Arctic ice is seasonal. It melts down in the summer sun and relative warmth, then freezes back up when fall’s chill comes. Or at least, it should be that way. But right now it’s late October, and the ice in Siberia’s Laptav Sea still hasn’t refrozen. It’s the latest ice-free date the sea has seen in recorded history and is driving Arctic sea ice as a whole to its lowest point on record for this time of year.
The Laptav Sea is the Arctic’s main nursery of sea ice. Generally, ice that forms in the area drifts to other parts of the Arctic on offshore winds, helping to form ice packs in other bodies of water. This summer, though, there was a bizarre, extended heat wave in the Arctic Circle and other adjacent regions. That meant ice along the Siberian coast melted more quickly than usual, leaving large open areas of water.
“With these newly open waters, direct sunshine was able to warm up the ocean temperatures to more than 5 degrees Celsius above average,” Zachary Labe, a postdoctoral researcher at Colorado State University, wrote in an email. “These warmer ocean waters are slowing the refreeze in the Siberian Arctic now in October.”
Current windy and wavy conditions are further also inhibiting ice formation. The lack of ice and resulting warm water could seriously mess with the sea’s lush ecosystems, wreaking havoc on fish and other organisms. Indigenous communities in the region will likely suffer, too, as they depend on sea ice for travel and cultural practices. The delay in ice formation has major implications for the rest of the Arctic, too, rendering ice all over the region more brittle.
“Since this year is observing such a late refreeze in the Laptev Sea, any sea ice that forms later this fall and winter will not have as much time to thicken,” Labe said. “Younger and thinner ice is more vulnerable for melting during the summer,” which means it could again disappear earlier than usual, leaving large pools of open water which absorb even more heat.”
The Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean, along the Siberian Coast, has already been open more than 100 days this year, and will set a record for both the earliest open and the latest close.
Climate change is transforming the Arctic. pic.twitter.com/HPCOgaHmrF
— Dr. Robert Rohde (@RARohde) October 22, 2020
The Laptav Sea isn’t the only region experiencing a delay in ice formation this fall. In another shocking illustration of the problem, ice in the Northwest Passage — the route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Arctic — melted down earlier than ever this year, leaving the passageway clear. And now, it’s also refreezing later than it ever has. In fact, the entire Arctic is currently seeing its lowest sea ice extent record.
“We are currently in uncharted waters with record low Arctic sea ice this late in the year,” Geoff York, senior director of conservation at Polar Bears International, said in an email. “This is yet another red flag from our rapidly warming planet — trying to warn us of changes yet to come.”
There’s no question that the climate crisis spurred these changes. The Arctic saw its second-lowest sea ice extent minimum in September, in line with a downward trend of 13% per decade since reliable satellite records began in 1981. Arctic sea ice has also gotten younger and weaker, and this year appears poised to accelerate that trend.
“While there is substantial year-to-year variability, these current conditions are consistent with long-term climate change trends,” said Labe.
Without radical steps to decarbonize every sector of the global economy, Arctic sea ice will suffer even further losses as the region transforms. A growing body of research warns that we could see ice-free summers in the area as soon as 2035. One recent study also found that the region is transitioning into a completely different kind of climate due to global warming. But as the authors of that study noted, we still have the power to make changes by drawing down our carbon emissions as quickly as possible.