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WMO: Rapidly Melting Arctic Sea Ice Signals Accelerated Global Warming

This image provided by the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., shows Arctic sea ice, which this summer shrank to its second-lowest level since scientists started to monitor it by satellite. The Colorado center said the sea ice shrank to its summer low point on Sept. 10, 2016, extending 1.6 million square miles.

The World Meteorological Organization warned recently that Arctic sea ice was melting faster than expected, indicating dramatic changes in the climate system. The agency called for establishment of an Arctic observatory to help cope with the potentially dangerous changes.

The WMO considers changes in the Arctic akin to a "canary in a coal mine" in terms of signaling an impending disaster. The agency noted that global temperatures were continuing to rise as a result of climate change, with 2016 predicted to be the hottest year since record-keeping began 150 years ago.

What's more, WMO said, the Arctic is warming at least twice as fast as the world average. It said Arctic sea ice now covers 40 percent less area at the peak of the summer melt season than it did in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It said the maximum Arctic sea ice extent in March was the lowest on record.

Effects on trees, animals

WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas told VOA the dramatic changes in the climate were having a serious impact on ecosystems. For instance, he said, the tree line in mountain areas is receding upward.

"There are also some species of animals who have difficulties in coping with these changes" Taalas said. "Polar bears have been indicated quite many times. We have also these Arctic phoques [Arctic seals], for example, and some birds who have difficulties in coping with those changes ... and it will have an impact on fisheries."

Taalas said the thawing of the frozen permafrost in Arctic regions could release vast quantities of greenhouse gases, which would accelerate global warming.

At the same time, he said, the melting of the Arctic sea ice is opening up new transportation, tourism and exploration possibilities. He said it would cut shipping journeys between Europe and East Asia.

But he noted the opening of the Arctic would increase the risk of accidents in hazardous waters and oil spills, which will be much harder to clean up than elsewhere. He said it was important to enhance the Arctic weather and marine service to counter the dangers.

Taalas urged the establishment of an Arctic observatory to monitor, predict and cope with climate change. He said this would ensure the safety of Arctic marine transportation.