VICE News is closely tracking global environmental change. Check out the Tipping Point blog here.
Another week passes and another alarming example of climate change emerges.
The US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reported this week that the extent of winter sea ice in the Arctic hit a record low this year.
"It's another nail in the coffin," the center's director Mark Serreze told VICE News.
NSIDC, which monitors ice at the poles, reported Thursday that this year's high-point came on February 25, two weeks earlier than the 1981-2010 average, and totaled 5.61 million square miles of ice. That's 130,000 square miles less than the previous low year of 2011. For comparison, California is 160,000 square miles.
"The environmental ramifications are pretty profound, and not just for the critters that live in the Arctic. There's increasing evidence that loss of the sea ice cover will have very large climate effects," Serreze told VICE News. "Warming of the Arctic will result. There's thinking that this could have pronounced effects on things like middle latitude weather patterns."
Arctic sea ice waxes and wanes with the seasons, with the yearly minimum usually coming in September and the maximum in mid-March. While the fall of the winter record won't necessarily mean another will be broken this fall, Serreze said "it doesn't look good," adding "we're starting off the melt season in a deep hole."
The record low maximum extent was driven in part by warm water, due to climate change, and warm air in the region, say scientists and Arctic experts. Some places, like in the Barents Sea between Svalbard and Franz Josef Land, saw temperatures skyrocket 14, even 18, degrees Fahrenheit above average. Only two spots in the Arctic escaped below average ice levels: the Labrador Sea and the Davis Strait.
Diminishing sea ice is a quintessential example of a positive feedback loop. Less ice means more dark, open-ocean water that absorbs additional heat, melting yet more ice, and so on. Effects of the melt are many-faceted: previously-undrillable areas open up to oil and gas companies, ultimately amplifying the effects of global warming through the burning of more fossil fuels, residents of the area must alter long-held ways of life, and species like seals and polar bears fight harder for survival.
While there is significant seasonal variation, less sea ice hews closely to the long-term trend. One recent study found Arctic ice is 65 percent thinner than it was in 1975. The Arctic has lost an average of 20,800 square miles of ice per year since the late 1970s, according to NASA. And a late-2014 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report found that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world.
An Arctic free of sea ice in the summer looks more and more likely to arrive within decades, according to a growing number of experts — Serreze among them. And when it does, he says, impacts will be felt far from the icy North.
"An Arctic where we don't have sea ice in summer... absorbs a lot more solar energy than it used to. That heats up the Earth further. That could have downstream effects on weather patterns or precipitation patterns in middle latitude," Serreze told VICE News. "There is some evidence that we're already seeing some of these things. There's evidence that some of those crazy weather patterns we've been getting in recent winters, that the loss of sea ice cover could be one of the drivers of this. Those effects could be even bigger in the future as we continue to lose the ice cover."
Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University is a leading proponent of the theory that rapid changes in the Arctic — including melting sea ice — are altering the jet stream and leading to weather extremes, like the bitter recent US winters, deadly heat waves in Russia, and extended cold spells in Europe. As sea-ice extent decreases, and extreme weather events increase in frequency and intensity, her theory is gaining traction among researchers, diplomats, and environmentalists.
In April, the United States begins a two-year term leading the Arctic Council, which brings together the eight nations with Arctic territory. In a September meeting in Canada, the State Department laid out their plans for the chairmanship, naming climate change the top priority. According to a presentation by Julia Gourley, the State Department's Senior Arctic Official, the United States will stress the importance of countries reigning in carbon and methane emissions at home, while adding monitoring stations in the Arctic and increasing emissions tracking.
But, after years of unencumbered fossil fuel emissions, we're already locked into significant, climate change-driven impacts for decades to come, which Serreze says emphasizes the need to focus on adaptation to changes in climate.
"This idea that you can just stop global warming in its tracks somehow is just nonsense, it's not going to happen," Serreze said. "We've kind of committed to a path here, I'm afraid. … We've made our bed, and now we have to lie in it."
Follow Darren Ankrom on Twitter: @darrenankrom