Image: Explorers on Arctic ice.
Caitlin Arctic Survey via AFP-Getty Images
Explorers Pen Hadow and Ann Daniels prepare to swim through thin Arctic ice during their recent 73-day expedition. 
updated 10/15/2009 10:37:03 AM ET 2009-10-15T14:37:03

The North Pole will turn into an open sea during summer within a decade, according to data released Wednesday by a team of explorers who trekked through the Arctic for three months.

The Catlin Arctic Survey team, led by explorer Pen Hadow, measured the thickness of the ice as it sledged and hiked through the northern part of the Beaufort Sea in the north Pole earlier this year during a research project.

Their findings show that most of the ice in the region is first-year ice that is only around six-feet deep and will melt next summer. The region has traditionally contained, thicker multiyear ice that does not melt as rapidly.

"With a larger part of the region now first-year ice, it is clearly more vulnerable," said Professor Peter Wadhams, part of the Polar Ocean Physics Group at the University of Cambridge which analyzed the data. "The area is now more likely to become open water each summer, bringing forward the potential date when the summer sea ice will be completely gone."

Video: Melting Arctic ice Wadhams said the Catlin Arctic Survey data supports the new consensus that the Arctic will be ice-free in summer within 20 years, and that much of the decrease will happen within 10 years.

Martin Sommerkorn of the World Wildlife Fund said the Arctic sea holds a central position in the earth's climate system. "Such a loss of Arctic sea ice cover has recently been assessed to set in motion powerful climate feedbacks which will have an impact far beyond the Arctic itself," he said.

He added: "This could lead to flooding affecting one-quarter of the world's population, substantial increases in greenhouse gas emissions from massive carbon pools and extreme global weather changes."

Global warming has raised the stakes in the scramble for sovereignty in the Arctic because shrinking polar ice could someday open resource development and new shipping lanes. The rapid melting of ice has raised speculation that the Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans could one day become a regular shipping lane.

The results come as negotiators prepare to meet in Copenhagen in December to draft a global climate pact.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Disappearing ice

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