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News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy

Arctic Sea Ice Reaches Record Low

Posted On August 28, 2012 by

This visualization shows the extent of Arctic sea ice on Aug. 26, 2012, the day the sea ice dipped to its smallest extent ever recorded in more than three decades of satellite measurements. The line on the image shows the average minimum extent from the period covering 1979-2010, as measured by satellites. Every summer the Arctic ice cap melts down to what scientists call its “minimum” before colder weather builds the ice cover back up. The size of this minimum remains in a long-term decline. Credit: NASA

The National Snow and Ice Data Center has just announced critical ice in the Arctic Ocean melted to record low levels this summer. The Washington Post reports:

“As of Sunday, the Arctic sea ice cover had shrunk to 1.58 million square miles, the smallest area since satellite measurement began in 1979. With the melting season not yet over, the ice will almost certainly contract further in the coming weeks before it begins to re-form.”

Arctic sea ice plays an important role in moderating the global climate. The bright surface of sea ice reflects sunlight back into space. Each year, portions of it melt in the summer, exposing the ocean surface. While the sea ice can reflect about 50 to 70 percent of the sunlight back into space, the dark ocean absorbs approximately 90 percent of the sunlight, heating the water and causing Arctic temperatures to rise even further. This process creates a feedback loop as warmer temperatures cause further sea ice melt. The reduction in Arctic sea ice has far reaching impacts on global atmospheric patterns and ocean circulation. Learn more about the important role sea ice plays in regulating the global climate here.

Here at Ocean Conservancy, we have been urging the government to stop Shell’s Arctic drilling plans and protect this fragile and vitally important region. A green light for Arctic drilling would mean placing an already stressed environment in greater jeopardy, which isn’t worth the risk. The decrease in seasonal sea ice has created the potential for a dramatic expansion of oil and gas exploration in Arctic waters. Currently, there is no adequate technology, technique or infrastructure to respond effectively to an oil spill in icy Arctic waters, and darkness, hazardous weather, or sea conditions could delay spill response for weeks.

Even without a major accident, day-to-day oil and gas operations create significant environmental disturbances. Seismic testing, exploratory drilling, and increased vessel and air traffic associated with oil and gas operations generate noise and air and water pollution, with the potential to affect whales and other marine animals and, in turn, the people who depend on them for subsistence.

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