Saturday, July 31, 2010

The non-Ice Age cometh

The fast-disappearing Arctic  ice cap could indicate that Russia is in for more summer heat waves – and winter deep freezes – as climate change creates more instability in global weather.

That’s the warning from Russian scientists, who say that while global warming is not exactly to blame for the country’s current heat wave, increasingly erratic weather is causing Arctic Sea ice to disappear at an alarming rate.

And that could speed up global warming.

“Arctic ice doesn’t impact climate, it is the climate,” climatologist Vladimir Kattsev of the Voyeykov Geophysical Observatory told The Moscow News.

And the latest reports from up north aren’t promising.

“Ice in the Arctic is melting very fast,” Alexander Frolov, head of Russia’s Federal Hydro-Meteorological and Environmental Monitoring Service, was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying.

The shrinking ice area could set a new record this season and dip below the 4.14 million square kilometers registered in 2007, he said.

A vicious circle

What this means is that the Arctic could be seeing ice-free summers within a few decades, freeing up waterways and minerals deposits for Russia. “Perennial ice is fast turning into seasonal ice that disappears in the summer,” Kattsev said.

If previous models predicted ice-free summers by the end of the century, that could happen a lot sooner than expected, he added.

Newer models suggest that “ice could become completely seasonal by around 2050,” he said.

But in what many are touting as a silver lining for Russia, this could make the Arctic more accessible, “shortening northern transit routes and making them safer.”

This could explain why Russian researchers have been making a run for the Arctic, staking out territory that could later yield valuable natural resources.

Whatever the benefits, people shouldn’t forget that the Arctic is a formidable force of nature. Possible advantages would be

offset by dangers like shore erosion and volatile seas, Kattsev said.

“And let’s not forget that the polar bears will suffer from this.” More disturbingly, ice-free summers in the Arctic will speed up global warming. 

Heating up oceans

In what is fast turning into a vicious circle, with less white ice area to reflect the sun, warmth will be absorbed by the

darker ocean waters, heating up the currents and causing further changes in the weather – and more ice to melt.

Meanwhile, the sweltering weather that has already made Moscow feel more like Texas shows no signs of abating, with temperatures set to climb as high as 39 degrees Celsius by the end of the week.

The current heat wave has affected a larger area and has lasted longer than any other since 1972.

Hotter up north

Even Russia’s northernmost reaches are feeling balmier than usual.

“This summer is noticeably warmer. It’s about 20 degrees right now, with high humidity,” said a spokeswoman for the Solovetsky Gulag Museum on the Solovki Islands (on right) in the Arctic.

“It has reached 30 this summer, which is unusual, and we’re seeing rapid temperature changes,” she said.

This, however, is not necessarily a signal of global warming, Kattsev, the climatologist, said.

“Just as the abnormally cold winter was not a counter-argument to global warming, the heat is not an argument for it,” he said. “It is merely an enormous weather anomaly that by itself doesn’t speak of anything.”

But over a wider time-span, if these anomalies become more frequent over the course of several decades, this would indicate climate change.

“Average temperatures could remain the same, with colder winters offsetting warmer summers,” he said. “But more extreme weather patterns are certainly an indicator.”

The Moscow News,"The non-Ice Age cometh", accessed July 28, 2010

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