SEATTLE (CBS Seattle) – Snow has thinned significantly in the Arctic, especially on the sea ice near Alaska, finds a new study.

Researchers at the University of Washington and NASA confirmed their findings by combining data collected by ice bouys and aircraft with historic data from the late 1950s to the 90s.

They compared data from U.S. and Soviet stations to track how the snow cover has changed over the decades.

They found that the snowpack has thinned from 14 inches to 9 inches in the western Arctic and from 13 inches to 6 inches in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, west and north of Alaska.

“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,” said co-author Ignatius Rigor, an oceanographer at the UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

It’s not known exactly what effect the thinner blanket of snow will have on wildlife, but Melinda Webster, a UW graduate student in oceanography noted that animals will often burrow into snowdrifts to shelter themselves from the elements.

It can also have an impact  on low-light microscopic plants that grow underneath the sea ice and form the base of the Arctic food chain.

A thinner blanket may also cause the ice to grow thicker during the winter, because snow can prevent ice from accumulating on a surface. But the ice might melt faster in the spring without a thick insulating layer of snow.

The study has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans.

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