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17 Dec 2010: Arctic ‘Ice Refuge’ Envisioned
As Region Warms Rapidly in 21st Century

As the Arctic rapidly warms in the 21st century and Arctic sea ice largely disappears in summer, a strip of year-round ice is likely to remain to the north of Greenland and the Canadian Arctic archipelago, providing a refuge for some sea-ice dependent wildlife, such as polar bears and ringed seals, according to researchers. A panel of scientists at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco said the remaining band of ice could provide a haven for some iconic Arctic creatures, although the disappearance of the vast majority of summer sea ice, probably by mid-century, will undoubtedly be bad news for polar bears, which use the ice as a feeding platform to hunt ringed seals. The remnant strip of summer sea ice will likely exist because prevailing winds blow sea ice away from the shores of Russia and toward Canada, according to Stephanie Pfirman of Barnard College. She and colleagues from Columbia University, McGill University, and the U.S. government said it is important to protect this ice refuge from the oil drilling and mineral exploration that is likely to spread through other parts of the Arctic as summer sea ice disappears and the Arctic Ocean becomes navigable for part of the year.

The scientists painted a grim picture of how rapidly the Arctic Ocean’s ice is disappearing. Not only is sea ice extent swiftly shrinking in summer, but thicker ice, which is more than five years old, is giving way to thinner ice that is one to two years old. Bruno Tremblay of McGill University in Montreal said that if warming continues at the present rate, sea ice in the Arctic would reach a tipping point and largely disappear from August through October by the 2030s or 2040s.

Brendan Kelly, of the U.S. government’s National Marine Mammal Lab in Alaska, noted that entire ecosystem — from plankton, to seabirds, to larger creatures such as seals — is closely linked with Arctic sea ice. “Knowing where the ice will persist is very important in conserving the organisms that depend on that ice,” he said. Kelly also said that most models predict there will be less snow falling on the Arctic Ocean, making it harder for ringed seals to hide in snow caves that provide them warmth and help them hide from polar bears. He said that the remnant, year-round band of ice would represent the “last stand” for both polar bears and ringed seals by the end of this century.

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