“The Arctic is screaming. The ice is in a death spiral and may disappear in the summers within a couple of decades.” – Mark Serreze, Arctic climate expert at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC)
The Arctic in Free Fall
According to Jarvis Cocker, author at The Guardian who wrote The Iceman Cometh, “of the Arctic sea ice, 75% has been lost over the past 30 years. Last year saw sea-ice levels plummet to the second-lowest since records began. One of the big questions about global heating is when — or if — the Arctic will be ice-free each summer. It is estimated that the North Pole could be ice-free in the summer within the next 10-20 years.” Researchers everywhere are reporting that the Arctic is in free fall. This study suggests that the the first ice-free Arctic summer year (FIASY) may occur within 15 years. Worse still, other studies are now warning that we have significantly underestimated the pace of the melt due to inadequate modeling methods. Many are already asking how much longer will the Arctic exist?
Due to human activities related to sustaining a growth-based economy, the world is now dangerously close to losing the Arctic ecosystem as we know it, and with it, our cool. It is already undergoing a regime change. Why should you care? Because the loss of Arctic sea ice beyond its tipping point will mean dramatic changes for climate all over the Northern Hemisphere and the entire globe. This will impact everyone, everywhere. There is only a short window to act. It is critical that we begin to mobilize as a global society (as with the coronavirus pandemic) to mitigate the worst outcomes.
What is the Arctic Death Spiral?
The “Arctic Death Spiral” refers to a scientific chart generated from satellite data in order to visually depict the disappearance of Arctic ice since 1979. According to Skeptical Science, the first Death Spiral graph is ‘visually striking and clearly shows the loss of sea ice.’
The spiral graph provides an impactful data visualization that indicates what is happening to the Arctic in near real-time. Andy Lee Robinson created the original Arctic Death Spiral graph in 2013.
Since the first graph, there have been many different adaptions of the original. The graph even provides a tidy disappearing point for when months start hitting zero. Although, this is something that we should avoid. If we lose all of the Arctic sea ice, we will also lose the jet stream as we know it, the troposphere will expand causing droughts and fires on many continents, food production in the Northern Hemisphere will be threatened, more viruses and pandemics would be unleashed, and we would be well on the way to what climate scientists refer to as a Hothouse Earth state in a 4-7°C world of monster storms and mass extinctions.
A study by Scripps Institution of Oceanography finds a 5% chance that rapid global warming will be “catastrophic” or worse for the human race. Scientists estimate that 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird and mammal are already becoming extinct every 24 hours, indicating a sixth mass extinction underway. Losing the Arctic sea ice will intensify this already precarious situation.
The Arctic Sea Ice is Melting Faster Than Previously Predicted
We’re already getting hotter because sea ice is shrinking. Arctic sea ice figures and graphs show this happening at an unexpected rate. Additionally, we now know that the Arctic sea ice is melting at a rate far faster than almost all climate models predicted.
According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) “On September 15, 2020 Arctic sea ice likely reached its annual minimum extent of 3.74 million square kilometers (1.44 million square miles). The minimum ice extent is the second lowest in the 42-year-old satellite record, reinforcing the long-term downward trend in Arctic ice extent.”
Further according to NSIDC, a new study published in 2021 in The Cryosphere reveals that when varying snow depth and density estimates to convert ice free-board to ice thickness, the ice is thinning at a faster rate in the Arctic marginal seas than previously believed. This means both the ice extent and the ice volume (concentration) are failing. Extent and concentration are among the most common measurements of the sea ice. These measurements are used to analyze the status of the sea ice over time. It is known that older ice is thicker and more stable leading to stronger concentration measurements not seen in recent years.
Arctic researcher Zack Labe has said that “the ongoing loss of multiyear (old) sea ice is one of the most striking visuals of #Arctic climate change. Younger sea ice is generally thinner and more vulnerable to melt with numerous impacts to society and the polar ecosystem.” Zach Labe, from the Department of Earth System Science, The University of California, Irvine, provides extensive charts and graphs which are updated regularly. Follow Zach Labe on Twitter @ZLabe. The following graph depicts the recent 2021 sea ice departure in the sea ice extent measurement.
#Arctic sea ice volume was 47% below the 1979-2018 average and it is on track to set more record lows in 2020 and beyond. The following graph shows current Arctic sea ice extents from 2003-present, color bars are blue when 2020 has dropped below the prior year, and the trend is clear from year to year ice loss is increasingly dramatic:
Data shows that the rate of #Arctic sea ice decline is getting closer and closer to the 2012, which still holds the record for the lowest annual extent measurement. This points to a deeper mystery for researchers.
