Arctic survey data confirms rapid ice loss

Within a decade the Arctic Ocean will be mostly open water during the summer, says scientific ice-thickness survey results

UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband immediately reacted to the report from the Catlin Arctic Survey and WWF. Miliband said: “The Catlin Arctic Survey and WWF study sets out the stark realities of a rapidly changing climate and illustrates the risk of an ice free summer in the Arctic in the not-too-distant future. This further strengthens the case for an ambitious global deal in Copenhagen in December which the UK is fully committed to achieving.”

The Catlin Arctic Survey – completed earlier this year by explorers Pen Hadow, Ann Daniels and Martin Hartley – provides the latest ice thickness record, drawn from the only survey capturing surface measurements conducted during winter and spring 2009.

The data*, collected by manual drilling and observations on a 450-kilometre route across the northern part of the Beaufort Sea, suggests the survey area is comprised almost exclusively of first-year ice.

This is a significant finding because the region has traditionally contained older, thicker multi-year ice. The average thickness of the ice floes measured 1.8 metres, a depth considered too thin to survive the next summer’s ice melt.

These findings have been analysed by the Polar Ocean Physics Group at the University of Cambridge, led by Professor Peter Wadhams, one of the world’s leading experts on sea ice cover in the North Pole region.

“With a larger part of the region now first year ice, it is clearly more vulnerable,” said Professor Wadhams. “The area is now more likely to become open water each summer, bringing forward the potential date when the summer sea ice will be completely gone.”

Wadhams continued: “The Catlin Arctic Survey data supports the new consensus view -- based on seasonal variation of ice extent and thickness, changes in temperatures, winds and especially ice composition -- that the Arctic will be ice-free in summer within about 20 years, and that much of the decrease will be happening within 10 years.”

“That means you’ll be able to treat the Arctic as if it were essentially an open sea in the summer and have transport across the Arctic Ocean.”

According to the scientists who have studied the data, the technique used by the explorers to take measurements on the surface of the ice has the potential to help ice modelers to refine predictions about the future survival or decline of the ice.

Catlin Arctic Survey expedition leader Pen Hadow commented: “This is the kind of scientific work we always wanted to support by getting to places in the Arctic which are otherwise nearly impossible to reach for research purposes. It’s what modern exploration should be doing. Our on-the-ice techniques are helping scientists to understand better what is going on in this fragile ecosystem.”

At the unveiling of the results in London, Dr. Martin Sommerkorn from WWF International Arctic Programme, which partnered with the Survey, said: “The arctic sea ice holds a central position in our Earth’s climate system. Take it out of the equation and we are left with a dramatically warmer world.”

“Such a loss of Arctic sea ice cover has recently been assessed to set in motion powerful climate feedbacks which will have an impact far beyond the Arctic itself – self perpetuating cycles, amplifying and accelerating the consequences of global warming. This could lead to flooding affecting one-quarter of the world’s population, substantial increases in greenhouse gas emissions from massive carbon pools and extreme global weather changes" Dr. Sommerkorn said.

“Today’s findings provide yet another urgent call for action to world leaders ahead of the UN climate summit in Copenhagen this December to rapidly and effectively curb global greenhouse gas emissions, with rich countries committing to reduce emissions by 40 per cent by 2020.”

* More than 6,000 measurements and observations from the expedition were used in the analysis.  (“Verification of Catlin Arctic Survey Surface Observation Techniques", N. P. Toberg, P. Wadhams, Polar Ocean Physics Group, Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge, October 2009)

Photo: Nick Smith

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