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Arctic 'screaming,' say scientists seeing data; worry over 'tipping point'

Published: Tuesday, December 11, 2007 | 4:03 PM ET

WASHINGTON - An already relentless melting of the Arctic greatly accelerated this summer, a warning sign that some scientists worry could mean global warming has passed an ominous tipping point. One even speculated that summer sea ice would be gone in five years.

Greenland's ice sheet melted more than 17 billion tonnes more than the previous high mark, and the volume of Arctic sea ice at summer's end was half what it was just four years earlier, according to new NASA satellite data obtained by The Associated Press.

"The Arctic is screaming," said Mark Serreze, senior scientist at the government's snow and ice data centre in Boulder, Colo.

Just last year, two top scientists surprised their colleagues by projecting that the Arctic sea ice was melting so rapidly that it could disappear entirely by the summer of 2040.

This week, after reviewing his own new data, NASA climate scientist Jay Zwally said: "At this rate, the Arctic Ocean could be nearly ice-free at the end of summer by 2012, much faster than previous predictions."

So scientists in recent days have been asking themselves these questions: Was the record melt seen all over the Arctic in 2007 a blip amid relentless and steady warming? Or has everything sped up to a new climate cycle that goes beyond the worst case scenarios presented by computer models?

"The Arctic is often cited as the canary in the coal mine for climate warming," said Zwally, who as a teenager hauled coal. "Now as a sign of climate warming, the canary has died. It is time to start getting out of the coal mines."

It is the burning of coal, oil and other fossil fuels that produces carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, responsible for man-made global warming. For the past several days, government diplomats have been debating in Bali, Indonesia, the outlines of a new climate treaty calling for tougher limits on these gases.

What happens in the Arctic has implications for the rest of the world. Faster melting there means eventual sea level rise and more immediate changes in winter weather because of less sea ice.

In the United States, a weakened Arctic blast moving south to collide with moist air from the Gulf of Mexico can mean less rain and snow in some areas, including the drought-stricken Southeast, said Michael MacCracken, a former federal climate scientist who now heads the nonprofit Climate Institute. Some regions, like Colorado, would likely get extra rain or snow.

More than 18 scientists told The AP that they were surprised by the level of ice melt this year.

"I don't pay much attention to one year ... but this year the change is so big, particularly in the Arctic sea ice, that you've got to stop and say, 'What is going on here?' You can't look away from what's happening here," said Waleed Abdalati, NASA's chief of cyrospheric sciences. "This is going to be a watershed year."

2007 shattered records for Arctic melt in the following ways:

-500 billion tonnes of ice melted this summer from the Greenland ice sheet, according to preliminary satellite data to be released by NASA Wednesday. That's 15 per cent more than the annual average summer melt, beating 2005's record.

-A record amount of surface ice was lost over Greenland this year, 12 per cent more than the previous worst year, 2005, according to data the University of Colorado released Monday. That's nearly quadruple the amount that melted just 15 years ago. It's an amount of water that could cover Washington, D.C., a kilometre deep, researchers calculated.

-The surface area of summer sea ice floating in the Arctic Ocean this summer was nearly 23 per cent below the previous record. The dwindling sea ice already has affected wildlife, with 6,000 walruses coming ashore in northwest Alaska in October for the first time in recorded history. Another first: the Northwest Passage was open to navigation.

-Still to be released is NASA data showing the remaining Arctic sea ice to be unusually thin, another record. That makes it more likely to melt in future summers. Combining the shrinking area covered by sea ice with the new thinness of the remaining ice, scientists calculate that the overall volume of ice is half of 2004's total.

-Alaska's frozen permafrost is warming, not quite thawing yet. But temperature measurements 20 metres deep in the frozen soil rose more than 0.2 degree Celsius from 2006 to 2007, according to measurements from the University of Alaska. While that may not sound like much, "it's very significant," said University of Alaska professor Vladimir Romanovsky.

Greenland, in particular, is a significant bellwether. Most of its surface is covered by ice. If it completely melted - something key scientists think would likely take centuries, not decades - it could add nearly seven metres to the world's sea level.

However, for nearly the past 30 years, the data pattern of its ice sheet melt has zigzagged. A bad year, like 2005, would be followed by a couple of lesser years.

According to that pattern, 2007 shouldn't have been a major melt year, but it was, said Konrad Steffen, of the University of Colorado, which gathered the latest data.

"I'm quite concerned," he said. "Now I look at 2008. Will it be even warmer than the past year?"

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