When autumn falls on the Laptev Sea, which borders the northwest coast of Siberia, sea ice typically starts to form in vast quantities that flow into the Arctic Ocean over the winter.
But this year, for the first time on record, the Laptev Sea’s seasonal ice pack has not started to freeze by late October, reports The Guardian. The delayed production of sea ice in such a critical region is yet another dire omen of the climate crisis, and its disproportionate disruption of the Arctic.
“It is quite unusual how slowly the ice is forming this winter in the Eurasian sector,” said Julienne Stroeve, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado, in an email. “Looking at the sea surface temperatures we can see that ocean temperatures are still several degrees above freezing and also that means the near surface air temperatures are also elevated.”
Normally, the Laptev Sea acts as an “ice factory,” Stroeve added, due to offshore winds that spur sea ice formation. This sea is also the “the main feeding area” for the Transpolar Drift (TP) System, according to Thomas Krumpen, a sea ice physicist and climate scientist at Alfred Wegener Institute.
“The TP drift is one of the two major systems in the Arctic moving ice around,” Krumpen said in an email. Ice minted in the Laptev Sea flows across the Arctic Ocean before breaking up in the Fram Strait, east of Greenland, which enriches the region and stimulates biodiversity.
But the rise in global temperatures, which is driven by human activity, has caused a decline in Arctic sea ice, including within this important feeder.
The long-term trend of ice loss kicks off feedback loops that could ultimately accelerate the dangerous environmental changes occurring in the Arctic.
The delayed Laptev Sea ice is just the latest of several climate anomalies in the Arctic this year. The region logged its hottest temperature ever, topping 100°F in the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk in June. Unprecedented heat-waves exacerbated a devastating wildfire season that released a record-breaking amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Last spring, the sea ice retreated earlier than usual, exposing Arctic Ocean waters to a prolonged dose of sunlight that is also “leading to warmer ocean temperatures and a delay in winter ice formation,” Stroeve said.
“It does show that while summer ice loss is remarkable, the departures from average conditions are starting to be larger in autumn (and sometimes also spring), so the spring/fall are also starting to become more anomalous,” she added.
Scientists think we will witness the first ice-free summer in the Arctic—an event that has not happened for tens of thousands of years—within the next few decades.
“The rapid retreat and low ice extent in the Laptev Sea this summer is truly exceptional and wasn't really predicted by models,” Krumpen said. “It basically tells us that the interaction between ice, ocean, and atmosphere is very complex and not fully understood.”
“In order to better understand the impact of climate change on the Arctic Ocean, we need more and better observations to feed the models with,” he concluded.
Update: This article has been updated with comments from Thomas Krumpen.