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Five Reasons Why Sea Ice Decline Should be Front Page News

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In the next few days the Arctic sea ice will reach its minimum extent for 2013. At the end of this year’s summer melt season, the areal extent covered by sea ice was more than a million square kilometers below the 30-year average. That’s a lot of ice missing compared to an average year. An area of frozen ocean—ten times the size of Indiana, or four times the size of Colorado, or a third bigger than Texas—is just not there this summer.

While this is shocking and part of a several-decade decline in Arctic sea ice, what’s also alarming is the lack of substantive media coverage. The decline in Arctic sea ice should concern all of us in the same way that a collapse of the economic system does. It deserves front page billing. A recent Nature commentary stated that “the costs of a melting Arctic will be huge, because the region is pivotal to the functioning of Earth systems such as oceans and the climate.” They don’t mince their words.

Not only has the extent of sea ice been declining since satellite measurements began in the 1970s, but the volume has also decreased dramatically. The volume of Arctic sea ice in August 2013 was less than a third the volume it was in August 1979. Source: Andy Lee Robinson

Here are five reasons why the decline of the Arctic sea ice matters:

1.  Sea ice reflects sunlight, keeping earth cool

When bright, reflective sea ice melts, it gives way to a darker ocean. More heat is absorbed by a darker surface, leading to more warming. This is known as the ice-albedo feedback effect. Largely due to the recent dramatic loss of sea ice and this feedback, the Arctic is now warming at twice the global rate.

2.  Sea ice forms a surface barrier, moderating winter weather

Sea ice covers the ocean for much of the year, impeding the transfer of heat and moisture from the ocean to the atmosphere. With less sea ice extent and thinner sea ice becoming common, there is a greater transfer of both moisture and heat to the atmosphere in the Arctic. Combined with the ice-albedo feedback, this amplifies the region’s warming, and may affect circulation patterns like the jet stream, that can affect weather patterns in the lower 48 states and elsewhere.

3.  Sea ice influences the ocean conveyor belt

As sea ice forms in the Arctic and Antarctic, dense salty water sinks to the bottom of the ocean starting the “global ocean conveyor belt” that pumps heat and salt around the world’s oceans. The flow of this water helps regulate temperature and distributes nutrients throughout the oceans. It is crucial to the oceanic food chain and takes hundreds of years to complete a full circuit. The “conveyor belt” helps keep places like London temperate even though they are further north than much colder cities like Boston.

4.  Indigenous communities rely on sea ice for their culture and livelihoods

For many indigenous communities sea ice affords protection from waves and coastal erosion, provides a surface for distant travel, a habitat for birds and animals they hunt, and forms a central part of spiritual beliefs. The ecosystem services from sea ice that indigenous communities depend on are diminishing.  Along with that, the world is losing the expert knowledge and the physical locations of cultures with an intimate connection to the Arctic.

5.  Sea ice affects both land-based and ocean-based ecosystems

The ecological consequences of changes in Arctic sea ice are outlined in a recent paper in Science here. Sea ice determines the interaction between marine and terrestrial species, influences ocean productivity, and affects local weather. From phytoplankton at the base of extensive food chains to potent heat-trapping methane release from permafrost, changes to natural systems will come at great financial and ecological cost.

The decline of the Arctic sea ice. Source: NSIDC 15th September, 2013

Loss of Arctic summer sea ice – not “if” but “when”

As the relentless decay of sea ice continues, an ice-free summer in the Arctic is a given – it’s now a matter of “when,” not “if”. Nine of the lowest years on the satellite record for Arctic sea ice minimum extent have been in the last decade. But we do have a choice – we must act swiftly to reduce emissions and ensure we avoid the very worst impacts to the fragile Arctic ecosystem. We can and must try to delay the disappearance of summer sea ice and time is of the essence.

Front page image courtesy of  Richard Petry.

Posted in: Global Warming Tags: , , , , , ,

About the author: Melanie Fitzpatrick, a climate scientist with the UCS Climate and Energy Program, is an expert on local and global impacts of climate change. She holds a Ph.D. in Geophysics from the University of Washington, specializing in the role of sea ice and clouds in Antarctica. See Melanie's full bio.

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  • http://blindspot.org.uk/projects/#crc james greyson

    How significant is the latent heat absorbed from the environment during the net loss of snow and ice pls? Is the Arctic acting as a climate buffer, so as the ice mass is lost we would expect an acceleration just from the lost capacity to absorb heat during melting (in addition to acceleration from other feedback effects)?

  • http://cass.ucsd.edu/~rskibba/ Ramin Skibba

    Hi,

    I’m an astronomer at UC San Diego and I’m sort of new to the UCS.

    Thanks for the interesting and informative post.

