In response to growing pressure to understand the implications of shrinking Arctic ice, the National Research Council in Washington DC pre-released a report today, November 2, 2012, entitled “Seasonal-to-Decadal Predictions of Arctic Sea Ice: Challenges and Strategies.”

Arctic ice has been shrinking for decades. The National Research Council’s report indicates that “the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice has recently undergone extraordinary decline that can be linked to climate changes. The last six summers (2007-2012) have experienced the six lowest sea ice extent minima over three decades of satellite record….” Perhaps more concerning, however, is a change in composition in the ice, which is now comprised of a higher percentage of thin, seasonal or first year ice.

The report acknowledges that the changes observed in Arctic sea ice over the past few decades drives a need for advancement in the ability to forecast changes in sea ice. Changes in the environment of the region, of course, are affecting the flora (increased vegetation as temperatures rise) and fauna (some sea-ice dependent animals losing habitat).Widespread ecological changes are resulting from the Arctic region’s influence on planetary heat and interaction with oceanic and atmospheric circulation systems.

The impacts also reach to the scientific, technological and societal issues related to the possibility of new shipping ports, oil and gas exploration and increased marine transportation. These impacts increase the importance of the region from a strategic and economic perspective.

The broad range of impacts and concerns creates a challenge for focusing research efforts. While projections of Arctic ice extent and composition may be useful to people identifying endangered species or planners who decide whether to build an ice-worthy ship, “the long-range predictions will be less useful to marine operators whose main concern in the position of the ice edge.”

The report emphasizes that a coordinated approach between polar researchers, agency representatives and end users to observation, modeling, and communication of modeling results is important to successful advancement of predictive capabilities.

The National Research Council is one of four arms of The National Academies, all private, nonprofit organizations established under a congressional charter in 1863 to create an independent adviser to the U.S. government on science and technology matters. The final report will be available through the National Academies in winter 2012.