Arctic ice might expand in coming decades

Arctic sea ice is melting at a fast and steady rate. Or is it?  Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) have discovered that the polar ice might temporarily expand for as a long as a decade before succumbing to longer term melting trends.

In a study published this week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the scientists explain this surprising conclusion. Using computer simulations, they found that the amount of sea ice loss over the 20th century could not be attributed to climate change alone. About half of it was the result of natural forces acting on the climate.

Photo: Jomilo75 on Flickr

The findings demonstrate that climate change offers an only partial picture to the iciness of Arctic seas. Wind patterns, for example, could have a cooling affect. And sometimes these natural forces outstrip the warming effects of climate change for as long as a decade.

Ice expansion is as likely to occur as ice loss in any given decade. But the scientists emphasize that the long term outlook is clear.

“When you start looking at longer-term trends, 50 or 60 years, there’s no escaping the loss of ice in the summer,” said NCAR scientist Jennifer Kay, the lead researcher in a press release.

Like weather extremes, the expansion and loss of ice is also become more variable. The computer studies show that decade-to-decade trends will fluctuate wildly. Some studies have indicated that the Arctic summers could be largely ice free within the next couple decades. And, in fact, summer ice sank to a record low in 2007 and is again dipping this year.

But that may not be true if natural forces take a turn towards the nippier.