For the first time in recorded history, the North Pole may be free of ice this summer, according to a published report Friday.
The unique prospect of sailing in open waters at the North Pole during the minimum ice cover in August and September has about a 50-50 chance of becoming reality, says one climate scientist's prediction holds true.
"The issue is that, for the first time that I am aware of, the North Pole is covered with extensive first-year ice — ice that formed last autumn and winter," Dr. Mark Serreze, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., told The Independent newspaper in London. "I'd say it's even odds whether the North Pole melts out."
One-year ice is highly vulnerable to melting during the summer months, and satellite data over recent weeks has shown the rate of retreat to be faster than last year, when there was an all-time record loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic, according to the report.
"From the viewpoint of science, the North Pole is just another point on the globe, but symbolically it is hugely important. There is supposed to be ice at the North Pole, not open water," said Serreze.
At the end of last summer, the ice, pushed by strong winds blowing off Siberia, retreated to a record level.
The Northwest Passage, the long-sought shipping route through the Arctic, opened up briefly for the first time in history.
Scientists worldwide are trying to figure out why the Arctic is warming and melting faster than computer models predict.
"Last year we saw huge areas of the ocean open up, which has never been experienced before. People are expecting this to continue this year and it is likely to extend over the North Pole. It is quite likely that the North Pole will be exposed this summer — it's not happened before," said Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University, one of the first civilian scientists to sail beneath Arctic sea ice in a British Royal Navy submarine.
The summer of 2007, like the summer of 2005, broke all records for loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean and the Greenland ice sheet.
In September 2007, the Arctic Ocean had 23 percent less sea ice than the previous record low and Greenland's ice sheet melted 19 billion tons more than its previous record.
Ron Lindsay, a polar scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle, agreed that a great deal now depends on weather, wind patterns and hours of sunshine in the Arctic.
"There's a good chance that it will all melt away at the North Pole — it's certainly feasible, but it's not guaranteed," Lindsay said.