Arctic Sea Ice

Climate change is a key driver of Arctic Sea Ice decline

Sea ice in the Arctic is rapidly disappearing and the decline is accelerating. Climate change is a key driver of this trend, with the Arctic warming twice as fast as the global rate due to the unique feedbacks in the Arctic climate system. Thus, the loss of summer sea ice is occurring far faster than predicted. In 2007, the International Panel on Climate Change estimated that the Arctic would see an ice-free summer near 2100. Now most experts predict ice-free summers may occur as soon as 2030, a condition that hasn’t existed for thousands of years. Some even say it could happen this decade. The loss of Arctic sea ice has consequences for extreme weather and national security. Furthermore, melting Arctic sea ice releases additional heat trapping gases, feeding into cycles that will lead to more and more warming in the future.

Arctic sea ice is retreating faster than predicted

Arctic sea ice has been retreating over the past 30 years, and the rate of retreat is accelerating at a pace that exceeds most models’ forecasts. As sea ice declines, it becomes younger and thinner, and therefore more vulnerable to further melting. In 2016, scientists recorded the lowest annual sea ice extent from the satellite and historical sea ice data record.

If heat-trapping pollution continues, summer Arctic sea ice will be lost entirely. Observations and climate model predictions have projected different time horizons for an ice-free Arctic. Many recent estimates depict an ice-free Arctic summer occurring 20 – 30 years from now. Climate models that have most accurately hindcast historical sea ice trends currently suggest it will most probably happen in 22 years, and in eight years if the current trend continues.

Loss of Arctic sea ice has implications for U.S. national security, continued global warming

Arctic sea ice is often referred to as the ‘planet’s air conditioner’ because of its ability to help regulate the earth’s temperature. The impacts and implications of rising temperatures and melting ice in the Arctic extend beyond just the Arctic itself. Changes in the Arctic led by sea ice loss are affecting weather patterns farther south, such as in the lower United States. The loss of Arctic summer sea ice and the rapid warming of the continent are altering the jet stream—and thus weather patterns—over North America, Europe and Russia, increasing the likelihood of extreme weather events and driving winter storms south.

The loss of Arctic sea ice poses serious risks for the United States specifically. An ice-free Arctic Ocean increases national security concerns as potential new international disputes can occur with increased military and commercial marine traffic between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Even more, the loss of Arctic sea ice increased the warming effect that is altering our climate. As the earth’s natural air conditioner, white sea ice moderates solar heating by increasing the reflectivity of Earth’s surface and decreasing the amount of heat that would otherwise by absorbed by darker ice-free Arctic seas. The loss of the air-conditioner effect creates a feedback loop that accelerates global warming. Melting sea ice also releases greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost and frozen methane from the ocean bottom. These feedback loops could have catastrophic consequences for our climate if triggered.

Regardless of approach, all projections indicate an eventual sea ice free Arctic with continued emissions of greenhouses gasses, threatening the invaluable ecosystem service the Arctic sea ice provides while simultaneously exacerbating global warming.

For more information on Arctic sea ice, including the state of scientific understanding, relevant news and specific impacts, visit Climate Signals.

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