Arctic Record High Temperature Anomalies
The Arctic is experiencing unprecedented anomalies and abrupt change. Climate Reanalyzer data shows surface temperature anomalies reaching both ends of the scale over North America, while the Arctic is 3.5°C or 6.3°F warmer than in 1979-2000. Due to this heat and Arctic amplification, sea ice volume is at a record low for the time of the year. In other words, sea ice is very thin and there is little or no buffer left to consume the influx of warm, salty water from the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean. As long as there is sea ice in the water, this sea ice will keep absorbing heat as it melts, so the temperature will not rise at the sea surface. The amount of energy absorbed by melting ice is as much as it takes to heat an equivalent mass of water from zero to 80°C. Meanwhile, temperatures keep rising globally and more than 90% of global warming is going into oceans, which means the ice will be melted from above and below.
Defining an Ice-Free Arctic
There is no question that Arctic ice is in serious decline. As Arctic sea ice gets thinner and thinner, what some have dubbed a ‘Blue Ocean Event, (BOE)’  looks more imminent every year. Generally, scientists define an ice-free Arctic as a complete absence of Arctic sea ice (a common threshold is when the area is less than 1 million sq. km.). This would allow the heat of the sun to fully penetrate the open waters of the Arctic. Citizen scientists can use several resources that scientists and researchers also use for monitoring the ice, such as NASA Worldview.
According to Wikipedia, “observation with satellites shows that Arctic sea ice area, extent, and volume have been in decline for a few decades. Sometime during the 21st century, sea ice may effectively cease to exist during the summer. Sea ice extent is defined as the area with at least 15% ice cover. The amount of multi-year sea ice in the Arctic has declined considerably in recent decades. In 1988, ice that was at least 4 years old accounted for 26% of the Arctic’s sea ice. By 2013, ice of that age was only 7% of all Arctic sea ice.”
Has the Arctic Passed Its Tipping Point?
The dramatic changes being discussed here indicate that human activity has nearly melted an ice cap the size of the United States, four or five meters deep, in just the last three decades (approximately). There is almost no multiyear ice is left. The loss of Arctic may produce many unintended consequences including super-warming known as polar amplification, increasing storm intensity, and meandering jet streams.
It is thought that Arctic ice melt beyond a certain point will not regenerate. Recent studies indicate that Arctic sea ice cannot “quickly bounce back” if climate change causes it to melt and further that” sea ice coverage shifts over timescales of decades to centuries—so shrinking ice cannot be expected to return rapidly [even] if climate change is slowed or reversed.”
A tipping point is defined as a threshold breached for abrupt and irreversible change. In any case, it is a dangerous tipping point to approach at all. Arctic sea ice is melting at its fastest rate in 1,500 years and the warmer winters are suggesting disastrous changes to come.
Some researchers are now warning that the Arctic may already be past its tipping point. This is a dire emergency, despite the non-existent response from global nations. Yet, there is still ongoing debate as to whether the Arctic Ocean has already passed its “tipping point.” This is a matter of ongoing scientific investigation.
The Arctic Report Card
NOAA released their 2020 Arctic Report Card with some stark warnings about the status of the region. Since then further updates have suggested that this year and the next could be among the most precarious for summer Arctic sea ice.
However, a single summer of an ice-free Arctic is not considered a complete meltdown, just an indication of an impending one. An ice-free Arctic would first happen in the summer according to polar researchers and the ice could still refreeze in the winter. If the ice becomes unable to refreeze in the winter, we will soon be in a new world. It would be a worst-case scenario ever seen in recorded human history.
It is already getting too hot in many places in the Northern Hemisphere. If global warming were a race, the Northern Hemisphere would be winning. It is warming faster than the Southern Hemisphere, with some of the most rapid warming rates on Earth located in the Arctic, where sea and land ice is shrinking and thinning. Not only is the North winning now, but projections show that, largely due to the influence of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, it is likely to widen its lead in the coming decades.
Latent Heat in the Arctic
If we allow all the ice to melt, there will be nothing to prevent the arctic waters from rising above freezing. The amount of energy absorbed by melting ice is as much as it takes to heat an equivalent mass of water from zero to 80°C. This latent heat effect of increasing open water pools, known as polynyas, will produce knock-on cascading warming for the globe and weather chaos. This means, in effect, that the Northern Hemsphere’s air conditioner would fail. We would quite literally lose our cool. There are indications that this is already happening. We are seeing drastic heat waves, drought, desertification, and wild fires in the U.S. West as early indicators of what is to come.
