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Startling decline in Antarctic sea ice is unprecedented in modern records

Antarctica is sending out an alarming signal. This year’s Southern Hemisphere winter has witnessed a decline in sea ice formation around the continent, marking a record low by a considerable margin. 

The sea ice’s substantial drop is raising concerns within the scientific community, leading to increased examination of its critical function in regulating Earth’s ocean and air temperatures, circulating ocean water, and maintaining an essential ecosystem.

Unprecedented change

“This year is really different,” said Ted Scambos, a senior research scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder and an Antarctica specialist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center. “It’s a very sudden change.” 

This startling variation is especially surprising given that sea ice around Antarctica has previously shown a slower response to climate change compared to the Arctic Ocean.

At the end of June, Antarctic sea ice spanned 4.5 million square miles, or 11.7 million square kilometers. According to NSIDC data, this is nearly a million square miles less than the expected average based on roughly 40 years of satellite observations. 

Moreover, this year’s ice cover is almost half a million square miles smaller than the record low set in 2022.

“The Antarctic sea ice extent low in 2023 is unprecedented in the satellite record,” said Liping Zhang, a project scientist at NOAA‘s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, further emphasizing the gravity of the situation.

Possible shift to an unstable state

The dramatic decline in ice could indicate a change in the sea ice system, leading to a state where extreme conditions are more common. Dr. Zhang, however, has cautioned that this hypothesis still requires extensive investigation.

The decline in ice is multifaceted, with several oceanic and atmospheric patterns influencing the growth or shrinkage of ice. The complexity of these overlapping interactions is amplified by the long-term influence of human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, leading to greenhouse gas emissions.

Some researchers, viewing this sudden change in the context of consecutive years with less sea ice, believe that the impacts of these human actions are finally becoming visible in Antarctica’s previously resilient sea ice. “That is not within natural variability,” said Marilyn Raphael, a geography professor at UCLA, emphasizing the dire nature of the situation.

Extending the historical record

Dr. Raphael has been working on extending the historical record of Antarctic sea ice beyond the 1970s, when satellite observations began. A new data set going back to 1905 was recently published by her team. The researchers used weather observations to reconstruct earlier sea ice extents. 

This extended record, although still limited, offers a broader perspective on natural variability and may help in understanding the current situation better.

Sea surface temperatures have also broken records this year, with three patches of unusually warm water observed around Antarctica. Dr. Scambos pointed out that these hot spots align with areas where sea ice has been slow to form.

Lasting consequences

The consequences of sea ice decline are numerous and complex, both locally and globally. Antarctica’s native penguin species rely heavily on sea ice. Adélie penguins eat krill that thrive in icy water, while larger emperor penguins lay their eggs and raise their young on floating habitats. Less sea ice means less food for Adélies, and earlier melting of sea ice can lead to emperor penguin chicks drowning before their waterproof adult feathers develop.

Sea ice also acts as a protective barrier around Antarctica, shielding the continental ice sheet and glaciers from the warmer ocean and wind erosion. If this shield continues to weaken, more land ice could flow into the ocean, contributing to rising sea levels and affecting coastal populations worldwide.

Xiaojun Yuan, a research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who maintains a seasonal forecast of Antarctic sea ice, anticipates that even when Antarctic sea ice reaches its maximum extent around September, it could still remain at a record low for that time of year. Dr. Yuan’s forecast shows less sea ice than usual around most of Antarctica through early next year.


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