Climate researchers predict that Arctic sea ice could be completely gone by 2035, according to findings released on Monday.
The study, published by Nature Climate Change, compared conditions today with conditions from the last global warming period 127,000 years ago.
Lead researchers Dr. Louise Sime and Dr. Maria Vittoria Guarino have confirmed that sea ice completely melted during the last interglacial period — a geological period between an Ice Age. The Earth is currently in another interglacial period called Holocene.
"By studying the last warm period, we gather valuable information about the sensitivity of the polar regions to a warmer world," Guarino told Global Citizen. "This helps us [with] improving predictions of what the future has in store for us."
Guarino stressed that the factors driving the temperature increase today are very different than in the previous interglacial period. A different configuration of the Earth’s orbit around the sun caused rising temperatures 100,000 years ago.
"In the future, the projected increase in temperatures has been attributed mainly to anthropogenic heat," Guarino said.
Very pleased to announce that our latest research has been published today in Nature Climate Change @NatureClimate: Sea ice-free Arctic during the Last Interglacial supports fast future loss. #seaice#Arctic#climatemodelling@UkesmProject#CMIP6https://t.co/FoXVLGD6rK— Maria Vittoria Guarino (@MaViGuarino) August 10, 2020
Sea ice is frozen ocean water and — unlike glaciers, icebergs, and ice shelves — it forms, grows, and melts in the ocean.
Sea ice provides an essential role in controlling the global climate by reflecting 80% of sunlight, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). When the white sea ice melts, the dark water underneath absorbs 90% of the sunlight, which contributes to rising ocean temperatures.
Rising global temperature rates means that sea ice is melting at unprecedented rates. NSIDC reported that Arctic sea ice levels were at record-level lows in June 2020. It is also the earliest in the year that the Northern Sea Route has ever been ice-free.
Many animals such as walruses, seals, and polar bears depend on the sea ice for hunting and breeding. Guarino highlighted that many ecosystems could also be destroyed if the sea ice melts.
The poles are the most sensitive regions to climate change on Earth, and small temperature increases can accelerate global warming trends and climate patterns.
"A complete loss of sea ice would have profound impact on our climate, weather, and thus, society," Guarino said.
James Screen, an associate professor in climate science at the University of Exeter, has studied how the melting sea ice could affect weather and patterns around the world.
Although the severity of the impacts is still unknown, Screen says we need to act now.
"The new paper adds to an already quite extensive body of literature that says we need to dramatically and quickly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid seeing ice-free summers in the near future," Screen told Global Citizen.