IPCC study shows the Arctic Ocean to become ice-free by 2030s

With the Arctic sea ice area (SIA) rapidly declining since 2000, a study forecasts the Arctic Ocean to become ice-free near mid-century in September
Shubhangi Dua
Arcticice_unsplash.jpg
Arctic ice mountain range. Image Credit: Annie Spratt

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A study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects that the Arctic Ocean will become ice-free for the first time before 2050, irrespective of emission scenarios.

The Arctic could be sea-ice-free during the month of September as early as the 2030s, even under a low emissions scenario, about one decade earlier than previously projected, a Springer Nature press release claims. 

The study, conducted as the sixth assessment report under IPCC’s purview, determined the rapid decline of the Arctic ice was primarily caused by intermediate and high greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, though not under low emissions scenarios.

Emissions Impact

The report finds that greenhouse gas emissions are the dominating cause of the reduction in the Arctic sea-ice-area (SIA) extent. 

The panel said, “It is likely that the Arctic Ocean in September, the month of annual minimum SIA, will become practically ice-free. Hence, uncertainty remains in whether or not the Arctic will become ice-free under the lowest emissions scenarios, as well as in understanding the observed SIA changes throughout the year.”

The study was conducted based on simulations from the latest generation Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 6 (CMIP6) models. The report indicates that a dominant influence of greenhouse gas increases on Arctic SIA is detectable and, on average, is underestimated by CMIP6 models.

According to Nature Communications, a study from 2018 says, “In the past, the influences of natural, greenhouse gas (GHG), and other anthropogenic (mainly anthropogenic aerosol) has been observed to cause a substantial change in Arctic sea ice extent from 1953 to 2012.”

Additionally, the study showed that anthropogenic aerosol forcing had offset about 23 percent of the GHG-induced Arctic sea ice extent decrease.

Call For Action 

A significant decline in Arctic SIA would severely impact human societies and natural ecosystems. 

“The natural ecosystems would be affected both within and beyond the Arctic, such as by changing marine activity, further accelerating Arctic warming, and altering carbon cycling,” said the Springernature press release.

However, the study is unclear about the contribution of human activities to sea ice decline and whether the Arctic will become sea-ice-free under low emissions scenarios.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said that changes in Arctic sea ice could potentially affect other regions through altered weather patterns and ocean circulation.

“An ice-free Arctic is creating new business opportunities, political challenges, and threats to the ecosystems and local communities.” 

After carefully considering all scenarios through different research models, the IPCC study highlights that the Arctic would be ice-free in September before 2050.

The report has emphasized the importance of planning and adapting to a seasonally ice-free Arctic.

Find the study published by Nature Communication here on May 4.

Study abstract

The sixth assessment report of the IPCC assessed that the Arctic is projected to be on average practically ice-free in September near mid-century under

intermediate and high greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, though not under low emissions scenarios, based on simulations from the latest generation Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 6 (CMIP6) models. Here we show, using an attribution analysis approach, that a dominant influence of greenhouse gas increases on Arctic sea ice area is detectable in three observational datasets in all months of the year, but is on average underestimated by CMIP6 models. By scaling models’ sea ice response to greenhouse gases to best match the observed trend in an approach validated in an imperfect model test, we project the ice-free Arctic in September under all scenarios considered. These results emphasize the profound impacts of greenhouse gas emissions on the Arctic and demonstrate the importance of planning for and adapting to a seasonally ice-free Arctic in the near future.

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