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Arctic's Last Ice Area is melting earlier than expected

Scientists said most of the Arctic could be free of summer sea ice by mid-century. But the 'Last Ice Area' was not part of this equation

This handout photograph shows a lone polar bear on top of a snow covered iceberg in The Wandel Sea of Greenland. Strong wind and warming led to record low ice cover in the Arctic's Last Ice Area., according to research published on July 1 that suggests the frozen refuge for polar bears is more vulnerable to climate change than thought. (AFP)

Part of the Arctic is nicknamed the “Last Ice Area,” because floating sea ice there is usually so thick that it's likely to withstand global warming for decades. So, scientists were shocked last summer when there was suddenly enough open water for a ship to pass through.

The opening, documented by scientists aboard a German icebreaker, popped up in late July and August in the Wandel Sea north of Greenland. Mostly it was due to a freak weather event, but thinning sea ice from decades of climate change was a significant factor, according to a study published in the journal Communications Earth and Environment earlier this week.

Also read: The effects of global warming are here and we should be very scared

While scientists have said most of the Arctic could be free of summer sea ice by mid-century, the Last Ice Area was not part of that equation. They figure the 380,000-square-mile (1-million-square-kilometre) area won't be ice-free in the summer until around 2100, said study co-author Kent Moore, a University of Toronto atmospheric physicist.

“It's called the Last Ice Area for a reason. We thought it was kind of stable,” said co-author Mike Steele, a University of Washington oceanographer. “It's just pretty shocking...In 2020, this area melted out like crazy.”

Scientists believe the area — north of Greenland and Canada — could become the last refuge for animals like polar bears that depend on ice, said Kristin Laidre, a co-author and biologist at the University of Washington.

This file photo taken on November 27, 2019 shows a view of the glacier at Chiriguano Bay in South Shetland Islands, Antarctica.
This file photo taken on November 27, 2019 shows a view of the glacier at Chiriguano Bay in South Shetland Islands, Antarctica. (AFP)

The main cause for the sudden ice loss was extraordinary strong winds that pushed the ice out the region and down the coast of Greenland, Moore said.

That had happened in smaller, infrequent episodes, but this time was different, Moore said. The researchers used computer simulations and 40 years of Arctic sea data to calculate that “there was a significant climate change signal" — about 20%, they estimate — in the event, Moore said.

In the past, thicker Wandel Sea ice would have resisted the strong winds, but in 2020 it was thinner and “more easily broken up and pushed out,” said National Snow and Ice Data Center scientist Walt Meier, who wasn't part of the study.

Another part of the Last Ice Area, off Canada's Ellesmere Island, had open waters after the July 2020 collapse of part of the Milne ice shelf, but scientists are still studying it to determine if there is a climate change connection, Moore said.

In another development this week, the United Nations (UN) on 1 July recognised a new record high temperature for the Antarctic continent, confirming a reading of 18.3 degrees Celsius (64.9 degrees Fahrenheit) made last year, an AFP report said.

The record heat was reached at Argentina's Esperanza research station on the Antarctic Peninsula on February 6, 2020, the UN's World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said.

"Verification of this maximum temperature record is important because it helps us to build up a picture of the weather and climate in one of Earth's final frontiers," WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas said in the AFP report. "The Antarctic Peninsula is among the fastest-warming regions of the planet -- almost 3C over the last 50 years... This new temperature record is therefore consistent with the climate change we are observing."

(With inputs from AP and AFP)

Also read: Climate Change Tracker: Loss of Arctic sea ice will trigger greater warming

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