It would also mean the loss of the ancient lands of the ice and snow from which our ancestors immigrated (video) that has served us for 11,000 relatively stable years of the Holocene. Knowing that we are in any way approaching this dangerous point of no return should be enough to jolt anyone into action toward mitigating climate change, implementing sustainable economies (video), and saving the Arctic.
What is the Impact of Melting Sea Ice on Albedo?
Melting ice dramatically reduces albedo and accelerates the rate of warming in the Arctic. The reduced albedo effect due to vanishing sea ice is already responsible for about 25 percent of global warming, according to Jennifer Francis, a research professor at Rutgers University. The more the ice melts the more algae blooms take over and create what is known as watermelon snow. This is just another indication of the many feedbacks at work here.
The legendary climate scientist, Veerabhadran Ramanathan, and colleagues quantified the Arctic ice-albedo feedback and found that it was quite substantial. The effect of rapid Arctic warming on regional weather in lower latitudes was also reviewed here.
The summer of 2012 is on record as the lowest in year-to-year Arctic sea ice extent. NASA reported that winter Arctic sea ice extent has already hit an all-time low in 2018. However, it is worth noting that after 2020 the extent (video) is likely becoming a more deceptive measurement than ever before. This is because the ice itself is now thin, young, spread out by winds, and buffeted by ocean currents. It is likely to expand more because of this and because it has lost significant volume. Most of the multiyear ice is now gone. It is also important to understand and also monitor the ice volume or thickness also known as concentration, which is often overlooked. NSIDC provides a daily updated concentration report.
Why Is The Sea Ice Melting?
There is scientific consensus that the shrinking sea ice is caused by anthropogenic warming that stems from human activities primarily in the burning of fossil fuels, such as oil, gas and coal, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
Also, it is important to note that just because it’s cold outside or we get a snow storm, doesn’t mean the polar regions are not warming overall and in decline. This article discusses how it happens that a warming Arctic is linked to extreme cold and heavy snowfall in the U.S.
Time-Lapse Proof of Arctic Ice Loss
Founded in 2007 by James Balog, the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) is an innovative, long-term photography program that integrates art and science to give a “visual voice” to the planet’s changing ecosystems. This project has resulted in thousands of incredible images documenting this changing landscape and the loss of ice around the world. In this Ted Talk, James Balog discusses his time-lapse proof of extreme ice loss.
The EIS project provides video and expertly photographed footage of what is happening in places most of us will never be able to visit because they are so distant, cold, dangerous and remote. There are two powerful documentary films about the project, including Extreme Ice (video) and Chasing Ice (video). These include stunning views of this unique ecosystem.
What is Polar Amplification?
Sea ice changes have been identified as a mechanism for polar amplification. According to Wikipedia, paleoclimatology records show “evidence of polar amplification, both from the Arctic and the Antarctic. Polar amplification is the phenomenon that any change in the net radiation balance tends to produce a larger change in temperature near the poles than the planetary average.” It is the mechanism by which the poles warm at faster rates than at mid-latitudes. It is heavily influenced by various feedback loops. The Arctic is warming up at least twice as fast as the rest of the world and maybe as much as 3-5 times as fast. This fact should cause widespread concern.
Charts from the Polar Portal show temperatures north of 80°N that the 2019 daily mean temperature is way up for October 2019. The temperature is now well above the 1958-2002 mean (green line in the chart below). Studies have hypothesized that Arctic amplification, the enhanced warming of the Arctic region compared to the rest of the globe, will cause changes in mid-latitude weather over the twenty-first century. Santa is headed for “A Sloggy Surprise” in the North Pole at this rate. This is also the title of a meme-changing Christmas story which was first written as a screenplay intended for animation by Edward Draper who says “the crafty little elf is the perfect catalyst for expansive environmental activism.”
Recent studies have hypothesized that Arctic amplification, i.e. the enhanced warming of the Arctic region compared to the rest of the globe, will cause changes in mid-latitude weather over the twenty-first century. Elizabeth Barnes of Colorado State and collaborators did climate model projections of arctic warming (and sea ice loss) and how it affects atmospheric circulation over North America. The Arctic temperature anomalies reports are consistently at least a couple of degrees above the 1979-2000 base according to Climate Reanalyzer.
Arctic sea ice is collapsing faster than expected. Recent research states that scientists “think that several cryosphere tipping points are dangerously close.” Without the ice our oceans will heat up far more rapidly than they ever have since H. sapiens arrived.
When is the First Ice-Free Arctic Expected?
This is where it gets really tricky. Apparently, predicting when this will happen not only requires significant data modeling, but also a crystal ball. One study on this topic said if the world warms above 2°C degrees this century (note: for warming above 2°C, frequent ice-free conditions could be expected, potentially for several months per year), the Arctic will likely have a three-month, ice-free period each summer by 2050. But many argue this is much too conservative.
