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We've been hearing that sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean has reached its lowest point ever measured. But it turns out that's not the most dramatic change in the Arctic. A study by Canadian researchers finds that springtime snow is melting away even faster than Arctic ice.

And that also has profound implications for the Earth's climate, as NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Springtime snowmelt matters a lot. It determines when spring runoff comes out of the mountains to fill our rivers. And Chris Derksen, at Environment Canada in Toronto, says snow also reflects sunlight back into space, helping to keep the Earth from heating up too fast.

CHRIS DERKSEN: When you remove the snow cover from the land's surface, much like when you remove the sea ice from the ocean, you take away a highly reflective, bright surface. And you expose the bare land or tundra underneath, and that absorbs more solar energy.

HARRIS: And that darker land traps heat, warming the planet. Scientists have been keeping an eye on this trend for years. But Derksen has a study that will be published in Geophysical Research Letters that documents a dramatic increase in the speed of this snowmelt. It turns out that in May and June, snow across the far north is disappearing fast.

DERKSEN: It's decreasing at a more rapid rate than summer sea ice. So the loss of snow cover across the Arctic is really as big an issue, as the loss of sea ice.

HARRIS: Derksen expected to see a gradual decline, but he was taken aback when he reviewed satellite measurements for the past five years and saw the speed of this loss.

DERKSEN: That was a bit shocking.

HARRIS: Now, there are more than a dozen research groups around the world who use computer models, simulations to forecast how quickly things are likely to change in our warming planet. This snow loss is faster than the most pessimistic of those projections.

DERKSEN: We're now losing spring Arctic snow cover at a rate that's faster than the climate models predict. So that then, of course, puts somewhat into question what the scenario will look like 10, 20, 30 years from now.

HARRIS: Even today, the early spring snowmelt is of concern to biologists who study life in the far north. Syndonia Bret-Harte, at the University of Alaska, says this change affects the rivers that spawning fish rely on. And it hastens melting of the permafrost, a layer of frozen soil that contains lots of carbon. And when permafrost melts, it releases those greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And then there's the matter of fires in the boreal forests.

SYNDONIA BRET-HARTE: If things dry out faster in the spring, then you can get more fires. And that's another trend that we see in recent years, is toward increased fire frequency and also the size of fires.

HARRIS: And while the far north is feeling these effects most strongly, she says they affect us, too.

BRET-HARTE: Since the Arctic acts as an air conditioner of the rest of the Earth, or at least for the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, heating up in the Arctic is also probably going to cause feedbacks to heating up in the more southern climates.

HARRIS: Researchers say global warming is no doubt contributing to this early melting of spring snow. And Philip Mote, at the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, says there may be a relationship between the rapid loss of sea ice and the early snowmelt.

PHILIP MOTE: Having that going on in the spring may help set up the Arctic to absorb heat and melt the sea ice faster, so that by late summer, this time of year, we can see very low levels.

HARRIS: But there's one big difference between early snowmelt and the sea ice melt. Because the sea ice is getting thinner and less resilient every year, it seems inevitable that the melting trend will continue. But Mote says the long-term buildup of greenhouse gases may not be the whole story for spring snowmelt.

MOTE: The atmosphere and the ocean do different things year to year, and that can also affect the snow cover in ways that are independent of greenhouse gases.

HARRIS: So he's not so sure this dramatic trend of recent years will keep on its downward spiral. But the long-term trend is clear, and that is: less snow, less ice and more warming.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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