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Arctic ice melt alarms scientists

Local professor relates first-hand view of faster-than-expected change

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Sea ice in Canada's fragile Arctic is melting more quickly than anyone expected, the lead investigator in the largest climate change study done in Canada said Friday.

University of Manitoba Prof. David Barber, the lead investigator of the Circumpolar Flaw Lead System study, said the rapid decay of thick Arctic Sea ice highlights the rapid pace of climate change in the North and forecasts what will come in the south.

"We're seeing it happen more quickly than what our models thought would happen," Barber said at a student symposium on climate change at FortWhyte Alive. "It's happening much faster than our most pessimistic models suggested."

Barber and more than 300 scientists from around the globe spent last winter on the Canadian Coast Guard research ship Amundsen in the Arctic studying the impact of climate change. It was the first time a research vessel remained mobile in open water during the winter season. The Canadian government provided $156 million in funding for the study.

Barber said the melting sea ice can be compared to disappearing rainforests.

"If you go into the rainforest and you cut down all the trees, the ecosystem in that rainforest will collapse," he said. "If you go to the Arctic and you remove all the sea ice or if you remove the timing of the sea ice, the system will change."

That includes more invasive species moving up from the south and species that live in the Far North having to adapt to a different environment. Cyclones have also increased, which contribute to ice breakup.

Barber said before the expedition, scientists were working under the theory that climate change would happen much more slowly. It was assumed the Arctic would be ice-free in the winter by 2100.

"We expect it will happen much faster than that, much earlier than that, somewhere between 2013 and 2030 are our estimates right now. So it's much faster than what we would expect to happen. That can be said for southern climates as well."

The impact means more variability in the Earth's climate -- warm trends are warmer and cold trends are colder.

Dr. John Hanesiak, an associate professor at the U of M's Centre For Earth Observation Science, said those extremes, due to human actions and the release of greenhouse gases, might include more frequent summer droughts and more spring floods in southern climates.

"We know that we're part of the problem," he said. "There's no question about that. The models are telling us that now."

Scot Nickels, senior science adviser with Canada's national Inuit organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said the impact of climate change has been significant on people who live in the North. It's changing their way of life as wildlife adapt and traditional hunting patterns change.

"There's also the need for economic development," Nickels said, adding mineral and oil exploration has also increased with changing weather. "It's a real balancing act that has to be done. As we know in the south that's not an easy thing. It's the same up north."

Dr. Steve Ferguson, a research scientist with the Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said the thinning ice and warming water bring species from the south and the potential for the spread of disease. "There's phocine distemper that in Europe has wiped out a huge number of harbour seals," he said. "There's now evidence some of that disease is in some of the Arctic seals, so there's concern that as things warm more further north, we can see some epidemics.

"Even killer whales, for example, we now know they move into the Arctic, but they come from quite far south, so again, they're in contact with other kinds of whale species in southern areas and they're bringing something potentially up north to the Arctic."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 6, 2010 A3

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