It’s too late for the Arctic’s summer ice, study says, but not too late for the climate

Melting ice in the Arctic.
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In a new analysis, scientists have found that the Arctic could see ice-free summers as early as 2030. ‘Ice free’ refers to an Arctic Ocean with an area of sea ice amounting to less than one million km². And its impact on the climate crisis is clear.

Arctic sea ice cannot be spared

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted in 2021 that the Arctic Ocean would likely become “practically sea ice free” in summer as soon as 2040. The IPCC report suggested that this could occur under “intermediate” and “high” emissions pathways.

Specifically, these are possible socio-economic trajectories in which governments would continue to permit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions levels incompatible with warming below 1.5C on pre-industrial levels. For example, governments would reduce GHG emissions by 14% by 2030 from 2020 levels, and 50% in the 2040s. This would keep warming to below 2C. The world would continue producing emissions at today’s levels or more under high emissions pathways.

However, the new study in the journal Nature Communications brings the IPCC’s summer Arctic sea ice loss prediction forward by a decade.

Crucially, the study suggested that Arctic summers without sea ice are inevitable under all emissions scenarios. In other words, even with deep global cuts to GHG emissions, the Arctic will likely lose its sea ice during the summer months. The study’s authors predicted this will occur as early as the period between 2030 and 2050.

Additionally, the study found that GHG emissions had caused a 90% of ice loss over the 41-year period between 1979 and 2019.

Prepare to adapt to the climate crisis faster

Despite the likely inevitable ice-free scenario, study lead professor Seung-Ki Min of Pohang University in South Korea argued that the research is a call for sharp emission cuts. He said that:

Read on...

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We need to reduce CO2 emissions more ambitiously

Moreover, Min said that the study illustrated the importance of preparing for the impacts of the climate crisis on people and wildlife. He argued that the world needs to:

 prepare to adapt to this faster Arctic warming and its impacts on human society and ecosystems.

In particular, Min pointed out that the findings show that:

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.

Multiple studies have identified that the melting of Arctic sea ice could potentially cause an increase in global extreme weather events. Notably, 2022 research suggested that Arctic sea ice loss could increase the frequency of strong El Niño events.

El Niño describes a weather pattern of warming 0.5C above long-term averages in ocean surface temperatures in the tropical East Pacific Ocean. Critically, it heightens the occurrence and impacts of extreme weather like droughts, floods, and tropical cyclones. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced on 8 June that the 2023 El Nino has arrived and will likely exacerbate extreme weather this year.

As the Canary recently reported, climate-fuelled extreme weather disproportionately impacts communities in the Global South. Moreover, Arctic warming has huge ramifications for the Indigenous communities living in the polar region. Warming and loss of sea ice will impact Inuit traditional ways of life, damage housing infrastructure, and threaten the health of these communities.

Cut carbon emissions to prevent the worst impacts

The new study comes as delegates meet in Germany for the second week of the Bonn Climate Change Conference. At the talks, representatives of world governments are meeting to discuss measures to tackle the climate crisis ahead of the COP28 climate summit.

The damning new assessment of the summer Arctic sea ice loss, therefore, highlights the critical need for the phase-out of fossil fuels. Moreover, it underscores the importance of governments scaling up adaptation measures for extreme weather and climate impacts.

In 2018, two separate studies found that limiting global warming to 1.5C could hugely reduce the risk of ice-free Arctic summers. Similar to the new study’s findings, the previous research identified that limiting warming to 1.5C would not avoid ice-free summers. However, ice-free summers would occur far less often if the world remained below 1.5C of warming.

The new study suggests it might indeed be too late to save Arctic summer sea ice. In spite of this, however, it isn’t too late to limit the harm to global communities and ecosystems.

Feature image via AWeith/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1910 by 1000, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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    1. If we look at the frequency of reader comments on this site, it seems that readers hate trans people far more than they care about the oncoming climate catastrophes which could potentially destroy most, perhaps even all, life on the planet if feedback effects occur. This is why I became a socialist, the only scientific system which is capable of ending capitalism which is leading to climate change from unconstrained economic growth. The science is becoming more alarming by the day: the French government now expects 4C warming by 2100, far above the disastrous 1.5C allowed for by the Paris Agreement. So-called moderate, centrist solutions will do nothing to allay or avert this.

      But no, let’s attack trans people instead.

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