Why the record low Arctic sea ice this October is so alarming

“Changes in the ice are part of a larger “cascade effect,” as Webster describes it, in which delayed winter ice growth leads to thinner ice, which melts more easily in the summer months compared to older, thicker sea ice. This creates more open ocean.

This transformation contributes to both regional and global warming. Where a white sea ice surface would have reflected sunlight, the dark water absorbs heat, which further reduces ice growth. This change in albedo (or reflectivity) on sea and land in the Arctic is one of the main reasons the region is heating at twice the global average rate, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2019 Arctic Report Card. According to the recent Nature Communications study, it will also be a significant contributor to global warming.

Near Greenland — which holds a massive ice sheet — the warming loop set off by sea ice loss has a minor effect on its warming, but not a substantial effect on the ice sheet itself, researchers found in a 2019 study in Geophysical Research Letters.

The sea ice shift could also impact seasonal weather, potentially intensifying extreme weather. However, Labe says the issue requires further research. “Scientists are actively studying the connections between Arctic sea ice loss and wintertime weather patterns in North America, Europe, and Asia,” he said. “However, these relationships remain highly uncertain in the scientific literature and for seasonal weather forecasts.”

For now, the plummeting sea ice volumes are a startling reminder of just how rapidly the planet is changing, and how dire the consequences of delaying radical cuts in greenhouse gas emissions will be.”

Why it’s so damn hot in the Arctic right now

“A heat wave begins with high atmospheric pressure building up over an area. A downward-moving air column compresses the air that’s closer to the ground, holding it still and heating it up. That high pressure also forces clouds away and around the column, creating an unobstructed line of light between the ground and the sun.

Over a period of days and weeks, the ground absorbs sunlight, and with stagnant air, heat accumulates and temperatures rise. “There’s nothing coming in and nothing going out,” explained Walt Meier, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. “It’s kind of like an oven basically.”

That’s the general formula for heat waves around the world. But there are also several unique ingredients contributing to the Arctic one.

In northern latitudes during the summer, there is near-continuous sunlight — even at night. That allows heat to accumulate faster than in areas that experience sunsets and can cool off in the evening.

Another factor this year was the lack of snow. With an unusually warm winter, less snow built up across parts of the Arctic, and with a warm spring, much of it melted away sooner than usual. “The snow is very reflective of the sunlight,” said Meier. “This year, the snow went away earlier, so then you have the bare ground that can absorb more solar energy.”

The warmer ground also dries out in the heat. With less moisture, there is less evaporation that can cool the surrounding air. “The drier ground and the air over the top of it makes it more susceptible to rapid warming when you have the right conditions like we’re seeing now,” Meier said.”

“One of the overarching trends behind the heat wave and the wildfires is climate change. Earth as a whole is warming up due to human emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. But every place isn’t warming up at the same rate; the Arctic is warming at double the rate of the rest of the planet, which is why some of the earliest effects of climate change are felt in the region. The north pole also presents a window into the future for the rest of the world.

Those higher average temperatures mean extreme heat will become even more likely and more intense, exacerbating threats like forest fires as vegetation dries out. “The wildfires definitely come from the extreme heat and the dryness,” Meier said.

The loss of these ancient, slow-growing forests will release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that will take decades to reabsorb, further warming the planet. Warming in the Arctic is also thawing permafrost, which releases even more carbon into the atmosphere.

And while it’s summer in the Arctic right now, the region has also experienced heat waves in the winter. In fact, researchers have found that in general, winters are warming faster than summers. That’s part of the reason why the Arctic is now losing sea ice at its fastest rate in 1,500 years.”

“Antarctica is also warming up. Earlier this year, the continent broke two high-temperature records within a week.”