SHRINKING POLAR ICE CAPS
The Arctic is proving to be global warming's canary in a coal mine. If you want to see what will be happening in the rest of the world 25 years from now, you just need to look at what's happening in the Arctic today.
Arctic Sea Ice Loss: Greater than Land Area of Texas, California, and Maryland Combined (2003 vs. 1979 Comparison)
Data recently released by NASA show that the Arctic ice cap is shrinking at the alarming rate of 9 percent per decade. The research by NASA scientist Josefino Comiso was published by in the Journal of Climate on November 1st.
The fraction of the arctic covered by sea ice reached its lowest level in 20 years of record-keeping in September 2002. Preliminary results for 2003 indicate that the sea ice area this September was similar to last year's. September 2003 sea ice extent in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas was 25 percent below the previous minimum in the 45-year record.
The average temperature of the arctic region is increasing twice as fast as the rest of the world. Models project that this trend will continue and that the arctic will warm two to three times as much as the world as a whole during this century.
If global warming is not curtailed, permanent arctic sea ice extent will decline by more than 50 percent during this century and the arctic could become ice-free in summer by the end of the century.
Global warming is amplified in the arctic because snow and ice reflect more solar energy than open water and bare ground. Hence as the extent of snow and ice begin to decline more solar energy is absorbed and the area heats up further.
Native people, wildlife, and plants of the arctic are already feeling the effects of global warming. Melting permafrost is damaging homes and disrupting roads. Retreating sea ice and changing climate patterns have reduced the availability of polar bears, walrus and seals traditionally hunted by indigenous peoples.
"Many indigenous Arctic cultures depend on hunting polar bear, walrus, seals, and caribou, not only for food, but also as a basis for their cultural and social identity. While indigenous peoples have adapted to varying and changing conditions in the past through careful observations and skillful adjustment in subsistence activities and lifestyles, the effects of UV- and climate-induced changes and impacts combined with ongoing social, political, and other environmental stresses will pose serious challenges for them."
Feeling the Heat in Alaska (from Antonia)
Warming is even more pronounced in Alaska than in the rest of the Arctic. Year-round average temperatures have risen by 5 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1960s, and average winter temperatures have soared 8 degrees in that period. Alaskan glaciers are receding, permafrost is thawing, forests are dying, villages are being forced to move, and animals are being forced to seek new habitats.
The Arctic ice pack has thinned by 40 percent since the 1960s. An estimated 24 cubic miles of ice are disappearing annually from Alaskan glaciers and researchers have found that the rate of melting in the last five years has accelerated. The Arctic's largest ice shelf, solid for 3,000 years, recently broke up due to the warmer temperatures.
Animals must deal with retreating ice pack, and can end up stranded on the outskirts of towns since there is less time to escape from land in the spring. The warming may also have dire consequences for salmon in the Yukon River, the major food and income source for indigenous people along the 2,300-mile waterway, as rivers have heated five degrees in 20 years, making mid-summer temperatures nearly lethal for salmon. Forest are at an increased risk from pests as well, as warming destabilizes the age-old, hard-won truce between insects and vegetation increasing pest reproduction, abundance and geographic range. In Alaska, spruce bark beetles are sneaking in an extra generation a year due to warming, and have denuded over 4 million acres in the Kenai Peninsula in the past five years.
Thawing permafrost is causing roads and other infrastructure, which depends on supports to avoid sinking into the tundra, to collapse. Large sections of northern forests are also collapsing into swamps of melting permafrost. Sections of shoreline on the Arctic Coast have thawed, making them vulnerable to storms. Two Inupiat Eskimo villages on the northwestern coastline, Shishmaref and Kivalina, have lost so much ground they're in danger of washing into the sea, and plans to relocate will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Furthermore, last winter's record warm temperatures in much of the state hurt Alaska's winter sports and recreation industry. One big snowmobile race was canceled, and part of the famed Iditarod dog-sled race had to relocate for the first time in the event's 31-year history farther north to Fairbanks from its traditional starting point just outside Anchorage. Organizers of the 20th annual Tesoro Iron Dog snowmobile race had to cancel their event when the organizers concluded there was too little snow over parts of the 2,000-mile course to safely conduct the race.
Trek to the Top