We Might Be Just a Few Years Away From an Ice-Free Arctic

Written by teobrito.com

The Arctic may become ice-free for the first time on a late August or early September day in the 2020s to 2030s, 10 years earlier than expected, a shocking new study finds.

The polar region has been losing sea ice at an accelerated rate, shrinking by 12.2% each decade due to warmer temperatures. Under all emission scenarios, an ice-free Arctic could arrive much sooner than previous models had predicted, an ominous sign of the ongoing climate crisis that would have major repercussions on the environment.

Within this decade, the Arctic may see days with no floating ice during the summer, and by mid-century, an ice-free Arctic could last for an entire month during September. By the end of the century, ice-free conditions could last for several months at a time in the Arctic, including some winter months, based on new findings published Tuesday in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment.

“I don’t want to cause alarm necessarily, but I hope it causes awareness,” Alexandra Jahn, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and lead author of the study, told Gizmodo. “It’s not just in the future, but in almost all our lifetimes, this is going to play a role, and so we need to try our best to limit it.”

The Arctic is not only an important habitat for polar bears, seals, and other wildlife that depend on the sea ice for survival; it also reflects heat back into space. Less ice in the polar region is bad news for us, with more intense heatwaves and extreme winters plaguing our future. The melting of ice in the Arctic also contributes to sea level rise, which endangers coastal cities and small islands.

An ice-free Arctic isn’t entirely free of ice. Instead, scientists consider the polar region having ice-free conditions when the ocean has less than 386,000 square miles (1 million square kilometers) of ice. On average, ice covers 6 million square miles (15.5 million square kilometers) of the Arctic Ocean. That’s a significant decrease, but the researchers behind the new study don’t want us to lose hope yet.

As of now, an ice-free Arctic is inevitable under all emissions scenarios. However, future emission levels will have an impact on how often these ice-free conditions take place and how long they last for.

“It doesn’t end when the Arctic goes ice free,” Jahn said. The study noted significant differences between low-emission scenarios, which keep warming to around 2 degrees Fahrenheit, and the high-emission scenarios, where global warming exceeds 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We have icy conditions for potentially three months of the year under the lower emission scenarios and up to nine months a year under the high emission scenario,” Jahn added. “That would be primarily water and only occasionally ice covered, so a complete reversal basically from the low emission scenario.”

The same way that Arctic ice is more sensitive to climate change because it responds very strongly to temperature, sea ice can also recover quickly. If temperatures were to come down again in the future, the sea ice in the Arctic could come back within less than a decade, according to Jahn. So while ice-free days in the Arctic are coming soon, there are still ways to make sure they don’t last very long, if we act now.

“We don’t really want people to be surprised that suddenly we are at this point that we thought was going to be 20 years in the future,” Jahn said. “Seeing this fundamental transformation of this whole environment… it does feel really sad and personal.”

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