Arctic likely to be ice-free by 2050 despite climate efforts, new study says

Alba delicata nella laguna di Jokulsaron Melting ice due to climate change. Credit: Getty Images

The Arctic will likely lose its summertime ice cover by 2050 even if levels of carbon dioxide released in the atmosphere are significantly reduced by international efforts, a new study published in the journal of the American Geophysical Union has concluded.

The findings alarm scientists but they say slashing greenhouse gases remains vital, as this will determine whether Arctic summer ice vanishes all together or will be able to rebound over time. If emissions remain very high, there is a risk the Arctic could be ice-free even in the dark, cold winter months, a possibility described in the study as “catastrophic.”

Over recent decades, climate change has peeled back the ice coverage in the Arctic, with 2019 tying with 2012 for having the second lowest ice cover in recorded history. Ice in Russia’s Arctic waters disappeared last summer, freeing up the Northern Sea Route, an area that has become the focus of much of the Kremlin’s economic planning.

And while Moscow has in recent months given some backing to measures addressing global warming, its overall climate strategy has been mixed and contradictory. Under pressure from Russia’s business elite, the government finally published a plan that promises some emissions cuts – but postpones them until much later this century.

In the meantime, the Kremlin is seeking to exploit polar hydrocarbon reserves, which are becoming more accessible as Arctic ice retreats. In a hat tip to those developments, Moscow in January published another strategy that would see Russia “use the advantages of climate change” as it pursues oil and gas reserves in the Arctic.

The new international study of Arctic ice retreat would suggest that the Kremlin is getting what it asked for.

“In most simulations, the Arctic Ocean becomes practically sea ice-free… in September for the first time before the year 2050,” said the authors of the study, which is based on 40 of the latest models.

Sea ice is frozen ocean water that melts each summer, then refreezes each winter. Since satellite records began in 1979, summer Arctic ice has lost 40 percent of its area and up to 70 percent of its volume, the Guardian said.

The term “ice-free” generally refers to perennial ice broken into fragments totaling an area less than 1 million square kilometers.

“If we keep global warming below 2 [degrees Celsius], Arctic sea ice will nevertheless likely disappear occasionally in summer even before 2050,” The Guardian quoted Dirk Notz, the study’s lead author, as saying. “This really surprised us.”

The loss of the ice exposes the dark ocean, which absorbs more of the sun’s heat and further ramps up temperatures. These changes are also being increasingly linked to more extreme weather including severe winters, deadly summer heat waves and torrential floods at lower latitudes such as in Europe, the US and Siberia.

“Alarmingly the models repeatedly show the potential for ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean before 2050, almost irrespective of the measures taken to mitigate the effects of climate change,” Ed Blockley, who leads the UK Met Office’s polar climate program and was one of the team behind the new research, told the paper. “The signal is there in all possible futures. This was unexpected and is extremely worrying.”

The new research uses the latest generation of climate models from 21 research institutes from around the world.

The models are not perfect and struggle to match closely the ice loss and global warming seen in historical data. “There is still a lot of uncertainty,” Blockley said. “But all the models are clear that the sea ice will continue to decline. At some point, it will be gone, but when that happens is still uncertain.”

Russia is uniquely vulnerable to climate change, with hundreds of billions of dollars worth of infrastructure in arctic areas built on foundations of permafrost. At the same time, its average temperatures have increased 2.5 times more quickly than the average global air temperature recorded since the mid-1970s.

In recent years, Russia has experienced disastrous floods and massive wildfires engulfing Siberia in 2019. That year also marked its hottest on record, according to the Russian federal meteorological service.

Russia formally adopted the 2015 Paris climate agreement in September of 2019, and criticized the administration of Donald Trump for withdrawing the United States from the accord. The country has also seen a number of regional drives to construct wind and solar plants, as well as to bolster infrastructure for electric cars.

But President Vladimir Putin is famously hostile to the notion of man-made climate change. At an Arctic forum in 2017, he said global warming was “a factor that bolsters optimism,” adding that it “provides more favorable conditions for economic activity in this region.” He once even quipped that climate change would allow Russians to save money on fur coats.

At the level of economic policy, the Kremlin has made long bets on Putin’s mild global warming forecasts. The rapid retreat of Arctic sea ice has opened the Northern Sea Route through once-impassible waters, and the Russian government has pledged some $11 billion over the next six years to develop it as a major shipping artery.