‘Devastating’: Arctic sea ice shrinks to near record low

Scientist says only hope is for humans to act on climate crisis and slow down ice loss

Sam Hancock
Tuesday 22 September 2020 11:08 BST
Computer models project the summer sea ice will regularly be below 1 million sq km later this century
Computer models project the summer sea ice will regularly be below 1 million sq km later this century (Getty)

Arctic sea ice has shrunk to its second lowest extent on record, since satellite observation began, as a result of the ongoing climate crisis

Over the summer, floes withdrew to under 3.74 million sq km (1.44 million sq miles), preliminary data recorded on 15 September indicates.

The only time this minimum has been beaten was in 2012 when the pack ice was reduced to 3.41 million sq km.

Comparing last week’s findings to eight years ago, the National Snow and Ice Data Centre said the minimum extent this year has more ice in the Beaufort Sea, but somewhat less ice in the Laptev and East Greenland Sea regions. 

But it is only a tongue of sea ice drifting out into the Canadian Beaufort Sea that is keeping us from setting another record minimum, Dr Jack Landy, lecturer and research Fellow at University of Bristol, said.

As autumn fast approaches, bringing with it colder weather, sea ice will now begin its seasonal increase through until winter. The annual maximum for Antarctic sea ice typically occurs in late September or early October.

While it’s completely routine for Arctic floes to expand through the winter each year and then melt back again in the summer, the September lull is becoming more alarming every year as the polar north continues to be warmed by climate change.

Dr Twila Moon, research scientist at University of Colorado at Boulder, said it’s “devastating to see yet another Arctic summer end with so little sea ice”. 

She said: "Not only is there a very small area of sea ice, but it also younger and more vulnerable overall. The Arctic is a changed place. All hope rests on humans to act on climate and slow this alarming pace of ice loss.”

“Science has sadly shown that we now live in a changed world, and very low sea ice areas are one indicator. The low sea ice area affects animals that people use for food and the climate that we feel even in countries far from the Arctic. Any hope of slowing the loss of sea ice rests in people and nations all over the world taking action to counter climate change.”

The drop in floes, evidenced since satellites started routinely monitoring sea ice, is about 13 per cent per decade, averaged across the month.

Computer models project the summer sea ice will regularly be below 1 million sq km later this century.

The extent of sea ice loss recorded in 2020
The extent of sea ice loss recorded in 2020 (National Snow and Ice Data Centre/University of Colorado Boulder)

According to Ed Blockley, Met Office scientific manager for Polar Climate, this is yet more bad news for the climate and planet Earth. 

Mr Blockley said: “September 2020 is now the second time in the modern record that the extent of Arctic sea ice has dropped below 4 million sq km. This threshold has been crossed because this summer has seen several periods of very rapid sea ice loss linked, in part, to the record-breaking heatwave in Siberia. 

“The Arctic is one of the most vulnerable regions on Earth to climate change and warming here will have consequences both for the region and the planet as a whole.”

Without extensive sea ice, the Arctic as well as the rest of the planet cannot be cooled properly. And if this downward trend continues, which scientists predict it will, more sunlight will be absorbed by the darker surface waters of the ocean, which will promote further warming and further loss of ice.

Dr Moon finished by saying: “Arctic sea ice minimum is not a record we want to break, and it's heartbreaking to see us come so close again this year. The antidote is strong policy and action by citizens across the globe to reduce emissions of polluting gases.

"Not only will this help to protect Arctic sea ice and the animals and people who depend on it, but also reduce future risks from all climate hazards – from flooding to drought, wildfires, and health and economic impacts of sea level rise. We must act.”

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