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Don't expect the Arctic to be a frozen waste much longer

The fabled Northwest Passage opened for the first time in centuries this past summer. NASA Entire Alaskan coastal villages are slipping into the sea. The permafrost and the vast ice sheet on Greenland are melting, raising the prospect of a change in global ocean currents. Anchovies, sardines, bluefin tuna and a host of other fish have moved north, following an explosion of plankton growth in newly warm waters and a subsequent rise in the tiny animals that feed on it. And the farmers of Greenland can now grow broccoli. The Arctic is changing fast. "There is nothing that we know of that would prevent the Arctic from going to a new seasonally ice-free state," environmental scientist Peter Schlosser of Columbia University said in the last panel of the State of the Planet conference. "In all seasons, there has been a reduction" in sea ice, said geologist Eystein Jansen of the Bjerknes Center for Climate Research at the University of Bergen in Norway. "The real world is 30 to 50 years ahead of the average" that mathematical climate models had predicted. The reduction in sea ice has changed the lives of the animals and the people of the Arctic. Plankton thrive in newly ice-free waters rich with a fresh influx of nutrients from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, reports oceanographer Ken Drinkwater of the Bjerknes Center. And people's lives are transformed as the fisheries they relied on disappear. But people also have new opportunities, including access to deposits of fossil fuels and other resources previously rendered inaccessible by ice. "Think how you might take advantage of these global changes and effects around the U.S. and the globe," urged engineer Daniel White of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. For example, efforts are underway to turn the Aleutian Islands into a major geothermal power producer, like Iceland. Most importantly, "what happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic," White added. Should ice continue to melt, the effects will not be confined to the polar regions. "The last time it was three to five degrees warmer, which is where we are heading," Jansen noted, "Greenland's ice cap was 30 percent smaller and sea levels were four to six meters higher." And that would affect a few more places of habitation than the Alaskan villages of Shishmaref and Kivalina, including New York City. As Jansen said: "The Arctic is the key to what will happen for the next several hundred years to humanity."

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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