Polar temperatures rise rapidly: Summer ice break-up starts early

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Walruses are amongst the animals under threat
© 2009 Financial Times Deutschland, © dpa

Melting ice threatens polar life
As temperatures rise rapidly at the poles the break-up of summer ice starts early

by von Cameron Dueck

The Financial Times (August 13, 2009) — The Canadian Arctic is facing another year of open water with the summer break-up of sea ice ahead of schedule in many key parts of the northern archipelago.

The early break-up of ice underlines the growing impact of climate change in the Poles where temperatures have risen much more rapidly than in the rest of the world.

As a result, September 2007 was the first time in living memory the entire Northwest Passage was open water from east to west. Despite slightly more ice, a record six private yachts transited the historic waterway last year, and this year’s traffic could beat that number.

Loss of Arctic sea ice threatens wildlife such as polar bears, seals and walruses that use the ice as a platform for hunting, mating and migration. Further south, where Alaskan fishermen ply the Bering Sea in search of fish and crabs, they wonder if disappearing ice and warmer temperatures can be blamed for their change in fortunes.

“The warming conditions have got to play some kind of role in all this,” said Byron Singley, captain of the Nancy Allen, a small fishing vessel based in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. He lamented the double impact of over-fishing and changes to weather patterns.

“It seems the ice breaks up and starts moving north earlier and earlier every year. It’s been happening in March and April, but I remember being out there in May years ago, at the edge of the ice going for snow crab, because that’s where they are, at the edge of the ice.”

The Northwest Passage, a route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that European explorers spent centuries trying to discover, was first sailed in 1906 by Roald Amundsen in an epic voyage, but it has yet to become the commercial shipping route between Asia and Europe that it has long been dreamt to be.

Dr. Humfrey Melling, a research scientist with the Institute of Ocean Sciences near Victoria, British Columbia, said the current extent of northern sea ice was similar to last year and in 2007, a record low. “It is about five per cent below the long-term average of 12.2 million square kilometres,” he said.

An ice forecast issued by the Canadian Ice Service on July 1 showed earlier than normal break up in many key areas in the Western Arctic.

“In the Western Arctic region, the break-up pattern is one to three weeks early in many coastal areas and by as much as one month in isolated areas,” the report said.

Guy Collins works with the captains of the fishing boats who unload their catch at the docks of the Unisea fish processing plant in Dutch Harbor. He says while tighter quotas have helped revive some depleted species, rising temperatures also appeared to be affecting fishing grounds.

“They have to go further north toward Russia now to get the fish that are near the ice. It used to be the boats would go out 100 miles, now they go out 500 miles. It could be partly due to temperature change and weather patterns.”

Reduced sea ice is enabling companies to profit from reserves of untapped natural resources

Formidable sea ice historically kept companies from exploiting, or even properly measuring, the Arctic’s energy resources. However, with more accessible oil reserves already being tapped around the globe and sea ice retreating, Arctic oil supplies are gaining more attention.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) recently teamed up with scientists from Canada, Demark, Greenland, Norway and Russia to assess Arctic gas and oil supplies.

Their report, which looked only at resources of at least 50m barrels of oil or 300bn cubic feet of gas, was released in June, showing with a 95 percent probability that there were 44bn barrels of undiscovered oil and 770,000bn cubic feet of undiscovered gas (770 trillion) in the Arctic. It also showed that much of the oil is in Alaska while a large portion of the gas is in the Russian Arctic.

André Maillet, superintendent of the Canadian Coast Guard’s icebreaking programme in the central and Arctic region, said the ice was breaking up early along the Alaskan North Slope, the Beaufort Sea, Lancaster Sound and eastern Baffin Bay.

“The season is progressing very well so far this year with total accumulated ice -cover being currently less than normal for this time of year,” Mr Maillet said Two domestic shipping companies who supply communities in the eastern Arctic this summer planned to expand their services into the western Arctic, he added.

Scientists warn that there is a multiplier effect at work. Much of the ice that has melted in recent years was thick ice that had accumulated over many years. But while much of the area that is ice-free this summer will freeze over this winter, that ice cover will be fragile having had only one year to accumulate, and will break up the more easily next summer.

For more information, visit http://www.ftd.de/karriere_management/business_english/:Business-English-Melting-ice-threatens-polar-life/551463.html

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Reduced sea ice is enabling companies to profit from reserves of untapped natural resources
© 2009 Financial Times Deutschland, © dpa

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