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Global Warming Will Decimate Arctic, Scientists Warn (2004)

(ENS) -- Satellite images from last month revealed dramatic openings over large areas of the Arctic's perennial sea ice pack, the European Space Agency (ESA) said Tuesday. The ice had retreated to such an extent that a ship likely could have sailed from Northern Siberia or the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen to the North Pole without difficulty, the scientists said.

"This situation is unlike anything observed in previous record low ice seasons," said Mark Drinkwater of ESA's Oceans/Ice Unit. "If this anomaly trend continues, the North-East Passage or 'Northern Sea Route' between Europe and Asia will be open over longer intervals of time, and it is conceivable we might see attempts at sailing around the world directly across the summer Arctic Ocean within the next 10-20 years."

The satellite images, acquired from August 23 to 25, by instruments aboard the EOS Aqua satellite, showed holes in the Arctic's perennial sea ice pack larger than the area of the British Isles.

Perennial sea ice normally survives the summer melt season and remains year round.

The openings seen in August stretched north of Svalbard, an archipelago that includes Spitzbergen and lies in the Arctic Ocean between Norway and the North Pole, and extended into the Russian Arctic all the way to the North Pole. The area between Spitzbergen, the North Pole and Severnaya Zemlya is confirmed by AMSR-E to have had much lower ice concentrations than witnessed during earlier years.

Satellite imagery over the past 25 years has shown a significant decline in the minimum ice extent -- the lowest amount of ice recorded in the area annually -- at the end of summer from 8 million square kilometers in the early 1980s to less than 5.5 million square kilometers in 2005.

These changes are likely the result of rising temperatures, ESA scientists said, and satellite images have also shown a decline in perennial sea ice in recent years.

But the images from 2006 marks the first time the perennial ice pack appears to exhibit thinner and more mobile conditions in the European sector of the Central Arctic than in earlier years.

ESA scientists said the reasons for the dramatic change are still unknown, but believe strong storms in August likely played a significant role.

The findings come in the wake of several recent studies by NASA scientists that indicate Arctic sea ice is melting at extraordinary rates.

One study found that the total amount of Arctic sea ice has fallen by 6 percent over each of the last two winters, compared to a loss of 1.5 percent per decade since 1979.

The second study revealed that perennial sea ice in the Arctic shrank by 14 percent between 2004 and 2005, a striking change compared to the period between 1979 to 2003, when perennial ice decreased at a rate of 9 percent per decade.

The loss of Arctic sea ice could have dramatic impacts on the global environment, altering ocean currents as well as imperiling wildlife.

Last week U.S. and Canadian researchers reported that shrinking sea ice is already adversely impacting polar bears, which depend on sea ice for hunting seals and other marine mammal. Arctic sea ice in prime polar bear habitat is breaking up earlier, the researchers said, forcing bears to fast for longer and longer periods and directly impacting their ability to survive and reproduce.

© 2006 Environment News Service and reprinted by special permission

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