Climate Change Has Wiped Out Most of the World's Oldest Sea Ice

Illustration for article titled Climate Change Has Wiped Out Most of the World's Oldest Sea Ice
Photo: AP

There is no clearer sign of Arctic transformation than the age of its sea ice. Findings released on Tuesday show that ice has never been younger, and while humans may envy its youth, it’s an incredibly bad sign for the region.


Rising air and ocean temperatures have sent old sea ice into a death spiral. It now stands as a shadow of its former self, its area diminished by 95 percent from where it stood just a little more than three decades ago.

Federal scientists led by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) chronicled the changes afoot in the annual Arctic Report Card at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting. The signs the Arctic is a metamorphosing in the face of climate change are everywhere. Last year was the second-warmest on record for the region. Ice coverage is shrinking. The Atlantic is invading the Arctic Ocean. Permafrost is melting. But it’s the state of old sea ice that best tells the story of how human activities have driven the Arctic to a new state.

Old ice tends to be thick and hold fast, acting as an anchor for icepack during the summer melt season. But solid ice has proven to be no match for climate change, which has warmed the Arctic twice as fast as the rest of the world. Heat waves coupled with powerful storms have broken up old ice’s grip on the Arctic.

The Arctic Report Card shows that in March 1985, ice four years or older covered 980,700 square miles. This past March, it covered a measly 130,000 square miles. That’s the loss of a little more than three Texases-worth of old ice, and old Arctic ice now covers less than 1 percent of the Arctic Ocean.

Before and after images show how rapidly old ice (shown in white) has disappeared).
Image: NOAA

In its place, young ice has taken over, leading to “a decreasing trend in the minimum ice extent” each summer according to the report card. Scientists estimate that the Arctic could see ice-free summers by 2030 if carbon emissions continue their rise. The impact of the ice loss doesn’t just spell bad news for polar bears, which are leaving ice floes for land in search of food.


The decline of ice opens up a new front in the race to exploit the Earth’s resources as oil, gas, and mineral reserves become more accessible, and in turn, increases the chance of conflict over these resources. This is a huge concern for the U.S. as well as other Arctic nations. But at the press briefing announcing the updated report card, Rear Admiral Timothy Gaulladet, the acting head of the NOAA, reportedly said that the agency hasn’t briefed President Trump on climate change or its impacts on the Arctic.

The president, of course, has some thoughts on climate change that could politely be called backasswards, and it’s pretty clear a single briefing isn’t going to change them. But the fact that nobody from the agency in charge of putting out the premiere report about the challenges the U.S. faces is still hugely worrisome.


Managing editor at Earther, writing about climate change, environmental justice, and, occasionally, my cat.


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When scientist talk about old ice, don’t they usually speak in terms of volume? So instead of 3 Texases of ice loss Earther should use a Texas-Vara like how an acre-foot is used for big water projects. One vara equals about 33 1/3 inches and was used for land surveying and section demarcation in Texas. It’s probably based on the distance from the ground to a cowboy’s holstered gun trigger or something. An actual Texan may know. 

Anyway, scary stuff unless you’re the CEO of Maersk and chomping at the bit to open up Arctic shipping lanes from Europe to China. Which by the way they’re already making big plans to do so. The weirdest thing about capitalism is it just doesn’t seem to give a shit about environmental protection as long as there is money to be made.