The Big Thaw

There is momentous news inside the Arctic Circle. It's getting warmer!; and in the world of polar science (where everyone knows that ice affects the Earth's temperature) the experts are getting restless. As more and more ice melts, there is less of it around to reflect the Sun's rays back into space. The more sunlight that gets in, the warmer we get. And the warmer we get, the greater the frequency of major storms, and the greater the impact on the way the ocean circulates. (Ironically, global warming could lead to a shutdown of the Gulf Stream Extension that warms Europe.)

And that's just the issue of global warming. As the ice thaws and ice edge shifts and moves around, there are also politics, geographical boundaries, and business commerce to start wondering about. Over the past century, the extent of the winter pack ice in the Nordic Seas (consisting of the Greenland, Norwegian, Barents and Kara seas) has decreased by about 25%. The overall pattern of ice loss has led to projections that both the ( "Canadian ") Northwest Passage and the ( "Russian ") Northern Sea Route may soon be open to commercial shipping for at least part of the year. Changes in the Canadian Arctic have led recently to opening of some far northern ports to commercial shipping, such as Churchill on the Hudson Bay. Spring meltback of the pack ice in the western Arctic Ocean is proceeding earlier and over a greater extent than in the past.

But, ice conditions during this most recent winter season were even more exceptional than that. The extent of the pack ice in the Nordic seas near mid-winter was at a near-record minimum. At the same time, the Bering Sea was effectively ice-free, which is unprecedented. Further, Bering Sea water temperatures were several degrees higher than normal for mid-winter.

"If this current Arctic thaw rate continues, there will be drastic changes in the Arctic Ocean. One published paper predicts a complete melting of the permanent ice pack by 2050, " says Dr. Dennis Conlon, Program Manager for Arctic Science at the Office of Naval Research. "The implications for commerce would be staggering. "

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