In as few as 45 years, the Arctic may lose some of its icy identity. According to a new study, researchers predict the North Pole may be ice-free for several months a year starting in 2054, affecting wildlife, global weather and sea navigation.
Using a computer-simulation tool and measurements surrounding sea ice conditions, American and Chinese researchers estimate that the region will be ice-free starting sometime between the years 2054 and 2058. Scientists said the “ice-free” period would refer to a time that usually takes place in September when ice is prone to melt after the region experiences heat brought on by summer, Phys.org reports.
An ice-free summer in the Arctic threatens polar bears and seals with habitat loss, and it could provoke extreme weather around the world and affect sea navigation.
"If the Arctic is totally ice-free, you don't need to go through a specific route; you can go anywhere," study leader Jiping Liu, an assistant professor in the department of atmospheric and environmental sciences at the University of Albany in New York, told NBC News.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, used two approaches to predict when the Arctic will become ice-free. One method used historical data to predict what will happen in the future. The team used information from the years 1979 to 2011 to accurately reproduce the climate changes during that period. Using that information, the team estimated that ice will drop to about 1.7 million square kilometers (6.5 million square miles) in the next four decades.
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The second approach used a statistical method using data of present and future sea ice conditions. "These two techniques give us similar ice-free timing," Liu said. "That is, under a high-emissions scenario, they reach the ice-free state in 2054 to 2058."
But it won't be the first time for a less-icy Arctic. A previous study showed that the region experienced a period of warmer weather about 3.6 million years ago. Using sediment cores from Lake El'gygytgyn, the oldest and deepest lake in Russia’s Arctic, scientists determined the region experienced summer temperatures of about 14 degrees Fahrenheit.
"There was probably no sea ice, and the whole Arctic was pretty well forested, so it was a very different world," Julie Brigham-Grette, a professor in the department of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told LiveScience.
Brigham-Grette added that the world at that time, known as the Pliocene Epoch, had a proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere similar to levels recorded today. "Some of the changes we see going on now — sea ice melting, tree lines migrating and glaciers with tremendous ablation rate — suggest that we're heading back to the Pliocene," she said.
Some scientists disagree with Liu’s prediction. Mark Serreze, an expert on Arctic sea ice at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., estimates the Arctic will experience ice-free conditions by 2030.
"But I still think you are conservative here," he told NBC News about the recent study’s prediction. "Because what we're seeing here is that the sea ice cover continues to surprise us."