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Why Does the Melting of Arctic Sea Ice Matter?

Due to the clear link to their diminishing habitat, polar bears have become the poster children for the direct impact of this lost Arctic sea ice. But how does this missing ice affect the rest of us? How are our futures connected to the future of the polar bear?

 
By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
December 26, 2016
Episode #177

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Last week marked Arctic Matters Day hosted by the National Academy of Sciences. The free, public program highlighted results from research into the environmental changes happening in the remote region and how those changes will ultimately affect us all.

Last month, at a meeting of over 20,000 scientists from the American Geophysical Union, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued an Arctic report card for 2015. Its marks were not good. The maximum extent of arctic sea ice occurred two weeks earlier than in previous years and was the lowest on record. The sea ice that is present also turns out to be younger and thinner, with twice as much “first year” ice than was observed thirty years ago. The report further notes the profound effects of this waning sea ice on the local habitat, including fish, walruses, and average sea temperatures.

NASA has released a video showing the difference between the current ice cover and the extent of the ice in years past. The largest difference is just north of Japan where the ice falls roughly 350 miles short of its past extent.

Due to the clear link to their diminishing habitat, polar bears have become the poster children for the direct impact of this lost Arctic sea ice. But how does this missing ice affect the rest of us? How are our futures connected to the future of the polar bear?

Here are six ways the impact of melting Arctic sea ice is already being felt in the Arctic and beyond.

1.) Travel in the Arctic is getting riskier.

Temperatures in the Arctic are warming twice as fast as global averages, and native Arctic communities are clearly experiencing the most immediate impact from the loss of ice. Many hunters in the region that rely on snow mobiles for transport across the ice cite increasingly unpredictable weather patterns and unexpectedly thin ice as new dangers in traditional hunting schedules.

2.) The politics of the Arctic are changing.

At the same time, as Arctic sea ice melts, more and more of the Arctic becomes passable to ships. Already the potential of these new passages are being explored for mining for rare minerals used in electronics, as well as for oil drilling and tourism. These ventures lead to the possibility of destructive spills and further habitat disruption, but they also add greater political influence to the voices of the indigenous Arctic people.

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