2041 was founded by polar explorer, environmental leader and public speaker Robert Swan, OBE. Swan is the first person in history to walk to both the North and South Poles as the date by which humanity will see devastating changes if we don’t act now. It could be gone as early as 2035 and earlier.
New observations also indicate that the Arctic could be ice-free during the summer by the 2030’s, a date earlier than previously projected. It is important to note that much of the Arctic’s sea-ice cover is made up of thinner ice than in past decades making it vulnerable to abrupt change.
However, 2040 is the date often provided in the credible research given in the last couple years. Prior to this most research stated 2100, but that number is now very out of date and out of step with the data. Other researchers are saying we certainly don’t have even until 2040 or 2050 and the latest research says it’s coming much earlier than previously predicted.
For example, the US Navy researchers predicted a sea-ice-free Arctic by the summer of 2016. According to this report we are already over due for this event. Researchers recently had a breakthrough in finding the specific mechanism behind the rapid melting of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. “Arctic sea ice could be gone (in the summer) by next year (2022),” says Jennifer A. MacKinnon, a Lead Climate Scientist at Scripps Institute.
We are in the midst of a long-term decline in Arctic sea ice which many have described as a ‘death spiral.’ Arctic sea ice is thinning rapidly. The Arctic will eventually be ice-free in the summer. When exactly this will happen is an ongoing matter of scientific investigation and inquiry. In other words, no one knows for certain. We can only make estimates about this based on climate models.
What Are the Consequences?
The main consequence of an ice-free arctic is that dark blue open ocean is much less reflective than sea ice, which leads to significantly more solar radiation being absorbed. Additionally, there is the latent heat effect. In short, an ice-free Arctic means the beginning of the end of cooling, because huge amounts of sunlight won’t get reflected back into space anymore, resulting in much more warming. With less Arctic ice the planet’s ability to cool itself becomes more and more uncertain.
“The Arctic is a natural freezer,” says Michael Mann, a climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, in an email to The Verge. “Just like you’d be concerned if all of the ice in your freezer melted, so should you be concerned about the loss of Arctic sea ice.”
During this period of increased and continued ice loss, researchers are saying that our climate and weather patterns will be profoundly disrupted and unstable. According to the latest IPCC report the coming consequences of the melting poles are nothing short of scary (video), and include increases in extreme weather and storms, flooding, famine (with enormous risks to the global food supply), refugees, disease, drought, wildfires, and much more; not the least of which is conflict and geopolitical upheaval. Eminent and world renowned researcher, James Lovelock, has been saying for over a decade that more than 6 billion people could perish by the end of the century due to the multiple cascading impacts of dangerous climate change.
Positive Feedback Loops (Not a Good Thing)
There are also of course obvious feedbacks on various animals whose lives depend on the sea ice ecosystem which will have to adapt to other ecosystems or perish. There are numerous other “positive” feedbacks like Hansen et al’s ice-climate report shows, and don’t forget that in this case, these so-called positive feedbacks are not a good thing.
Additionally, NASA is saying that ice loss on the Arctic will even affect the Earth’s obliquity. Impacts on El Niño and La Niña phases are also expected along with wavier jet streams and a regularly disrupted polar vortex. Bubbling methane release from Thermokarst or thaw lakes is also accelerating permafrost melt. One study published in Nature Geoscience in 2012 estimated that thawed permafrost could contribute up to 1.7°C of warming. An ice-free Arctic has the potential to disrupt atmospheric and ocean currents around the world.
Let’s not even talk about the implications of the theoretical 50 gigaton methane burst known as the methane time bomb, or the clathrate gun hypothesis, or the melting glaciers at Novaya Zemlya which are known to be leaking radiation from the Tsar Bomba detonation into the already badly polluted oceans. Of course, this has been mostly debunked.
Since we haven’t experienced an ice-free Arctic as modern humans yet, it’s hard to say exactly what the effects would really look like. Would an event like this signify the “point of no return” for people? Would images of such an event come to illustrate what climate change really means for us? Only time will tell, but an ice-free Arctic would certainly be a frightening sign of things to come. Some scientists say that when the Arctic goes we will be headed for a Hothouse Earth as the planet gradually loses the ability to cool itself but this won’t happen suddenly as some have claimed either. While losing the summer sea ice will drive significant regional warming and and may increase mid-latitude weather extremes as well as disorientate the jet stream, the global warming boost according to Dr. David McKay will be modest (estimated at +~0.15-0.2oC, of which around half has already happened).
