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Antarctic sea ice reaches lowest levels on record again

Polar scientists are scrambling for answers after recent examinations showed record lows in Antarctic sea ice. The diminishing continent could drive sea levels up drastically if current erosion rates continue.

We’re breaking records year on year, but no one is celebrating.

For nearly 45 years, satellites have helped scientists keep track of how much ocean ice is floating around Antarctica’s 18,000km coastline.

Within these observations, it’s normal to see drastic fluctuations throughout the year. Levels typically peak at 18m square kilometres each September before dramatically declining to around 2m square kilometres in February.

Since satellite data began, however, never has there been less sea ice recorded in the region than last week. Unfortunately, we’re looking at yet another unwanted record since the last was broken just 12 months ago.

Since February 2022, we’ve gone from 1.92m square kilometres to an unprecedented 1.79 square kilometres – the loss of an area roughly double the size of Tasmania. Given this is the third record break in six years, polar scientists are scrambling to try and stop the rot.

‘By the end of January we could tell it was only a matter of time [before another record low]. It wasn’t even a close run thing,’ says Dr Will Hobbs, an Antarctic sea ice expert at the University of Tasmania. ‘We are seeing less ice everywhere… it’s a circumpolar event.’

Two vital arteries in the heart of west Antarctica are causing the most concern where sea level rise is concerned. The first is Greenland, which is reportedly losing 250bn metric tons of ice per year, closely followed by the Thwaites ice shelf – dubbed the ‘Doomsday Glacier’ for its potential to bring levels 2 feet higher should it perish.

Marked losses of sea ice have been noted in the neighbouring seas of Amundsen and Bellinghausen, alarmingly within the region that the Florida-sized Thwaites resides. This is cause for concern because sea ice acts as a barrier to temper the impact of waves, and without it their full force will continuously crash onto glaciers and the continent’s edge.

‘It’s not just the extent of the ice, but also the duration of the coverage,’ says Rob Massom, a doctor of the Australian Antarctic Division. ‘If the sea ice is removed, you expose floating ice margins to waves that can flex them and increase the probability of those ice shelves calving,’ he says.

While this undoubtedly alarming, polar scientists are unwilling to pin their hats on exactly what is thawing sea ice so rapidly. Many insinuate that warmer winds reaching the region’s peninsular are primarily responsible, though this doesn’t account for losses elsewhere.

Another study from 2016 points to a warming ocean as the key adversary of sea ice, though that has yet to be ratified in this particular record break.

As frantic research continues to rule out any snowballing natural phenomenon, a ‘widespread consensus’ among professionals is that climate change is severely hampering sea ice in some capacity. No shock conclusion there, then.

What we know for sure is that the ramifications of melting glaciers and sea ice extend far beyond remote Antarctic lands to coastal communities across the globe.

‘Everyone should be concerned about what’s happening in Antarctica,’ warns Dr Ariaan Purich, a climate scientist at Monash University.