Levels of Arctic sea ice at the end of winter were at their lowest point in four decades of records this month, after a season that also saw record high temperatures in the Arctic. This marked the 3rd year in a row of record low sea ice, indicative of how severely the region has been affected by global climate change.

Director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, Mark Serreze, said “This is just another exclamation point on the overall loss of Arctic sea ice coverage that we’ve been seeing. We’re heading for summers with no sea ice coverage at all.”

He said such an outcome could be reached by 2030, leaving only open ocean during the warmer months of the year. Other scientists predict another decade or two before a total absence of sea ice. While melting sea ice does not contribute to rising sea levels, but is highly disruptive to ecosystems, affecting fundamental aspects such as when phytoplankton bloom each year, microscopic organisms that form the base of ocean food chains.

Reduced ice coverage also results in more area of ocean to absorb more energy from the sun, sparking a feedback loop of warming and melting.

According to the data center, Arctic sea ice had reached a maximum extent of 5.5 million square miles on March 7th. This area was about 470,000 square miles less than the average maximum extent between 1981 and 2010. Serreze also said much of the ice appeared thinner than normal.

This past fall, parts of the arctic were as much as 35 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than observed averages. November temperatures at the north pole itself were 23 degrees warmer than normal.

“The Arctic Ocean was extremely warm over the winter, and there was a very impressive series of heat waves. I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Serreze said.

Walt Meier, a NASA research scientist who was not involved in the data center’s study, explained that while the winter does mean the summer minimum for sea ice is likely to be low, there is no direct link between winter maximums and summer minimums.

According to Meier:

“Just because it’s a record low maximum, there’s no prediction it will be a record low minimum in September. But while a lot can happen in the summer, when you start out at such a low level, you’re not going to get a very high minimum.”

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