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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

Researchers at the University of Tasmania have found microplastics in Antarctic ice for what is believed to be the first time. 96 pieces of plastic less than 5mm wide were found in a piece of ice core that was drilled in 2009 and had been stored in Hobart, Tasmania.

14 different kinds of microplastics smaller than 5mm were found in the Antarctic ice core, and on average about 12 pieces of plastic were found per liter of water.

Microplastics have previously been discovered in Antarctica’s surface waters, sediment and in snow, but this discovery could mean that the region’s krill- which feed on algae from sea ice- may be more exposed to the plastic, placing them at risk. 

Anna Kelly, from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania and lead author of the study, says, “The remoteness of the Southern Ocean has not been enough to protect it from plastic pollution, which is now pervasive across the world’s oceans.”

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She added that the concentrations of microplastics found in the ice core in Antarctica were slightly lower than a previous study that found microplastics in Arctic sea ice. 

“The microplastic polymers in our ice core were larger than those in the Arctic, which may indicate local pollution sources because the plastic has less time to break down into smaller fibres than is transported long distances on ocean currents,” she says.

The researchers say that they identified fibres of varnish and plastics commonly used in the fishing industry.

The ice core that was drilled in 2009 was taken from ‘fast ice’, immobile ice that forms around the coast. When the core was analysed, the plastics were surrounded by algae that had grown in the ice.

The researchers in the 2009 expedition say that it is unclear whether the toxicity of plastics affects the guts of krill and those animals that feed on them, and have called for more studies to be conducted to understand the impacts of plastics on species relying on sea ice.

Kelly says, “Rather than sinking to the deep ocean, the entrapment of microplastics in sea ice in Antarctica allows them to persist for longer near the sea surface.”

Krill are the basis of the entire Antarctic food web, providing food for penguins, seabirds, seals, fish and whales. Blue whales and humpback whales migrate to the Antarctic from warmer waters every year to feed on krill. 

Kelly says, “Plastic contamination of West Antarctic sea ice may be even greater than in our ice core from the east, as the Antarctic peninsula hosts the bulk of the continent;s tourism, research stations and marine traffic.”

Featured image by: Andreas Kambanis

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