OTTAWA - The Arctic is warming up so quickly that the region's sea ice cover in summer could vanish as early as 2013, decades earlier than some had predicted, a leading polar expert said on Thursday.
Warwick Vincent, director of the Center for Northern Studies at Laval University in Quebec, said recent data on the ice cover "appear to be tracking the most pessimistic of the models", which call for an ice free summer in 2013.
The year "2013 is starting to look as though it is a lot more reasonable as a prediction. But each year we've been wrong -- each year we're finding that it's a little bit faster than expected," he told Reuters.
The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world and the sea ice cover shrank to a record low in 2007 before growing slightly in 2008.
In 2004 a major international panel forecast the cover could vanish by 2100. Last December, some experts said the summer ice could go in the next 10 or 20 years.
If the ice cover disappears, it could have major consequences. Shipping companies are already musing about short cuts through the Arctic, which also contains enormous reserves of oil and natural gas.
Vincent's scientific team has spent the last 10 summers on Ward Hunt Island, a remote spot some 2,500 miles northwest of Ottawa.
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"I was astounded as to how fast the changes are taking place. The extent of open water is something that we haven't experienced in the 10 years that I've been working up there," he said after making a presentation in the Canadian Parliament.
"We're losing, irreversibly, major features of the Canadian ice scape and that suggests that these more pessimistic models are really much closer to reality."
In 2008 the maximum summer temperature on Ward Hunt hit 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to the usual 5 degrees. Last summer alone the five ice shelves along Ellesmere Island in Canada's Far North, which are more than 4,000 years old, shrunk by 23 percent.
Vincent told Reuters last September that it was clear some of the damage would be permanent and that the warming in the Arctic was a sign of what the rest of the world could expect. He struck a similarly gloomy note in his presentation.
"Some of this is unstoppable. We're in a train of events at the moment where there are changes taking place that we are unable to reverse, the loss of these ice shelves, for example," he said.
"But what we can do is slow down this process and we have to slow down this process because we need to buy more time. We simply don't have the technologies as a civilization to deal with this level of instability that is ahead of us."
(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Frank McGurty)