Quantcast

Scientists Say Arctic Sea Ice Could ‘Shrink to Record Low’ This Summer

Climate

Arctic sea ice could set a new record low extent this summer, say scientists at this year’s European Geosciences Union (EGU) conference in Vienna.

Measurements from satellites and “snow buoys” deployed on sea ice reveal a “certain likeness” between recent conditions in the Arctic and those seen in the run up to the record summer low in 2012.

Arctic sea ice could set a new record low extent this summer. Photo credit: Armin Rose / Shutterstock

Carbon Brief asked other scientists here at EGU about the likelihood of this year’s summer low setting a new record.

Record Low

The past winter has been something of a record-breaker for the Arctic.

Unusually warm air temperatures during the winter restricted sea ice growth and saw 2016 bring new record lows for sea ice extent for the months of January and February. This culminated in a winter maximum extent in March that clocked in as the smallest since satellite records began in 1979.

Daily Arctic sea ice extent up to 3 April 2016 (blue) alongside daily extent for the winters of 2014/2015 (green), 2013/2014 (orange), 2012/2013 (brown) and 2011/2012 (purple). Dark grey line is the 1981-2010 average is in dark grey. Photo credit: NSIDC

The passing of the winter peak signals the start of the melt season, where sea ice diminishes as temperatures rise through spring and into summer. Sea ice hits its lowest extent sometime in September or October. The record low for the summer minimum currently stands at 3.41m square kilometers, from 2012.

Speaking to Carbon Brief at EGU, Dr. Marcel Nicolaus, a sea ice physicist at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, said the 2016 summer could equal or surpass, this record.

Sea ice conditions over the recent months are similar to those seen before the 2012 record, Nicolaus said. He identifies three main reasons why this year’s summer minimum could rival 2012:

“We did see a stronger melt last summer than usual, so we went into the winter in November with thinner ice than the previous years. We saw, due to the warming, less freezing and less build-up of ice mass [during winter]. And we do see a shift of secure ice towards the northern end of the Fram Strait of the Atlantic Ocean, where it’s very likely to be exported [away from the Arctic and into the North Atlantic] over the course of spring and summer.”

These reasons won’t guarantee a new record, Nicolaus adds, because sea ice melt also depends on the warmth and storminess of spring and summer—but they do boost the odds.

Warmer Than Normal

With almost 13,000 scientists at the EGU conference this week, Carbon Brief caught up with a few of them to ask about the prospects for Arctic sea ice for this year and beyond.

Prof. Julienne Stroeve, professor of polar observation and modeling at University College London and senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC), points out that a small winter sea ice extent doesn’t necessarily translate into a summer low.

She tells Carbon Brief:

“Just because we have thinner ice and less sea ice right now—starting out the melt season—that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to have a new record low.”

That’s because the extent to how much sea ice melts through the summer is also dependent on the weather, Stroeve said. Thinner ice is more susceptible to being broken up by storms, which means it can melt more quickly. But scientists can’t predict the weather several months in advance, so there’s still a lot of uncertainties about how sea ice will fare over the summer.

That said, Stroeve also thinks the conditions are ripe for a new record:

“We had a warm winter and the warmth has continued into spring. If you look at air temperatures for the first three weeks of April, for example, the temperatures are 4-5 C warmer than normal over the whole Arctic Ocean … How that continues is going to play a key role, but certainly having thinner ice to start out with is not a good thing.”

Dr. Ed Hawkins, associate professor at the University of Reading and lead investigator on an Arctic predictability project, makes a similar point. He tells Carbon Brief:

“This winter, we’ve seen very warm conditions in the Arctic. The air temperature has been very warm, which means the ice has not grown as much as it does normally, which means we’re left now at the start of the summer [melt] season with much less less ice than we do normally.

“Whether this means we get a record low year later on in September when the ice reaches its minimum depends quite a lot on what the atmosphere does of the next few months—how many storms we get across the Arctic as they will help break up the ice. So, it depends on how many of those we get as to whether this year will be a record or not.”

