Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summer by 2030s, say scientists – this would have global, damaging and dangerous consequences

Ice in the Chukchi Sea, north of Alaska and Siberia.
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

The Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summer by the 2030s, even if we do a good job of reducing emissions between now and then. That’s the worrying conclusion of a new study in Nature Communications.

Predictions of an ice-free Arctic Ocean have a long and complicated history, and the 2030s is sooner than most scientists had thought possible (though it is later than some had wrongly forecast). What we know for sure is the disappearance of sea ice at the top of the world would not only be an emblematic sign of climate breakdown, but it would have global, damaging and dangerous consequences.

The Arctic has been experiencing climate heating faster than any other part of the planet. As it is at the frontline of climate change, the eyes of many scientists and local indigenous people have been on the sea ice that covers much of the Arctic Ocean in winter. This thin film of frozen seawater expands and contracts with the seasons, reaching a minimum area in September each year.

Animation of Arctic sea ice from space
Arctic sea ice grows until March and then shrinks until September.

The ice which remains at the end of summer is called multiyear sea ice and is considerably thicker than its seasonal counterpart. It acts as barrier to the transfer of both moisture and heat between the ocean and atmosphere. Over the past 40 years this multiyear sea ice has shrunk from around 7 million sq km to 4 million. That is a loss equivalent to roughly the size of India or 12 UKs. In other words, it’s a big signal, one of the most stark and dramatic signs of fundamental change to the climate system anywhere in the world.

As a consequence, there has been considerable effort invested in determining when the Arctic Ocean might first become ice-free in summer, sometimes called a “blue ocean event” and defined as when the sea ice area drops below 1 million sq kms. This threshold is used mainly because older, thicker ice along parts of Canada and northern Greenland is expected to remain long after the rest of the Arctic Ocean is ice-free. We can’t put an exact date on the last blue ocean event, but one in the near future would likely mean open water at the North Pole for the first time in thousands of years.

Annotated map of Arctic
The thickest ice (highlighted in pink) is likely to remain even if the North Pole is ice-free.
NERC Center for Polar Observation and Modelling, CC BY-SA

One problem with predicting when this might occur is that sea ice is notoriously difficult to model because it is influenced by both atmospheric and oceanic circulation as well as the flow of heat between these two parts of the climate system. That means that the climate models – powerful computer programs used to simulate the environment – need to get all of these components right to be able to accurately predict changes in sea ice extent.

Melting faster than models predicted

Back in the 2000s, an assessment of early generations of climate models found they generally underpredicted the loss of sea ice when compared to satellite data showing what actually happened. The models predicted a loss of about 2.5% per decade, while the observations were closer to 8%.

The next generation of models did better but were still not matching observations which, at that time were suggesting a blue ocean event would happen by mid-century. Indeed, the latest IPCC climate science report, published in 2021, reaches a similar conclusion about the timing of an ice-free Arctic Ocean.

As a consequence of the problems with the climate models, some scientists have attempted to extrapolate the observational record resulting in the controversial and, ultimately, incorrect assertion that this would happen during the mid 2010s. This did not help the credibility of the scientific community and its ability to make reliable projections.

Ice-free by 2030?

The scientists behind the latest study have taken a different approach by, in effect, calibrating the models with the observations and then using this calibrated solution to project sea ice decline. This makes a lot of sense, because it reduces the effect of small biases in the climate models that can in turn bias the sea ice projections. They call these “observationally constrained” projections and find that the Arctic could become ice-free in summer as early as 2030, even if we do a good job of reducing emissions between now and then.

Walruses on ice floe
Walruses depend on sea ice. As it melts, they’re being forced onto land.
outdoorsman / shutterstock

There is still plenty of uncertainty around the exact date – about 20 years or so – because of natural chaotic fluctuations in the climate system. But compared to previous research, the new study still brings forward the most likely timing of a blue ocean event by about a decade.

Why this matters

You might be asking the question: so what? Other than some polar bears not being able to hunt in the same way, why does it matter? Perhaps there are even benefits as the previous US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, once declared – it means ships from Asia can potentially save around 3,000 miles of journey to European ports in summer at least.

But Arctic sea ice is an important component of the climate system. As it dramatically reduces the amount of sunlight absorbed by the ocean, removing this ice is predicted to further accelerate warming, through a process known as a positive feedback. This, in turn, will make the Greenland ice sheet melt faster, which is already a major contributor to sea level rise.

