Arctic Could See Ice-Free Summers As Early As 2035

Polar Bear feeding on a seal carcass on the Button Islands in Labrador, Canada on July 3 2012. GTW/Shutterstock

New research suggests the Arctic could be sea ice-free during some parts of the year as early as 2035. While it’s well known the North Pole is already feeling some of the harshest and most immediate effects of climate change, this new study suggests the Arctic may be even more screwed than previously thought.

Scientists at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) fine-tuned their predictions of future sea ice change in the Arctic by investigating how the area melted during the last interglacial, the warmest period of the last 200,000 years that occurred around 127,000 years ago. Their findings were reported in the journal Nature Climate Change this week.

The researchers found that if climate change and greenhouse gas emissions are left unchecked, the Arctic will be ice-free during September 2035 – a month where Arctic sea ice reaches its minimum each year. Under other emission scenarios, the researchers predict the disappearance of September sea ice between the years 2048 and 2086.

This is largely in line with the conclusion of another study from April that found the North Pole will experience its first ice-free summer before 2050, even if the world successfully pulls off a rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the near future. 

“High temperatures in the Arctic have puzzled scientists for decades. Unraveling this mystery was technically and scientifically challenging. For the first time, we can begin to see how the Arctic became sea ice-free during the last interglacial,” Dr Maria Vittoria Guarino, joint lead author and Earth System Modeller at BAS, said in a statement“The advances made in climate modeling means that we can create a more accurate simulation of the Earth’s past climate, which, in turn gives us greater confidence in model predictions for the future.”

By modeling melting during the last interglacial, the research highlighted the importance of “melt ponds”, shallow pools of water formed on the surface of Arctic sea-ice. Accounting for the importance of melt ponds on the overall process of sea-ice loss, the team were able to gauge more accurate predictions for the future. With this in mind, they looked at how current climate change predictions will sculpt the future Arctic landscape. 

The work is not the first study to suggest we have been underestimating the severity of sea ice loss in the North Pole. A study published last month also looked at the last glacial period and concluded that temperatures in the Arctic Ocean between Canada, Russia, and Europe are warming faster than researchers’ climate models predicted.

"Changes are occurring so rapidly during the summer months that sea ice is likely to disappear faster than most climate models have ever predicted. We must continue to closely monitor temperature changes and incorporate the right climate processes into these models," professor Jens Hesselbjerg Christensen, a geophysicist who worked on the study published in July 2020, said in a statement

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