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Arctic sea ice melting faster than expected

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The prospect of more open water in the Arctic Ocean in summer would be a boon to shipping interests, greatly reducing the sailing time between Europe and Asia, for instance. Indeed, the prospect of increased shipping is a key driver for Drobot’s forecasting research. And countries bordering the Arctic Ocean are trying to stake their claim to extended territorial waters under the Law of the Sea Treaty to exploit resources believed to lie beneath the Arctic Ocean floor.

But from a climate standpoint, more open water during summer translates into warmer temperatures, since the dark seawater absorbs sunlight, stores the heat, then slowly releases it. This played a large role in last year’s summer melt-off, explains Don Perovich, a researcher with the US Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, N.H.

He and colleagues published an analysis last week showing that ice in the Beaufort Sea – which stretches from Barrow, Alaska, east to Canada’s islands in the high Arctic – underwent what he terms an extraordinary amount of melting from underneath due to warm water. Some of that water may have flowed into the Beaufort Sea from the Pacific or via the Atlantic, he acknowledges. But buoy measurements locally point to “enough solar heat to easily be responsible for this huge amount of bottom melting and still have heat left over.”

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