Arctic sea ice melting at an alarming rate, hits record lows


A boat skims through the ice of Greenland's Ilulissat glacier, one of the biggest and most active in the world. The rate of Illulissat's melting, as well as other Arctic glaciers, has experts and indigenous peoples worried about what the future may hold for the ecosystems of the Arctic.



GIRDWOOD, Alaska — The area of the Arctic covered by sea ice has hit a record low, according to new satellite data.

The news confirms the fears of environmentalists here that the steady and dramatic thawing of the ice is threatening the delicate ecosystem of the Arctic, and it has further rattled native communities who see their traditional way of life threatened by the effects of climate change.

Scientists at the US National Snow and Ice Data Center reported Monday that satellite measurements of “sea ice extent,” or the amount of ice covering the sea surface, has shrunk to a level that goes beyond the record-breaking year of 2007.

But the melting Arctic is also opening new shipping lanes and the possibility for the petroleum industry to move in and potentially reap huge profits on what experts predict is the world’s largest reserve of untapped oil and natural gas that lies beneath the ice.

The Arctic has become what investors like David Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group, a leading global asset management firm specializing in private equity, have called “the world’s last emerging market.”

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Rubenstein, who sees great investment potential in the Arctic and lives part of the year in Alaska, is among many business and oil industry leaders, as well as government leaders and diplomats, attending a three-day gathering called the Arctic Imperative Summit.

For the representatives of the indigenous community gathered at the conference, the news of the record ice melt was of grave concern but tempered by the enormous economic opportunity that is expected to flow with it.

Edward Itta is an Inupiat Eskimo leader and the former mayor of the North Slope Borough, the remote area of the Arctic in Alaska which borders the vast oil fields that lie beneath the tundra.

Dressed in a traditional blue Inupiat parka, Itta said, “We are deeply concerned about climate change and how it is affecting our lives and what is happening to the planet.”

But Itta, who was one of the many resonant voices opposed to oil development and the threat it posed to his people, said he and other leaders of native communities have come to see that climate change has unlocked a reality that holds economic promise if development is carried out responsibly.

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“I look at what is happening with both hope and dread,” he said.

“There is no technology to deal with a spill and so I worry,” he added, referring to concerns that containing a large spill would be uniquely difficult — some say impossible — in the icy waters of the Arctic.

“On the other hand, I think oil activity is going to happen out there. So, if done right, it can help us build a new future ... I need to protect the well being of my family and my people,” he said.

The melt of the sea ice has caused a gold rush for oil companies in the Arctic who are vying for lease holds on vast reserves estimated to hold as much as 12 percent of the world’s untapped oil and 30 percent of the world’s untapped natural gas. Shell secured leases off of the North Slope earlier this year and government officials here say Shell has begun drilling in recent days. The total investment in the exploration of Arctic oil to date is said to be as much as $4 billion, and that is before any oil has even been tapped.

The anticipated economic boom will bring much-needed revenue and jobs to a place where many still live on subsistence hunting and fishing, and where levels of education and health care are among the lowest in the country.

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Scientists at the US National Snow and Ice Data Center based in Boulder, Colo., have been recording observations of the sea ice melt since 1979. The latest data indicates that, as of Aug. 13, the melt was continuing to “track below the 2007 record low daily ice extents.” And, as the center’s website points out, this news arrives while there is still “about five weeks remaining in the melt season.”

The Arctic is warming at a rate that is double the rest of the planet, leaving the summer sea ice at levels that researchers believe are as low as they have been in at least 2,000 years.

The melt is visible here in the High North. Glaciers are receding. The land area covered by frost is reducing at a steady clip. Pack ice floating on the Arctic Ocean has fallen at a rate of 8 percent a decade since satellite imagery was used to record data. In the uniquely warm year of 2007, the pack ice dramatically crashed, melting to about 1.7 million square miles, or half the area that was present 50 years ago.

The cause of the melting is not really in question. The consensus among scientists is that it is due to global warming, a rise in temperatures from heat-trapping atmospheric gasses which are released through carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. The impact on wildlife and the way of life for the indigenous peoples of the Arctic is profound, and the dangers to the planet are grave.

But out of the Arctic melt has also come opportunity. The melt of 2007 opened the sea lanes of the Northwest Passage for the first time in memory, leaving free the shipping route that coils through some 35,000 islands in the archipelago stretching from Greenland up through the Bering Strait. 

Graph via Discover Magazine, by the National Snow and Ice Data Center.