The Consequences of an Ice-Free Arctic According to James Hansen
The following list includes the consequences of an ice-free Arctic as defined by eminent climate scientist, James Hansen.
- Both wave action and Ekman Pump action will increase the bottom water temperatures in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, which will increase methane emissions from hydrate decomposition.
- Permafrost decomposition will accelerate; which will increase both CO2 and CH₄ emissions.
- Boreal wildfires will increase (like in Fort McMurray only further north and worse).
- The atmospheric thermal gradient will decrease, which will decrease the constraints on the Jet stream, which will increase blocking events which will increase extreme weather events.
- Warming over Greenland will accelerate which will increase ice mass loss and associated sea level rise (SLR).
- The specific humidity in the Arctic will increase, and as water vapor is a GHG, this will increase Arctic Amplification; which will decrease snow cover that will act as a positive feedback for more warming due to decreasing albedo.
- Shrub growth in the tundra will increase, which will also act as a positive feedback for more warming by decreasing albedo in the tundra.
- Pests will more further north, which will attack boreal forests and tundra shrub growth.
- Ground burrowing animals (like ground squirrels) will more north, which will accelerate permafrost degradation.
- Farmland will more northward, which will decrease albedo and will accelerate permafrost degradation.
- Plankton growth will accelerate in the Arctic; which will be smaller in size than the current average, which will sequester less carbon.
- The thermohaline circulation (great oceanic conveyor) will both slow and will also convey more warm into the Barents/Kara Sea areas.
- Shipping will increase which will increase carbon emissions (including black carbon) in the Arctic.
- Resource extraction (oil, gas, coal, iron etc) will increase.
Recent research is just linking sea ice retreat with tropical phenomena and changes at the equator including a new kind of El Niño and drastically a meandering jet stream. This further impacts the influence of Arctic sea-ice variability on Pacific trade winds. It also corresponds to sudden stratospheric warming and expanding tropical zones.
The Mystery of the Expanding Tropics
As Earth’s dry, hot zones shift rapidly polewards, researchers are scrambling to figure out the cause — and consequences. Hadley cell expansion will impact us all as the world warms. It means extreme temperatures, storms, droughts and fires. This is also what happens when the center of cold at the poles is not cold enough to hold the warm air cells back. If you sign up for free at edX, you can take Michael Mann’s course: Climate Change: The Science and Global Impact. He discusses “Hadley cell expansion”. This is now impacting Australia (video). The global classroom is 24/7 learn something new everyday.
Changing Ocean Currents
Arctic ice melt is also changing ocean currents. While melt slows the AMOC, it can speed up local currents. Up until now, scientists have been unsure of how the climate crisis would impact ocean currents. Some models suggested a warmer world would lead to a slower ocean, The Scientist explained. This is certainly the case for the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) in the North Atlantic, but because this current is driven by cold water sinking and flowing southward, its slowing doesn’t negate the possibility that winds could increase other currents.
What About Greenland?
Greenland is also melting (video) more than expected in the summer months. Greenland’s main glacier – the largest ice sheet outside of Antarctica – lost a staggering 217 billion tons of ice in one month (in July 2019) releasing enough water to fill 4.4 million Olympic-sized swimming pools. Greenland’s ice loss will contribute significantly to sea level rise. It is now becoming widely known that Greenland’s ice is melting much faster than thought. Here’s why that’s scary. Greenland loses on average of 270 billion tons of ice each year.
As far as other conditions go, the winter high temperature was about 45 degrees above normal in the last couple years. The North Pole reached temperatures above freezing despite being in total darkness during the coldest months of the year. In addition, some areas of Greenland experienced open water for the very first time, and the Bering Strait was also completely ice free for part of the winter.
Research shows that Greenland’s ice is not just trickling into the ocean, but actually melting significantly in large spikes. Beyond rising seas, this will increase freshwater running into the ocean which can slow down the Atlantic Conveyor, a massive pattern of currents in the Atlantic Ocean. There are numerous terrifying implications here that should make us strongly consider stopping business as usual (BAU) immediately when it comes to burning fossil fuels and polluting our planet for profit. Flatten Greenland, and the Atlantic jet stream goes with it.
Arctic Versus Antarctic Melting Trends
The ice-free Arctic that we have been discussing here is a phenomenon that is particular to the Arctic region. However we cannot forget that Antarctica is also hemorrhaging ice. Of course, Antarctica will not leave an open blue ocean, because it has a large land mass underneath it. However, it will have enormous and frightening consequences as it loses ice which is happening right now. If we lose the ice on this continent, it is well-known that its loss will contribute to massive sea level rise as well as sudden stratospheric warming (video).