    I think that expanding shipping lanes in the arctic are something that could exacerbate sea ice decline. (Some articles and blogs have mentioned the issue too, such as Andrew Revkin in the NYT: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/18/the-vital-long-view-in-tracking-diminishing-arctic-sea-ice/)

    But I don’t see new international laws or regulations on shipping lanes on the horizon, and territorial claims in the arctic are likely to become more “heated” (pun intended) in the future, unfortunately. Instead, we seem to be approaching another tipping point.

    Ramin

  • http://arcticcycle.org Clay Myers-Bowman

    Nice article Melanie. But you have more hope than I do. While I agree that we COULD try to reduce the loss of Arctic sea ice, I doubt that anything will be done that could be described as “swift”.

    • Melanie Fitzpatrick

      Thanks for your comment, Clay.

      Vaclav Havel is quoted as saying:

      “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

      I guess we are all trying to make sense of our actions in this world.

      Melanie

  • Georgia R

    Thanks for the post. The lack of media coverage on climate change is disheartening and something that needs to change, but is related to the “communication crisis” in climate change – our, as environmentalists and scientists, inability to explain in a compelling way why exactly the average person should care. How can we expect to raise alarm when we continuously warn the public that “sea ice forms a surface barrier, moderating winter weather” or that the ocean conveyor belt will be “influenced”? These dry phrases and vague warnings barely raise alarm in me, someone who has studied earth systems and works in the environmental field. The media reports what people want to hear, and will be a partner in efforts to combat climate change when we start framing the issue in terms of quality of life, economy, jobs, and communities – things that actually matter to people in their daily lives.

  • Ernest F. Cooke

    Do you have a prediction for artic sea ice in 2014?

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/about/staff/staff/melanie-fitzpatrick.html Melanie Fitzpatrick

      Ernest,

      Thanks for the question. What all scientists who study sea ice agree on is that the trend in the Arctic is towards thinner ice in the winter and less ice extent in the summer for the long term. What’s much harder to predict is the exact amount of sea ice from year to year. Sea ice is a complex system with feedbacks that both increase (speed up) the loss of sea ice and decrease (slow down) the growth of sea ice. If you look at this graph on the National Climate Data Center website for August sea ice extent, you can see the high degree of variability from year to year with a clear decreasing trend: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/service/global/nh-seaice/201308.gif

      Melanie

  • http://www.godisnowhere.org Daniel Hedrick

    The data is over a 33 yr period and overall it looks like the loss and gains over this time is about equal. Isn’t that how you read it?

    While there was a record loss in 2007, there have been two major gains in 2009 and this year 2013.

    Just a basic review of the data does not indicate any sort of catastrophic loss.

    Is this correct?

    • Melanie Fitzpatrick

      Hi Daniel,

      Thanks so much for your comment.

      To clarify, the data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center shows that over the last 40 years Arctic sea ice “extent” has decreased both at the end of summer and at the end of winter. Over the last 40 years, sea ice extent in September, when sea ice is at its annual minimum, has decreased by 14% per decade. Over the same period, sea ice extent in March when sea is at its annual maximum, has also decreased but only by about 2.5% per decade.

      You can find the data here (under Compare Trends): http://nsidc.org/data/seaice_index/

      Melanie

  • http://www.godisnowhere.org Daniel Hedrick
    • Brian Uhrig

      The website seems to be showing a graph of the delta in ice, not the total sea ice extent. Note the difference is scales on both graphs. Making a claim of record gain in ice says nothing about the record losses. Cherry picking data in my opinion.

      • Melanie Fitzpatrick

        Hi Daniel and Brian,

        Sea ice “extent” normally varies from year to year, much like the weather changes from day to day. What is evident from the past decade is that sea ice extent in summer is declining dramatically, with record breaking minimums in 2007 and again in 2012.

        To claim that there is a “record growth” in Arctic sea ice after one of these record-breaking minimum summers is a somewhat misleading claim, as it charts growth from a record-breaking low starting point. Doing this also disregards the fact that we are seeing Arctic sea ice disappear and a rapid decline in sea ice “volume” in both winter and summer (see my earlier comment).

        The Arctic summer sea ice minimum “extent” has been below the 1981-2000 average every year for the last decade. You can access an excellent graph of monthly extent on the National Snow and Ice Data Center website here : http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/charctic-interactive-sea-ice-graph/

        Also, to determine how robust Arctic sea ice is, sea ice “volume” is far more important than sea ice “extent”. Thinner sea ice is less likely to recover even over successive winter growth seasons. The European Space Agency’s CryoSat satellite has been measuring sea ice thickness in the Arctic for the last three years, and has found thinner ice each winter. See more here: http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Observing_the_Earth/Living_Planet_Symposium_2013/New_dimensions_on_ice

        Melanie

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