Across four decades of satellite observations, there has never been less ice around the Antarctica continent than there was last week. According to a report by the Guardian, Antarctic sea ice reached record low levels for the third time in six years, alarming polar scientists.
In 2022, the amount of sea ice dropped to 1.92m sq km on 25 February, said the report.
This was an all-time low based on satellite observations that started in 1979. The record was broken on February 12 this year and the sea ice level reached a new record low of 1.79m sq km on 25 February. It beat the previous record by 136,000 sq km – an area double the size of Tasmania.
Dr Will Hobbs, an Antarctic sea ice expert at the University of Tasmania with the Australian Antarctic Program Partnership, told The Guardian that it is a “circumpolar event” and they are seeing less ice everywhere.
Hobbs said large areas in the west of the continent had barely recovered from the previous year’s losses. “Because sea ice is so reflective, it’s hard to melt from sunlight. But if you get open water behind it, that can melt the ice from underneath,” said Hobbs.
According to The Guardian report, Antarctica holds enough ice to raise sea levels by many meters if it was to melt. There is an indirect relation between melting sea ice and the rise of sea levels. Sea ice helps to buffer the effect of storms on ice attached to the coast. If it starts to disappear for longer, the increased wave action can weaken those floating ice shelves that themselves stabilise the massive ice sheets and glaciers behind them on the land.
Scientists said a major area of concern is the marked loss of ice around the Amundsen and Bellinghausen seas on the continent’s west. Even when the average amount of sea ice around the continent grew up to 2014, these two neighbouring seas saw losses.
The region is home to the Thwaites glacier – known as the “doomsday glacier” because it holds enough water to raise sea levels by half a metre.
Professor Matt England, an oceanographer and climate scientist at the University of New South Wales, told The Guardian that, “We are probably starting to see signs of significant warming and retreat of sea ice [in Antarctica]. To see it getting to these levels is definitely a concern because we have these potentially amplifying feedbacks.”
The Guardian got access to data provided by scientists Dr Rob Massom, of the Australian Antarctic Division, and Dr Phil Reid, of the Bureau of Meteorology, which shows that two-thirds of the continent’s coastline was exposed to open water last month. This level was well above the long-term average of about 50 percent.
Antarctic scientists are now scrambling to look for answers and find out what is causing the sea ice to melt at such record levels. The question remains as to whether the drop in sea ice and the back-to-back record lows are a natural phenomenon or are signs that the climate crisis is beating down on Antarctica.
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