NOAA has reported January 2020 as the warmest on record, calling it incredible and abnormal. On February 8, 2020, Antarctica recorded its hottest temperature on record: 64.9 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3°C). Dramatic images show an ice-less region of Antarctica following the report of record-high temperatures. The recent highs in the region have followed a string of heat waves since January, Marcelo Leppe, director of the Chilean Antarctic Institute, told Reuters.
This is due to human-caused climate change. The amount of ice lost annually from the Antarctic has increased six-fold from 1979 to 2017, the World Meteorological Organization, the United Nations’ authoritative voice on weather, climate and water, said in a statement last week. “This is the foreshadowing of what is to come,” a researcher said. “It’s exactly in line of what we’ve been seeing for decades.”
The Doomsday Glacier
Glaciologists have described Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica as the “most important” glacier in the world, the “riskiest” glacier, even the “doomsday” glacier. In this BBC video, this glacier is discussed. A team of 40 or so scientists are part of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, a five-year, $50m (£38m) joint UK-US effort to understand why it is changing so rapidly. The project represents the biggest and most complex scientific field programme in Antarctic history. The BBC’s chief environment correspondent Justin Rowlatt went to meet the scientists behind the project.
Also, large piece was reported to have broken off of Pine Island Glacier in 2016 (Larsen C), and another in early 201, and again in 2020. According to NASA, the region surrounding the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers contain enough “highly vulnerable ice” to raise global sea levels by about 4 feet. Large calving events used to take place at Pine Island Glacier every four to six years, but they’re now a nearly annual occurrence. Scientists are now reporting that the poles are melting six times faster than the 1990s. In the following video, Dave Borlace of Just Have a Think, discusses this further.
Researchers can use NASA Worldview to monitor this situation. NSIDC provides a lot of information and analysis on the differences between Arctic vs Antarctic ice loss. The mysterious Blood falls may also shed light on how Antarctica has responded to climate change. Research in the past decade has shown that “the Amundsen Sea embayment of West Antarctica might have passed a tipping point: the ‘grounding line’ where ice, ocean and bedrock meet is retreating irreversibly. A model study shows that when this sector collapses, it could destabilize the rest of the West Antarctic ice sheet like toppling dominoes — leading to about 3 metres of sea-level rise on a timescale of centuries to millennia.
It was once thought that the Antarctic ice sheet was practically immutable. But Paleohistory disproves this, and shows complete ice loss on the continent has happened before and it can happen again. Paleo-evidence shows that such widespread collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet has occurred repeatedly in the past.” Antarctic ice loss is nothing new, but as lead science author Eric Rignot of the University of California, Irvine, tells the Post, East Antarctica’s contributions to this phenomenon warrant further study. “The traditional view from many decades ago is that nothing much is happening in East Antarctica,” Rignot says. “It’s a little bit like wishful thinking.”
“Doomsday Glacier” Melting At An ‘Alarming Rate’ Say Scientists
David Holland, NYU scientist, said the ocean underneath the glacier is too warm (3.6 degrees F above freezing) for the Doomsday Glacier to remain stable. The oceans have already absorbed too much heat. This will not be easily corrected or reversed now. The Thwaites Glacier (Doomsday Glacier) will result in a 10 ft. SLR when it melts, which is now underway.
Geopolitical Vulnerabilities and Risk Factors of an Ice-Free Arctic
There are global stakeholders like China, Russia, and the USA all waiting anxiously to exploit the opportunities of an ice-free Arctic. Authors like Gwynne Dyer who wrote the book Climate Wars have been saying for over decade that the changes in this area would bring conflict. This will impact geopolitics requiring new rules for protecting the Arctic from exploitation, shipping, military exercises, and fossil fuel extraction. The job of the Arctic Council will become more important than ever. At the same time public discussion can no longer be avoided. The World Economic Forum states that, “despite its importance, the Arctic Ocean sometimes goes missing from public [discussion].” In the following video, Dave Borlace of Just Have a Think, discusses the potential vulnerabilities and risks that come with an ice-free Arctic.
According to this article, we can also expect to see sea levels rise, albedo impacts, more extreme weather, and thawing permafrost just to name a few more. There are also feedbacks on various peoples whose livelihood depends on the sea ice ecosystem which will have to adapt to other ecosystems or perish. Inuit populations have already begun to deal with relocation.This is only the beginning of the impacts on people’s lives all over the globe from the consequences of melting ice. It is clear that the great climate migration has already begun.
What Can We Do?
