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Scientists raise concerns as computer models reveal historic loss of sea ice — and consequences could be disastrous

In World
June 15, 2024

A study of sea ice showed that low coverage in 2023 was a rare event, and models suggest it would have been “extremely unlikely” to have occurred without human-caused warming of Earth.

What’s happening?

Last year marked another nadir for sea ice in the Antarctic. The region had reached a record winter low in 2017, and the “sea ice has remained below average in most months since then,” as the study published in Geophysical Research Letters reported.

In 2023, according to SciTechDaily, winter coverage dropped from the normal level by over 2 million square kilometers (around 772,000 square miles) — an area bigger than Mexico.

British Antarctic Survey researchers used data from 18 climate models to determine the rarity of the event and how it was affected by rising global temperatures — which is spurred by the burning of dirty energy sources such as coal, oil, and gas.

Since satellite images started being taken in 1978, the sea ice “increased slightly and steadily,” per SciTechDaily — until 2015. The process is complicated and multifaceted, but warm sea surface temperatures as well as changing winds and storms contributed to the loss, the news outlet explained.

“According to the models, the record-breaking minimum sea ice extent would be a one-in-a-2,000-year event without climate change,” lead author Rachel Diamond said. “This tells us that the event was very extreme — anything less than one-in-100 is considered exceptionally unlikely.”

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Why is sea ice loss important?

Extreme loss events such as this one are generally difficult for the sea ice to recover from, according to the models, SciTechDaily reported. It noted that even after 20 years, sea ice does not recover from record lows.

“The impacts of Antarctic sea ice staying low for over 20 years would be profound, including on local and global weather and on unique Southern Ocean ecosystems — including whales and penguins,” co-author Louise Sime said.

The outlet noted that emperor penguins have suffered “catastrophic breeding failures” because of low sea ice. Antarctic sea ice also impacts ocean currents and helps regulate temperatures around the globe. Rising temperatures have already supercharged extreme weather events and caused some types to occur more frequently.

Additionally, sea ice slows the rise of sea levels by protecting ice shelves, which keep glaciers inland.

“Strong climate change — i.e., the temperature changes we’re already seeing, and those expected if emissions continue to rise rapidly — in the models makes it four times more likely that we see such a big decline in sea ice extent,” co-author Caroline Holmes said, per SciTechDaily. “This suggests that 2023’s extreme low was made more likely by climate change.”

What’s being done about sea ice loss?

These scientists and others are studying the Antarctic sea ice to understand why it fluctuates so much. Government action, corporate responsibility, and our actions can also help create a safer and healthier future.

You can help by turning to clean sources of energy such as wind and solar, which are cheaper than traditional options. Induction cooktops, rewilded yards, and eco-friendly transportation are other things that help us create a safer and healthier future.

Reducing material consumption by upcycling and shopping secondhand are other ways to give our planet a boost and put money back into your wallet.

Join our free newsletter for weekly updates on the coolest innovations improving our lives and saving our planet.

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