Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Implications of Arctic Heat: Less Ice and More Global Warming

The Arctic continues to warm and ocean sea ice continues to retreat at an alarming pace. This has dramatic implications that are both global and local. Arctic ice has been both retreating and thinning in volume for four decades.

As reported in the Ecologist, the latest study by Stroeve et al. from the University College London, was published in Geophysical Research Letters. This study shows that the ice-free period is increasing by 5 days every decade. In some regions of the Arctic, the autumn freeze is now up to 11 days later every decade.

The research examined satellite imagery of the Arctic for the last 30 years. They found that the ice is melting and the increasing exposure to sunlight means that greater quantities of energy are being absorbed by the Earth.

"The extent of sea ice in the Arctic has been declining for the last four decades", said Professor Stroeve. "And the timing of when melt begins and ends has a large impact on the amount of ice lost each summer."
The Arctic is now warmer now than it has been for 40 millennia. This has a cascade of negative impacts which are both local and global.

Globally a warmer Arctic translates to less sea ice which means less reflection of sunlight and more absorption which translates to more heat. This is known as the albedo effect which is defined as the amount of solar energy (shortwave radiation) reflected from the Earth back into space. It is a measure of the reflectivity of the earth's surface. The lower the albedo the more we can expect planetary temperatures to increase. Locally this warming threatens the animals that depend for their existence on a stable cycle of seasons.

The rate of acceleration suggests that the polar ocean could be entirely free of ice in late summer in the next four decades. When ice loss is factored from the perspective of the albedo effect, this will further accelerate global warming.

© 2014, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.

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