Why we may see an iceless North Pole this summer

Before 2050, the Arctic Ocean will probably be ice-free each summer. That’s the extremely troubling conclusion reached by a new international research project put together by the University of Hamburg. The year 2050 may sound like a far off destination reserved for science fiction movies, but it’s just 30 short years away.

There is a silver lining, though, researchers say their grim prediction isn’t written in stone. If C02 emissions are reduced considerably moving forward, ice will remain in the Arctic over most summer months. However, if we continue on the path we’re currently traveling, every summer will be totally iceless.

For now, at least, the north pole is covered in sea ice 365 days per year. During the summer, some ice melts, but it always reappears once things cool down come wintertime. Due to global warming over the past few decades, more and more sea ice is disappearing from the Arctic Ocean each year, seemingly never to return. 

This loss of ice is no joke; the ice serves as a living space and hunting ground for native polar bears and seals. Without it, these species will struggle to survive. Polar bears have already been classified as endangered for over 10 years. 

Arctic ice also maintains overall frigid temperatures in the north pole by reflecting sunlight. Without it, the entire region will become increasingly hotter each summer. The north pole is among the most sensitive areas on the planet to climate change and is often looked at as a precursor to global warming trends.

“While the Arctic sea-ice extent is decreasing during this transition to an ice-free Arctic, the year-to-year variability in extent greatly increases, making life more difficult for local populations and ice-dependent species,” says co-author Bruno Tremblay, Associate Professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at McGill University, in a university release.

To come to their conclusions, the research team analyzed 40 recent climate change models. Using that data, they predicted future Arctic ice patterns if C02 emissions continue at their current rate, and other climate protection measures aren’t taken. They also predicted Arctic ice levels if C02 emissions can be reduced. Unfortunately, even in this scenario, it appears there will still be the occasional Arctic summer with no ice in the future.

“If we reduce global emissions rapidly and substantially, and thus keep global warming below 2 °C relative to preindustrial levels, Arctic sea ice will nevertheless likely disappear occasionally in summer even before 2050. This really surprised us” comments Dirk Notz, the leader of the sea-ice research group at the University of Hamburg in Germany.

It’s upsetting, but the seemingly unavoidable loss of at least some Arctic summer ice should drive home the fact that action needs to be taken now to cut back on C02 emissions and other polluting activities. Humanity has already done considerable climate damage, but it’s not too late to mitigate the loss of summer ice and Arctic wildlife.

In conclusion, the study’s authors say that what happens in the Arctic over the next 30 years will depend on decisions made today.

The full study can be found here, published in Geophysical Research Letters.