The European Space Agency’s CryoSat 2 probe has completed its 18-month-long mission and the results are disturbing. According to data being analyzed at the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling at University College London (UCL), over 900 cubic kilometres of summer sea ice has disappeared from the Arctic ocean over the past year. That’s a loss 50% greater than figures predicted by most polar scientists.

arctic summer sea ice, arctic ice, cryosat-2, European space agency, ESA, arctic ocean, summer ice, university college of london

According to the satellite’s results, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions has had such an effect on the region, that in the next few years the ocean could be completely free of summer ice. Not only will this have a dramatic effect on local ecosystems, but it will also trigger a rush of companies all over the world eager to exploit the area’s fish stock, oil, minerals and sea routes. The thickness of ice north of Canada and Greenland is usually around five to six meters in the summer, however it has dropped to one to three meters.

“Preliminary analysis of our data indicates that the rate of loss of sea ice volume in summer in the Arctic may be far larger than we had previously suspected,” said Dr Seymour Laxon, of the Centre for Polar Observation at UCL speaking to The Guardian. “Very soon we may experience the iconic moment when, one day in the summer, we look at satellite images and see no sea ice coverage in the Arctic, just open water.”

The lack of ice will also reduce the region’s ability to reflect sunlight back into space, making the Arctic heat up even further. This will cause ocean temperatures to rise and methane deposits on the ocean floor could melt, evaporate and bubble into the atmosphere.

“Before CryoSat, we could see summer ice coverage was dropping markedly in the Arctic,” said Professor Chris Rapley of UCL. “But we only had glimpses of what was happening to ice thickness. Obviously if it was dropping as well, the loss of summer ice was even more significant. We needed to know what was happening – and now CryoSat has given us the answer. It has shown that the Arctic sea cap is not only shrinking in area but is also thinning dramatically.”

Director of ESA’s Earth Observation Programmes Volker Liebig noted that the lack of ice could exacerbate various countries interest in the region. “In the coming years, the Arctic will become a very important geo-political region,” said Prof. Liebig. “15 to 20% of the world’s oil and gas reserves are expected there, and we will find shorter shipping routes as the ice melts.”

CryoSat’s mission isn’t over and it is expected to continue mapping precise changes in sea-ice thickness year to year, furthering our understanding of the effects that climate change has on the Arctic.

+ European Space Agency

+ Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling at University College London (UCL)

Via The Guardian

Images: U.S. Geological Survey and NASA Goddard Photo and Video