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Global warming illustration.

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

Calls by opposition MPs for an emergency debate in the House of Commons on Arctic sea ice loss may have been overwrought, but the radical transformation under way in the north, and the consequences for domestic and foreign policy, should concern Canadian decision-makers far more than has been the case.

The sea-ice cover in Arctic waters this summer has been at a record low, according to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre. What is more, the scientists noted that where the Arctic was once dominated by multiyear ice, it now boasts thinner seasonal ice cover with vast areas melting off in summer.

Even before the just-ended record-breaking summer, a study in the journal Nature last year reported the "duration and magnitude of the current decline in sea ice seem to be unprecedented for the past 1,450 years." Furthermore, the study found that the Arctic sea ice extent is now "two million square kilometres less than it was in the late twentieth century." That study included Canadian research.

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It turns out the 2007 projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were hopelessly conservative. Some experts project that Arctic summer sea ice could be entirely gone within as little as five years, that is five to seven decades earlier than forecast.

An illustration of the change was inadvertently made by the federal government's search this summer for two 19th century British exploration ships that had been trapped in multi-year ice for two years before being deserted by their crews in 1848. This September, that same region was entirely devoid of ice cover, making the involvement of a Coast Guard icebreaker in the search effort superfluous.

There are profound consequences for the disappearance of sea ice. Not only will it compound the warming trend in the Arctic, but according to National Geographic, it will also result in "more and more extreme weather" elsewhere in North America, and globally. It also opens the region to oil and gas exploration, and to increased commercial shipping, a trend already seen across the Arctic, and a trend that experts warn in turn accelerates the loss of ice.

There is a reason China sent an icebreaker on an 'historic mission" through the Arctic Ocean this summer and is demanding observer status at meetings of the Arctic Council. There is also a reason energy companies are lining up to obtain oil leases. (Although Shell suspended plans to drill for oil off Alaska this year after the company sustained damage to a spill-containment dome and various other problems, this as the CEO of Total became the first in the sector to raise alarm about the environmental hazards of oil exploration in the Arctic).

None of this may yet meet the technical threshold for an emergency debate in the House of Commons, but parliamentarians cannot shirk their duty to study and debate the profound changes to our Arctic and the consequences, for long.

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