New research has concluded that it is too late to save summer Arctic sea ice, and scientists are now emphasising the need to prepare for the extreme weather events that are likely to occur as a result.
The analysis indicates that even with significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the Arctic will be ice-free in September in the coming decades. If emissions decline slowly or continue to rise, the first ice-free summer could happen as early as the 2030s, a decade earlier than previously projected.
The study reveals that 90% of the melting is a direct result of human-caused global heating, while natural factors account for the remaining 10%. The rate of summer Arctic ice shrinkage has been 13% per decade since satellite records began in 1979, serving as one of the most evident signs of the climate crisis. In 2021, the Arctic sea ice reached its second-lowest extent on record.
“Unfortunately it has become too late to save Arctic summer sea ice,” said Prof Dirk Notz, of the University of Hamburg, Germany, who was part of the study team. “As scientists, we’ve been warning about the loss of Arctic summer sea ice for decades. This is now the first major component of the Earth system that we are going to lose because of global warming. People didn’t listen to our warnings.
“This brings another warning bell, that the kind of projections that we’ve made for other components of the Earth system will start unfolding in the decades to come.”
Additional climate scientists have warned that the world is approaching multiple dangerous tipping points.
Prof Seung-Ki Min, of Pohang University, South Korea, who led the new study, said: “The most important impact for human society will be the increase in weather extremes that we are experiencing now, such as heatwaves, wildfires and floods. We need to reduce CO2 emissions more ambitiously and also prepare to adapt to this faster Arctic warming and its impacts on human society and ecosystems.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in 2021 that the Arctic would not lose its summer ice if emissions were significantly reduced and global temperature increases were limited to 2°C. However, the new research, published in the journal Nature Communications, projects the loss of summer sea ice in the 2050s even in the low emissions scenario.
The study involved establishing the contribution of rising greenhouse gas levels to ice melting compared to natural factors such as solar intensity variation and volcanic emissions. “Humans really are to blame for almost all the loss of Arctic sea ice we have been observing,” Notz said.
By calibrating the models to align with observations of Arctic ice from 1979 to 2019, the researchers discovered that the pace of melting was underestimated.
This led to projections of faster melting and the likelihood of an ice-free summer even under the low emissions scenario. In the intermediate and high emissions scenarios, the study suggests that August and October could also become ice-free by approximately 2080.
The exact year for the occurrence of the first ice-free summer cannot be determined due to natural climate system variability.
The accelerated melting of Arctic sea ice initiates a feedback loop, as the dark ocean exposed by the melting ice absorbs more heat from the sun, leading to faster warming in the Arctic. Scientists increasingly believe that this warming weakens the jet stream and contributes to more frequent and intense extreme weather events in North America, Europe, and Asia. Examples of such events include the 2021 heatwave in the Pacific northwest of the United States and the devastating floods in Pakistan in 2022.
The faster heating of the Arctic also accelerates the melting of the Greenland ice cap, leading to rising sea levels, and contributes to the release of more greenhouse gases through the melting of permafrost regions. The loss of Arctic sea ice has significant implications for the survival of polar bears, other wildlife in the region, and the Indigenous communities that rely on the ice for their traditional way of life.
Prof Mark Serreze, the director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder in the US, who was not part of the study team, said: “The key message is that we are pretty much destined to lose the Arctic’s sea ice cover in late summer. The question is: when will this occur?
“Over the past decade, there has not been much of a downward trend in September sea ice, which reflects the natural variability in the system. This hiatus will not last, but it shows the difficulties in making predictions. About a decade ago, I mused that the Arctic might lose its summer sea ice by 2030. That may have been an overly aggressive statement. While from the present study 2030 is still in the running, I’m going with sometime in the 2040s – that’s still not very far away.”
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