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Shocking Data Reveals Arctic Sea Ice Free Fall

Climate
Shocking Data Reveals Arctic Sea Ice Free Fall

Earth Policy Institute

By Emily E. Adams and Janet Larsen

The North Pole is losing its ice cap. Comparing recent melt seasons with historical records spanning more than 1,400 years shows summer Arctic sea ice in free fall. Many scientists believe that the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free in the summertime within the next decade or two, and some say that this could occur as early as 2016.  The last time the Arctic was completely free of ice may have been 125,000 years ago.

Between March 20 and Sept. 16, the Arctic lost ice covering 11.8 million square kilometers—an area larger than the U.S. and Mexico together, and more than in any year since satellite measurements began in 1979. At its lowest point, Arctic sea ice coverage dropped to 3.4 million square kilometers, just half the average minimum between 1979 and 2000. The 2012 minimum was 18 percent smaller than the previous record low of 2007, a drop akin to beating the world marathon record by more than 20 minutes—an extraordinary feat.

The Arctic currently undergoes an annual melt and freeze cycle, which begins in the spring when the North Pole tilts toward the sun, warming the Arctic air and water and melting sea ice and glaciers. As the sun sets over the region in the fall, the sea ice expands, continuing to thicken during the dark winter. Wind circulation patterns and storms affect exactly how much ice melts and freezes in a given year, but as temperatures have been rising over the last few decades, ice coverage in the Arctic has begun a marked decline, and in recent years the shrinkage has accelerated.

The melting of the Arctic ice cap exposes dark ocean water, which absorbs more of the sun’s energy than the reflective ice, raising regional temperatures. This in turn accelerates the ice melt and makes it more difficult for new ice to form. In these warmer conditions, the ice that does return during the winter does not grow as thick and is more prone to melting when summer returns. Throughout the 1980s, close to half of the winter ice had survived one or more melt seasons. But by the start of the 2012 melt season, only a quarter of the remaining ice was more than a year old. Because of the dramatic thinning, the total volume of sea ice is shrinking even faster than its area. In just the past five years the minimum volume of ice in the Arctic was slashed in half.

An ice-free Arctic could alter weather patterns around the globe. Furthermore, while the melting of floating sea ice does not directly affect sea level, the extra heat in the region is accelerating the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, a massive body of ice three kilometers thick. If Greenland were to lose all of its ice, sea level would go up by seven meters. While that would not happen overnight, even a one meter rise in sea level, which we could easily see this century, would have devastating consequences for us all.

Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.

 

A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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