Climate-related changes start to extend to other seasons. The pace of sea ice loss in the Arctic is accelerating and we are not recovering to the conditions of the 1980s. The ten lowest sea ice extents since measurements began were recorded in the last ten years.
"Right now we are outside anything we’ve seen in the last few years," says Julienne Stroeve, Professor at University College London and Senior Research Scientist at NSIDC to High North News.
After having documented the changes that are happening in the Arctic Ocean for the last 15 years, she is shocked by the current situation:
"In Svalbard, there is no sea ice right now. There always used to be ice in the fjords at this time of the year."
Ice changes extend to other seasons
During her talk at the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø in January, Stroeve argued that the Arctic is going through a period of profound transformation and that the changes are starting to extend to seasons other than summer, in which the melting of the sea ice was the most visible in the last years.
Regions that used to be covered year-round, especially off the coast of Siberia, Alaska, and Canada, are now becoming ice-free in the summer.
Stroeve points to the sea ice extent, which "completely flatlined and the ice edge actually retreated in the Barents and Kara Sea, and the Sea of Okhotsk during the first two weeks of January, which is highly unusual." In February, the ice growth has once again stalled.
Scientists believe that in the regions where we are seeing the ice retreat in the winter, there are profound feedbacks in the climate system between the weather in the Arctic and mid-latitudes weather extremes.
Increased sea ice variability
The increased variability in the sea ice conditions, especially as the ice cover thins, makes it more challenging to predict a few months in advance how much ice will be there at a particular time of the year. As a result, more extreme weather events in Europe and other regions at similar latitudes can be expected.
Current developments question ice extent calculations
The current changes in sea ice also question the methods used for computing the monthly mean sea ice extent. In November and December 2016, the resulting calculations of the mean monthly ice extent showed more ice than calculations based on the daily means.
"We want to better understand how much of a difference between these calculations can be, depending on how you compute the monthly average extent." In order to reflect current trends more accurately, other methods of calculation might be needed."
Worries about the future of climate science in the U.S.
Julienne Stroeve’s and her colleagues’ findings are in sharp contrast to statements by newly elected U.S. President Donald Trump. His first press conference elicited intense protests from scientists.
"If you can’t trust anything the White House puts out, we are in big trouble," says Stroeve. She is also concerned with Trump’s statements that climate change is a hoax, which will "set the U.S. backwards from the rest of the world."
Loss of critical data and satellites
In particular, NASA’s satellite measurements and data are of critical importance for climate research. Trump’s comment that NASA should not be doing climate research, but space research, hit a sensitive spot.
"The current passive microwave sensors put up by the Air Force are past their optimal lifetimes. This means that they could fail at any moment." she says.
Congress last year ordered to dismantle the last Defense Meteorological Program passive microwave sensor (F20). The disassembling of the sensor has already started and will likely be completed by March. “The scientists there said they are working on a follow-up satellite, but that takes years. The big issue with the loss of the DMSP program is that we are losing a continuity in the longest satellite data record available.”
Oil and gas trumps renewables
So far, the Trump administration has clearly favored investments in oil and gas over environmental concerns and the development of renewables. Stroeve’s only optimism is that with enough public pressure to respect the climate agreement, the damage will be limited.
"Business as usual" could lead to ice-free Arctic before 2050
Stroeve predicts that "if we continue with business as usual, it is very likely that the Arctic Ocean will become ice-free before the month of September before the middle of the century." However, there is hope that the world does not necessarily have to go through this massive climate transformation, where the Arctic Ocean would be ice-free in the summer, if we respect the Paris commitment.
She ended her presentation at the Arctic Frontiers with food for thought:
"For every metric ton of CO2 that we put in the atmosphere, we melt another three square meters of sea ice. So for example for every flight I take from London to New York, I can say that I melted three square meters."