The future of Arctic sea ice hangs in the balance as researchers predict an accelerating timeline for its disappearance. Scientists found that the Arctic could experience dramatic ice cover loss as early as the 2030s. Traditionally, the month of September marked the minimum ice area, but the new Research suggests the region could be ice-free during this crucial period.
Increased extreme weather events
A recent study, published in the journal Nature Communications, highlights the impact of human activities in the Arctic and demonstrates the importance of planning and adapting to a seasonal sea ice-free Arctic in the near future.
“Warming in this region will accelerate, which may increase extreme weather events in the northern mid-latitude areas, such as heat waves and wildfires. This melting does not directly affect sea level rise, but it may increase it due to the accelerated melting of the Greenland ice sheet,” says Seung-Ki Min, a researcher at the Pohang University of Science and Technology (South Korea) who leads the study.
A sea ice-free Arctic affects both humans and natural ecosystems inside and outside of this area. For example, it produces changes in marine activity, further accelerating warming and disrupting the carbon cycle.
“The loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean will likely increase its use for shipping and other economic activities. Also, in light of the current tensions, the military importance of this region will most likely increase, given the short shipping routes that connect northern Europe, North America and Russia in this area,” says Dirk Notz, co-author of the study at the University of Hamburg (Germany).
Dirk Notz said “The military importance of this region will most likely increase, given the short shipping routes connecting Northern Europe, North America and Russia in this area”
An underestimated melt rate
To analyze the human contribution to this ice decline and project future forecasts, Min’s team used observational data between 1979 and 2019 to constrain climate model simulations. The results suggest that the human impact can be observed throughout the year and is largely attributed to increased greenhouse gas emissions. The contributions from aerosols and natural factors (such as solar and volcanic activity) are much smaller.
The new work predicts that the Arctic could be free of sea ice by September 2030 to 2050 under all emissions scenarios.
This is in contrast to previous assessments discussed in the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, which did not envision a summer sea ice-free Arctic with low emissions.
The Korean Expert who participated in the writing of the chapter on the cryosphere of the last IPCC report, emphasizes that they wrote then: “It is likely that the Arctic will not have sea ice before 2050 in all considered scenarios.” This conclusion, he continues, “is different from that of Chapter 4, which focused on climate model simulations, because even then we used additional methods to conceptually correct for biases in model simulations.”
They used the same models as the IPCC but adjusted for future simulations and found that they underestimated the melt rate, so they increased the scale of the model projections.
“When we wrote the report, we knew that the models generally lost ice more slowly than observed, so we already sensed then that the respective results derived directly from the models were quite conservative. In the IPCC chapter on the cryosphere we made a somewhat bolder claim, using simpler conceptual methods,” he continues.
Inevitable, yes, but the impact must be reduced
Scientists have been warning of this disappearance for many decades, “it is sad to see that these warnings have gone largely unheeded, with the consequences we now face. We hope that this first ‘too late’ may be heard by policymakers so that we can at least protect other components of our climate system while limiting future global warming as much as possible,” Notz said.
Keep in mind that, in the case of Arctic sea ice, future emissions will continue to have a significant impact: with more emissions, we will have an ice-free Arctic Ocean more often, and for longer and longer periods. “Although we cannot prevent the loss of summer sea ice in a few years, we can make the ice disappear every summer”, highlights a researcher from a German university.
Seung-Ki Min said, “It is already too late to continue protecting the Arctic summer sea ice: it will be the first major component of our climate system that we will lose through our emissions”.
Path to 1.5°C holds hope
The low emissions scenario considered in this study is equivalent to the 2ºC warming target of the Paris Agreement. This means that we can avoid an ice-free Arctic in summer if we cut CO₂ emissions more aggressively, following the path to reach 1.5 degrees, or net zero emissions by 2050.
“We expect substantial changes in the ecosystem for all those species whose habitat depends on the existence of sea ice throughout the year. Even a single ice-free summer can cause a substantial disturbance. Polar bears, for example, could cope with short periods of absence of ice in the Arctic Ocean by retreating to land areas and adapting to a certain extent to the food sources available there,” says the scientist.
Melting sea ice will also warm the Arctic region, and warmer polar conditions will affect species living in high northern latitudes, such as arctic foxes and reindeer.
“Our new findings mean that it is already too late to continue protecting the Arctic summer sea ice as a landscape and as a habitat: it will be the first major component of our climate system that we will lose due to our greenhouse gas emissions,” Min concludes.
Min said the findings show the Arctic is about to get “seriously sick” and the region has reached a “tipping point.”
“We can think of the Arctic sea ice as our body’s immune system, protecting it from harmful things,” Min said. “Without the protector, the state of the Arctic will quickly go from bad to worse.”
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