Study predicts ice-free summers in the Arctic by the mid-century

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Seasonal sea ice, which melts completely each summer rather than accumulating over years, is replacing thicker, multiyear ice and driving sea ice thinning trends, according to new research.

Over the past two decades, the Arctic has lost about one third of its winter sea ice volume, largely due to a decline in sea ice that persists over several years, called multiyear ice. The study also found sea ice is likely thinner than previous estimates.

According to the researchers, this was the first time Arctic sea ice snow depth has been estimated using a combination of lidar (ICESat-2) and radar (CryoSat-2) data. Using these estimates of snow depth and the height of sea ice exposed above water, the study found multiyear Arctic sea ice has lost 16% of its winter volume, or approximately half a meter (1.5ft) of thickness, in the three years since the launch of ICESat-2, part of NASA’s Earth Observing System.

Sahra Kacimi, lead study author and a polar scientist at the California Institute of Technology’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said, “We weren’t really expecting to see this decline, for the ice to be this much thinner in just three short years.”

Scientists make satellite estimates of sea-ice thickness using snow depth and the height of the floating ice above the sea surface. Snow can weigh ice down, changing how ice floats in the ocean. The new study compared ice thickness using new snow depths from satellite radar and lidar to previous ice thickness and snow depth estimates from climate records. The researchers found using climatology-based estimates of snow depth can result in overestimating sea-ice thickness by up to 20%, or up to 0.2m (0.7ft).

Ron Kwok, study co-author and a polar scientist at the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory, said, “Arctic snow depth, sea ice thickness and volume are three very challenging measurements to obtain. The key takeaway for me is the remarkable loss of Arctic winter sea ice volume — one-third of the winter ice volume lost over just 18 years — that accompanied a widely reported loss of old, thick Arctic sea ice and decline in end-of-summer ice extent.”

The study used an 18-year record of sea-ice observations from ICESat and the newer ICESat-2 and CryoSat-2 satellites to capture monthly changes in Arctic sea-ice thickness and volume, to provide context for sea ice thickness estimates from 2018 to 2021. The 18-year record showed a loss of about 6,000km3 of winter ice volume, largely driven by the switch from predominantly multiyear ice to thinner, seasonal sea ice.

Older, multiyear ice tends to be thicker and therefore more resistant to melting. As that “reservoir” of old Arctic sea ice is depleted and seasonal ice becomes the norm, the overall thickness and volume of Arctic sea ice is expected to decline. “Current models predict that by the mid-century we can expect ice-free summers in the Arctic, when the older ice, thick enough to survive the melt season is gone,” Kacimi said.

“This is really old ice we’re losing at quite a frightening rate,” said Robbie Mallett, a polar ice researcher at University College London, who was not involved in the study.

To view the complete study published in the AGU journal Geophysical Research Letters, click here.

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Dan first joined UKi Media & Events in 2014 having spent the early years of his career in the recruitment industry. As editor, he now produces content for Meteorological Technology International, unearthing the latest technological advances and research methods for the publication of each exciting new issue. When he’s not reporting on the latest meteorological news, Dan can be found on the golf course or apprehensively planning his next DIY project.

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