Arctic death spiral: Icebreakers reach North Pole as sea ice disintegrates

Second-lowest sea ice minimum, lowest average annual sea ice extent

Canadian icebreaker “greeted at the North Pole by Santa Claus and his mailbox.” Credit:
Canadian icebreaker “greeted at the North Pole by Santa Claus and his mailbox.” Credit:

Arctic sea ice continued its long-term death spiral in 2016, thanks to warming-driven ice melt. As the ice sheet shrinks and thins, it’s becoming easier and easier for icebreakers to reach the North Pole.

The Arctic has been setting records for warmth and sea ice loss and Greenland ice sheet melt, as we’ve been reporting all year long. Last week, 46,000 square miles of sea ice (almost the size of England) disintegrated in one day, which is triple the normal rate.

The result is that the Arctic sea ice minimum has hit the second lowest level on record, as this chart from Tamino shows:

Credit: TAMINO
Credit: TAMINO

The trend of long-term decline is pretty clear. Of course, the climate science deniers look at this chart and see a “rebound” from the superlow sea ice extent minimum of 2012.

Tamino has an excellent chart for the ostrich crowd. He averages the sea ice extent over 12 months — the September-through-August period. As this chart shows, this most recent year was the lowest on record:

Sea ice extent averaged from September-through-August. Credit: TAMINO
Sea ice extent averaged from September-through-August. Credit: TAMINO

As the Arctic air and waters warm, ice thickness decreases, too. As one leading expert pointed out, “The ice cap this spring was close to the thinnest we have ever seen.”

The region around the North Pole, in particular, has been disintegrating. Icebreakers from Canada and Sweden visited the pole as part of a joint scientific expedition (see top photo from the Government of Canada’s official science portal, Icebreakers have been visiting the pole for years, but as Mark Serreze, director of the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, told Mashable, this year even a sailboat “could actually sail nearly all the way to the North Pole, since sea ice cover is largely absent to about 86 degrees north.”

Here is an image (from that Ph.D. candidate Zack Labe tweeted out about revealing “the fragmented Arctic sea ice near the North Pole”:

Scientists have long predicted that human-caused warming would be at least twice as fast in the Arctic as in the planet as a whole thanks to Arctic Amplification — a process that includes higher temperatures melting highly reflective white ice and snow, which is replaced by the dark blue sea or dark land, both of which absorb more solar energy and lead to more melting.

Tragically, what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. The accelerated loss of Arctic sea ice drives more extreme weather in North America, while accelerating the disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet (leading to faster sea level rise) and the defrosting of the permafrost, which contains more of carbon than the atmosphere currently does.

We are terraforming our home planet, and the process is spinning out of control. Most experts see warning signs, but the oil industry can only see dollar signs — the opportunity to drill for more fossil fuels that will put more heat-trapping carbon pollution into the air.

Humanity, like the Arctic, is now on very thin ice.