The Arctic Circle could lose its summer sea ice a whole decade earlier than previously projected by scientists. It’s yet another sign that the climate crisis is affecting our global systems faster than researchers had understood before.
In a new study published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers outlined how the Arctic could experience rapid sea ice loss as early as the 2030s. It’s a decade earlier than a 2021 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which predicted that the region would lose its sea ice by the middle of this century, researchers wrote. And even if world leaders create policies that successfully lower earth-warming global emissions, the Arctic would still lose September sea ice by the 2050s, the study explained.
Researchers analyzed sea ice data ranging from 1979 to 2019, they also compared different climate models with satellite images to understand how summer sea ice had changed over time. They found that some previous models had underestimated just how fast the Arctic Circle was losing that ice. They also found that human activity was one of the main causes of rapidly melting sea ice. “These results emphasize the profound impacts of greenhouse gas emissions on the Arctic, and demonstrate the importance of planning for and adapting to a seasonally ice-free Arctic in the near future,” researchers wrote in the study.
Researchers looked at summer sea ice in September because ice in the Arctic waters builds up throughout the winter months when that region of the world sees little to no sunlight. The amount of ice peaks in March, it melts throughout the summer and reaches its lowest point in September. But as the world becomes warmer, it will build up a lot slower throughout the winter months. To be clear, the scientists describe the Arctic Ocean as being “ice-free” which does not mean that there is absolutely no ice at all. It’s a metric that scientists use to describe if the area covered by sea ice is less than one million square kilometers (about 386,000 square miles). That is the equivalent of 7% of the ocean’s total surface area.
For the majority of the world population, which is concentrated towards the equator, Arctic summer sea ice seems far away. But rapidly melting ice contributes to even more global warming. The permanent ice cap in the Arctic Circle is one of the several ways that the planet is able to reflect sunlight away from the earth to naturally mitigate some warming. Less sea ice means that less sunlight is reflected away from the world. The ocean in the Arctic is dark and absorbs more heat from the sun than ice and snow does. This means rapidly losing sea ice would create a feedback loop, one in which less ice means more heat is absorbed, which in turn contributes to even faster warming.
The planet, and especially the Arctic, can’t handle a warming feedback loop. That part of the world is already warming four times faster than the rest of the globe, a 2022 study found. And September sea ice is shrinking at a rate of more than 12% per decade, according to NASA.
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