According to preliminary data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), Antarctica has set an alarming new record this year for the lowest sea ice extent in the past four decades since measurements began. The previous minimum of 810,000 square miles, set in March 2017, was recently surpassed, after sea ice extent dropped to 765,000 square miles on Wednesday, February 23, 2022.
Scientists estimate that Antarctic sea ice is currently dwindling three times faster than in the 1990s, contributing to global sea-level rise.
“What’s going on in the Antarctic is an extreme event,” said Ted Scambos, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado Boulder and lead scientist at the NSIDC. “There’s a link between what’s going on in Antarctica and the general warming trend around the rest of the world, but it’s different from what we see in mountain glaciers and what we see in the Arctic.”
While the rate of sea ice loss is rapidly increasing in the Arctic, the situation in Antarctica has been more variable, fluctuating widely from record highs to record lows. Satellite data stretching back to 1978 shows that Antarctica was still producing record-high sea ice extent as recently as 2014 and 2015. After plunging in 2016 though, it remained consistently lower-than-average.
“The trends have rearranged a little bit because fundamentally over the last four decades, Antarctica has just been pushed around by the changes in ocean temperature and wind,” said Scambos. “The thing about Antarctica and sea ice is it is very unconstrained, sort of at the mercy of wind patterns, storms, snowfall, and ocean temperatures – all these things have an impact.”
According to scientists, the increasing warming trends in the polar regions amplify the consequences of climate change globally. “Polar regions really have a way of making these small changes a bigger deal, either through sea-level rise, which is the main cause for concern from Antarctica, or through warmer climate generally, because the Arctic is sort of the air conditioner for the places where most of us live in the Northern Hemisphere.”
Although it may take another decade of a persistent downward trend in order to link the dwindling sea ice in the Antarctic with climate change, some alarming effects are already clearly visible on the continent. For instance, the critical ice shelf holding back the Thwaites glacier (also known as the Doomsday glacier) could shatter within the next three to five years, leading to devastating sea-level rise.
In order to stop the downward spiral in which climate change has thrown Antarctica and most other places on the globe, it is absolutely necessary to urgently curb the greenhouse emissions that are at the root of global warming.