Arctic sea ice shrinks to second lowest level ever

Story highlights

  • Cool summer couldn't stop Arctic sea ice reaching record lows
  • Sea ice extent could shrink even further, scientists say

(CNN)Ice levels at the North Pole have shrunk to their second lowest level ever, scientists say -- and there could be worse to come.

Every year the arctic ice naturally shrinks in the spring and summer before regrowing during winter, however the drastic melt in 2016 has surprised scientists.
    "It was a stormy, cloudy and fairly cool summer," US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) director Mark Serreze said in a statement.
    Arctic sea ice as of September 10, compared to average between 1981-2010
    "Historically such weather conditions slow down the summer ice loss, but we still got down to essentially a tie for second lowest on the satellite record."
    According to a new report released by NSIDC and NASA, arctic ice levels fell to their lowest levels this year on September 10, covering about 1.6 million square miles (4.4 million square kilometers), almost the same as in September 2007.
    The lowest sea ice extent recorded was on September 17, 2012, when it fell to just 1.31 million square miles (3.39 million square kilometers).

    No sea ice in two, three generations?

    Arctic sea ice is important for maintaining the planet's temperature, according to NASA, as well as influencing the circulation of the atmosphere and the ocean.
    Dramatically reduced sea ice can also impact the Arctic ecosystem and communities. Sea ice monitoring began in 1978.
    Dr Jan Lieser, a marine glaciologist with Australia's Antarctic Climate & Ecosystems Cooperative Research Center, told CNN it was possible there could be no more sea ice within three generations.
    "Sea ice has a great ability to reflect a lot of solar radiation back into space... we still have some sea ice (but) to say that it is where it used to be is saying you can serve a cup of tea in a broken cup," he said.
    The less sea ice there is, the warmer the oceans will get, resulting in even less sea ice each subsequent winter, Lieser said.
    "If the cup's broken, the shards of the cup are still there but you can't serve tea in it can you? With sea ice it's comparable, it's broken, it's thinner than it used to be and it doesn't serve the climate purpose it has for centuries."

    Annual refreezing already begun

    Claire Parkinson, climate scientist and main author of the report, said since 1986 there had not been a single record high for Arctic sea ice in any month -- in contrast, there had been 75 record lows.
    "It's just an incredible contrast. It is definitely not just September that's losing sea ice. The record makes it clear that the ice is not rebounding to where it used to be, even in the midst of winter," she said in a statement.
    Arctic sea ice melted usually quickly between March and May in 2016, according to the report, before slowing slightly in August and September as low atmospheric pressures and cloudy skies arrived.
    But even the lower temperatures didn't reduce the amount of ice lost. "It really suggests that in the next few years, with more typical warmer conditions, we will see some very dramatic loses," NSIDC lead scientist Ted Scambos said in a statement.
    The sea ice refreezing process has already begun. Usually it will reach its yearly peak in March.