While the reason it is happening isn’t clear to many people, the climate is getting warmer. During the past few years, the temperatures have been warmer they have ever been since they’ve begun recording them began in 1880. As a result, the Arctic ice is now melting or not freezing as it once did. Here are some of the changes in the Arctic during the last ten years.
Changes In The Arctic
Normally, the frozen seawater in the Arctic reaches its maximum depth in March after experiencing the harsh winter. Then, as spring and summer come around, some of the ice melts until it reaches its minimum depth for the year in September.
Satellites took the first measurements of the "ice extent," the term scientists use for the total area of the Arctic under ice, in 1978. The satellites have been monitoring the growth and decline of sea ice in the Arctic and found that it has been in an overall decline for the past 40 years. However, the rate of decline has become steeper since the beginning of the 21st Century.
According to their monitoring, the National Aeronautical and Space Administration said that 2002 began a steady decline of the ice extent. That year was, at that time, the lowest ice measurement on record and its summer minimum wasn’t the same as long-term averages from 1979 to 2000. The observations of sea ice in the Arctic show that there is less multiyear ice and more annual ice too.
The decline in Arctic sea ice isn’t due to just natural variability but, together with warmer temperatures around the globe, it has led to the melting of vast amounts of the Arctic ice. Satellite imagery clearly shows the shrinkage of the northern ice around Russia, Greenland, Canada, and the state of Alaska in the United States.
As of November 2018, the Arctic extent was 3.78 million square miles (9.80 million square kilometers). This measurement is 347,900 square miles (900,00 square kilometers) below the 1981 to 2010 averages. However, it is higher than the November 2016 record low by 440,000 square miles (1.4 million square kilometers).
The changes in the amount of sea ice have also led to rapidly forming ice during November, where up to 386,000 square miles (1 million square kilometers) can form in as little as seven days. However, low ice areas in the places like the Barents Sea, which is off the Russian and Norwegian coasts, is becoming more common.
Slowing Circulation In The Atlantic
These low ice areas are the result of warmer Atlantic waters that prevent ice formation in a process called “Atlantification.” The waters of the Atlantic Ocean are steadily getting warmer because its circulation is getting weaker. The slowing effect of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) is a direct result of the loss of ice in the Arctic.
The AMOC is a major influence on the climates of Atlantic rim countries and globally as well. The countries in Europe could experience winters colder than they are used to and much hotter summers. Some scientists have concerns that the serious effects of climate change could happen more quickly due to the circulation slowing.
Some of the changes could be sea levels rising as much as 20 feet within 100 years or cycles of drought and rain deluges in California. Along with the changes in the AMOC, the Pacific and other oceans are also showing signs of their currents changing.
These changes could mean stronger, more damaging storms along the coasts of Australia, South Africa, Asia, and South America. The more intense storms are the result of the waters getting warmer in these areas, such as in the Indian Ocean, and releasing up to 20 percent more heat then they did in the last 50 years.
Changes In Ice Thickness
Not only is the quantity of sea ice in the Arctic declining, but so is its thickness. During the 20th Century, especially the latter half, data from submarines and observational satellites showed a steep decline of ice thickness by approximately 3.1 meters during the 1950s to 1990s. Further information found that the decline continues into the 21st Century.
Between 1980, when the ice thickness was 3.64 meters, it had declined to 1.89 meters in 2008. These measurements came at the end of the ice melt season in the Arctic. Another study in 2013 made a comparison of ice thickness in 2003-2008 and then 2010-2012. The data showed that that the volume of sea ice declined 4.291 cubic kilometers by summer's end and 1.479 cubic kilometers by winter's end.
Warmer temperatures due to the greenhouse effect are the primary cause of sea ice melting. The longevity of the ice is also changing as measurements show older ice is disappearing. In the late 1980s, over half of the Arctic sea ice was five years old and a quarter of it was nine years old. By 2007, only seven percent of the ice was five years old, and almost none of it was as old as nine.
What Does It All Mean?
While facts and statistics can open many eyes, most people do not understand why the decline of ice in the Arctic, someplace they will never visit, has an impact on them. The immediate effect, already being felt, is the decline of habitats for creatures who live in the region. Polar bears, walruses, and seals are losing the places where they feed and breed.
These animals are also losing their food sources as the warmer waters are inhospitable to the fish from which they feed. Also, the warmer waters further down the Atlantic coast are beginning to affect livelihoods like fishing because fish populations, such as cod, are also declining.
Scientists speculate that the primary result for much of the Northern Hemisphere’s population will be more extreme weather. Along with climate change due to greenhouse gases, losing the Arctic ice will result in something known as the Albedo Effect.
The coverage of the white ice and snow in the Arctic reflects about 80 percent of the energy from the Sun back into space. By doing so, the Earth stays cooler. However, as the ice melts and more of the darker waters and land appear, the more it will absorb the Sun’s heat and warm the waters and Earth, which can accelerate global warming.
The effect is having consequences already as scientists believe it is responsible for up to 25 percent of the current global warming trends. While most people in the Northern Hemisphere are feeling the resulting warmth, especially during the summers, the Arctic is getting warmer
twice as fast.
Land-based Ice Melts
Along with the Arctic sea ice disappearing, land-based ice is also melting. When sea ice floats melt, they don't raise sea levels, but when land-based ice melts, it does. An estimate by scientists is that if all the ice sheet in Greenland, which is about three times larger than Texas, melts, sea levels would quickly rise 20 feet.
Scientific observations show that sea levels are rising, with Greenland contributing about four to five percent of the increase. As land-based ice melts get faster, the rising sea levels will threaten people living on the coast. That would include about 40 percent of the population in the US. Currently, rising levels are resulting in more flooding in Florida, Maryland, and New Jersey.
The melting sea ice is also affecting the opposite coast in the United States. The ice forms natural sea walls that protect towns along the coast from large waves. Due to the ice melting to record lows in the Bering Sea, Diomede, Alaska was hit by huge waves that submerged houses along the coast. Also, erosion from waves hitting the shore is forcing over 400 people in Newtok, AK to move.
Along with more extreme weather, like colder winters, hotter summers, and stronger storms, the permafrost is also thawing. Permafrost is the frozen ground in regions around the Arctic circle, and it’s showing signs of melting in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia.
The primary reason its thawing is troubling because the permafrost traps large amounts of carbon, about the same amount that is currently in the atmosphere. If the permafrost melts, it can release that carbon as two forms of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, and methane. This process would worsen global warming.
Although scientists cannot pinpoint when the ice in the Arctic melts and goes away, estimates are it could happen within the next 20 to 40 years. If the ice disappears, then the geography of the world would dramatically change. However, that would also be dependent on the ice in Antarctica melting as well.
On the surface, it seems as though the sea ice extent in Antarctica is growing, but the ice is melting beneath the water due to the oceans being warmer. The best way to handle the problem seems to be carbon catchers that take CO2 out of the atmosphere, but there isn’t enough of them to have much effect.
The effects of melting Arctic ice is already being felt in Europe, Siberia, Canada, and the US, but progress is slow in trying to stop these effects, and the world’s governments may not come together until it is too late.