The United States needs sensors to detect changes in climate and other human-induced environmental changes, and it may be able to detect them in the Arctic.
A new study in Nature Climate Change suggests that the technology may be ready to play a role in detecting changes in sea ice in the summer of 2021, or the mid-century as the researchers envision.
“The Arctic sea ice is one of the largest ecosystems on Earth,” said lead author Daniel R. Reichel, a graduate student at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
“And with the climate change we’re seeing, there are going to be more and more changes in the region, and we don’t know what’s going to happen to sea ice.”
Scientists know that sea ice, which has grown by as much as 30 percent since 1990, has shrunk from 1,400 square miles in 1979 to about 650 square miles now.
And while the world has seen significant changes in ocean acidification, carbon dioxide levels, and heat-trapping emissions over the past few decades, sea ice has been the single biggest contributor to the global warming that has already resulted.
Reich said the findings are important because they suggest that the Arctic could become more vulnerable to changing climate and that sensors will be needed to detect these changes.
“We’re looking at sea ice because it’s a great way to measure how much carbon is being lost to the atmosphere, and that carbon can be a very useful indicator,” Reich told NBC News.
“There’s a lot of science that is looking at how the Arctic is warming, and the way that climate change is affecting the ocean.”
Reich said that because of the size of the Arctic, it’s difficult to detect when ice is melting and when it’s not, which is why sea ice sensors will need to be built in order to provide a real-time record of sea ice.
The study is titled “Sea ice monitoring in the polar environment using fiber optics and infrared spectroscopy in a novel fiber optic sensor.”
In the study, Reich and colleagues from Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Norway used a new fiber optic fiber that was built using materials developed by U.K.-based company Arctech International.
They also used infrared spectrometers, a sensor that uses visible light, to record changes in water temperature.
“This is an important new approach for the Arctic and the Arctic region in general,” said study co-author Dr. Peter Nieuwenhuis, a research associate at the Australian National University.
“This is a real advance, and this technology is going to make it possible to measure the extent of sea surface melting and sea ice extent, and also what happens in the water.”
The researchers say the sensor could also be used to monitor the effects of climate change on ecosystems, including sea ice that can affect the food web.
“Climate change impacts on marine ecosystems have become increasingly important as the planet warms,” Reicher said.
“The Arctic is a great example of a region that is currently at risk of becoming increasingly vulnerable to sea-level rise.”
Researchers have been using infrared spectrographs to record sea ice loss and surface temperature changes since the early 1980s.
In a similar study published in 2014, Reichers team used infrared infrared spectrosphere spectrometer technology to measure changes in carbon dioxide in the air.
The new study, however, focuses on using a fiber optic filter to record infrared spectra.
The researchers are now looking to build fiber optics sensors for the purpose of recording temperature, sea surface temperature, and other measurements in the future.
In the future, the team will use a combination of infrared spectrological and optical spectrometry technologies to capture data in the atmosphere and ocean.
“Our work is a step forward in the understanding of how these spectroscopic and optical technologies could be combined for the detection of changes in Arctic sea-ice,” Reis said.
“It’s a big step forward for understanding how the atmosphere can be changed by changing climate.”
Follow NBC News Investigations on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.