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WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Climate change is transforming the Arctic environment faster than expected and accelerating the disappearance of sea ice, scientists said on Friday in giving their early findings from the biggest-ever study of Canada's changing north.
The research project involved more than 370 scientists from 27 countries who collectively spent 15 months, starting in June 2007, aboard a research vessel above the Arctic Circle. It marked the first time a ship has stayed mobile in Canada's high Arctic for an entire winter.
"(Climate change) is happening much faster than our most pessimistic models expected," said David Barber, a professor at the University of Manitoba and the study's lead investigator, at a news conference in Winnipeg.
Models predicted only a few years ago that the Arctic would be ice-free in summer by the year 2100, but the increasing pace of climate change now suggests it could happen between 2013 and 2030, Barber said.
Scientists link higher Arctic temperatures and melting sea ice to the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.
The Arctic is considered a type of early-warning system of climate change for the rest of the world.
"We know we're losing sea ice -- the world is all aware of that," Barber said. "What you're not aware of is that it has impacts on everything else that goes on in this system."
The loss of the sea ice is taking away areas for the region's mammals to reproduce, find food and elude predators, said Steve Ferguson, a scientist with the Canadian government who took part in the study.
Whale species previously not found in the Arctic are moving into the region because there is less sea ice to restrict their movements.
Climate change is also bringing more cyclones into the Arctic, dumping snow on the sea ice, which limits how thick it can get, and bringing winds that break up the ice, Barber said.
The study is part of the International Polar Year, a large scientific program focused on the Arctic and Antarctic. The scientists have not yet produced conclusions, but they expect to publish dozens of academic papers.
The cost of the Arctic's rapid melt will be $2.4 trillion by 2050 as the region loses its ability to cool the global climate, the U.S.-based Pew Environment Group said on Friday. The group released a report showing the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet.
Both the Canadian government and the oil and gas industry are keenly interested in the possible environmental impact of development further north in the Arctic, said professor Louis Fortier of Laval University.
Currently, development is focused on mainland regions such as the massive gas fields in the Mackenzie River Delta on the Beaufort Sea. But receding ice levels may make the wider Arctic more accessible to ships and make drilling in more areas possible.
"Conclusions will come later, but ... up to now there's no indication that the impacts would be larger (further north) than elsewhere in the Arctic," Fortier said.