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Record ice melt in Arctic

September 19, 2012

US experts monitoring climate change have confirmed that the Arctic Ocean's sea ice cover shrank to an alarming record low this week. The ice extent is now 50 percent lower than the 1979-2000 average.

Arctic Ocean ice at the height of the summer melt in 2009.
Image: picture alliance/Everett Collection

Satellite images showed the oceanic North Pole's ice cap now spans just 3.4 million square kilometers (1.32 million square miles), the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) revealed Wednesday.

It's thought to have hit the record low on September 16, the smallest cover since records began in 1979. The results mean the ice extent is now 50 percent lower than the 1979-2000 average.

We are "now in unchartered territory," Its director Mark Serreze said.

The previous record, set in 2007, was first broken on August 26. After that, it kept melting for three more weeks.

A Canadian icebreaker 'Louis S. St-Laurent' making its way through the ice of Baffin Bay. Photo: AP/The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward
Less ice, more ships. Access to the Arctic has increasedImage: AP

Biodiversity experts also alarmed

Scientists attending a biodiversity conference in Lillehammer, Norway, said on Wednesday that climate change was a threat to everything from Arctic fox populations, coral reefs to coffee plantations.

The coordinator of the Wallace Initiative, Jeff Price, said coffee plantations for example would have to shift to higher altitudes and to more shaded northern slopes. The Wallace Initiative is a group that monitors 50,000 types of plants and animals.

"It's going to require wholesale movements of coffee plantations in Colombia," Price said. And, that would put coffee growers in competition with rare tropical animals and plants in their habitat, he said.

Because the Arctic was mainly ocean, many plant populations would have difficulty finding more northerly niches, said Inger Greve Alsos of the University of Tromsoe.

Arctic Fox © Flickr - Örvar Atli Þorgeirsson. Source: http://www.iucn.org
Fewer lemmings means less to eat for the Arctic foxImage: www.iucn.org

"There are not many places where the northern plants can move into," said Alsos.

The Arctic fox was also under threat due to warming reducing their main food source, the lemming, said Anouschka Hof of Sweden's Umea University.

Soot pollution risk increases

On Tuesday, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said local pollution caused in the Arctic by an expansion of shipping as well as oil and gas exploration could further accelerate the thaw of the Arctic's ice sheet.

Soot darkens ice, making it soak up more solar energy. Companies such as Shell, Exxon and Statoil say they are using clean technologies currently available.

Member nations of the UN, which failed in Copenhagen in 2009 to agree on a regime to limit climate change, are now aiming to finalize a new restraints pact by 2015 that would enter into force in 2020.

Average global atmosphere temperatures have risen by 0.8 degrees centigrade since pre-industrial times. A UN expert panel attributes this to exhaust gases, particularly carbon dioxide, from the burning of fossil fuels, for example, in motors and power plants.

ipj/ccp (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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