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By Candice Bernd
October 12, 2011
Caption : Ice melt for the month of September signals that the worst climate change effects are still ahead.     

An ice-free Arctic Ocean would mean floods and dramatic climate shifts for the rest of the world, and scientists say we’re on track for such a future as 2011 shaped up to be a year of extreme ice melt for the Arctic with ice reaching record or near-record lows in September.

While sea ice levels typically reach their lowest levels in September when the ice is exposed to 24-hour sunlight after long, dark winters in the north, ice levels were at their lowest point so far this season last month, with ice covering just 4.33 million square kilometers of the ocean, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

In 2007, ice in the arctic hit then-record lows when certain right weather conditions—clear skies and perfect wind patterns coupled with hot temperatures—caused extreme melting. With ordinary weather patterns this year, the number is still 2.38 million square kilometers below the average minimum ice levels measured between 1979 and 2000.

Scientists from Snow and Ice Data Center said the numbers came very close to 2007’s record low, but hadn’t yet exceeded it. But scientists from the University of Bremen, who used a slightly different methodology to measure ice coverage, declared that 2011 was a record-breaker for sea ice melt.

Whether the ice levels actually broke the 2007 record is beside the point.

The past five years have brought the lowest sea ice extents since record were first collected in 1979, according to NASA. And scientists say it’s a trend that will only worsen as it continues to develop, ultimately leading to an ever-accelerating downward spiral toward a climate catastrophe.

Ice has a high albedo effect, meaning that it tends to reflect solar radiation. That causes the surrounding surface area to melt and be replaced by darker ocean waters that absorb 90 percent of incoming solar radiation, causing the remaining ice to melt at increasingly faster rates.

Sea Ice Research Scientist Walt Meier said the effects of this loop could be devastating to the climate. He told Campus Progress that the Arctic could see iceless summers within the next two to three decades, dramatically raising temperatures at the poles and throwing wind and current circulations out of whack.

“It really kind of is further evidence that there is not a recovery in sight,” Meier said. “We expect to see things bounce up and down, and we haven’t gone back down below 2007, but we’re quite close. … And we’re really seeing over the long term that there’s still this very strong downward trend and this is essentially another data point in that trend, and, in fact, is truly steepening that trend because it is so low.”

The data from this September shows that ice melt is reaching the record lows of 2007 without the same extreme weather conditions, Meier said. That’s worrying, too, because this year was, on average, colder than 2007.

Meier said there isn’t a concrete connection yet, but some emerging data show a link between the loss of ice at the Arctic and the extreme winter weather conditions on the East Coast and in Europe.

But if sea ice melting continues at its current rate, Meier said Americans can expect more droughts, severe storms, and flooding in the coming decades.

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