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The Arctic Will Be Ice-Free in Summer within 20 Years, Research Says

Ben Webster

A map of the Arctic showing the shrinking of the summer sea ice since 1979. International piracy and the challenges of new Arctic Ocean corridors opening up as a result of global warming topped the agenda Wednesday at a gathering of world maritime powers. (AFP/Graphic)

Ships will be able to sail in open water to the North Pole in the summer of
2020, according to a study that found a rapid acceleration in the loss of
sea ice.

The Arctic will be ice-free in summer within 20 years, the study found, while
the Earth will lose the white cap that can be seen in photographs taken from

The Polar Ocean
Physics Group
from Cambridge University compared measurements of ice
thickness recorded by a Royal Navy nuclear submarine with those taken two
years later in the same area by Pen Hadow, the explorer.

The two sets of measurements were consistent, revealing that the findings by HMS
in 2007 were not an aberration caused by a particularly warm

Peter Wadhams, Professor of Ocean Physics at Cambridge, said that cargo ships
would no longer need to rely on special ice-breaking vessels to cross from
the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Northwest Passage. The route would be
ice-free for several months every year, cutting more than 3,000 miles from
the normal journey from the Far East to Europe via the Suez canal.

"The North Pole will be exposed in ten years. You would be able to sail a
Japanese car carrier across the North Pole and out into the Atlantic,"
Professor Wadhams said.

"The ice will retreat to a zone north of Greenland and Ellesmere Island by
2020 and that area will be less than half the present summer area. The
change in the Arctic summer sea ice is the biggest impact global warming is
having on the physical appearance of the planet."

This month, the National Snow and
Ice Data Centre
, which is part of the University of Colorado, said that
Arctic ice coverage was the third-lowest since satellite records began in

The coverage was greater than in 2007 and 2008 largely because of cloudy skies
during late summer. Each of the past five years has been one of the five
lowest years.

Professor Wadhams, who was on board the submarine supervising sonar
measurements of the ice, said that Mr Hadow's findings confirmed that the
underlying trend was towards increasingly thin and patchy ice cover.


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Mr Hadow and his two team members spent 73 days between March 1 and May 7 this
year walking 280 miles (450.6km) across the Arctic while taking measurements.

They drilled 1,500 holes and found that the average thickness of ice floes was
1.8m (5.9ft).

This was too thin to have survived the previous year's summer melting and
indicated that the area of moving ice had been formed in open sea during the

Mr Hadow said that future expeditions to the Arctic in summer would need to
change their techniques and equipment to cope with more frequent stretches
of open water.

"A hundred years ago explorers used dogs to haul sledges and then we went
through the stage of people hauling sledges," he said. "Now we have people
wearing immersion suits and needing to swim, with the sledge floating. I
foresee a time when the sledge will become more of a canoe."

Mr Hadow said that he had decided to change the focus of his polar expeditions
from exploration to collecting data that could help to predict changes in
the climate.

Martin Summerkorn, climate change adviser to the WWF
Arctic Programme
, said that the loss of sea ice predicted by the
Cambridge study would have profound consequences beyond the polar region.

Without ice to reflect sunlight, the Arctic Ocean would warm more quickly,
resulting in the release of greenhouse gases stored in the Arctic permafrost
soils. These soils contain twice as much carbon as is in the atmosphere.

Mr Summerkorn said that the warming of the Arctic surface waters would
accelerate the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, speeding up the sea level
rise. "This could lead to flooding affecting one quarter of the world's
population and extreme global weather changes," he said.

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