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As Arctic sea ice shrinks, so does our window of opportunity

RV Lance (Image 1 of 12)

In summer 2012, while Arctic sea ice disintegrated to the lowest extent and volume ever documented to that point, the Norwegian Polar Institute’s research ship RV Lance was tethered to a large floe in the central polar basin, enabling an international team of scientists to conduct a variety of experiments on the ice.

Mapping sea ice topography (Image 2 of 12)

Geophysicists Christina Pedersen and Dmitry Divine make measurements of sea ice topography using a laser device on a floe in the central Arctic Ocean near 83 degrees north latitude during the Norwegian Polar Institute’s 2012 expedition.

Determining sea ice thickness (Image 3 of 12)

Sea-ice geophysicist Angelika Renner uses an electromagnetic instrument (the EM-31) to obtain data that will be used to calculate thickness of sea ice and verify other data she has collected over a larger area in the same region using a similar device (the EM-bird) deployed by helicopter.

Ice algae (Image 4 of 12)

In the central Arctic Ocean, oceanographers conduct an experiment designed to assess the growth rates of ice algae in varying conditions. Ice algae live on the underside of Arctic sea ice and within the ice, and are a crucial food resource supporting much of the Arctic web of life.

Marooned ashore (Image 5 of 12)

A polar bear climbs precariously on a cliff face above the Arctic Ocean at Ostrova Oranskie, a Russian high-Arctic island, risking its life in an unsuccessful attempt to eat seabird eggs. The bear was marooned ashore, unable to feed on seals — its normal prey — because the sea ice had melted throughout the region.

Harp seal mother (Image 6 of 12)

A harp seal mother surfaces in a breathing hole she excavated in the sea ice to monitor her young pup resting on the floe nearby. All Arctic seal species require sea ice for giving birth, rearing young and molting. Climate change therefore poses a serious threat to their continued survival.

A beach in lieu of ice (Image 7 of 12)

Walruses are excellent swimmers, but must frequently haul out to rest, and prefer to use Arctic sea ice do so. Here, lacking ice, Pacific walruses are jammed together at a tiny beach on Herald Island in the Russian high Arctic. Calves are at risk of being crushed and suffocated if the herd stampedes.

Ivory gull (Image 8 of 12)

An ivory gull rests on a melting floe while foraging for ice-reliant zooplankton in receding sea ice near 82 degrees north latitude. This rare high-Arctic bird depends on sea ice habitat and is therefore in jeopardy as temperatures rise. Scientists have also determined that mercury contamination threatens this species.

Seal and walrus meat (Image 9 of 12)

At Siorapaluk in remote Northwest Greenland, an Inuit man carries seal and walrus meat ashore following a subsistence hunting expedition. Ice-dependent marine mammals provide one of the only readily available sources of high-quality protein in isolated Arctic regions, but frequent consumption of those foods entails exposure to dangerously high mercury levels.

Ocean acidification (Image 10 of 12)

This sample of zooplankton, collected by scientific divers beneath melting Arctic sea ice, contains five ice-reliant amphipod species. These creatures are vital for supporting the Arctic food web and are threatened by ice loss. Moreover, ocean acidification will eventually dissolve their calcium carbonate exoskeletons and cause their decline.

Sorted stone circles (Image 11 of 12)

Stone circles adorn the ground along the coast of Nordaustlandet, a high-Arctic island in Svalbard. The features result from natural sorting of stones and soil during repeated frost-heave and thaw-subsidence cycles in the so-called “active layer” of ground above permafrost. As temperatures rise and permafrost thaws, the active layer thickens.

New shipping routes (Image 12 of 12)

A cargo ship is loaded with coal at Russia’s Murmansk Commercial Sea Port, the only major Arctic port. Disappearance of summer sea ice will result in heavy use of new and commercially valuable Arctic shipping routes. While beneficial for commerce, this situation will pose potentially serious risks to wildlife and the environment.


The enormous expanse of bright ice cover on the Arctic Ocean is our planet’s most important air-conditioning system. Much of the sun’s energy reaching the Arctic Ocean is reflected back into space by the sea ice. But in areas where the ice has melted, the dark ocean absorbs most of the sun’s energy, adding significant heat to Earth’s climate system. As atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide continue to rise and Arctic temperatures consequently climb, scientists project the Arctic Ocean will be essentially ice free for a portion of each summer within just a few decades, perhaps sooner.

Vanishing Arctic sea ice is one of the most obvious and ominous indicators that man-made climate change is already having far-reaching repercussions. Indigenous Arctic people whose way of life is intimately connected to the ice are confronting serious threats to their primary food resources, their safety and their traditional culture. And Arctic species dependent on sea ice for essential life functions — from ice algae and zooplankton to fish, seabirds, seals, walruses and polar bears — are also being adversely affected. Some are unlikely to survive over the long term if the ice vanishes. 

Meanwhile, warming-induced changes in the characteristics of Arctic sea ice are causing alterations of atmospheric chemistry that are likely to increase toxic mercury in ecosystems, threatening the Arctic web of life as well as people who rely on it for food. And ocean acidification, exacerbated by sea-ice loss, will eventually impair crucial shell-building and skeleton-constructing capacities of numerous creatures. Their resulting decline will have devastating ripple effects throughout the entire marine food web. 

Weather across northern hemisphere temperate regions will be influenced in potentially dangerous ways by the effects of sea-ice loss and rising Arctic temperatures on large-scale atmospheric circulation patterns. Extreme weather events, including severe droughts, devastating floods and hazardous heat waves, are projected to become more common as a consequence.

And as disappearance of sea ice continues to push Arctic temperatures higher, melting of the Greenland ice sheet will worsen, escalating sea-level rise worldwide. 

Relentlessly climbing Arctic temperatures will eventually thaw permafrost throughout the Far North. Collapse of the defrosting ground will cause widespread and costly damage to infrastructure. Ultimately, decomposing organic material in previously frozen soils will emit huge additional quantities of CO2 and methane, causing substantial additional global warming. 

Dwindling Arctic sea ice is a portentous warning that we are confronted by a rapidly developing planetary crisis. The longer we wait to address the underlying human causes of climate change, the worse the problem and resulting impacts will be. Our narrow window of opportunity to avert unimaginable harm is rapidly shrinking along with the Arctic sea ice. View Ensia homepage

Add Your Comments
  • Rob B. Jun. 25th, 2015
    You left out an even worse sea ice problem: antarctic sea ice loss. Oh wait, antarctic sea ice is at record high levels, and it is increasing despite climate models predicting that it should be declining. Now I know why you left it out: it doesn't fit your doom and gloom narrative.

    We were told arctic sea ice would be gone by now, but it isn't and seems to be recovering. Why is that? Perhaps the predictions were wrong; perhaps global temperatures have been flat for 18 years; perhaps the window of opportunity is much larger than you're letting on.
  • Pingback, Jun. 30th, 2015
  • George T Jul. 11th, 2015
    Rob B, you are wrong about everything you wrote. The earth continues to warm and antarctic ice shelves are diminishing. You're living in a fantasy reality.
  • Jenny E. Ross Jul. 12th, 2015
    Rob B. -

    Regarding Antarctic sea ice, you're wrong on the science. See: https://www.skepticalscience.com/increasing-Antarctic-Southern-sea-ice-intermediate.htm

    Regarding Arctic sea ice and global temperatures, again, you're wrong on the science. See: https://www.skepticalscience.com/vanishing-arctic-sea-ice-going-up-the-down-escalator.html

    If you're actually interested in understanding the science, there are lots of resources available that explain the facts. A good place to start regarding polar ice is the website of the National Snow and Ice Data Center - nsidc.org
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