Arctic summer sea ice could be gone by 2035, new study forecasts

In this July 21, 2017 file photo a polar bear walks over sea ice floating in the Victoria Strait in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. New research suggests that Arctic summer sea ice will completely disappear in most of the Arctic by 2035. (David Goldman/The Canadian Press/AP)
The Arctic could be completely ice-free in summers by 2035, according to a new study that compared present-day conditions with those about 130,000 years ago.

The study published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, looked at the last interglacial, a warmer period 130,000–116,000 years ago, as a potential analogue for future climate change.

During this period, the nearly 24-hour summertime sunshine at high northern latitudes drove Arctic land summer temperatures 4–5 C higher than in the pre-industrial era.

These higher temperatures had puzzled scientists for decades, said lead author Maria Vittoria Guarino, Earth System Modeller at British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

A window into the future
In this July 21, 2017 file photo, researchers look out from the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica as the sun sets over sea ice in the Victoria Strait along the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. (David Goldman/AP Photo)

Unravelling this mystery was technically and scientifically challenging, she said.

“For the first time, we can begin to see how the Arctic became sea ice-free during the last interglacial.”Maria Vittoria Guarino, Earth System Modeller at British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

During spring and early summer, shallow pools of water form on the surface of Arctic sea-ice.

These so-called melt ponds are important for how much sunlight is absorbed by the ice and how much is reflected back into space, scientists say.

The team of international researchers used the UK Met Office’s Hadley Centre climate model to look at Arctic sea ice during the last interglacial.

The team concluded that the impact of intense springtime sunshine created many melt ponds, which played a crucial role in sea-ice melt.

The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, in the midst of their ICESCAPE mission, retrieves supplies for some mid-mission fixes dropped by parachute from a C-130 in the Arctic Ocean in this July 12, 2011 NASA handout photo. (Kathryn Hansen/Reuters/NASA)

Moreover, a simulation of the future using the same model indicated that the Arctic may become sea ice-free by 2035.

“The advances made in climate modelling mean that we can create a more accurate simulation of the Earth’s past climate, which, in turn gives us greater confidence in model predictions for the future.” Maria Vittoria Guarino

Louise Sime, a joint lead author at BAS, said by understanding what happened during Earth’s last warm period scientists are in a better position to understand what will happen in the future.

“We know the Arctic is undergoing significant changes as our planet warms. The prospect of loss of sea-ice by 2035 should really be focusing all our minds on achieving a low-carbon world as soon as humanly feasible.”Louise Sime, joint lead author at BAS
Influencing polar climate and ecosystems
ICESCAPE scientist Karen Frey takes optical measurements in a melt pond in the Arctic Ocean, with the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy on the background in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters June 11, 2012. (Kathryn Hansen/Reuters/NASA)

According to scientists at NASA Earth Observatory, sea ice has a profound influence on the polar environment, influencing ocean circulation, weather, as well as regional and global climate.

The white surface of the sea ice acts like a giant mirror that reflects far more sunlight back to space than darker ocean water does. Once sea ice begins to melt, it often triggers a self-reinforcing cycle. As more ice melts, exposing more dark water, the water absorbs more sunlight. The sun-warmed water then melts more ice.

Over several years, this positive feedback cycle can influence global climate, according to NASA Earth Observatory.

Sea ice also plays a fundamental role in polar ecosystems and supports a variety of life forms from bacteria and phytoplankton to seals and polar bears.

And sea ice is essential for many northern and Indigenous communities who’ve used it for millennia to hunt, fish and travel.

Record sea ice retreat in July

The new study comes amid reports that the Arctic sea ice extent reached a record low in July, shrinking to levels not seen since satellite observation of the region’s ice cover began in the late 1970s.

According to an international team of researchers drifting in the Arctic aboard the German research icebreaker, Polarstern, the sea ice retreat this year has been especially pronounced off the Siberian coast, leading to a virtually ice-free Northeast Passage by mid-July along nearly all of Russia’s Arctic coastline from the Bering Sea in the east to the Barents Sea in the west.

According to the U.S.-based National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), sea ice extent averaged for July 2020 was 7.28 million square kilometers. This was 2.19 million square kilometers below the 1981 to 2010 July average and 310,000 square kilometers below the previous record low mark for July set in 2019.

The record low ice extent in July followed a scorching month of June when a cell of warm air produced extremely high temperatures in Siberia that seriously impacted the sea ice cover in the Russian Arctic, according to the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, or MOSAiC for short.

Related stories from around the North

Canada: Sea ice extent in the Arctic reaches historical low in July, Radio Canada International

Denmark: Denmark, U.S. affirm need to ‘maintain and build situational awareness’ in the Arctic, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Finland joins other Nordic countries in virtual tourism due to pandemic, Yle News

Iceland: Iceland cancels largest Arctic conference due to COVID-19, The Independent Barents Observer

Norway: Norway strengthens its Arctic military in new defense plan as security concerns grow in the region, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Two Chinese rigs prepare for drilling in Russian Arctic waters, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Sweden’s FM calls for more EU involvement in Arctic as country hosts EU Arctic Forum, Radio Sweden

United States: U.S. wants to keep the Arctic an area of low tensions, top official, Radio Canada International

Levon Sevunts, Radio Canada International

Born and raised in Armenia, Levon started his journalistic career in 1990, covering wars and civil strife in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In 1992, after the government in Armenia shut down the TV program he was working for, Levon immigrated to Canada. He learned English and eventually went back to journalism, working first in print and then in broadcasting. Levon’s journalistic assignments have taken him from the High Arctic to Sahara and the killing fields of Darfur, from the streets of Montreal to the snow-capped mountaintops of Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. He says, “But best of all, I’ve been privileged to tell the stories of hundreds of people who’ve generously opened up their homes, refugee tents and their hearts to me.”

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