Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research
The amount of sea ice in the Arctic is at a historic low, with a major northern shipping route completely ice-free for the first time, according to new data.
Arctic sea ice extent, which measures how much of the ocean’s surface area is covered by ice, is at its lowest point ever for July since researchers first started using satellite observation to measure it, according to Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI).
“Roughly one million square kilometres less of the ocean is covered with ice than in the past seven years,” AWI said.
The shift is caused in part by abnormally high temperatures: July on the east Siberian coast was 6 C warmer than the long-term average in May and June, and the central Arctic has recorded days that are up to 10 C warmer than average. The Arctic community of Verkhoyansk, located in Russia’s northeast, topped 38 C for the first time in recorded history during summer solstice in June.
The Northeast Passage, or Northern Sea Route, a shipping route along the Norwegian and Russian Arctic coasts that leads into the Pacific Ocean, was ice-free for the first time in mid-July as a result, AWI said.
Faster ice drift, which refers to how winds and sea currents carry along bodies of ice, and warmer than normal temperatures were a likely cause, Marcel Nicolaus, a sea-ice physicist with AWI, told VICE News. In fact, an influx of warm air travelling over the region dominated the weather in the Arctic and resulted in temperatures far above the long-term average, AWI said.
Nicolaus said everyone should be concerned because the Arctic tends to be the first region to experience the worst effects of climate change, but ongoing shifts in the north influence weather events around the world. Earlier this month, Motherboard reported on the Arctic's fires and ongoing heatwave that has resulted in unprecedented greenhouse gas emissions.
“The more of this melting we have the more we expect extreme weather,” Nicolaus said.
Increased sea ice melt also results in a hotter planet; dark ocean water absorbs the sun’s energy, whereas white ice reflects it, so less ice cover means more heat can be collected by oceans. “We are putting more heat into the entire earth system,” Nicolaus said.
Arctic Indigenous communities are going to continue seeing their ecosystems change more rapidly than people living south of the region.
“They are the first ones to experience and suffer from changes,” Nicolaus said, adding that everything from Indigenous hunting practices to safe living on shorelines are at risk.
Researchers from nearly 20 countries have been traveling alongside Arctic sea ice on an icebreaker since October 2019 as part of the MOSAiC expedition, coordinated by AWI. They’ve followed how sea ice has melted and will now observe how it freezes over again in the coming months. Travelling through the Arctic took less time than expected, because the ice melted so quickly, Nicolaus said. “The record low we are showing comes from satellite data, but the expedition gives us insight into why that is happening,” he said.
Nicolaus said he hopes people realize the Arctic isn’t as far away as it may seem.
“I’m in northern Germany and the Arctic is as close to me as the Mediterranean,” he said. “It’s not that far…and we really need to pay attention and take seriously what’s happening.”
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