Watching the Arctic Melt Away

Scientists believe that Arctic ice may soon be a thing of the past.


May 12, 2008— -- The Arctic is warming faster than anyone predicted, and the melting away of ice is speeding up.

Seen by many as the proverbial canary in a coal mine, the Arctic is warming more speedily than anywhere else on Earth, many scientists believe.

Temperatures are expected to rise in the region by 7.5 degrees Celsius this century. That's 12 degrees Fahrenheit.

In 2006, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) predicted that we might see an ice-free Arctic by the end of the century.

Now it seems that the panel's prediction may come true much sooner than expected, perhaps within a decade.

Ice is more reflective than water — nine times more reflective — so as more of the ice turns to water, the ice melts even faster, because it doesn't reflect the sun's heat back into the sky but instead absorbs it, making the whole area warmer.

"The worst-case scenarios as outlined in that report are certainly coming true based on recent observations,"Russell Shearer, director, Northern Science and Contaminants Research, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, said in an interview with ABC News.

"Ice and snow have receded at an exceptionally high rate and much greater than anticipated, it accelerates at a higher rate and a higher speed as it melts, it's something called the tipping point. It reaches a tipping point where it accelerates at a very high rate and many scientists think we're at that tipping point or very close to it."

Since the joint Nobel peace prize winners (they shared the prize with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore) made their predictions two years ago, many of their estimates have been outstripped by reality.

Emissions from fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and gas have surpassed expectations. The growth in emissions from developing countries such as China and India outstrip almost all projections. Polar sea ice and glaciers are retreating at ever-increasing speed.

Kim Holmén, Research Director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, told ABC News that since "all of these things are happening at the same time, it clearly indicates there is a grand scale change of the system."

"The glaciers are melting faster than before, the sea ice is gone, all of these have direct effects and large-scale indirect effects."

Holmén does not believe that developing nations bear all the responsibility. He says we all benefit from cheap goods and services from developing nations and that the world collectively shares responsibility for the development of alternative fuel and energy strategies.

If warming continues there are terrible ramifications for species unique to the Arctic, many of which are struggling already.

The ring seals have little ice on which to nurture their young, polar bears are stranded on land, reindeer may starve as weather patterns alter.

"The changes we're seeing make me very concerned for the species on the ice, the world would be very much poorer without the polar bear," Holmén told ABC News.

It has been argued that the loss of ice may have large-scale effects on weather patterns such as annual rainfall across many different nations. That could mean dire consequences for some geographic areas already under pressure.

Unless things begin to change, and change soon, we may witness the end of the Arctic as we know it faster than anyone ever imagined.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events