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Last ice refuge of the Arctic may soon be gone

The region north of Greenland and the islands of the Canadian Arctic archipelago has been termed the “Last Ice Area.” This region is potentially a last refuge for ice-dependent species in a world melting at an accelerated pace. 

A new study from the University of Washington shows that this area may also be vulnerable to the threat of climate change. The research was focused on an area north of Greenland known as the Wandel Sea during the month of August.

“Current thinking is that this area may be the last refuge for ice-dependent species. So if, as our study shows, it may be more vulnerable to climate change than people have been assuming, that’s important,” explained lead researcher Axel Schweiger of the UW Applied Physics Laboratory.

The ice and how much of it melts, is important for charismatic wildlife like polar bears, walruses and seals. Until recently, the Wandel Sea was covered with thick sea ice year-round, providing a summertime refuge. As nearly everywhere else, the ice in this area has been gradually melting away. 

In August of 2020, summer sea ice in the Wandel Sea reached a record level of thinness at 50% concentration. 

The researchers used a computer model and satellite images to look at the cause of this alarming level of sea ice loss. It was determined that it was partially caused by unusual winds but it was also part of an ongoing trend of multiple years of ice accumulation melting due to climate change. 

“During the winter and spring of 2020 you had patches of older, thicker ice that had drifted into there, but there was enough thinner, newer ice that melted to expose open ocean,” said Schweiger. 

“That began a cycle of absorbing heat energy to melt more ice, in spite of the fact that there was some thick ice. So in years where you replenish the ice cover in this region with older and thicker ice, that doesn’t seem to help as much as you might expect.”

The study raises serious questions about the viability of the Last Ice Area but the scientists caution, the observations made here may not apply to the whole region. There are still a lot of questions left unanswered, possibly the most concerning is how melting in this area will impact the rare wildlife of the Arctic.     

“We know very little about marine mammals in the Last Ice Area,” said co-author Kristin Laidre. “We have almost no historical or present-day data, and the reality is that there are a lot more questions than answers about the future of these populations.”

The study is published in the July 1 issue of Communications Earth & Environment.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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