Arctic could be consistently ice-free as early as 2035

A melting pond is seen inside an iceberg from the Greenland ice sheet in the Baffin Bay near Pituffik, Greenland on July 20, 2022. (Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images)

The Arctic could be consistently ice-free as early as 2035, several years earlier than previously thought, says new research published Tuesday.

“When it comes to communicating what scientists expect to happen in the Arctic, it is important to predict when we might observe the first ice-free conditions in the Arctic, which will show up in the daily satellite data,” Alexandra Jahn, an associate professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the paper’s lead author, said in a statement. 

To do the paper, scientists looked at studies and climate models to better understand the changing ice conditions in the Arctic. They focused on different aspects like when an ice-free Arctic might happen in September, how often it might occur, and if it could extend to other months.

September is often used as a reference point for researchers because it is the month where Arctic sea ice typically reaches its lowest annual extent.

For the paper, the researchers defined ice-free as a sea-ice area of less than 1 million km2.

“Consistently ice-free conditions, which refers to the transition to a frequently ice-free Arctic, are expected to occur between 2035–2067 under the high-emission scenarios, with a small delay possible for lower-emission scenarios,” the researchers said.

Icebergs are seen in the Arctic Ocean off the Franz Josef Land archipelago on August 20, 2021. (Ekaterina Anisimova/AFP via Getty Images)

In addition, under a low-emission scenario, the Arctic could experience ice-free conditions for a three-month period, from August to October, by the year 2100. Conversely, under a high-emission scenario, this period could extend up to nine months, spanning from May to January.

The study also stressed that while ice-free conditions are inevitable for the Arctic, the global community’s adherence to the Paris climate agreement for reducing emissions could significantly impact both the severity and duration of these ice-free scenarios in the long term.

If global warming is kept below 2 C, ice-free conditions in the Arctic might remain infrequent, the paper said, while if  negative emissions are achieved keeping global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius, there’s a possibility that ice-free conditions could reverse or even disappear in the future.

“Even if ice-free conditions are unavoidable, we still need to keep our emissions as low as possible to avoid prolonged  conditions,” Jahn said.

“Unlike the ice sheet in Greenland that took thousands of years to build, even if we melt all the Arctic sea ice, if we can then figure out how to take CO2 back out of the atmosphere in the future to reverse warming, sea ice will come back within a decade.”

Central Arctic affected last 

The scientists also looked a specific predictions for different regions of the Arctic and found all scenarios pointed to ice-free conditions starting in the European Arctic, followed by the Laptev Sea, the Chukchi Sea and the East Siberian Sea then to the Beaufort, with Central Arctic affected last. 

An aerial view from a drone shows Kivalina, which is at the very end of an eight-mile barrier reef located between a lagoon and the Chukchi Sea on September 10, 2019 in Kivalina, Alaska. The village is 83 miles above the Arctic circle. Kivalina and a few other native coastal Alaskan villages face the warming of the Arctic, which has resulted in the loss of sea ice that buffers the island’s shorelines from storm surges and coastal erosion. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Scientists say the study is the just the beginning of better understanding ice changes in the Arctic. Among their recommendations is that regional predictions should be refined and evaluated and that a criteria should be established by sea ice reachers on the definition of “ice free.”

“Deciding on these criteria ahead of reaching ice free conditions is prudent given the various definitions as well as observational uncertainty in satellite-derived sea ice products,” the researchers said.

“Clarity on how this issue will be handled will facilitate communication around the occurrence of the first ice-free Arctic when it occurs.

The study, “Projections of an ice-free Arctic Ocean” published in the journal Nature Reviews Earth and Environment.

Comments, tips or story ideas? Contact Eilís at eilis.quinn(at) 

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Hot and dry July saw temperature records topple in the Yukon, CBC News

Greenland: Alarming, above-average ice loss in Greenland due to rising temperatures, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Polar heat record. July average above 10°C, The Independent Barents Observer

SwedenHigh risk of wildfires in many parts of Sweden, including North, Radio Sweden

United States: Bursting ice dam in Alaska highlights risks of glacial flooding around the globe, The Associated Press

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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