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Mounting Consequences as Arctic Sea Ice Melts

Cecilia Bitz photo

Arctic sea ice is melting at record rates, and the loss of that ice could drive significant degradation of marine and terrestrial ecosystems, according to a researcher at the University of Washington. The researcher, Cecilia Bitz, is part of an international team of scientists whose findings are published this week in the journal, Science

Scientists have been able to accurately track the rate at which sea ice is melting since 1979, when the satellite era began.

In the 35 years since, the ice has retreated by 40 percent. That’s an increase of more than 1 percent a year—two or three times faster than the global mean.

“It is so fast. It is faster than any other record of climate change we know,” said Bitz, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington.

And when sea ice melts, it’s not just an indicator of a warming climate. Bitz says its loss also increases the warming because its surface is highly reflective.

“And when it starts to melt, it allows the ocean to absorb more sunlight, and it amplifies the warming that caused it to melt in the first place," Bitz said.

Beyond those reflective qualities, which reduce the warming effects of greenhouse gases, Bitz says sea ice provides unique habitat for algae that appear in more concentrated forms and with more fat content in the ice. The loss of those ice-bound algae affects marine predators all the way up the food chain, from krill and fish to seals, walruses and polar bears.  

In turn, the Arctic is becoming more accessible to people, who put additional pressure on the natural ecosystems. 

The scientists say more regulation is needed to minimize human contributions to sea ice loss. 

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