded level to date.

Experts from the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado will further reveal that temperatures this fall in some Arctic areas north of Alaska were 9 or 10 degrees Fahrenheit above average. The long-predicted phenomenon is known as "Arctic amplification." As global air temperatures increase, the Arctic tends to show greater changes because the ice pack that once reflected solar heat is reduced in scope. More heat is therefore absorbed. The study is being discussed at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

Says NASA climate scientist H. Jay Zwally, "We may be going through a tipping point [in climate change] right now." He adds, "Once the ice goes away, you're absorbing much more heat." The Arctic, he says, is showing two to three times the overall global rate of temperature increase.

The Arctic, adds Mark Serreze of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, plays a key role in global weather. "You're starting to fundamentally change the Arctic refrigerator," he says. "You're fiddling with the dials on that refrigerator—maybe changing weather patterns well beyond the Arctic."

The changes in the Arctic, analysts predict, will launch an unprecedented era of oil and gas exploration, mineral exploitation, shipping, fishing, and tourism—all placing a fragile ecosystem at risk. One result of the new opportunities could begeopolitical competition among the five countries with Arctic Ocean frontage: Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark (through Greenland), and Norway.

The changes are also being documented by visitors to the Arctic. Minnesota polar explorer Will Steger this June encountered high, jagged blocks of ice near Canada's Ellesmere Island that ultimately forced his team to change its plans. The ice blocks were apparently from ice shelves that had broken off.

"We were traveling over the ruins of the Arctic Ocean," Steger said. "Five, 10, 20 years from now, when we see this picture clearly, we won't believe what we've done."