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Ice in the Arctic is melting even faster than scientists expected, study finds

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Arctic ice is melting even more rapidly than scientists previously believed. A study from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute finds parts of the Arctic are warming up to seven times faster than temperatures across the planet. That has implications for the global climate and for scientists, including Melinda Webster of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She ventures into the Arctic on an icebreaker to examine ice melt as it's happening.

MELINDA WEBSTER: There's nothing quite like walking on sea ice. It's this floating platform in the middle of the ocean. You're like, whoa, this is pretty surreal. It's really quite interesting.

INSKEEP: Can you feel it moving beneath your feet?

WEBSTER: (Laughter) Hopefully not. If you do feel that, that's usually a bad sign that something is about to break up. Usually it's pretty stable. But it does move. It can go up to, you know, several miles a day in motion.

INSKEEP: And you must be out there sometimes in a place where you see nothing but the icebreaker and just white.

WEBSTER: Oh, absolutely. And it's not that dreary. It's actually a stunning environment. It's so beautiful, all the shades of blue and gray. It's really quite dramatic.

INSKEEP: Is that what draws you to it?

WEBSTER: That's part of the reason that draws me to it. It's such a remote and stunning environment. It seems like another planet. It's hard to really put words to it. But it's so beautiful and so stark.

INSKEEP: How long you been doing this?

WEBSTER: I began researching sea ice as a student in 2009, so quite a while now.

INSKEEP: Is that enough time for the ice to have changed or the patterns to have changed?

WEBSTER: The ice has absolutely changed in that time. It's been changing profoundly over the years, over the decades. I mean, the loss in ice over the past three decades is just stark. It's really eye-opening.

INSKEEP: So when you see this study which finds that Arctic temperatures have gone up even more than people realized, did that surprise you?

WEBSTER: It does, yeah. And, you know, there's a lot to unpack in that study, like the feedbacks of that. So sea ice strongly affects the atmosphere, and the atmosphere strongly affects the sea ice. And there's also the ocean included in that, being affected and affecting those two components. So there's a lot of interconnectedness in climate. And to see that study means, wow, you know, things are changing faster than we expected. And we've also seen that with sea ice change and what the models project. It's melting much faster than we anticipated based on the climate model projections.

INSKEEP: What are the global effects of having no sea ice if we got to that point?

WEBSTER: So sea ice is kind of like the air conditioning unit for our planet. It really helps regulate our climate and keep things cool. And without that, we're going to have warming become enhanced. It's going to warm faster and faster because what sea ice does is really a service to us. It reflects the majority of sunlight back into space during summer. It acts like a thermal blanket in winter, trapping the heat in the ocean and keeping the atmosphere cool. And without those two big things that it does, it's going to make our climate warmer. As a whole, in general, the climate models all agree that the Arctic will become ice-free by 2050. So that's, you know, 30 years. And there is a large uncertainty with that, but the fact that all of them tend to agree is really eye-opening. You know, that's within our lifetime.

INSKEEP: Melinda Webster, thanks so much. It's been a pleasure talking with you.

WEBSTER: You're most welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.