Antarctica: Missing ice five times the size of British Isles

‘Antarctica could transform from Earth's refrigerator to a radiator’ as Earth is losing sea-ice that helps maintain balance in the planet’s temperature.
Shubhangi Dua
Scientists report Antarctic winter ice melt could lead to unstable climate
Scientists report Antarctic winter ice melt could lead to unstable climate

Frank Günther / iStock 

Recently, satellite data depicted that the sea ice in and around the Antarctica region reached record-low levels during winter. 

This is a concerning development, given Antarctica's historical resistance to global warming, BBC reported on Sunday (September 17). Scientists caution against unstable consequences of climate change in the polar regions.

Polar experts warn of unprecedented effects of depleting sea-ice levels in Antarctica. Walter Meier monitored sea ice with the National Snow and Ice Data Center and stated: "It's so far outside anything we've seen, it's almost mind-blowing.”

Scientists highlighted key impacts, including the unstable situation, which would make it harder to regulate Earth’s temperature. Antarctica’s vast expanse of ice has a highly reflective surface; its white appearance mirrors a large portion of the Sun's incoming energy back into the atmosphere. 

Sea ice is depleting at an alarming rate

This reflection helps keep the planet's temperature in check by preventing excessive heating. However, with the rapidly depleting sea ice, the ice cannot cool the Earth and maintain balance in the planet’s temperature.

Furthermore, with the disappearance of sea ice, the dark areas of Antarctica’s ocean are exposed, absorbing sun rays. This leads to the sea warming, consequently melting the ice. The process is referred to as the ice-albedo effect. 

BBC stated that the ice-albedo effect could add much more heat to the planet, disrupting Antarctica's usual role as a regulator of global temperatures.

As a result, Antarctica could transform from Earth's refrigerator to a radiator, experts told BBC. Additionally, the remaining ice floating in Antarctica’s ocean’s surface measures less than 17 million square kilometers. 

It's 1.5 million square kilometers less than the average observed in September and significantly lower than the previous winter record lows.

According to the BBC, Antarctica is now an area missing ice about five times the size of the British Isles.

Low recovery prospects

Unfortunately, scientists are not optimistic about recovering the sea ice substantially. However, they are trying to identify the causes of low sea-ice levels this year.

Dr Robbie Mallet of the University of Manitoba, based in the Antarctic peninsula, says scientists can notice how vulnerable the situation is.

Studying the reasons has proven challenging to the team due to isolation in extreme cold and powerful winds and this year’s thinning sea-ice. Dr Mallet stated: "There is a risk that it breaks off and drifts out to sea with us on it.”

Usually, sea-ice develops in the continent[‘s winter months – March to October and melts in the summer. It’s part of a system that includes icebergs, land ice, sea ice, sea ice, sea ice shelves, and floating extensions of land ice from the coast.

Sea-ice acts as a shield, keeping the ocean from getting too warm and protecting the land ice. 

According to Dr. Caroline Holmes, a scientist at the British Antarctic Survey, the effects of declining sea-ice may become noticeable as the season shifts to summer, possibly triggering an uncontrollable cycle of ice melting.

"Are we awakening this giant of Antarctica?" questioned Prof Martin Siegert, a glaciologist at the University of Exeter. He said sea ice would be ‘an absolute disaster for the world.’

Worst-case scenario phase

Prof Anna Hogg, an Earth scientist at the University of Leeds, told BBC that the data indications of the melting ice sheets in Antarctica represent a worst-case scenario range of what was already predicted. 

“Since the 1990s, the loss of land ice from Antarctica has contributed 7.2mm to sea-level rise,” BBC reported.

Experts are cautioning against even a slight increase in sea levels, noting that the outcomes of the rise could lead to dangerous high storm surges and flooding in coastal regions across the globe, wiping out communities and livelihoods in the areas by the sea.

BBC highlighted, “If significant amounts of land ice were to start melting, the impacts would be catastrophic for millions worldwide.”

The new findings have been surprisingly harder to understand as the winter sea ice in the continent had been growing in size until 2016. However, in March 2022, the east region experienced a severe heatwave increasing temperatures to -10 degrees Celsius from expected -50 degrees Celsius.

Prof Siegert noted, "When I started studying the Antarctic 30 years ago, we never thought extreme weather events could happen there.”

'Wild West' raises hopes.

, Other experts, including Dr Robbie Mallet, commented that the region is still in the “Wild West” in scientific terms as scientists are aware of the ice expanse but lack knowledge of the ice thickness. 

Dr Mallet believes that uncovering the enigma could radically transform climate models in the South Pole. 

Therefore, Dr. Mallet and his team of scientists are studying sea-ice thickness in the region by deploying radar instruments under an international research project called Defiant. They are aiming to understand the causes of depleting winter ice at this rapid speed.

"There is a chance that it's a freak expression of natural variability," he told BBC, implying that natural factors may have contributed to the built-up, impacting the area. 

Dr Mallet stated that there are good reasons to be apprehensive, “It's potentially an alarming sign of Antarctic climate change that hasn't been there for the last 40 years. And it's only just emerging now."

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