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Environment

Shrinking ice cover accelerates warming climate

Shrinking levels of ice- and snow-cover in the Northern Hemisphere are reflecting ever less sunshine back into space in a previously underestimated mechanism that could be adding to global warming, a study has found.

An ice breaker

Ice in the Northern Hemisphere may be reflecting less heat than thought

New satellite data indicates that Arctic sea ice, glaciers, winter snow and Greenland's ice bounced less energy back into space from 1979 to 2008 than previously believed.

White surfaces on the planet, including snow and clouds, reflect some of the sun's energy into spacing, lessening its warming impact on the planet.

However, a study conducted by a team of US-based researchers has calculated that ice and snow in the Northern Hemisphere are now reflecting on average 3.3 watts per square metre of solar energy back to the upper atmosphere, a reduction of 0.45 watt per square metre since the late 1970s.

The process is expected to intensify warming trends, as dwindling areas of snow cover expose more ground or water to the sun's energy, both of which are darker and absorb more heat.

Less cooling

Polar bears sit atop a piece of ice in the sea that has melted

The Northern Hemisphere is behaving differently from the Southern Hemisphere

"The cooling effect is reduced and this is increasing the amount of solar energy that the planet absorbs," Mark Flanner, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study, told the Reuters news agency.

"This reduction in reflected solar energy through warming is greater than simulated by the current crop of climate models," he added.

The findings were published in the journal Nature Geoscience on Sunday.

"The conclusion is that the cryosphere (areas of ice and snow) is both responding more sensitively to, and also driving, stronger climate change than thought," he said.

The process is regarded as a feedback loop: As ever more ground and water is exposed to sunlight, the absorbed heat in turn speeds the melting of snow and ice nearby.

Uncertain conclusions

Satellite picture of North Pole ice cap

The ice-caps reflect heat back into space

Arctic sea ice, for instance, has shrunk in recent decades in a trend that the United Nations panel of climate scientists blames mainly on greenhouse gases from mankind's burning of fossil fuels in factories, power plants and cars.

Many studies project that Arctic sea ice could vanish in summers later this century in a trend that would undermine the hunting cultures of indigenous peoples and threaten polar bears and other animals, as well as adding to global climate change.

But Flanner said that it was impossible to draw conclusions from the study about the rate of future melting, for instance of Arctic sea ice, since it was based on only 30 years of data.

"There are a lot of other things that determine climate ... this is just one of them," he said. Other factors include whether there will be more clouds in a warmer world - whose white tops also reflect sunlight. Or there could be more water vapour that traps heat in the atmosphere.

The study estimated that each degree Celsius (1.8 degree Fahrenheit) rise in temperatures would mean a decline in solar energy reflected out to space of between 0.3 and 1.1 watts per square metre from the Northern Hemisphere's snow and ice.

Temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere have risen by about 0.75 degree Celsius in the past three decades. The study did not look at the Southern Hemisphere, where Antarctica has far more ice but is much colder and shows fewer signs of warming.

"On a global scale, the planet absorbs solar energy at a rate of about 240 watts per square metre averaged over a year. The planet would be darker and absorb an additional 3.3 watts without the Northern Hemisphere cryosphere," Flanner said.

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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