Sea-ice loss at the top of the world just the tip of the iceberg, researcher says

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Arctic summer sea-ice cover is steadily melting as the climate warms, according to researchers. Exactly how fast it's melting -- and what this means for everyday Alaskans -- is what science is only beginning to understand.

(UAF)

Satellite imagery of the summer ice cap, which is the smallest the Arctic sea ice gets just before winter freeze-up begins, shows a nearly 41 percent reduction in size between 1979 and 2018. Scientists from Canada and Alaska say this rapid ice melt has both local and global climate impacts.

"It's a new frontier,” said Rick Thoman, climate specialist at the International Arctic Research Center in Fairbanks. “And the frontier keeps moving down the road, even as we try to pedal faster."

Thoman spent over 30 years analyzing climate patterns with the National Weather Service. He builds on that knowledge by providing ice melt forecasts for rural communities, which rely on the ice for subsistence hunting in the Northern Bering and Southern Chukchi seas.

“Understanding the past and preparing for the future is critical for the diverse people’s economies and resources in Alaska and the Arctic,” Thoman said. "Potentially, communities can use that information to plan their activities: ‘Should we hunt now, even if we prefer to wait another week from now? If the ice is going to go bad, maybe we need to act now.'"

Thoman says the Chukchi Sea is seeing record low ice levels -- that Alaska's 2019 record warm summer will delay this year's winter freeze-up. This means progressively thinner winter ice and earlier spring melt, and many researchers agree this is a recipe for regional and global climate change.

"We are all in this together,” Thoman said. “There is nothing between Utqiagvik and Norway except a lot of ocean, and seasonally at least, a lot of ice."

Dr. Julienne Stroeve chairs Canada-150, a 7-year, $12 million Arctic research program at the Centre for Earth Observation Science at the University of Manitoba. Stroeve recently published an article in Scientific American using satellite imagery to show actual sea-ice loss is outpacing what some climate models have been able to predict.

“The extent of sea-ice loss at the top of the world, as seen by satellites, is literally the tip of the iceberg,” Stroeve’s article reads. Stroeve says newer climate models, however, are predicting something previously unheard-of in the scientific community.

"They're showing consistent ice-free summers sometime during this century, but the winter sea ice was never really thought to disappear,” Stroeve said. “Some of these ice models are showing winter ice disappearing by 2100, as well." She acknowledges more data is needed to validate that startling projection.

Record warm Arctic temperatures and sea-ice loss work in tandem to increase global temperatures. Stroeve says Canada and Alaska are at the forefront of these changes, but the entire world will feel the resulting climate impacts.

"Our climate system is really governed by these connections between these different regions, so if you're warming up the Arctic so much faster than the rest of the planet, it's going to impact your large-scale weather patterns,” Stroeve said.

"You have this accelerated warming because the Arctic sea ice has been disappearing, which is impacting on permafrost thaw," she continued. "So coastal erosion is a big problem that a lot of communities are having to deal with in Alaska now."

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