Forty years isn’t a long time in the grand scheme of things, so it’s kind of amazing how much the world has changed since the early 1980s. And we don’t just mean in terms of questionable outfit choice or inexplicably enthusiastic exercise routines – the world itself was different. There was a rapidly increasing ozone hole over the South Pole – and at the North, there was ice.
Yes, we know: there’s still ice in the Arctic. But the amount that can be found there throughout the year is already less than half of what it used to be, and things aren’t improving. In fact, according to a recent study published in the journal Earth’s Future, if world carbon emissions continue on their current trajectory, worst-case scenarios may see the end of summer ice in the Arctic altogether by 2100 – as well as the end of the polar bears, seals, and other Arctic critters that call it home.
“Unfortunately, this is a massive experiment we’re doing,” warned study co-author Robert Newton. “If the year-round ice goes away, entire ice-dependent ecosystems will collapse, and something new will begin.”
The study focused on what the authors call the “Last Ice Area,” because that’s where we’re at now – an area that stretches more than 1 million square kilometers (380,000 square miles) across the north of Canada and Greenland. It is “clear,” they write in the study, that this is “where the Arctic's last summer sea ice will be located … It is also where ice-associated species, from charismatic megafauna like polar bears and ringed seals to crustaceans and microscopic plankton, will continue to find habitat.”
In this area, ice can reach 10 meters (32.8 feet) thick and last all year round. In fact, Tuvaijuittuq, the 320,000-square-kilometers (123,550 square miles) marine protected area that makes up the middle third of the Last Ice Area, literally translates to “the place where the ice never melts.” But by the middle of the century, that probably won’t be the case: even if we manage to curb global carbon emissions to the letter of the Paris Agreement, summer sea ice will be “thinner, younger, and more mobile” the study explains. While it’s possible that year-round ice could survive under this already optimistic scenario, it would be thin and broken up by open water.
In that scenario – the best case – it’s possible that some polar ecosystems may survive for a while in refuges like Tuvaijuittuq. But if carbon emissions continue at their current rates, the study warns, “ice-obligate ecologies will not survive.”
“Rich diatom communities will not have time to form; seals will not be able to den … polar bears will not have sufficient marine food sources,” the authors write. “This means that the preservation of endangered ice ecologies, along with human livelihoods and cultures that have co-evolved with them, requires both local conservation and systemic, global action to be successful.”
Unfortunately, stimulating global action on Arctic preservation has proved tricky. That’s partly because the Arctic is home to hundreds of billions of dollars worth of base and precious metals, diamonds, coal, oil, and gas, all hiding under the ice. While the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut and the Oikiqtani Inuit Association strongly supported protecting Tuvaijuittuq, bordering Arctic areas have preferred to concentrate on resource extraction rather than wildlife and environmental protection.
“Any regional governance regime will need to respond to conditions set at a global scale, since ice loss is ultimately driven by greenhouse gases emitted at lower latitudes,” explain the authors. “While Arctic residents and their national governments can protect the quality of habitat, as they have in Tuvaijuittuq for a time, in the long run, they cannot preserve local sea ice ecologies unless changes are implemented by distant actors around the globe.”
So is there any ray of light? Perhaps a small one: there’s a chance the Arctic could bounce back. While we can’t stop the ice thinning out, we might be able to cut carbon emissions enough to stop it disappearing completely – and if it can hang on long enough, Newton says, temperatures could go back down again, and the Last Ice Area could start to regrow.
“Arctic sea ice responds quickly to global forcing and would recover within several years if atmospheric greenhouse gas composition shifts back to historical norms,” says the paper. “As such, an adaptive, layered regulatory regime, linked to scientific monitoring of regional and local responses to global developments might have a realistic opportunity to oversee summer sea-ice restoration when, and if, greenhouse warming is brought under control.”