Arctic Ice Loss

In the Arctic, some sea ice always melts every summer. However, since 2002 CE, this summertime melting of sea ice started earlier than usual and the quantity of ice lost increased at an alarming pace. Nearly 502,000 square miles of sea ice has melted and flown into the oceans of the world since then, and the average amount of sea ice left in the arctic between 2002 and 2008 is twenty percent less than the average amount between 1978 and 2002.

Thanks to the increased burning of fossil fuels by humans to run industries and automobiles, huge quantities of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane are dispersed into the atmosphere. These greenhouse gasses trap the heat from the sun’s reflections and increase the earth’s temperature. This phenomenon, popularly knows as “Global Warming” is the main cause for this arctic ice loss.

The most apparent consequence of the arctic ice loss is the rise in sea level. While the melting of floating glaciers do not impact sea level, the melting of arctic ice leads to increased amount of water on the oceans that cause sea level to rise. The rising sea level means inundation and thus uprooting most villages in the arctic coastline.

However, the disappearance of this ice cover has effects far beyond the few residents and the wildlife of the Arctic region. The arctic ice loss threatens thousands of islands and most coastal cities around the world. Most low-lying areas around the globe also face inundation, beach erosion, coastal flooding, and contamination of freshwater supplies.

Scientists project a 3-foot sea-level rise by 2100. According to a 2001 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study, this increase would inundate some 22,400 square miles of land along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States alone. At particular risk are island nations like the Maldives, where over half of the islands lie less than 6 feet above sea level. Even major cities like Shanghai and Lagos would face similar problems, as they also lie just six feet above present water levels.

The melting of once-permanent ice is already affecting wildlife and plants. Polar bears, whales, walrus, and seals are changing their feeding and migration patterns, making it harder for native people to hunt them. Arctic polar bears are already starving, drowning, and even resorting to cannibalism because they do not have access to their usual food sources. The U.S. Department of Interior has already listed the polar bear as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act.

Ice shelves support unique ecosystems, many of which have gone unstudied, and the melting of the polar ice leads to their destruction. One prime example is the case of Ellesmere Island. The glaciers on the island continued to melt at unprecedented levels, loosing more than 200 square kilometers of ice each year. The Ward Hunt Ice Shelf in this island dammed the mouth of the Disraeli Fjord to form a 3,000-year-old freshwater ecosystem in this Island. Their runoff fed an epishelf lake that was suspended atop the denser seawater. Between 2000 and 2002, the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf cracked and drained the lake, whisking its rare inhabitants out to sea.

Rising temperatures that lead to warmer weather cause the spruce bark beetle in Alaska to breed faster. These pests now sneak in an extra generation each year, and from 1993 to 2003, they chewed up 3.4 million acres of Alaskan forest.

Arctic ice loss will also affect weather patterns and thus food production around the world, affecting crop production adversely. According to a NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies computer model, Kansas would be 4 degrees warmer without Arctic ice. This would deprive the soil 10 percent of moisture in summer, drying out acres of valuable farmland. The increased temperatures in winter would hamper the growth of winter wheat that requires freezing temperatures.

Arctic ice helps regulate and temper the climate in many parts of the world. Ice absorbs 20% of the sunlight and reflects back 80%, whereas water absorbs 80% of the heat and reflects back 20%. The huge sheets of arctic ice thus reflect solar radiation, keeping the planet cool. When this ice melts, what forms instead is huge expanses of water that absorb the heat instead of reflecting it. This further warms the planet up and raises temperatures.

Arctic Ice cover loss can also influence winds and precipitation on many continents, possibly leading to less rain in the western United States and creating more in Europe. The storm systems, storm tracks, jet streams are all likely to be impacted by the changes to the atmospheric patterns caused by this phenomenon.

Another grave consequence of the Arctic Ice Loss would be a greater release of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the permafrost. Scientific estimates conclude that 30 percent of all the carbon stored in soils worldwide is stored in Arctic soils, and that a thaw could lead to releases of this stored up carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, further accelerating global warming. This could also lead to bigger plants as increased availability of carbon dioxide means plants absorbing them in greater quantities.