Sea Ice: why is it so important?

by Vincent Diringer

Scientists have begun sounding the alarm as sea ice levels in the Arctic failed to improve as winter set in. Following on from reports published in 2020 warning that sea ice levels had been dropping dramatically year-on-year, this winter season has failed to yield the usual increase in ice that helps stabilize the local environment. A study focusing on the ice levels in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia showed that winter sea ice levels in the area had dropped significantly over the past century, with 2018 marking the lowest coverage on record in 5,500 years. This was followed up by a report from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in September warning of uncharacteristically low ice formation across the Arctic. In November the NSIDC noted a complete lack of ice formation in Russia’s Laptev Sea and in December, ice formation on the Arctic’s Pacific and Atlantic fronts were deemed “far below average”. 

Climate change and a record-breaking heatwave in Siberia have been identified as the likely culprits for late ice formation on the Laptev Sea, while the degradation witnessed in the Bering Sea was also blamed on anthropogenic causes. The dramatic change in the Laptev is what has surprised many though, as temperatures rose by five degrees above the average over the course of several months and correlated with what has been described as a “flat line” of the region’s ice formation. Usually filled with sea ice in November, the Laptev Sea remained an open expanse until ice began forming in December. Scientists believe that it is now only a matter of time before the Arctic is ice-free year-round, with certain models predicting this scenario could take place as early as 2030.

Long Lasting Consequences

Sea ice is integral to the health of Arctic environments. Several species use the ice as a refuge on which to have their young and protect themselves from predators, with similar processes happening below the ice for a range of marine creatures as well. A lack of sea ice would lead to a noticeable reduction in these species, and the potential loss of these ecosystems and the industries that rely on them. Local economies heavily reliant on fisheries and tourism stand to lose out the most. Alternatively, while ice loss could provide an opportunity for shipping across the North Pole it is unsure that the economic value of these new shipping routes would replace the losses from other sources.

However, the Arctic’s problems aren’t just a regional issue, the Laptev Sea’s lack of ice has far-reaching consequences. As NSIDC senior research scientist Walt Meier explained to The Guardian, ice loss would reduce the Earth’s ability to reflect solar radiation – increasing temperatures and exacerbating climate change in the process. With temperatures continuing to rise in polar regions as a result of this negative feedback loop, scientists are trying to stay optimistic. There is a tipping point where sea ice and glaciers at the poles could continue to melt despite human intervention on climate change, and while we have yet to reach this point, scientists warn we aren’t doing enough to avoid it.

While geoengineering projects aimed at saving sea ice and snow cover are beginning to gain popularity, there is one major action that is often being overlooked: cutting emissions. By attacking the root cause of the issue, we can ensure that a range of climate change issues are mitigated. Reducing carbon emissions was a major goal for the signatories of the Paris Agreement, but many nations are still lagging behind their commitments. A transition towards clean energy, greening the economy and encouraging more social action are just some of the options available to ensure we can cut back on our emissions and save not just sea ice, but the planet as a whole.

Categories Climate Science

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