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Thaw in Arctic ice could spur inland warming, study finds

Melting may signal trouble for ecosystems

A polar bear walked in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in this 2003 photo. Global warming has had a negative effect on the animal's habitat, melting the frozen Arctic Ocean. A polar bear walked in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in this 2003 photo. Global warming has had a negative effect on the animal's habitat, melting the frozen Arctic Ocean. (Subhankar Banerjee/Associated Press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Deborah Zabarenko
Reuters / June 11, 2008

WASHINGTON - If Arctic sea ice starts melting fast, polar bears and ring seals wouldn't be the only creatures to feel it: A study released yesterday suggests that it could spur warmer temperatures hundreds of miles inland.

That means a possible thaw in the long-frozen soil known as permafrost, which in turn could have severe effects on ecosystems, human infrastructure like oil rigs and pipelines, and the release of more global warming greenhouse gases in Russia, Alaska, and Canada, the scientists said.

The study is particularly pertinent because of last year's record melt of Arctic sea ice, when ice cover in the Arctic Sea shrank to 30 percent below average. Another record melt is forecast for this year but it is unknown whether this is the beginning of a trend.

"Our climate model suggests that rapid ice loss is not necessarily a surprise," said David Lawrence of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, an author of the study.

"When you get certain conditions in the Arctic - thin ice, a lot of first-year ice (as opposed to older, sturdier ice) - that you can get a situation where . . . you get a rapid and steady loss over a period of five to 10 years," Lawrence said by telephone from Colorado.

In such a period of rapid ice loss, autumn temperatures along the Arctic coasts of Russia, Alaska, and Canada could rise by as much as 9 degrees, the study's climate model found.

Last year's temperatures from August to October over land in the western Arctic were also unusually warm, more than 4 degrees above the average temperatures for 1978-2006, raising questions about the relationship between shrinking sea ice and warmer land temperatures.

The effects of melting are already evident in parts of Alaska, the scientists said: As pockets of soil collapse as the ice it contains melts, highways buckle, houses are destabilized, and trees tilt crazily in a phenomenon known as "drunken forests" when the earth beneath them gives way.

"There's an interconnectedness about the Arctic," Lawrence said.

"When sea ice retreats and retreats very rapidly, it impacts other parts of the system, like warming temperatures over land. And warming temperatures over land can also accelerate the degradation of permafrost, particularly permafrost that's warm right now."

The research will be published Friday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

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