Figures That Make Your Flesh Creep…

Published on 16.06.2007 - The Arctic Arc

After these 106 days in the field, we wanted to give the floor to the researchers and to the specialists. Whence our meeting with Thierry Fichefet, Professor Of Climatology at the UCL (University of Louvain-la-Neuve) in order to ask him about the state of scientific knowledge on the melt of the Arctic pack ice. The figures that he gave make your flesh creep.

"You should know first of all", explained Thierry Fichefet, "that in the Arctic, the warming observed in recent years is twice as great as anywhere else on earth. In parallel, we have observed a very important reduction in the extent of the Arctic pack ice. These observations have been provided from microwave sensors aboard various satellites.

In the Last Thirty years, the sea ice in the Arcitc has decreased by approximately 2.7% per decade

"They tell us that on an annual average, the extent of the sea ice in the Arctic has decreased, in the course of the last thirty years, by approximately 2.7% per decade. We have also been able to observe that this reduction was far greater during the summer months than during the winter ones. In summer, we observed a reduction in the summer extent of the Arctic sea ices of almost 7.5% per decade. That's what the satellite observations show us with regard to the extent of the Arctic sea ice."

Let's move on now to the thickness of the pack ice. "There, we have less information", continued Thierry Fichefet, "because the only reliable measurements currently taken are those which are carried out by the sonars aboard the naval submarines that travel beneath the pack ice. No matter: these sonars indicate an average reduction of the thickness of the sea ice - at the centre of the Arctic basin - of almost one metre between 1987 and 1997. At that particular place, the average normal thickness of the ice varies from between 3 and 4 metres. The observed reduction is therefore 25%, which is enormous, considering the timescale (ten years)."

The Arctic Sea Ice Could Disappear During the Summer Months, After Some 50 years

Here's another pretty alarming piece of data: "In addition", continued Thierry Fichefet, "the mathematical climatic models show that, if one continues to emit CO2 into the atmosphere at the current rate, the Arctic sea ice would completely disappear during the summer months, after some 50 to 60 years". The majority of the mathematical climatic models agree on that, and the model that the UCL (Catholic University of Louvain-la-Neuve) possesses, called "Loveclim", is one of the rare mathematical models in the world that is capable of studying the sea ice. It has been developed at the UCL in collaboration with Philippe Huybrechts of the VUB (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) and Anne Mouchet of the ULG (University of Liège) in the context of a project financed by the Federal Scientific Policy of Belgium.

But Thierry Fichefet has not finished with the scientific observations accessible to all and sundry. In parallel with the melt of the Arctic ice, things are happening at the level of Greenland's icecap. "There again, it's the satellites that come to our aid", Fichefet pointed out. "Their observations indicate that the extent of the summer melt of the coastal areas of Greenland has increased by almost 30% during the last thirty years. We have in addition been able to observe a reduction of the thickness, a withdrawal as well as that an acceleration of major the part of the glaciers that we call "emissaries", i.e. those that transport the ice from the centre of Greenland to its coasts."

"On the other hand, we've also noticed a slight increase in the thickness of the icecap in the centre of Greenland (snowfalls being more abundant than previously). But this increased thickness is in no case compensated by the increase in the melt that occurs each summer in the coastal areas. Therefore, if we talk about the net assessment of the Greenlandic icecap, we can say that it is negative, which means in other words that at the present time, this icecap is losing volume."

The Professor then explained to us that, thanks to simulations that his team had made with Loveclim, if one quadruples the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere -which is perfectly plausible - and if one maintains this concentration constant in time, in that particular case, the Greenlandic icecap (which is between 2 and 3 km thick) would disappear in less than 3,000 years.

What is Causing the Dramatic Melting of the Arctic Aea Ice?

So that's what we can currently say in terms of the figures of the melt of the Arctic ice. So what now is causing it? Zoom in on global warming, naturally. "For my part, I subscribe to the position of the IGECC (Intergovernmental Group of Experts on Climate Change) of which I'm part", explained Thierry Fichefet. "At the present time, we're virtually certain (Editor's note: researchers and other scientists can never be 100% sure because of the inevitable uncertainties of science) that the global warming observed during last decades is mainly due to human activities and the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. A whole work of evaluation has been carried out by this group of experts. And the group is categorical on the subject."

In parallel with these observations concerning the Arctic regions, other observations coming from other corners of the world are coming to make things even blacker: the mountain glaciers are receding little by little, the snow-covered winter field is being reduced just about everywhere in the world, the lakes and the rivers freeze more tardily and the permafrost, it as well, is starting to melt...

And if Alain Hubert has made so great an effort over these last 106 days together with Dansercoer, if he has created the International Polar Foundation, if he works so hard for the renewal of Belgium in Antarctica, it was also to put the question to us all: "So when are we going to wake up?"

Website of the Day

One of the best website to visit if you are searching for solid information concerning the Arctic regions is without any doubt the website of the National Snow and Ice Data Cente . The National Snow and Ice Data Center, or NSIDC, is a United States information and referral center in support of polar and cryospheric research. NSIDC archives and distributes digital and analog snow and ice data and also maintains information about snow cover, avalanches, glaciers, ice sheets, freshwater ice, sea ice, ground ice, permafrost, atmospheric ice, paleoglaciology, and ice cores.

NSIDC is part of the University of Colorado Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), and is affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Geophysical Data Center through a cooperative agreement.

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