Study: Arctic Snowfall Has Shrunk by Half in Some Regions

Aug 14, 2014 11:25 AM EDT | Jordan Ecarma

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Researchers have found that snow levels in the western Arctic have diminished by around a third with some regions at less than half compared with 1950s measurements, Live Science reported.

The new study, which has been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, uses data from NASA's IceBridge air surveys to reveal that spring snow in the region has gone from 14 inches to 9 inches in the western Arctic. The contrast is even more striking in the area over the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, which has seen snow depth fall from 13 inches to 6 inches.

The vital inches of snow are needed to keep Arctic sea ice at optimum levels, according to the study abstract.

"Snow plays a key role in the growth and decay of Arctic sea ice," the researchers wrote. "In winter, it insulates sea ice from cold air temperatures, slowing sea ice growth."

Thinning snow can hurt the Arctic ecosystem, which depends on tiny microscopic plants that thrive under sea ice and are the foundation of the Arctic food chain. A reduced snowpack also means less available space for animals that depend on it for their den-building.  

The data in the IceBridge air surveys comes from U.S. Army Corps buoys that were frozen in ice sheets as well as historic data that Russian scientists collected from 1954 to 1991.

"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, an oceanographer at the University of Washington's Applied Physics Laboratory in Seattle, said in a statement quoted by Live Science.

Researchers will continue to measure snow and ice levels at the poles with probes that gauge snow thickness. About the size and shape of a ski pole, today's probes stab through the snowpack while a basket slides up to record the distance between it and the ground under the snow. 

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