Ottawa, Oct 6 : Climate scientists have said that the melting of the Arctic ice this year has been 'fascinating' and 'alarming'.
According to a report in the Vancouver Sun, so much ice had melted by the end of August 2008 that it was possible for the first time in human history to circumnavigate the North Pole, prompting one prominent U.S. scientist to say that the ice cap has entered a "death spiral."
Though at one point, it looked like 2008 might shatter last year's retreat of ice, in the end, the ice cap survived for at least another year.
The U.S. National Ice and Snow Data Center is expected to issue its wrap-up report, which will confirm 2008's Arctic retreat as the second worst on record after 2007's stunning loss.
But, the ice that survived is in precarious shape heading into the winter.
Most of it is first-year ice less than a metre thick, according to Walt Meier, a research scientist at the U.S.-based centre, which tracks the ice by satellite as it waxes and wanes through the year.
Thick, multi-year ice used to cover much of the Arctic Ocean year-round. All that is left of that cement-like ice is now jammed up in a strip against Canada's Arctic islands and northern Greenland.
The rest of the old, hard ice either melted this summer or was flushed down into the Atlantic Ocean, where it disintegrated.
"We're left with much less multi-year ice compared to the same time last year," said Meier.So even though there is more ice total, most of it is the first-year variety that is pretty thin," he added.
In many ways, 2008 was "as remarkable or even more remarkable" than 2007, Meier said, because the ice did not bounce back despite summer conditions that were much cooler than the 2007 Arctic heat wave.
Now that the 2008 numbers are in, researchers are revising their estimates on how much longer the Arctic summer ice can survive.
According to Louis Fortier, scientific director of the Arcticnet, which funds and co-ordinates much of Canada's polar research, it is a bit of game and "exciting" for scientists to see their predictions about climate change coming true much faster than expected.
However, "what is so fascinating from a scientific point of view is also very alarming," he said.
"The Arctic is a bellwether for change that is coming globally and is coming much faster than any of the models suggested it should," said David Barber, an ice specialist at the University of Manitoba in Canada.