Melting was so severe on the Greenland ice sheet this summer that some of the scientists there weren?t sure they would be able to get off. "We had come in with a fixed-wing aircraft landing on skis," says Konrad Steffen "If that snow is melting then you cannot leave. As it was, we had to charter a helicopter."
This was a record-breaking year for northern polar ice loss, with surface melt on Greenland the highest in recorded history. The amount of Arctic sea ice also reached a record low. Compared with the northern expansion of vegetation, all this presents a "compelling case that something is going on," says Larry Hinzman, of the University of Alaska.
The loss of Arctic sea ice is "big news," says Hinzman. "Polar sea ice has an important function in moderating the global energy balance." Sea ice has albedo of 0.8, meaning it reflects 80% of the solar radiation. When the sea ice melts you have water, which has an albedo of 0.2. "The sea ice goes from absorbing 20% of solar radiation to absorbing 80%," says Hinzman. This creates further warming. "We're experiencing the most rapid increase in temperature in recorded history,? he says.
All over Alaska, people are asking, "Where's our winter?" It?s been raining in Anchorage long after the first major snowfall should have stuck. The city registered its warmest combined October and November since the National Weather Service began keeping records in 1915. On December 1st, people were water-skiing on a lake north of Anchorage. Buds are forming on trees. Rivers are barely icing over, stranding villagers who use the frozen waterways as roads. "It's crazy," says postmaster Joe Delia, whose property overlooks the still-unfrozen Skwentna River, which can now only be reached by a small airplane. "I believe in global warming now."
In Fairbanks, the rain turns roads into sheets of ice when temperatures finally drop below freezing. "I've been an avid snowmobiler since 1983 and I've never seen a winter like this," says Dan Simmons.
The unusually warm Arctic coast affects Inuit seal hunters who locate their prey by the breathing holes the animals make in the ice. Most winters the ice would already by several feet thick and temperatures would be 20 to 30 degrees below zero, but right now there?s open water and little ice.
Whaling captain George Ahmaogak says, "I wish this warm spell would quit. The earth must be tilting on its axis to affect the weather like this."
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