Dr. Stephanie Pfirman, Columbia University – An Iceless Arctic

Dec 13, 2012

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Stephanie Pfirman of Columbia University explains the importance of the geographic area destined to be the last refuge for year-round Arctic sea ice.

Credit Bruce Gilbert

Stephanie Pfirman is an adjunct senior scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and also a faculty member of the Earth Institute at Columbia.  She also co-chairs the Department of Environmental Science at Barnard College.  Her research is focused on understanding the role of sea ice in the redistribution of sediments and pollutants in the Arctic. She holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

About Dr. Pfirman

More on the sea ice refuge

Dr. Stephanie Pfirman – An Iceless Arctic

Climate models project that much of the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in summer by 2040.  That is bad news for animals like polar bears and ringed seals, which need year-round ice to survive. But some 200,000 square miles may persist through the end of this century, along the northern coasts of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and Greenland. That’s where today we find the oldest and thickest ice; like a snow bank, thicker ice takes longer to melt.

The thick ice makes this region special, and worth managing for future generations.  My colleagues and I—biologists as well as physical scientists--have been studying this region in hopes of learning how to manage it.

Management will be needed even in this remote area, because the melting of Arctic sea ice is raising interest in Arctic oil, shipping and fisheries. For example, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that a fifth of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil and natural gas resources are north of the Arctic Circle. A transpolar shipping route could cut transport times by half, in comparison to traveling through the Panama or Suez canals.

While not all of these developments will occur in the last ice area, they could still affect the quality of its habitat.  That’s because much of the sea ice that builds up there actually is blown across the Arctic Ocean by the wind. If we are able to figure out a way to manage the last remaining Arctic summer sea ice -- through both national and international efforts -- we may be able to maintain viable habitat for at least some far northern species for decades into the future.