Meltdown in the North; Endangered Earth; Exclusive Online Issues; by Matthew Sturm, Donald K. Perovich and Mark C. Serreze; 7 Page(s)
The list is impressively long: The warmest air temperatures in four centuries, a shrinking sea-ice cover, a record amount of melting on the Greenland Ice Sheet, Alaskan glaciers retreating at unprecedented rates. Add to this the increasing discharge from Russian rivers, an Arctic growing season that has lengthened by several days per decade, and permafrost that has started to thaw. Taken together, these observations announce in a way no single measurement could that the Arctic is undergoing a profound transformation. Its full extent has come to light only in the past decade, after scientists in different disciplines began comparing their findings. Now many of those scientists are collaborating, trying to understand the ramifications of the changes and to predict what lies ahead for the Arctic and the rest of the globe.
What they learn will have planetwide importance because the Arctic exerts an outsize degree of control on the climate. Much as a spillway in a dam controls the level of a reservoir, the polar regions control the earth's heat balance. Because more solar energy is absorbed in the tropics than at the poles, winds and ocean currents constantly transport heat poleward, where the extensive snow and ice cover influences its fate. As long as this highly reflective cover is intact and extensive, sunlight coming directly into the Arctic is mostly reflected back into space, keeping the Arctic cool and a good repository for the heat brought in from lower latitudes. But if the cover begins to melt and shrink, it will reflect less sunlight, and the Arctic will become a poorer repository, eventually warming the climate of the entire planet.