New data this winter on Arctic winds and currents indicate that next summer's ice loss at the North Pole may be even greater than 2007's record-setting shrinkage.
The last remnants of thick, old sea ice are dispersing, and the unusual weather cycles that contributed to last year's loss of ice are continuing, a climatologist told an Anchorage conference Monday.
"The buoys are streaming out," said University of Washington climatologist Ignatius Rigor, referring to the satellite-tracked markers used to monitor the flushing of ice into the North Atlantic. Such a pattern preceded last summer's record ice loss but was not expected to continue so strongly.
Scientists are watching the polar ice closely, trying to sort out the effects of global warming and natural cyclical changes.
Formal projections of next summer's expected ice loss won't be made for another month or so. But all indications to date are that ice loss will equal or exceed last year's, "unless the winds turn around," Rigor said at an environmental science conference at the Egan Center.
The thin veneer of new ice now covering the polar seas is not like the older, thicker sea ice that once covered the region in winter, Rigor said. In 1989, 80 percent of the ice in the Arctic was at least 10 years old, he said. Today, only about 3 percent of the ice is that old.
The new ice melts more quickly, and then open water absorbs more sunlight, warming the seas and making the next fall's freeze-up come even later, he said.
"Have we passed the tipping point?" he said. "It's hard to see how the system may come back."
The prospect of a mostly ice-free Arctic could mean a boom in shipping through the Bering Strait, several speakers said at Monday's Alaska Forum on the Environment. But it is bad news for polar bears and other animals that may be bound for the endangered-species list, speakers said.
Polar bears prefer ice over the shallow continental shelf north of Alaska because it supports a rich food chain, said Steve Amstrup, a leading polar bear biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. But with last summer's melting, some Alaska bears were pacing the ice as much as 600 miles north of Barrow, far from their preferred habitat, Amstrup told the conference.
Amstrup was lead federal biologist in a series of studies released last year depicting the Alaska bear as likely to disappear by 2050 because of global warming. A decision by the Department of the Interior on whether to list the polar bear as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act was due in January but has been postponed.
The state of Alaska, among others, opposes the listing, arguing the forecasts of declining sea ice are too speculative.
But scientists said Monday that the forecasts were, if anything, too cautious. None foresaw the disastrous shrinkage of 2007.
"Five of the 10 studies we used projected more sea ice at midcentury than we had this summer," Amstrup said.
The shrinkage is related to higher temperatures, scientists said, but also to shifts in a weather pattern known as the Arctic oscillation. When the Arctic oscillation is in a "high" cycle, as it has been recently, more ice is pushed past Greenland into the North Atlantic, Rigor said.
Climate models have linked a higher Arctic oscillation to increases in greenhouse gases, but that relationship is still the subject of much study, Rigor said.
"All these changes are very consistent with a climate system trying to cool itself off from greenhouse gases," Rigor said.
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