Even if this summer doesn’t break the 2012 record, it’s only a matter of time before it does get broken, said Dr. Alexandra Jahn, assistant professor at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado. She tells Carbon Brief:

“As long as we continue to emit greenhouse gases, we will continue to see a decline in Arctic sea ice. So we will eventually see a new record sea ice minimum in September, but it’s very difficult to predict when exactly that will happen.”

Average September Arctic sea ice extent, from 1979 to 2015. Photo credit: NSIDC

For readers at EGU this week, there are posters on sea ice research on display this evening (5:30 - 7 p.m.) in Hall X3 and talks on polar climate predictability from Hawkins, Jahn and others from 8:30 a.m. tomorrow morning in Room G2.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Scientists Share Why Keeping Warming Under 1.5 Degrees Celsius Is Crucial

NOAA: Last Month Was by Far the Planet’s Warmest March Since Record Keeping Began

EPA Underestimates Methane Emissions

March 2016 Was Hottest on Record by Greatest Margin Yet Seen for Any Month

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A vegan diet can improve your health, but experts say it's important to keep track of nutrients and protein. Getty Images

By Dan Gray

  • Research shows that 16 weeks of a vegan diet can boost the gut microbiome, helping with weight loss and overall health.
  • A healthy microbiome is a diverse microbiome. A plant-based diet is the best way to achieve this.
  • It isn't necessary to opt for a strictly vegan diet, but it's beneficial to limit meat intake.

New research shows that following a vegan diet for about 4 months can boost your gut microbiome. In turn, that can lead to improvements in body weight and blood sugar management.

Read More Show Less
Students gathered at the National Mall in Washington DC, Sept. 20. NRDC

By Jeff Turrentine

Nearly 20 years have passed since the journalist Malcolm Gladwell popularized the term tipping point, in his best-selling book of the same name. The phrase denotes the moment that a certain idea, behavior, or practice catches on exponentially and gains widespread currency throughout a culture. Having transcended its roots in sociological theory, the tipping point is now part of our everyday vernacular. We use it in scientific contexts to describe, for instance, the climatological point of no return that we'll hit if we allow average global temperatures to rise more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. But we also use it to describe everything from resistance movements to the disenchantment of hockey fans when their team is on a losing streak.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
samael334 / iStock / Getty Images

By Ruairi Robertson, PhD

Berries are small, soft, round fruit of various colors — mainly blue, red, or purple.

Read More Show Less
A glacier is seen in the Kenai Mountains on Sept. 6, near Primrose, Alaska. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey have been studying the glaciers in the area since 1966 and their studies show that the warming climate has resulted in sustained glacial mass loss as melting outpaced the accumulation of new snow and ice. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

By Mark Mancini

On Aug. 18, Iceland held a funeral for the first glacier lost to climate change. The deceased party was Okjökull, a historic body of ice that covered 14.6 square miles (38 square kilometers) in the Icelandic Highlands at the turn of the 20th century. But its glory days are long gone. In 2014, having dwindled to less than 1/15 its former size, Okjökull lost its status as an official glacier.

Read More Show Less
Members of Chicago Democratic Socialists of America table at the Logan Square Farmers Market on Aug. 18. Alex Schwartz

By Alex Schwartz

Among the many vendors at the Logan Square Farmers Market on Aug. 18 sat three young people peddling neither organic vegetables, gourmet cheese nor handmade crafts. Instead, they offered liberation from capitalism.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
StephanieFrey / iStock / Getty Images

By Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD

Muffins are a popular, sweet treat.

Read More Show Less
Hackney primary school students went to the Town Hall on May 24 in London after school to protest about the climate emergency. Jenny Matthews / In Pictures / Getty Images

By Caroline Hickman

Eco-anxiety is likely to affect more and more people as the climate destabilizes. Already, studies have found that 45 percent of children suffer lasting depression after surviving extreme weather and natural disasters. Some of that emotional turmoil must stem from confusion — why aren't adults doing more to stop climate change?

Read More Show Less
Myrtle warbler. Gillfoto / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Bird watching in the U.S. may be a lot harder than it once was, since bird populations are dropping off in droves, according to a new study.

Read More Show Less