Another wake-up call: sea ice loss is speeding up

Unprecedented wildfires, storms and glacier melt are the strongest indications yet of how climate change threatens life on Earth. The world has seen big declines in summer sea ice in the last two decades, with the lowest extent recorded in 2012. 

13 September 2020 marked a new, troubling milestone – with Arctic sea ice shrinking to the second-lowest extent ever recorded. We asked United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) climate change expert Pascal Peduzzi to explain the significance of sea ice loss.

UNEP: What happens to sea ice in the Arctic may seem remote and irrelevant to our daily lives. Why does sea ice loss matter?

Pascal Peduzzi: It matters because the extent of sea ice affects local ecosystems, regional and global weather patterns, and ocean temperatures and circulation. If Arctic sea ice continues to shrink, we may see a summer ice-free Arctic Ocean by the mid-2040s and the disappearance of polar bears and other animals. However, there are also global consequences. Snow and ice help keep the planet cool because they reflect the sun’s rays back into space. Warmer temperatures mean Arctic sea ice is reduced, ocean temperatures rise, and the warmer water (with a bigger volume) contributes to sea-level rise.

The lowest extent of sea ice on record was in 2012. Last year’s extent was almost as small, and now this year, on 13 September, we saw the second-lowest ever recorded Arctic sea ice minimum (3.709 million square kilometres). In addition, in 2020, the area of Arctic Sea Ice was the lowest on record for the month of July.

GraphGraph showing the Arctic sea ice extent. Graph by UNEP