Snow thinning in the Arctic could be threatening the ecosystem of regions around the North Pole, according to a new study. Snow depths in the Arctic have been measured and tracked for over a century, using a wide variety of measurement methods.
Ice depth studies of the North Pole were conducted by the Soviet Union between the 1950's and early 1990's, partly to plan routes for nuclear submarines during the Cold War. This early taken was measured with old-fashioned meter sticks, and recorded in paper logs.
Researchers combined this data with more modern measurements taken from NASA aircraft and automated ice buoys. These records, recorded over the course of decades, provided researchers with a detailed look at the Arctic climate for a significant period of time.
"When you stab it into the ground, the basket move up, and it records the distance between the magnet and the end of the probe. You can take a lot of measurements very quickly. It's a pretty big difference from the Soviet field stations," Melinda Webster, a graduate student in oceanography at the University of Washington (UW) said.
Ice depth levels are taken in modern times using an automated pole, similar to those used while skiing.
Arctic ice has thinned from 14 to nine inches in western regions, and from 13 to six inches in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, to the north and west of Alaska. This loss of sea ice represents a decrease of nearly 50 percent over the middle of the 20th century.
"Knowing exactly the error between the airborne and the ground measurements, we're able to say with confidence, Yes, the snow is decreasing in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas," Ignatius Rigor, oceanographer at the Applied Physics Laboratory at UW, said.
Freezing in the Arctic seas usually takes place each September and October, during the period when the heaviest snowfalls of the year take place. Global warming is causing this freezing to occur later in the year, causing this frozen precipitation to fall into the open sea.
While thinner ice may melt sooner than normal in spring; the cold air that is normally blanketed from the open water could form thick blankets of ice in winter.
Microscopic plants, living deep in the low-light condition of Arctic ice and providing the basis of the Arctic food change, could be greatly affected by thinning ice. Animals that burrow in frozen dens could also be impacted by melting.
Studies of thinning Arctic ice levels and how they could be affecting the ecosystem of the world's northernmost region was detailed in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, published by the American Geophysical Union.