Ice free Arctic could occur this year, warns expert

The last time the Arctic was ice-free was 100,000 years ago. © Svebor Kranjc
Sea ice in the Arctic could be a thing of the past, a leading scientist has warned. For the first time in 100,000 years the chilling landscape known for its snow-capped mountains and polar bears may be without its sea ice either this year or the next.

Ocean Physics Professor Peter Wadhams from Cambridge University based his prediction on projected data from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center showing that on 1 June this year there were estimated to be 11.1 million square kilometers of sea ice. This is below the average from the past 30 years of 12.7 million square kilometers, a difference of an area roughly the same size as the UK.

The ice reaches its lowest level in mid-September as the summer ends, when on average it has fallen to 6.3 square kilometers. ‘Ice-free’ is defined as when the Arctic Ocean contains less than one million square kilometers of sea ice, allowing for the thick ice around the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

The last mid-September reading in 2012 measured 3.4 million square kilometers.

“My prediction remains that the Arctic ice may well disappear, that is, have an area of less than one million square kilometers for September of this year” the professor told the Independent.

“I think there’s a reasonable chance it could get down to a million this year and if it doesn’t do it this year, it will do it next year” he added.

The sea ice in the Arctic is used by polar bears as a hunting ground for seals. The decline in recent years has been linked to a weight loss in polar bears as they have 30 less days per year on which they can hunt on the ice, according to a study.

Sea ice decline in the Arctic is also linked to the acceleration of methane emissions as the gas once frozen in the sea bed is released, with scientists predicting this could cause an increase in global temperatures of 0.6 degrees Celsius in a 2013 study.

Dr Peter Gleick from the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California warned that although Wadhams was right to raise alarm over rising temperatures his ‘ice-free’ prediction could cause harm if it does not come to fruition. Speaking to the Independent he said “If it's wrong, this kind of projection leads to climate sceptics and deniers to criticize the entire community.”

Wadhams prediction is a rapid increase on the previously estimated ice-free Arctic, with most estimating it to occur between 2030 and 2050. In a 2014 study The National Climate Assessment predicted it would occur mid-century based on the seasonal pattern of observed loss.

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