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What’s happening to Antarctic sea ice?

It’s winter in the Southern Hemisphere, when sea ice typically forms around Antarctica. This year, however, that growth has been stunted, hitting a record low by a wide margin.

It’s deep winter in Antarctica, the time of year that the continent is shrouded in darkness and surrounded by millions of square miles of frozen ocean.

According to a recent study, however, there is significantly less sea ice in the region than ever recorded before.

Published in Frontiers in Environmental Science, the research shows that the continent’s minimum ice cover – which last year dipped below two million square kilometres for the first time since satellite monitoring began in 1987 – fell further to a new low in February.

As a result, there now exists an area of open ocean bigger than Greenland. In other words, if the ‘missing’ sea ice were a country, it’d be the tenth largest on Earth.

Scientists have also said that there’s no quick fix to reverse the damage done, which they attribute to global warming driven by the burning of fossil fuels.

With an additional heating of at least 0.4 °C now virtually unavoidable, they conclude that the continent will experience more pronounced extreme weather events in years to come, adding that they cannot rule out future cascades where extreme events may have wide-ranging linked impacts in multiple realms.’

‘It’s going to take decades if not centuries for these things to recover. There’s no quick fix to replacing this ice,’ said Caroline Holmes, polar climate scientist at the British Antarctic Survey and one of the study’s co-authors. ‘It will certainly take a long time, even if it’s possible.’

This is of great concern, of course. Without floating sea ice, temperatures around the world would be warmer because its bright, white surface acts like a mirror, reflecting the sun’s energy back to space and keeping the Antarctic – and by extension, the planet – cool.

Not only this, but sea ice plays a particularly important role in controlling ocean currents, operating as a buffer that protects floating ice shelves and glaciers from collapsing and adding to global sea levels.

The West Antarctic ice shelf, which is nicknamed ‘Doomsday Glacier’ because of the catastrophic impact of its potential collapse, contains enough water to raise global sea levels by about three metres (9.8 feet).

The collapse of ocean circulation would have devastating consequences and long-term impacts on weather patterns, sea levels, and marine ecosystems and would permanently affect the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide.

The authors of the new study concluded that only rapid and effective policy action by the global community could help mitigate the impacts of Antarctic sea ice loss.

‘Nations must understand that by continuing to explore, extract and burn fossil fuels anywhere in the world, the environment of Antarctica will become ever more affected in ways inconsistent with their pledge,’ said lead author Martin Siegert.

‘Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero is our best hope of preserving Antarctica, and this must matter to every country – and individual – on the planet.’