Arctic Sea Ice Shrinks to Second-Lowest Coverage Ever

ON 09/28/2020 AT 11:10 PM

On September 15, total Arctic sea ice hit below 4 million square meters (1.5 million square miles). By next summer there could be zero ice on the waters there.

Arctic Sea Ice Minimum as of September 15, 2020.

A map showing the boundaries of the Arctic Sea Ice minimum recorded on September 15, 2020. The orange line shows the median sea ice boundary for the period from 1981-2010. Photo: National Snow and Ice Data Center

The bad news for the planet as a result of global heating just became a lot worse. 

Just one week ago, researchers from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), based in Boulder, Colorado, took a deep dive into just-gathered satellite data on what was happening in the rapidly warming Arctic. They found the sea ice minimum had fallen to 3.74 million square meters (1.44 million square miles).  

Arctic Sea Ice extent trends since 1979

The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent on September 15, 2020, along with several other recent years and the record minimum set in 2012. 2019 is shown in green, 2018 in orange, 2017 in brown, 2016 in magenta, and 2012 in dashed brown. The 1981 to 2010 median is in dark gray. The gray areas around the median line show the interquartile and interdecile ranges of the data. Photo: National Snow and Ice Data Center

In the 42 years since Arctic ice extent has been measured, the Arctic ice has fallen below 4 square kilometers only twice, per the NSIDC. The previous record was set in 2012. Compared to what happened that time, there was slightly more ice in the Beaufort Sea area and a bit less in the East Greenland and Laptev sea areas.  

Comparison of Arctic Sea Ice minimum extents in 2012 and 2020

The map above compares the 2012 Arctic sea ice minimum, reached on September 17, with the 2020 Arctic sea ice minimum, reached on September 15. Light blue shading indicates the region where ice occurred in both 2012 and 2020, while white and medium blue areas show ice cover unique to 2012 and to 2020, respectively. Photo: National Snow and Ice Data Center

The scientists believe the September 15 is likely the minimum ice extent for the year. As the area passed the fall equinox on September 21 it appeared weather conditions were set for an increase in ice which will continue through winter.  That minimum ice extent is, however, only 350,000 square kilometers (135,000 square miles) above the current 42-year minimum set on September 2012. If local weather conditions were to vary a bit, the sea ice extent could easily drop below the previous record. 

To put this drop into perspective, the record setting sea ice extent for 2012 that this was only slightly beyond works out to a region about the combined extent of the land mass in Alaska, Texas, and Montana. It is a tiny geographic area relative to what used to be present at the North Pole.

Arctic Sea Ice extent trends over time

This graph shows linear trends of Arctic sea ice extent for three 14-year periods for the day of the annual minimum. Trend percent values are relative to the 1981 to 2010 average minimum extent. On the right, the average (square) and range of highest and lowest extents at the minimum for each period are given. Photo: W. Meier, National Sea and Ice Data Center

Sea ice in the Arctic has been dropping for some time, with the last 14 years recording the lowest 14 minimums since records were logged starting in 1979. The ice dropped at a rate of 6.4 percent per decade from 1979 to 1992, at 13.3 percent per decade between 1993 and 2006, and then slightly slowing to a rate of 4.0 percent per decade from 2007 to 2020. 

Arctic ice is a critical resource for planetary health for several reasons. When it is present, the white surface of the ice reflects sunlight back into the atmosphere. When the ice is gone, sunlight heats land and sea areas alike, raising the overall temperature of the planet in the process while also heating the waters where marine life depends on typically colder temperatures to survive. The lack of ice also makes it impossible for creatures such as the polar bear to make its way across for hunting or fishing. The combination of higher temperatures and loss of ice is therefore a trigger for continued mass extinction events in the Arctic biosystem. 

The ice melt also contributes to what is proving an unabated rise in sea levels across the Earth. Though the Arctic ice melt may have been slowing in recent years, it is still receding at historically rapid rates. 

Based on current trends, there will likely be zero sea ice in the Arctic for the first time starting next summer.  

It is past time to accept the Climate Crisis as unstoppable, and that now is the time for us to begin planning for what could be the end of millions of species – including the human race -- if nothing is done. 

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