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Arctic Loses a Quarter-Million Square Miles of Sea Ice


After Record Low Announced in August

Washington, DC 19 September 2012 – The Arctic sea ice has lost an astonishing 260,000 square miles of protective sea ice, the area of France, in the two weeks since the all-time record low was broken.

On August 26th scientists from NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center announced that Arctic sea ice extent had crashed through the previous record low set in 2007 by as much as 27,000 square miles, slightly more than the area of West Virginia. On September 16, as the melting season finally came to a close, more than quarter-million additional square miles of sea ice had melted away.

Arctic sea ice naturally grows during winters and shrinks during the spring and summer. However, for the past thirty years, satellite data has shown a 13% decline per decade of the minimum summer Arctic sea ice. According to passive microwave data analyzed by the National Snow and Ice Data Center and NASA, on September 16 the Arctic reached a new record minimum of 1.32 million square miles, 18% less than the 2007 minimum and nearly 50% less than the 1979 to 2000 average.

“This is a wakeup call for world leaders. Without fast action now, we’ll lose all the Arctic sea ice and its ability to reflect heat back to space. This will set off a feedback loop that accelerates the melting of the permafrost and releases still more climate-warming gases,” said Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. “This feedback loop is pushing us closer to one of the first tipping points that could cause irreversible climate damage.”

The Arctic temperature increase and the decline of snow and ice feed upon themselves in an accelerating feedback loop that is causing more rapid melting and sea level rise. The reflective Arctic ice and snow act as a protective shield, sending solar radiation into space. As the ice and snow disappears it is replaced by darker seawater or land, which absorbs more of the incoming radiation. This absorbed energy is released as heat during the summer months, further adding to Arctic warming, which in turn accelerates melting.

Zaelke added, “Reducing black carbon soot and other short-lived climate pollutants can cut the rate of Arctic warming by two-thirds. We need a crash course that starts today with black carbon, which is responsible for half of the Arctic warming, or about 1.0°C.” Other short-lived climate pollutants include methane, which is being released from the thawing permafrost, and hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs.

Scientists last year predicted that the Arctic could be free of summer sea ice in the next thirty to forty years and sea-levels could rise up to five feet by the end of the century with melting snow and ice in the Arctic making a significant contribution. Other scientists now say this could happen much faster, perhaps by the end of the decade.

“In addition to a crash course to cut black carbon in the Arctic,” Zaelke said. “We also need to phase down HFCs through the Montreal Protocol, which is one of the biggest, fastest and cheapest ways to mitigate climate change.” The Montreal Protocol is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and its success healing the ozone layer and helping protect the climate system by providing

Other efforts to reduce short-lived climate pollutants are underway in the new Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants, launched by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this year. There are now 27 members of the Coalition. IGSD sits on the Steering Committee of the Coalition as the representative of nongovernmental organizations.

According to a recent UNEP/WMO report, full implementation of a package of sixteen emission reduction measures targeting black carbon and ozone precursors, including methane, can cut the rate of warming in the Arctic by two-thirds and the rate of global warming by half for the next 30 to 60 years.