I got this recent article from SeattlePi . According to this article, the north pole is getting closer and closer to having no ice at all. I can’t imagine “Santa’s Workshop” being on mud and grass, can you? Anyways, the article sites a scientist from the University of Washington named Ignatius Rigor. This man has been studying the quirks of the north pole for years and has known, as early as this past spring, that the ice up there was getting very thin and brittle. He says he knows the planet is warming. He is willing to bet that the area of ice would have shrunk to a record low this summer, even beating the amount already lost last year.

Rigor was absolutely sure, following the record losses of the past year or so, that the ice would disintegrate. In fact, the area of the Arctic ocean usually covered in ice has shrunk 1/3 below what has always been normal for the past 30 years. This is actually the first year that both the northwest passage over the top of North America and Russia’s northeast passage are free of ice. This astonishing and frightening fact has been pointed out by environmentalists while researchers are still waiting to see if last years’ dismal record will be surpassed. So far, it looks like 2008 will fall behind.

Courtesy of  Science Daily

The University of Washington is a global leader in sea-ice research. Rigor and his colleagues there are now tracking another surprise development: the discussion of arctic ice loss and global warming as a topic in this years’ Presidential campaign. GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has stirred up the environmental pot. As the Governor of Alaska, she has filed a lawsuit against Endangered Species Act protections for polar bears, is urging expanded oil exploration in the ecologically sensitive Arctic regions (ANWAR) and has expressed doubts over the role of human activity in causing climate change.

This development and the activity of others like her has made even more important the role of scientists in the matter of global warming. The researchers attempting to unravel the causes behind the melting of the ice floes in the summer and the inhibition of its redevelopment in the winter. Rigor and his colleagues at the UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory, including Jamie Morison and Ron Lindsay, are all troubled by how fast the Arctic ice has disappeared.

“The long-term trend is very disturbing,” said Lindsay, a climatologist who has done extensive work on models that predict the ice loss. “There’s a lot of thin ice up there.”

“In recent years it’s gotten a lot worse,” echoed Morison, an oceanographer. “In 2007, it pulled back so there was no ice (at the pole). I mean, it was open water.”

Photo: Komo News

These revelations are startling and disconcerting to many of us. Mr. Morison can’t say exactly what is causing the rapid decline of arctic ice but after many trips to and researching of the pole over the past 34 years, he’s very aware of how it has changed. For instance, he remembers flying over the floes, as early as the mid 1980s and also as recently as the early 1990s, and having to search for a patch of smooth, young ice on which to land his small plane. All he was finding were lumpy hills of older ice. But this is no longer the case.

“When we were out this year, this was easy,” he said. “All the ice was 2 meters thick because more of it had formed just over the winter.”

He has been so concerned over the disappearance of ice this past summer that he has asked a colleague to run computer models to predict the whereabouts of the ice for his fieldwork this coming spring.

“I didn’t know if there was going to be any ice left in the North Pole when we got back in the spring,” Morison said. And, as the article already pointed out, he was willing to bet on that.

Photo: Canada.com

But the ice was there. It was not gone completely, even though the buoys that he launched to take measurements of air and water temperatures, salinity, ice melt and other conditions have traveled across the Arctic Ocean much faster than he expected, buffeted by the wind and zipping along with the melting floes. This quick of a passage of the buoys means fewer data points are collected for the scientists.

From a reasonable, common perspective, there are lots of regular reasons why the sea ice is vanishing. The endless daylight of summer and warmer air and water temps slowly melt the ice. Winds also blow away chunks of frozen ice off the pole, past Greenland, and off into the Atlantic ocean. And the condition of the ice at the beginning of the summer is a huge factor, as well. This year’s ice was young and fragile, making it melt faster and blow more quickly out of the Arctic than the older, thicker ice of yesteryear. All of this makes common sense and explains the changes to a degree.

But, then there’s climate change. Heat-trapping greenhouse gases are warming the planet and the oceans, leading to earlier melting. This also means that the ice freezes up later and later into the winter. Some experts also suspect that the warming could be influencing “Arctic oscillation” — a climate pattern akin to El Niño — that affects the winds that shove the ice into the Atlantic.

The overall problem is that many of these conditions feed on each other, making the situation worse. It is harder to recover the thicker, longer lasting ice. When the sun shines on the pole, the white ice will reflect the heat. But if the ice is gone, the rays of heat reach the ocean and heat it up faster and hotter. This, again, causes what little ice there is left to melt, too. Again, this creates more open water that soaks up even more radiation, melting more ice, etc.. It’s the never ending nightmare.

“It’s hard to see how the ice might come back,” Rigor said, “unless we are able to curb the greenhouse gases.”

The grimmest predictions now forecast that the Arctic could be ice-free in summer sometime in the next decade. According to The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an organization of experts orchestrated by the United Nations and World Meteorological Organization, that milestone could be reached sometime around 2070 or later. Fortunately, most of us won’t live to see that. However, our children will.

As a historical footnote, the last time the arctic was free of ice in summertime was 125,000 years ago, according to experts. That time in history was when carbon dioxide levels were much lower than they are now. Currently, however, the ice is expected to continue to return in the winter indefinitely.

When Dirk Kempthorne, secretary of the Department of Interior, granted endangered species protections to polar bears in May, the UW’s Mr. Rigor helped him make his case. Kempthorne presented slides of Rigor’s data during a national press conference announcing his decision. They showed the sheets of ice covering the North Pole in September thinning and shrinking over time. He pointed out that the bears are dependent on this ice for their survival and the loss of the ice puts them at serious risk of extinction.

Photo: Science Blogs

Environmentalists now are pushing for similar protections for ribbon, ring, bearded and spotted seals. And as a result of their efforts, the federal government announced it would consider protections for three of the four seal species. The announcement came over the summer.

“They’re all completely dependent on sea ice for giving birth and rearing their pups. As the sea ice melts away, the seal pups are separated from their mothers and forced into the icy waters before they’re big enough and strong enough to survive,” said Shaye Wolf, a Center for Biological Diversity biologist.

But the ice research is helpful to humans, as well. According to Glenn Sheehan, executive director of the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium in Alaska, people who rely on the ice for their living and livelihood pay close attention to their studies. These people want to know where the ice is when it’s not visible and also when it’s moving and when it’s likely to return.

Native peoples in particular depend upon the ice. They venture onto the ice in spring to hunt for bowhead whales. They make trails from the shore out onto the floes in order to hunt and then they haul their huge, heavy catches across the frozen platforms.

“The hunters tell me that the ice typically has been forming up later and later for years now,” Sheehan said. “If it forms up later, maybe it doesn’t form up as thick and stable.”

This situation is predicted to get worse. Scientists have said that a dramatic change in the wind patterns that would keep more of the ice in the Arctic could help, at least in the short term. Or a more cataclysmic event such as a volcanic eruption spewing ash that shades the sun for a while could also slow the melt. In this regard, it’s up to nature and the ever changing elements of planet’s surface.

“I’m quite alarmed that the climate system is changing rapidly,” Ron Lindsay, of the Applied Physics Laboratory, has said. “The biological systems, including people, are not used to a rapidly changing climate.”

But even if greenhouse gas emissions stopped tomorrow, the pollutants linger for decades, trapping the heat and warming the planet over long periods of time. However, Mr. Rigor won’t feel so bad if he loses the gentleman’s bet and the ice survives. But who knows what next year will bring.

“I’m hoping our society turns things around before things get so warm that all the ice is gone,” he said.

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