Arctic could be ice-free in summer in 15 years: conference

Last Updated Feb 16 2006 08:56 AM CST
CBC News

Recent melting of sea ice in the Arctic may lead to the lowest level yet of ocean ice cover in the Arctic this summer, resulting in drastic changes to the northern ecosystem, according to scientists meeting at a conference in Winnipeg this week.

More than 120 scientists from nearly a dozen nations are attending the meeting of the Canadian Arctic Shelf Exchange Study.

The group, which conducted research over the past three years in the High Arctic, is releasing its findings, including studies from a year spent on board the Amundsen research icebreaker.

University of Manitoba sea-ice specialist Dr. David Barber estimates that the sea-ice cover in the Arctic is now decreasing by 74,000 square kilometres per year.

He says last year the extent of Arctic sea ice shrunk to the lowest level recorded by satellites, to a minimum he says that has never been seen before in modern times.

Barber says he's now worried that 2006 could be worse.

"That minimum extent is going to be surrounded by ocean and that surrounding ocean is all going to be absorbing short-wave radiation from the sun, and it's going to all warm up that surface layer and it's going to be harder to form the ice the next year."


Barber says he's most concerned about multi-year ice. He says the loss of this type of ice can affect the habitat of species such as ring seals, and the melting is happening too fast for them to adapt.


"So the ecosystems that have evolved to take advantage of that sea ice, you can imagine how do they adapt to such a change, it has happened so rapidly, how do they adapt to such a thing?" he says.


Scientists now say that in as little as 15 years, the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer. They say the last time that happened was more than a million years ago.


But Simon Prinsenberg, who's with the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Halifax, says less ice could be positive for northern economies.


"A lot of people think that with less ice we might see more fisheries up there and since there's less ice it's also easier to get up there," he says.