A part of the Arctic region nicknamed the ‘Last Ice Area,’ known for its thick ice cover has melted before it was supposed to. According to scientists, the floating sea ice is usually so thick that it should have been strong enough to withstand global warming for decades. It came as a shock to the scientists last summer when there was suddenly enough open water for a ship to make its way through the sea ice that measured about 13 feet (4 meters) thick.
But now, as a part of a new study published in the journal Communications Earth and Environment, researchers noted that in August 2020, the area where the Last Ice Area (LIA) is located, experienced a record low concentration of sea ice and it has been thinning for years now.
The researchers discovered that northward winds transported ice away from Greenland thereby creating stretches of open water that were warmed by the sun. The heated water then further circulated under sea ice which caused more melting. Thus, the Arctic may be more vulnerable to climate change than scientists suspected. The study reveals how weather conditions were driving the decline, but climate change consistently kept thinning the area’s long-standing ice year after year.
Lying to the north of Greenland, the ice grows and shrinks seasonally in this frozen zone. Although much of the sea ice here was thought to be thick enough to survive summer’s warmth during the summer of 2020, the Wandel Sea in the eastern part of the arctic region lost almost 50% of its overlying ice. It’s been the lowest since record-keeping began.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) claims that WWF-Canada was the first to call this Arctic region the‘ Last Ice Area’. This piece of ice above northern Canada and Greenland that was expected to last the longest time has now started showing signs of melting. While scientists predicted most of the Arctic could be free of summer sea ice by midcentury, the Last Ice Area was not part of that equation as it was touted as the only place that would be able to withstand a warming climate.
Satellite observations and climate models revealed that the main cause for the sudden ice loss was extraordinary northward-moving strong winds that broke up sea ice and pushed the ice out the region, away from the Wandel Sea. In the past, the Wandel Sea ice would have resisted the strong winds but in 2020, it was thin enough to be broken up. The researchers said that although 20% of the 2020 ice loss could be directly attributed to climate change, 80% of it was linked to the unusual wind and ocean-current aberrations.
When did the Last Ice Area (LIA) start changing?
The first time polar scientists suspected something unusual in the Last Ice Area was in 2018, when a stretch of ice-ringed open water called a polynya, appeared out of nowhere in February. Since then, LIA has been thinning continuously over years just like other parts of the Arctic Ocean.
Then later in 2020, Axel Schweiger, chair of UW’s Polar Science Center, and his colleagues noticed another sea ice irregularity in the Wandel Sea while looking for data for Arctic research. The project was called the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) and ran for about a year from September 2019 to October 2020.
As the scientists were gathering a forecast for what route the research might take, they recognized that the ship was taking a new strange-looking route going through areas that under normal circumstances were covered in thick ice. “We started wondering what was happening and why, and whether it was potentially connected to what we saw in the 2018 event,” Schweiger said.
According to Kristin Laidre, co-author of the study and biologist at the University of Washington’s (UW) School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, “If, as the paper shows, the area is changing faster than expected, it may not be the refuge we have been depending on.” “Given our results, we expect to see large patches of open water in this area more often. As to how that might affect marine wildlife that too is difficult to predict,” said Laidre, also a principal researcher at the Polar Science Center.
Scientists believe that as climate change melts other regions of the Arctic, it could become the last refuge for animals that depend on sea ice for breeding, hunting, and foraging. The Last Ice Area has been a refuge for ice-reliant species like polar bears who hunt for seals those who use ice to build dens for their offspring. Walruses too, make use of the surface of the ice for foraging.
The loss of ice is already affecting the Arctic animals that heavily rely on it for their species continuity like ringed seals, bearded seals, and at times narwhals and bowhead whales. Looking to the future, the area to the north of Greenland and Canada might just become the ice-free Arctic, which would be detrimental to many wildlife species that depend on ice for survival and the local Inuit communities.