Menu Menu

Sea ice worryingly falls to record lows in the Antarctic Ocean

Preliminary data from satellites reveals Antarctica’s levels of sea ice have dropped to their lowest level in 40 years, when the first ever measurements were taken.

What would hump day be at this point without a depressing dose of climate change news?

This week, scientists have discovered that there is now the smallest ice coverage in the Antarctic Ocean since data started being measured in 1979.

Using satellite imagery, the US National Snow and Ice Data Center examined the remote region and certified that it has now broken record lows of ice coverage set only five years ago, by falling below 2m kilometres.

Worryingly, it is believed to be melting at a rate three times faster than that of the 90s, which is contributing to overall rising sea levels in a big way.

Antarctic sea ice is challenging to study because of the changes that occur every year. In this short time, around 15m kilometres – an area double the size of Australia, for context – will grow and melt. This may seem like a lot, but it’s deemed completely normal.

This Ice coverage generally peaks around the beginning of October at 18m kilometres and troughs in March at 2.8m kilometres, give or take.

When it came to examining satellite images from last August, however, researchers got a hint that something unusual was afoot, as ice started to retreat a month earlier than usual.

In previous instances that ice levels deviated, wind strength and ocean warming have been highlighted as two probable factors – given they’re both becoming bigger problems the longer we fail to address climate change. That is indeed the case here, until more thorough investigations are concluded.

This unprecedented drop in ice is having a knock on effect to wildlife too. Small crustations called Antarctic krill, which form a vital part of the food chain in the area, are being driven southward, and Greenpeace has reported finding penguins in places previously deemed too cold to settle.

‘It is terrifying to witness this frozen ocean melting down. The consequences of these changes extend to the whole planet, impacting marine food webs around the globe,’ said Greenpeace’s Laura Meller.

While there is a wide acceptance that climate change is having a big impact on rising sea levels, there is now a clamour from researchers to find what specifically is the key factor in shrinking ocean ice. That way, perhaps we can address the issue before our net zero targets (hopefully) begin to materialise.

‘Whether this is the start of [a permanent decline] it’s still too early to say, but it’s definitely worth watching,’ says Walt Meier, a senior scientist with the NSIDC.

Given the change could very well be irreversible, there’s now a race against time for scientists to get clued up asap.