An Ice-Free Arctic … Happening Before Our Eyes

Summer at the North Pole may be gorgeous, but the news from there is devastating again this year.

"The land of the polar bear" -- where in fact there is no land, only frozen sea surface -- is melting.

America's "summer air conditioner" -- the vast fields of sea ice that constantly rotate around the North Pole and feed cooling winds that sweep down to the lower 48 -- is continuing to shrink back this summer.

It is the effect of global warming occurring far faster than scientists predicted just a few years ago.

The refreezing of sea ice during the long, dark polar night of winter is also reportedly declining sharply.

Scientists believe this is all due not only to higher average temperatures of the air but also to the water, contributing to an Arctic that could be ice-free in summer far sooner than predicted only a year ago.

"It's continuing the pattern of extreme sea-ice loss," Mark Serreze of the National Snow and Ice Data Center said to ABC News. "What we're seeing in 2006 is way below the average ice extent over the 20 years ending in 2000."

There are still three weeks to go before the Arctic's "summer sea ice minimum," and already experts at the data center can see the bad news -- and you can, too, at "Figure 2" when you click here.

That light-blue line snaking down and hugging the dotted line? It's bad news.

It shows the 2006 summer melt back of sea ice virtually as great as that in the summer of 2005 -- which all means major changes under way for life, natural and human -- in the Arctic, the United States and worldwide.

The public is getting smarter and smarter about the importance of sea-ice loss, Serreze says.

The arcane craft he and his colleagues practice in the academic quiet of their labs and computer rooms is no longer quite so lonely.

All sorts of people now call up wanting to know what's up with Arctic melt back.

"That's why we created this new blow-by-blow site," Serreze said. "People can watch along with us" as each warming Arctic month shatters ever more sea ice -- and often records as well.

Bad News Bears

It's also more bad news for the world's polar bears, as confirmed in a new article in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Arctic.

Claire Parkinson, a NASA ice expert and author, told ABC News about new satellite data that show "the date at which the sea ice breaks up each summer, forcing polar bears back onto land, has been coming seven [days] or eight days earlier each decade" in Canadian Arctic regions she studies.

Polar bears -- Latin name Ursus maritimus or "Sea Bear" -- get virtually all their food, principally seals, on the sea ice.

The scientists say global warming means that summer melt backs are now dumping polar bears on land three weeks earlier each summer than in the mid-'70s, which means more hungry bears on land and more trouble for humans.

The Holy Grail -- 'What We Really Need to Know'

"But sea-ice volume is what we really need to know," Serreze said.

"It's the Holy Grail" for sea-ice experts, he says, adding that the news here is probably worse than any we've heard about sea-ice extent.

News from NASA that Arctic summer sea ice melted back 30 percent in the last 30 years -- and could well be gone completely by about the year 2070 -- made headlines in the summer of 2005.

But those findings measured only the loss of surface area, not the thickness -- thus the volume -- of the ice.

Satellites are close to being able to measure ice thickness accurately, Serreze said.

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