The loss of sea ice in summer would also mean changes in atmospheric circulation and storm tracks, and fundamental shifts in ocean biological activity. These are just some of the highly undesirable consequences and it is fair to say that the disadvantages will far outweigh the slender benefits.


This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member Jonathan Bamber, Professor of Physical Geography, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Jonathan Bamber
Jonathan Bamber

Canada’s flood havoc after summer heatwave shows how climate disasters combine to do extra damage

People living in British Columbia will feel like they have had more than their fair share of climate disasters in 2021. After a record-breaking heatwave in June, the state in western Canada has been inundated by intense rain storms in November. It’s also likely the long-lasting effects of the heatwave made the results of the recent rainfall worse, causing more landslides – which have destroyed highways and railroads – than would otherwise have happened.

In June 2021, temperature records across western North America were shattered. The town of Lytton in British Columbia registered 49.6°C, breaking the previous Canadian national record by 5°C. The unprecedented weather was caused by a high pressure system, a so-called “heat dome”, which sat over the region for several days.

Heat intensified within the dome as the high pressure compressed the air. Dry ground conditions forced temperatures even higher, as there was less water evaporating to cool things down. Although unconfirmed, it’s estimated that the heatwave caused over 400 deaths in British Columbia alone.

A helicopter flies over a burning pine forest beneath a blue sky.
Wildfires ravaged British Columbia during the hot and dry summer of 2021.
EB Adventure Photography/Shutterstock

The hot and dry weather also sparked wildfires. Just days after recording the hottest national temperature ever, the town of Lytton burned to the ground. The summer’s fires and drought left the ground charred and barren, incapable of absorbing water. These conditions make landslides more likely, as damaged tree roots can no longer hold soil in place. It also ensures water flows over the soil quicker, as it cannot soak into the baked ground.

The huge rain storm which lasted from Saturday November 13 to Monday 15 was caused by an atmospheric river – a long, narrow, band of moisture in the atmosphere stretching hundreds of miles. When this band travels over land it can generate extreme rainfall, and it did: in 48 hours, over 250mm of rain fell in the town of Hope, 100km east of Vancouver.

This much rainfall on its own would probably cause extensive flooding. But combined with the parched soil, the results have been catastrophic. Landslides have destroyed many of the region’s transport links, leaving Vancouver cut off by rail and road. But the bad news doesn’t end there; sediment washed away by these floods could make future floods this winter even worse.

British Columbia is in the grip of what scientists call a compound climate disaster. The effects of one extreme weather event, like a heatwave, amplify the effects of the next one, like a rain storm. Instead of seeing floods and wildfires as discrete events, compound disasters force us to comprehend the cascading crises which are likely to multiply as the planet warms.

How to understand compound climate disasters

The port of Vancouver is the busiest in Canada, moving US$550 million worth of cargo every day. Because rail links are damaged, ships laden with commodities sit offshore. Canada’s mining and farming industries are having to divert exports through the US. Depending on how quickly the rail links recover, significant economic impacts are possible.

Both the June heatwave and the November rainstorm are unprecedented, record-breaking events, but is their occurrence in the same year just bad luck? A rapid attribution study found that the heatwave was virtually impossible without climate change. The atmospheric river which brought the deluge is also likely to become more common and intense in a warming climate.

In British Columbia, future flooding is almost guaranteed to be more frequent and severe. This is life at 1.2°C above the pre-industrial temperature average, yet most politicians don’t seem too worried about taking the necessary action to prevent warming beyond 1.5°C – the limit which countries agreed in 2015 is a threshold beyond which catastrophic climate change becomes more likely.

Western Canada’s year of weather extremes did not come from nowhere. Past trends and future projections tell us to expect hotter summers and wetter winters in this part of the world, and record-shattering climate extremes are on the rise.

Worldwide, compound climate disasters are becoming more common as climate change accelerates. Risk assessments typically measure the impacts of one event at a time, like the damage caused by intense rain storms, without considering how the earlier drought influenced it. This leads to scientists and insurers underestimating the overall damage. With so many combinations of climate extremes – flooding following wildfires, hurricanes passing as cold spells arrive – we must prepare for every possibility.The Conversation


This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member Dr Vikki Thompson, Senior Research Associate in Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Vikki Thompson