WINNIPEG — Sea ice in Canada’s fragile Arctic is melting faster than anyone expected, the lead investigator in Canada’s largest climate-change study yet said Friday — raising the possibility that the Arctic could, in a worst-case scenario, be ice-free in about three years.
University of Manitoba Prof. David Barber, the lead investigator of the Circumpolar Flaw Lead System Study, said the rapid decay of thick Arctic Sea ice highlights the rapid pace of climate change in the North and foreshadows what will come in the South.
“We’re seeing it happen more quickly than what our models thought would happen,” Barber said at a student symposium on climate change in Winnipeg. “It’s happening much faster than our most pessimistic models suggested.”
Barber and more than 300 scientists from around the globe spent last winter on the Canadian Coast Guard research ship Amundsen in the Arctic, studying the impact of climate change. It was the first time a research vessel remained mobile in open water during the winter season.
Barber said the melting sea ice can be compared to disappearing rain forests. “If you go into the rain forest and you cut down all the trees, the ecosystem in that rain forest will collapse,” he said. “If you go to the Arctic and you remove all the sea ice or if you remove the timing of the sea ice, the system will change.”
That change will include more invasive species moving up from the South and species that live in the Far North having to adapt to a different environment.
The occurrence of Arctic cyclones is also on the rise, which contributes to ice breakup.
Barber said before the expedition that climate scientists were working under the theory that climate change would happen much more slowly. It was assumed the Arctic would be ice-free in the winter by 2100. “We expect it will happen much faster than that, much earlier than that, somewhere between 2013 and 2030 are our estimates right now. So it’s much faster than what we would expect to happen. That can be said for southern climates as well.”
The impact means more variability in the Earth’s climate — warm trends are warmer and cold trends are colder.
Dr. John Hanesiak, an associate professor at the University of Manitoba’s Centre For Earth Observation Science, said that due to human actions and the release of greenhouse gases, those extremes may include more frequent summer droughts and more spring floods in southern climates. “We know that we’re part of the problem,” he said. “There’s no question about that. The models are telling us that now.”
Scot Nickels, senior science adviser with Canada’s national Inuit organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said the impact of climate change has been significant on people who live in the Far North. It’s changing their way of life as wildlife adapt and traditional hunting patterns change. “There’s also the need for economic development,” Nickels said, adding mineral and oil exploration has also increased with changing weather. “It’s a real balancing act that has to be done. As we know in the South, that’s not an easy thing. It’s the same up north.”
Dr. Steve Ferguson, a research scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said the thinning ice and warming of the water brings species from the south and the potential for the spread of disease. “There’s phocine distemper that in Europe has wiped out a huge number of harbour seals,” he said. “There’s now evidence some of that disease is in some of the Arctic seals, so there’s concern that as things warm move further north we can see some epidemics. “Even killer whales, for example . . . we now know they move into the Arctic, but they come from quite far south, so again, they’re in contact with other kinds of whale species in southern areas and they’re bringing something potentially up north to the Arctic.”
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