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Melting ice leaves polar bears without homes, UW says

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After a summer of record melting, UW scientists say that Arctic sea ice is in short supply. Though the ice, habitat for polar bears, has been in retreat for more than a decade, researchers say no one predicted this year's dramatic changes.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center reported Oct. 1 that sea ice in the Arctic had dwindled to an all-time low of 1.65 million square miles, or 4.28 million square kilometers. This figure broke the previous record, set in 2005, by 23 percent.

As news of the record minimum spread, many sought to understand the impetus for the changes, including New York Times science reporter Andrew Revkin. For him, gaining insight meant enlisting the minds of UW researchers.

"Andy started a little email thread," said James Morison, an oceanographer at the UW's Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), at the atmospheric sciences department colloquium convened last week to discuss the issue. "Eventually it grew to incorporate 20 or 30 scientists, many of whom are right here at Washington."

Morison, who directs the North Pole Environmental Observatory, explained that the Arctic is not as static as the public might assume. He said Arctic sea ice is much more than an ice cube that melts in the summer and grows in the winter.

"Think of the Arctic as an ice factory," Morison said. "On top of the seasonal growth and decay there is a constant export of ice by winds and currents. If exports double, inventory goes down."

Ignatius Rigor, another research scientist at APL, also ascribes the changes to a more complex set of dynamics. He added detail to Morison's statement, explaining how winds have tended to push ice out of the Arctic into the North Atlantic much faster than previously observed.

"This year a number of factors converged to produce a result that is astounding," Rigor said. "Intuitively, we expected a record minimum, but not to break it by this much."

Harry Stern, a mathematician at the Polar Science Center, part of APL, noted that while much work has been done observing, modeling and theorizing about sea ice, scientists cannot conclusively say what the future holds for the Arctic.

"We have a good idea of why this year's changes occurred, but hypothesizing how the ice will change in the future is harder to determine," Stern said. "Some have asked how soon we can expect ice-free summers in the Arctic. Continued efforts by researchers are vital to providing answers to those sorts of questions."

Stern, Morison and Rigor all emphasized the strong aptitude for ice studies among departments and centers at the UW.

"For an ice scientist, it's a good place to be," Rigor noted.

Cecilia Bitz, a professor of atmospheric sciences and sea ice modeler, said that the UW is unique not solely because of its ice research prowess, but also due to its wide breadth of scholarship.

"It's rare to find such a variety of complementary expertise in areas encompassing the entire Earth system," Bitz said. "Having those other perspectives so close is invaluable."

[Reach reporter Brian Smoliak at news@thedaily.washington.edu.]

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