The main nursery of Arctic sea ice in Siberia has yet to freeze in late October for the first time since records began. Climate scientists warn of potential knock-on effects across the polar region. 

The delayed annual freeze in the Laptev Sea has been caused by heatwaves in northern Russia and the intrusion on Atlantic waters. Areas in Siberia experienced temperatures 10℃ above average in June and this year’s wildfires in the Arctic set pollution records. Ocean temperatures in the area also recently climbed to more than 5℃ above average. 

This trapped heat takes a long time to move into the atmosphere, even at this time of year when temperatures are getting cooler.

Graphs showing sea-ice extent in the Laptev Sea, which usually show a seasonal pulse, have flat-lined, causing a record amount of open sea in the Arctic. 

Zachary Labe, a postdoctoral researcher at Colorado State University, says, “the lack of freeze of sea ice so far this fall is unprecedented in the Siberian Arctic region.” He attributes this to the human-driven climate crisis. 

The climate crisis is pushing warmer Atlantic currents into the Arctic and breaking up the usual stratification between warm deep waters and the cool surface, making it difficult for ice to form. Much of the old ice in the Arctic is now disappearing, leaving thinner seasonal ice. Overall, the average thickness of it is half of what it was in the 1980s.

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This trend is likely to continue until the Arctic has its first ice-free summer, which will likely occur between 2030 and 2050. 

Scientists warn that this delayed freeze could amplify feedbacks that cause the ice caps to melt quicker. Smaller ice sheets mean that there is less white area to reflect the sun’s heat back into space. 

Ice forms along the coast of the Laptev Sea in early winter, which then drifts westward carrying nutrients across the Arctic, before breaking up in the spring in the Fram Strait between Greenland and Svalbard. If this ice forms late in the Laptev Sea, it will be thinner and more likely to melt before it reaches the Fram Strait. This could result in fewer nutrients for Arctic plankton, which will lose its ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Further, more open sea also means more turbulence in the upper layer of the Arctic ocean, which will bring up more warm water from the deeper parts.

This feedback loop is something that has been forecast for a long time, so it should come as no surprise that we are starting to see it happen. However, there has been little response by lawmakers to reverse or even slow down this process. The Arctic should be receiving as much attention as any other environmental problem in the world as the demise of its ecosystem will have catastrophic consequences for the rest of the planet. 

Featured image by: Flickr