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North pole ice cap now an island

For the first time in recorded human history, the Arctic is completely surrounded by open water, new satellite images reveal.

By Blogger for The Christian Science Monitor / September 3, 2008

A polar bear is seen in the water during an aerial survey off the Alaska coast in this photo taken Aug. 15, 2008. Arctic sea ice shrank to its second-lowest level ever, US scientists said.

REUTERS/Geoff York/World Wildlife Fund

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For the first time in recorded human history, the Arctic is completely surrounded by open water, new satellite images reveal.

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Using images from NASA, scientists at the University of Bremen in Germany have concluded that both the Northwest Passage over Canada and the Northeast Passage over Russia are now free of ice, making it possible to sail around the North Pole.

Still, Arctic sea ice is not at the lowest level on record: According to the US National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, that occurred on Sept. 21, 2005. But scientists say that the rate of disappearance – 10 percent in the last decade – is far surpassing their predictions. As my colleague Pete Spotts noted in this blog last week, scientists believe that the Arctic could be ice-free decades earlier than their initial predictions.

"No matter where we stand at the end of the melt season," NSIDC scientist Mark Serreze told Reuters reporter Deborah Zabarenko last week, "it's just reinforcing this notion that Arctic ice is in its death spiral."

Reuters notes that the melting of Arctic ice reduces what is known as the albedo effect – the ability of lighter colored surfaces to better reflect heat back into space:

Summer ice melt in the Arctic is seen as a strong indicator of climate change, and feeds on itself in what scientists call a positive feedback loop where warming exposes dark sea water, which absorbs more solar radiation than the white ice.

The simultaneous opening of the Northeast and Northwest passages could present a boon for shipping companies who would otherwise have to sail through the Suez or Panama canals. The German magazine Der Spiegel (translated into English on Spiegel Online), reports that the Beluga Group, a Bremen-based shipping company, wants to use the Northeast Passage to sail from Hamburg to Yokohama, Japan, cutting the journey down to 7,400 nautical miles from the 11,500 miles it would normally take.

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