The changes that are happening in the Arctic don’t just affect the Arctic. Our planet is an interconnected system, and the vanishing ice is already having ripple effects around the globe. Our planet is warming and its cryosphere, the Earth’s frozen layer, is melting and the looming consequences are nothing short of scary. Sharp and potentially devastating temperature rises of 3°C to 5°C in the Arctic are now inevitable even if the world succeeds in cutting greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris agreement, research has found.
While there is still ice on the poles some scientists have theorized that the earth might be able to regenerate and come back from some of the devastation humans have caused. Humans should do all they can now, to save this incredible natural environment. It is unlike any other place on Earth.
Stopping climate change in the Arctic will require an enormous reduction in the emission of fossil fuels, and the world has made scant progress despite obvious urgency. Moreover, many greenhouse gases persist in our atmosphere for years. Even if we were to cease all emissions tomorrow, it would take decades for those gases to dissolve and for temperatures to stabilize (though some recent research suggests the span could be shorter).
If things keep going this way, we will be left with no other options except to try risky gambles with new technologies and geoengineering. Several researchers are now suggesting a non-toxic geoengineering technique called marine cloud brightening (MCB) as one way to save the Arctic should things keep getting worse as they are. It is highly experimental, in fact its never been done on a large scale and not much outside the laboratory either. But it maybe our only chance.
Some are also asking if it will be possible to refreeze the Arctic (video)? What about artificial glaciers (video)? Scientists and engineers are now researching ways of refreezing the Arctic, even though geoengineering is still a taboo topic. We need to begin development and testing procedures now, and come up with governance structures while we still have time. This is a complex problem. It would be a much better idea to save the Arctic.
According to ClimateMobilization.org, “a climate mobilization effort means not only preventing unimaginable suffering from climate and environmental catastrophe, but also working to reinvent our economy to address the social inequities on which the extractive economy has been based.” Just like with the coronavirus pandemic people could participate in degrowth strategies, eat less meat, consume less, shop less, drive less, fly less, work less, live simply and reduce their carbon footprint at the same time by just taking some very easy steps toward change. If we can all learn to wear face masks and social distance, we can also learn to take steps to reduce our carbon footprint more and more every day. #SaveTheArctic #ClimateMobilizationNow
Become a Citizen Scientist
People everywhere can work together to solve these mysteries and gather clues to enhance this science. Scientists’ Warning advocates for citizen science. According to National Geographic, “citizen science is the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to increase scientific knowledge.” Programs like SciStarter provide opportunities for people everywhere to get involved. Use NASA’s Global ICE Viewer tool to become a sentinel of climate change in the Arctic and beyond. Researching the cryosphere is fascinating. Many publicly available diagnostic research and educational tools are discussed and linked to from this and other Scientists’ Warning Knowledgebase.
More discussion on marine cloud brightening (MCB) and other geoengineering techniques to save the Arctic can be found on the SW Geoengineering Page.
- Arctic Sea Ice Loss Update 2019 | Just Have a Think (video)
- Arctic Expedition Raises an Ozone Alarm in the High North
- Fact Check: Will An Ice-Free Arctic Trigger A Climate Catastrophe?
- Arctic Change Has Widespread Impacts | Phys.org
- Climate Impact Lab Maps (Shows Your Local Area)
- Crushing Climate Impacts to Hit Sooner Than Feared: Draft UN Report | Phys.org
- Daily Ice Analysis | NOAA
- End of Ice with Dahr Jamail | Ralph Nader Radio Hour
- Greenland Melting Due to Rain | BBC
- Ice-Free Arctic Coming Earlier Than Previously Predicted
- Multi-meter Sea Level Rise, Antarctica Too | Climate State (video)
- Naval Ice Thickness Map
- NSIDC Extent and Concentration Maps
- NSIDC: A Look Back at 2019 and The Past Decade
- Polar Portal
- The Arctic Has Entered a New Climate State | Radio Ecoshock
- The Blue Ocean Event and Collapsing Ecosystems
- Restoring Arctic Ice Is the Key to Curbing Climate Change—So Why Are We Ignoring It?
- Radiation Leaking from Tsar Bomba As Arctic Melts
- Western US in grips of hottest, driest summer in 1000 years? | DW News (video)
- When Will All the Ice in the Arctic Be Gone? | SA
- Why won’t anyone ask why [the heat waves, droughts, wild fires are so extreme now]? | HEATED.WORLD
- Zombies in the Arctic (yes, that’s a science thing!)
- 118 F = 48 C and no, Siberia is not close to Nevada
The Frozen Magic of Ice
The photo to the left shows the sunrise in Moose, Pass Alaska over shards of ice with a radiant glow. These views of the cryosphere will become obsolete if we lose the sea ice.
