SHRINKING ARCTIC SEA ICE
NASA
Based on satellite data, these images show Arctic sea ice in 1979, at left, and in 2003. The ice cover shrunk by 9 percent a decade over that time, NASA says.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 5/24/2004 3:01:26 PM ET 2004-05-24T19:01:26

Global warming is hitting the Arctic more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet in what may be a portent of wider, catastrophic changes, the chairman of an eight-nation study said Monday in summarizing what scientists have learned about climate in the region.

“There is dramatic climate change happening in the Arctic right now ... about 2-3 times the pace of the whole globe,” said Robert Corell, chairman of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, an 1,800-page report to be issued at a meeting in Iceland in November. The report combines input from scientists, indigenous peoples and eight Arctic rim nations.

“If you want to know what the rest of the planet is going to see in the next generation, watch out for the Arctic in the next 5-10 years,” he told Reuters. Global climate change could bring everything from disastrous floods or droughts to a rise in global sea levels that could swamp low-lying Pacific islands.

Most climate scientists believe warmer global temperatures are tied to industrial emissions of carbon dioxide, a gas that gives the Earth its greenhouse effect.

Examples of change
Research has established some potential benefits from warming in the Arctic, such as possibly extending an Arctic sea route from the 20 days a year it's now open to 100 days by 2050. And Russia might get easier access to oil and gas as the icecap shrinks and permafrost retreats.

Interactive: The greenhouse effect But the broader possibilities are disturbing. Inuit hunters are falling more frequently through the thinning ice and habitats for plants and animals are also disrupted. The icy Hudson Bay in Canada could be uninhabitable for polar bears within just 20 years.

The melting is also destabilizing buildings on permafrost and threatening an oil pipeline laid across Alaska.

In parts of Scandinavia, Birch trees are taking over traditional reindeer lichen pastures and reindeer there are now having to compete with elk and red deer moving north.

Why warming on ice?
Scientists say the Arctic is particularly sensitive to warming because of the fact that it is so white. Similar to how white clothing reflects heat, Arctic ice reflects vast amounts of solar radiation that would otherwise be absorbed by the planet. So when ice caps recede, sunlight that would have been reflected is instead absorbed by the darker mass of ocean and land.

That warms the surrounding environment and intensifies what scientists call a "feedback loop" — in this case a warmer planet melts more ice, which in turn warms the planet even further.

Some parts of Alaska have heated up 10 times more than the global average, said Corell, a senior fellow at the American Meteorological Society.

“I think it (climate change) can be stopped," he said, "but we will need an aggressive response.”

Background on the assessment is online at www.iarc.uaf.edu/acia.php.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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