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One of the dangerous consequences from global warming is the disappearance of sea ice in polar regions and the direct affect this has on climate change. Sea ice, which forms during the Arctic and Antarctic winters, is frozen seawater that floats on the ocean surface. While sea ice normally retreats in the summer, it does not completely disappear. Sea ice has a profound influence on the polar environment, influencing ocean circulation, weather, and regional climates.
The Arctic and Antarctic regions are covered in white snow and ice that reflect heat back into space. These frozen surfaces can reflect up to 80 percent of incoming sunlight, helping to balance out other regions of the world where heat is naturally absorbed. As the extent of sea ice recedes, less heat is reflected, and more is absorbed. Increasing absorbed heat leads to global warming but also more extreme weather – both heat and cold waves.
Methane, a greenhouse gas that when released contributes to warming, is stored by permanently frozen land (permafrost) and Arctic sea ice. As sea ice disappears, methane is released. As temperatures in polar regions increase, permafrost melts away too, releasing even more methane. This worrisome cycle is a direct threat to our planet.
The disappearance of sea ice has other profound affects. Marine mammals such as polar bears and seals experience loss of habitat, making it more difficult for these species to find food. Arctic communities have also seen disruptions in their own food supplies as well. They have also witnessed extreme erosion to their coastal communities from strong waves during more frequent and powerful winter storms in areas once covered with sea ice.
Climate scientists track sea ice in many ways. Satellite technology has aided this research since the late 1970’s and has allowed scientists to more accurately track and compare the extent of sea ice over time at both its annual maximum and minimum extents. Arctic sea ice generally reaches its maximum extent at the end of winter each March and its minimum extent each September, as warmer summer temperatures begin to cool. The following chart shows the significant effect warmer summers have had on the amount of sea ice that remains year-round. As less sea ice remains at the beginning of each Arctic winter, it leads to a reduced sea ice extent as the coldest months of the year begin.
There are no easy solutions to slowing the disappearance of sea ice, yet there are also scientists studying ways to do just that. One innovative idea comes from California-based Artic Ice Project (https://www.arcticiceproject.org/ ), which proposes scattering a layer of reflective glass powder over parts of the Arctic to reflect more sunlight away from the sea ice. While these and other human-made solutions can possibly help, a better solution would be for all humans to study what they can do to reduce global warming, and then act on that research. We are all responsible for the problem and should all be responsible for the solution.
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NOAA Climate Change: Arctic Sea Ice Summer Minimum by Rebecca Lindsey and Michon Scott
BBC, “The daring plan to save the Arctic ice with glass” by Katarina Zimmer, September 23, 2020