Ice-Free Arctic Coming Soon To A Country Near You!

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The latest research suggests Arctic sea ice could disappear entirely in the summer sometime between now and 2050 even if the world is successful at substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Even more alarming, some climate models predict a lack of Arctic sea ice even in winter, a development scientists say would be a catastrophe for animals that live in the Arctic. The study, published April 17 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, begins with  this “plain language summary.”

We examine simulations of Arctic sea ice from the latest generation of global climate models. We find that the observed evolution of Arctic sea‐ice area lies within the spread of model simulations. In particular, the latest generation of models performs better than models from previous generations at simulating the sea‐ice loss for a given amount of CO2 emissions and for a given amount of global warming. In most simulations, the Arctic Ocean becomes practically sea‐ice free (sea‐ice area < 1 million km2) in September for the first time before the year 2050.

Arctic sea ice NOAA
Image credit: NOAA

“Alarmingly, the models repeatedly show the potential for ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean before 2050, almost irrespective of the measures taken to mitigate the effects of climate change,” researcher Ed Blockley tells The Guardian. He is head of the UK Met Office’s polar climate program. “The signal is there in all possible futures. This was unexpected and is extremely worrying.”

Prof Dirk Notz of the University of Hamburg helped coordinate the analysis. He says, “If we keep global warming below 2C, Arctic sea ice will nevertheless likely disappear occasionally in summer even before 2050. This really surprised us.”

The research employs the latest climate models from 21 research institutes. Unlike some political leaders who pretend to know everything there is to know about complex issues, climate scientists freely admit there are many unknowns in their research. “There is still a lot of uncertainty but all the models are clear that the sea ice will continue to decline. At some point, it will be gone, but when that happens is still uncertain. There are some models [in which the summer Arctic] goes ice-free in the next few years,” Blockley says, but cautions those are considered outlier scenarios.

Professor James Screen of the University of Exeter adds this caveat. “It is important to keep in mind that although we might see an ice-free Arctic in all scenarios by 2050, the expected frequency of ice-free summers differs between scenarios. Under a higher emissions scenarios there may be ice-free summers every year, but in lower emissions scenarios they might be occasional.” In other words, we know a lot but we don’t know everything.

Another surprising finding from the study is that an ice-free Arctic in the winter months appears possible if CO2 continues to be emitted at high levels. “That’s not something we’ve seen before in these projections. A winter ice-free event would be catastrophic for some wildlife species that live and hunt around the sea ice.”

A lack of sea ice can lead to other negative consequences as well. Ice reflects sunlight back into the atmosphere. No ice means the sun’s rays are absorbed by darker ocean waters, exacerbating a rise in ocean temperatures. It also is an open invitation to more oil and gas drilling as well as more tourists coming to the area, all of which will add stress to the local environment.

Lots of people have a hard time feeling sympathy for a few polar bears, not realizing they are the equivalent of canaries in coal mines warning humans of impeding disasters. We ignore such omens at our peril.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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