Act Now to Save the Arctic
The window to act is quickly closing. If we act now and take the emergency steps required to change this trajectory and protect the Arctic we might still have a chance to mitigate some of the worst outcomes and avoid a Hothouse Earth. #ClimateMobilization
End War Inc., War-Based Growth Economy
Many are now calling for the end of growth capitalism and its many remnants of colonialism. Scientists’ Warning is working to further the dialog about alternatives and especially ecological economy. Carl Sagan (video) once said that “an organism at war with itself is doomed.”
- Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (2017). International Conference on Arctic Science: Bringing Knowledge to Action. Presentation by James Overland, research oceanographer.
- AMAP, Snow, Water, Ice, and Permafrost. Retrieved from https://www.amap.no/documents/doc/snow-water-ice-and-permafrost-in-the-arctic-swipa-2017/1610
- Balog, James (2014). Ted Talk: Time-lapse proof of extreme ice loss. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTDdY1UG7ug
- Francis, Jennifer (2014). Observational determination of albedo decrease caused by vanishing Arctic sea ice. Retrieved from https://scripps.ucsd.edu/biblio/observational-determination-albedo-decrease-caused-vanishing-arctic-sea-ice
- Government Accountability Office (2003). Alaska native villages: Most are affected by flooding and erosion, but few qualify for federal assistance. Retrieved from http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d04142.pdf
- Jamail, Dhar (2019). The end of ice [Book]. New York, NY: New Press.
- Labe, Zachary (2021). Arctic sea ice figures. Retrieved from https://sites.uci.edu/zlabe/arctic-sea-ice-figures/
- National Snow and Ice Data Center, NSIDC (2019 and 2020). State of the cryosphere. Retrieved from https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/sotc/sea_ice.html
- NASA Worldview (2019). NASA worldview. Retrieved from https://worldview.earthdata.nasa.gov/
- NCBI (2020). Arctic ice loss threatens national security: A path forward. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7515820/
- NOAA (2020). Arctic report card. Retrieved from https://arctic.noaa.gov/Portals/7/ArcticReportCard/Documents/ArcticReportCard_full_report2020.pdf
- United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (2010). Why Monitor the Arctic Ocean? Services to society from a sustained ocean observing system?” Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0018/001898/189843e.pdf;
- World Wildlife Foundation (2016). The blue economy. Retrieved from http://awsassets.panda.org/downloads/thecircle0416_1.pdf.
2°C, 4°C, 10°C?
Climate models predict we’re currently on track for a heating of somewhere between 3°C and 4°C, although keep in mind that these are global average temperatures – at the poles and over land (where people live), the increase may be double that. Predictions are tricky, however, as temperatures depend on how sensitive the climate is to carbon dioxide (CO2).
Most models assume that it is not very sensitive – that’s where the lower 3°C comes from – but a whole new set of models to be published in 2021 finds much greater sensitivity. They put heating at around 5°C by the end of the century, meaning people could be experiencing as much as 10°C of heating over land.
The last time it was 4°C warmer there was no ice at either pole and sea level was 80 meters higher than it is today. What that means is that this limit is likely far too generous for human survivability. This is drifting toward a climate that would called be a “Hothouse Earth” analogous to the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) 65-55mya, in a 7-9°C warmer world according to Michael Mann.
The baseline (or reference) is the state against which change is measured. A baseline period is the period relative to which anomalies are computed. The IPCC 5th Assessment Report used 1850-1900 as a historical baseline (but did not formally define this as ‘pre-industrial’). The period 1850-1900 has been widely used as the historical baseline, and typically this gives us about 1.1°C of warming. Therefore, typically researchers and reporters discuss avoiding 1.5°C as an aspirational goal.
 Fact Checking ‘The Blue Ocean Event’
According to Dr. David McKay, “together, observations, theory, modelling, and paleorecords suggest that a summer ice-free Arctic is not yet imminent, and will NOT trigger a globally catastrophic “Blue Ocean Event” even when it does despite many claims and some myths about this so-called event. The first ice-free summer in the Arctic will happen sooner than originally thought and likely sometime in the next few decades, but is hard to predict exactly when because of large natural variability on top of the human-driven warming trend.”
The point at which sea ice cover falls to close to zero in the summer will have serious consequences, but, in some ways, could be viewed as a symbolic measure, says Dr Marika Holland, a senior sea ice scientist at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), who will use MOSAiC data to make projections about the Arctic’s future. She says:
“Reaching an ice-free Arctic summer is just a further exclamation point, emphasizing that this is happening and it is dramatic and unprecedented. But from my perspective, the changes are already dramatic and unprecedented – and we can’t lose sight of that.” – Carbon Brief
Last Updated: 06/19/2021