Arctic sea ice is melting at a significantly faster rate than projected by even the most advanced computer models, a new study concludes. The research, by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), shows that the Arctic's ice cover is retreating more rapidly than estimated by any of the 18 computer models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in preparing its 2007 assessments.
The study, "Arctic Sea Ice Decline: Faster Than Forecast?" will appear tomorrow in the online edition of Geophysical Research Letters. It was led by Julienne Stroeve of the NSIDC and funded by the National Science Foundation, which is NCAR's principal sponsor, and by NASA.
"While the ice is disappearing faster than the computer models indicate, both observations and the models point in the same direction: the Arctic is losing ice at an increasingly rapid pace and the impact of greenhouse gases is growing," says NCAR scientist Marika Holland, one of the study’s co-authors.
The authors compared model simulations of past climate with observations by satellites and other instruments. They found that, on average, the models simulated a loss in September ice cover of 2.5 percent per decade from 1953 to 2006. The fastest rate of September retreat in any individual model was 5.4 percent per decade. (September marks the yearly minimum of sea ice in the Arctic.) But newly available data sets, blending early aircraft and ship reports with more recent satellite measurements that are considered more reliable than the earlier records, show that the September ice actually declined at a rate of about 7.8 percent per decade during the 1953-2006 period.
"This suggests that current model projections may in fact provide a conservative estimate of future Arctic change, and that the summer Arctic sea ice may disappear considerably earlier than IPCC projections," says Stroeve.
Things might be worse than people expect. The locals have been saying that for a while. We'll see how it goes.