Climate crisis: North pole 'soon to be ice free in summer', scientists say

Even with emissions reductions, the planet is on course to occasionally lose its northern polar icecap 

Harry Cockburn
Monday 20 April 2020 17:25 BST
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The Arctic Ocean will likely be ice-free during summers before 2050, researchers say.

Amid rapid global warming – with average Arctic temperatures already 2C above what they were in the pre-industrial era – the extent of the sea ice is diminishing ever faster.

As the climate crisis worsens, scientists say it is now only the efficacy of protection measures which will determine for how many more years our planet will continue to have a northern ice cap year round.

A major new piece of research involving 21 leading institutes and using 40 different climate models has found that whatever action is taken, we are on course to see ice-free summers in the coming decades.

The research is published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The scientists considered the future of Arctic sea-ice cover in scenarios with high future CO2 emissions and little climate protection – as expected, Arctic sea ice disappeared quickly in summer in these simulations.

But the study also found the Arctic summer sea ice also disappears “occasionally” if CO2 emissions are rapidly reduced.

Dirk Notz, who leads the sea-ice research group at University of Hamburg, said: “If we reduce global emissions rapidly and substantially, and thus keep global warming below 2C relative to preindustrial levels, Arctic sea ice will nevertheless likely disappear occasionally in summer even before 2050. This really surprised us.”

Currently, the North Pole is covered by sea ice year round. Each summer, the area of the sea ice cover decreases, in winter it grows again.

In response to ongoing global warming, the overall area of the Arctic Ocean covered by sea ice has rapidly been reduced over the past few decades.

This substantially affects the Arctic ecosystem and climate. The sea-ice cover is a hunting ground and habitat for polar bears and seals, and keeps the Arctic cool by reflecting sunlight.

How often the Arctic will lose its sea-ice cover in the future critically depends on future CO2 emissions, the authors said.

If emissions are reduced rapidly, ice-free years will only occur occasionally. With higher emissions, the Arctic Ocean will become ice free most years.

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