"An Unprecedented Planetary Distress Signal": Arctic Sea Ice Extent Bottoms Out at a Record Low

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The U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) today (19 Sept 2012) announced that the extent of Arctic sea ice reached an annual minimum of 3.41 million km2 (1.32 million square miles), the lowest sea ice extent on record (since 1979 when satellites started to regularly monitor the ice). The minimum was 3.29 million square kilometers (1.27 million square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average minimum, a loss of ice equivalent to more than 40% of the land area of the of the contiguous United States (7.67 million km2). The record loss of sea ice is 18% (roughly the area of Texas) below the loss seen in 2007 -- the previous record low which at the time shocked scientists. The extraordinary sea ice decline has enormous implications in the region, and has consequences that extend well south of the Arctic.

“In a year of record-breaking extremes, shocking has become the new normal," says Lou Leonard, Managing Director for Climate Change at WWF-US. "But what’s happened in the Arctic this summer should be on the front page of every newspaper. This is an unprecedented planetary distress signal.”

Above: The Arctic Ocean on 16 September with the lowest sea ice extent on record. The photo was taken from the Coast Guard icebreaker USCGC Healy, which was (and still is) on a mission with scientists on board. At the time the photo was taken, the ship was at Latitude 79.42.9 N, Longitude 160.59.5 W. Source: U. S. Coast Guard.

Below: Arctic sea ice extent (white area) on 16 September 2012. The orange line shows the 1979 to 2000 median extent for that day. The North Pole is designated by the black cross. Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Summer sea ice extent has been in sharp decline over the last decade. The last six years, 2007 through 2012, have seen the lowest seasonal minimum ice extents on record.  “This is a critical loss of habitat for a whole sea ice dependent ecosystem and the unique animals that rely on that system,” says Martin Sommerkorn of WWF's Global Arctic Programme. “We know the ice is on a continuing downward trajectory. What’s shocking is just how quickly it is happening. We need to plan now for an Arctic where the ice is virtually gone for the summer, as that is the situation we will soon be facing – this means conserving the critical habitat that remains.”

Climate change won’t stop at the Arctic Circle," warns Samantha Smith of WWF's Global Climate and Energy Initiative. "Scientists tell us that the rapid loss of Arctic sea ice is linked to wet summers, severe winters and extreme weather events in the northern hemisphere. And other global climate impacts we’re seeing are at least as serious, such as this year’s record droughts with their impacts on food production, food prices and hunger.”

Scientists reported in July ( Sources of multi-decadal variability in Arctic sea ice extent, Environmental Research Letters, 26 July 2012) on their study investigating the role of natural climate variability in the decline. "Our study shows that while natural changes play a significant role, the majority of sea ice loss - between 70% and 95% - is likely to be due to man-made greenhouse gas emissions," said one of the researchers, Jonny Day of the NCAS, University of Reading. (from Melting Arctic sea ice: how much is down to us?, press release, 26 July 2012, University of Reading). Day summarizes the study in the video below.

It is a fact that global warming is caused by the unrelenting increase in greenhouse gases. Unless we make systematic and dramatic cuts in polluting gases, we will end up with a climate that is unrecognizable, unpredictable, and difficult for natural systems and people," says Samantha Smith of WWF's Global Climate and Energy Initiative. Yet the melting Arctic Sea ice has made it easier to exploit the region's fossil energy sources, including offshore oil.

Oil Producers Enticed by Arctic's Open Water, But Remaining Sea Ice Chills the Drills

Shell Oil Company recently was granted permission by the U.S. government to begin preparatory drilling in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, despite concerns raised by WWF and others. "The area where oil companies can now drill is in the remote, ice-covered waters of Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, which is known for extreme storms, gale-force winds, moving sea ice, sub-zero temperatures and darkness," says Layla Hughes, WWF’s expert on oil and gas development. "Such hostile conditions will make it difficult, if not impossible, to mount a robust response effort in the event of a major oil spill. I’m very concerned about drilling in Alaska because I think it will be dangerous and irresponsible, given that there are not safeguards in place to protect Alaska’s wildlife and communities—both at the heart of WWF’s mission." (See WWF Works to Protect Alaska as Oil and Gas Drilling Raises Concerns, 30 August 2012).

As Arctic Sea Ice plummeted to a new record low, Shell Oil dispatched the drillship Noble Discoverer (pictured below) to the Chukchi Sea where it began drilling in its "Burger" Prospect on 8 September. "It’s the first time a drill bit has touched the sea floor in the U.S. Chukchi Sea in more than two decades," reported Shell. "We look forward to continued drilling progress throughout the next several weeks and to adding another chapter to Alaska’s esteemed oil and gas history." (Shell begins drilling in the Chukchi Sea, press release, 9 Sep 2012).

Above: The drillship Noble Discoverer, 68 miles west of Nome, Alaska, en route to the Chukchi Sea on Aug. 29, 2012. Source: U.S. Coast Guard.

Below (video): The Noble Discoverer begins drilling in the Chukchi Sea on 8 September 2012.

Ironically, despite the sea ice minimum, there still was enough drifting ice to force Shell to temporarily suspend drilling at the site and to move the ship a safer distance from the ice. The day after the company announced that drilling had begun, it issued a terse press release on 10 September 2012 saying that "Shell has made the decision to temporarily move off the Burger-A well to avoid potentially encroaching sea ice." The company reported on 17 September, the day after this year's sea ice minimum, that "the Noble Discoverer, is expected to resume its position and drilling operations over the ‘Burger A’ prospect in the days ahead.

While dispersed and drifting sea ice was bad news for Shell, it was good news for the large numbers of walruses nearby at Hanna Shoal. The walruses are attracted to the shoal's food sources, but need sea ice to rest on when they are not in the water. In recent years, walruses by this time of the year have been forced to abandon Hanna Shoal because there was little or no sea ice left in the area (see for example, Number of Walruses Hauled Out near Point Lay, Alaska, Swells to over 20,000, WWF Climate Blog, 1 September 2011). They have had to embark on hazardous and demanding journeys to the coast, where they have hauled-out in large numbers. They are not as safe and secure on land and must work harder to feed themselves. But this year, some sea ice has persisted in the area of Hanna Shoal, allowing them to remain there -- so far. See Arctic ice: Floes impeding Shell Oil hold promise for Pacific walrus, Alaska Dispatch, 12 September 2012.

Above: Walruses hauled out on remaining sea ice in the Hanna Shoal area on 19 August 2012. The photo was taken by Dr. Lee Cooper, of the Chesapeake Biological Lab, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. He and other scientists have been travelling aboard the USCGC Healy conducting research in the Chukchi Sea, including Hanna Shoal. Source: Dr. Lee Cooper and Ensign Erin Sheridan (USCGC Healy).

Online Resources:

Record Arctic ice low drives urgent global action. Press release (19 Sep 2012) from WWF International.


WWF Climate Change Blog > Regions > Arctic:

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