Melting Arctic sea ice is no longer just evidence of a rapidly warming planet—it’s also part of the problem.
Alan Werner, professor of geology at Mount Holyoke College, said that decreasing amounts of Arctic snow and ice in summer will lead to a greater degree of heat absorption at the North Pole.
The reason, Werner said, is because the loss of snow and ice makes the earth’s surface less reflective, meaning solar radiation—or heat—is absorbed in greater amounts by the exposed dark ocean or tundra.
“That’s the thing that’s happening very abruptly, or at least in geologic time scales, very quickly,” Werner said. “That the high latitudes are warming at a much faster rate than the other latitudes.”
Werner’s observation follows the announcement in September by the National Snow and Ice Data Center that the surface area of Arctic sea ice had reached a new low in 2012, breaking a previous record reached in 2007.
What the new data suggests, Werner said, is that the Arctic Ocean will likely be free of sea ice during summer in the next few decades, which may trigger significant changes in climate across the globe.
“One thing about humans living on the planet is that we don’t do well with change,” Werner said. “The changes that we’re talking about are changes that are going to be difficult for humans to adapt to.”