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Skating on Thin Ice in the Arctic

We can’t ignore the cumulative stresses we are putting on the Arctic ecosystem

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An aerial view of the Laptev Sea, taken on September 10, 2020. © NASA Earth Observatory

As each day’s headlines clamor for our attention, it’s hard to know what to focus on. But sometimes there is a signal so strong it can’t be ignored amidst the noise.

This year, for the first time in recorded history, the main nursery of Arctic sea ice off Siberia has not yet frozen as of early November. The Laptev Sea in the Russian Arctic is key to annual ice formation across the northern pole. Ice formed in the Laptev Sea typically feeds the system by transporting nutrients westward for Arctic plankton, which in turn supports the fish and marine mammals farther up the food web.

Gif showing correlation between temperatures and sea ice extent in the Siberian Arctic
Mean Arctic sea ice extent for October, 2020. The magenta line shows the median extent of sea ice from 1981-2010, and visibly brackets this year’s vast area of open water in the Siberian Arctic. The animated temperature overlay shows the strong overlap between this year’s abnormally warm surface air temperatures and the lack of sea ice formation for the same month.

Thin or late ice formation is unfortunately becoming the new norm. Average ice thickness in the Arctic is 50% of what it was in the 1980s. With ice loss, the ocean absorbs more solar radiation, global warming is amplified, circulation patterns shift and food webs are altered. From the smallest to the biggest, from phytoplankton to Indigenous people, sea ice loss is making it difficult to find food and survive in the Arctic Ocean.

The mechanisms for the delayed freeze this fall are clear. Northern Siberia experienced a record-breaking heatwave in 2020. From January to June, temperatures in northern Russia were more than 5° Celsius/ 9° Fahrenheit above average (and peaked at a record high of 38° Celsius / 100° Fahrenheit). The Arctic system is struggling to cope with the residual heat. Through a process called “Atlantification,” warmer Atlantic water is creeping to the surface in Arctic waters and melting the ice further.

Graph showing the sea ice extent of the Siberian Arctic with a decrease in sea ice decline over recent years.
This graph shows sea ice extent during the early ice formation months of October, November and December by year in the Siberian Arctic. As indicated by the orange line, sea ice formation in 2020 lagged considerably behind all other years in the time series. The Siberian Arctic is comprised of the East Siberian, Laptev and Kara seas, as shown in the inset map.

2020 has been rough. If this year has taught us anything, it’s that we will continue to see surprising changes and disruptions near and far. These changes can happen quickly. At home, we may respond by simplifying our lives to minimize additional stresses. We take control of what we can. Reducing our carbon footprint contributes directly to global greenhouse gas emission reductions. Responsible consumption supports sustainable seafood and reduces trash going into our ocean.

We must do the same for the Arctic. When sea ice and the food web are shrinking, we must minimize cumulative stresses we are putting on the Arctic ecosystem by putting precautionary measures in place to manage shipping, fishing and offshore oil and gas activities. We should follow the lead of Indigenous people protecting their lands, waters and cultures. We cannot control everything, but we must take action wherever we can make a difference.

In short, our choices can give the Arctic a fighting chance to stay abundant and resilient to protect our planet and homes for future generations.

For additional details and media coverage on this topic, here are some useful references:

Russian Arctic Sea Fails to Freeze | The Moscow Times

Climate change made Siberian heatwave 600 times more likely – study | The Guardian 

Arctic amplification is caused by sea-ice loss under increasing CO2 | Nature Communications

Ocean Waves in November—in the Arctic | National Snow & Ice Data Center

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