The North Pole could be free of sea ice next summer or the one after, according to a leading climate scientist, who predicts that the impact of Arctic melting on the planet and its population will be profound.
Cambridge University Professor Peter Wadhams, who is head of the Polar Oceans Physics Group, believes that ships will be able to sail over the North Pole in summer 2017 or 2018.
“You will be able to cross over the North Pole by ship,” he told the Guardian. “There will still be about a million square kilometres of ice in the Arctic in summer but it will be packed into various nooks and crannies along the Northwest Passage and along bits of the Canadian coastline."
An ice-free central basin of the Arctic will accelerate the pace of global warming, Wadham says. Sea ice reflects more of the sun’s energy back into space than water – about 50% of solar radiation, compared with less than 10%.
“If you replace ice with water, which is darker, much more solar heat will be absorbed by the ocean and the planet will heat up even more rapidly than it is doing at present,” the professor explained.
“Sea ice also acts as an air-conditioning system. Winds coming over the sea to land masses such as Siberia and Greenland will no longer be cooled as they pass over ice, and these places will be heated even further.”
The result? Around a 50% increase in the impact of global warming resulting from rising carbon emissions, with the effects felt by the entire planet and its population.
Rising sea levels
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that sea levels will rise by 60 to 90cm this century. Professor Wadhams thinks a rise of 100 to 200cm is a more likely scenario and “probably the best we can hope for”.
"That may not sound a lot, but it is really very serious. It will increase enormously the frequency of storm surges all over the world. We may be able to raise the Thames barrier in Britain but in Bangladesh, it just means more and more people will be drowned."
Data from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center reveals the extent of shrinking Arctic sea ice – in June 2016 there was 260,000 sq km less than in June 2010, when the previous record low was set.
The long-term average is even more striking, with around 1.3 million sq km of sea ice lost in the period between 1981-2010, according to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center.
Sea ice usually reaches its lowest point in September and starts to freeze again as winter sets in.
NASA's Operation IceBridge survey flew its first ever science flights low over Arctic sea ice recently to study how the blue melt ponds on the surface might affect overall melting rates.
The rise of methane
Global warming is also associated with greenhouse gas methane. Recently scientists have detected more methane – which is frozen on the seabed in permafrost – bubbling up.
“The reason this is happening is closely connected with the warming of the planet and the shrinking of the Arctic icecaps,” Professor Wadhams explained.
He believes humanity will have to find a way to slow global warming by removing carbon from the atmosphere.
“We are going to have to rely on a technology that has not yet been developed," he told the Guardian.
“That is a measure of the troubles that lie ahead for us. I think humanity can do it, but I would feel much better if I saw governments investing in such technology.”