Arctic ice melt

5 Jan 2018

A polar bear tests the strength of thin arctic sea ice. Mario Hoppmann for NASA, used under a Creative Commons Licence

What’s happening?

According to NASA, Arctic sea ice – the frozen sea covering much of the Arctic Ocean and neighbouring seas – is often referred to as the planet’s air conditioner. This is because its white surface reflects solar energy back into space, thus cooling the globe. The size of this frozen sea changes over the course of a year: it grows in the autumn and winter and shrinks in the spring and summer. Its minimum summertime extent, which typically occurs in September, has been decreasing, overall, at a rapid pace since the late 1970s due to warming temperatures.

Not only is the sea ice shrinking back further in the summer, but the overall thickness of the ice is also reducing. ‘Old’ sea ice, the result of ice build-ups over 3-4 years and some 5-10 metres thick, is gradually being replaced by 1-year-old ice, which is much thinner and more saline. Watch this video clip to see this happening.

What are the impacts?

This BBC article Warmer Arctic is ‘the new normal’ (Dec 2017) explores some of the impacts.

Wildlife and people

The loss of sea ice will destabilise the Arctic’s ecosystem. Many of the region’s animal species rely on the ice to survive. For example, polar bears need a sea ice platform to hunt from, and harp seals give birth on the ice – if the ice is too thin the pups can drown. Read more: Guardian – How disappearing sea ice has put arctic ecosystem under threat (Mar 2017).

The photo at the top of this page is by Mario Hoppmann for NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and used under a Creative Commons Licence. It shows a polar bear testing the strength of thin sea ice. NASA has funded research analysing 35 years’ worth of satellite data monitoring the Arctic sea ice. It shows that the timing of the sea ice break-up and sea ice freeze-up is changing in all areas in a direction that is harmful for polar bears. Read more: Polar Bears Across the Arctic Face Shorter Sea Ice Season (Sep 2016).

Recently a National Geographic video of a starving polar bear went ‘viral’. Its harrowing footage showed the bear desperately eating rubbish to try and stay alive. However, it’s not certain that this bear’s sorry state was directly a result of climate change or sea ice melt – it could have been ill for any number of reasons. You could get your students to watch the clip (warning: it’s quite traumatic!) and then read this BBC article – Polar bear video: Is it really the ‘face of climate change’? What do they think?

The changes to the ice are also affecting the people living in the Arctic. For example, the Upik people in Alaska have many words to describe different types of sea ice, but some of these words, such as “tagneghneq” (thick, dark, weathered ice), are becoming obsolete. This is just one small example out of many that make them fear that their culture is slipping away as sea ice vanishes (Guardian, Dec 2016).

Transport and development

From the 15th century onwards, European explorers sought the elusive Northwest Passage, which would provide a quicker trade route from Europe to the Pacific, via the Arctic. Whilst a passage through the Arctic was eventually found, it was never worth using, given the high risk of ships getting stuck in the ice.

But now, the thinning and reduction in sea ice means that during the summer ships can plough through it easily – this could mean that transport routes open up right across the North Pole.

Guardian: China sets its sights on Northwest Passage as a potential trade boon (Apr 2016)

Guardian: Russian tanker sails through arctic without icebreaker for first time (Aug 2017)

In 2016 the Northwest Passage had an ‘ice-free’ summer, allowing cruise ships to access remote parts of the Arctic region. What do you students think the impact of this could be? The New York Times warns it might not be safe (Jul 2017). What other risks can your students foresee?

The ice melt is making it easier for the Arctic to be opened up to development and exploration for oil and minerals. This is ringing alarm bells for those concerned about the environmental impact on the region. Greenpeace is one of three environmental organisations who have jointly taken the Norwegian government to court for opening up new areas in the Arctic to oil drilling. The head of Greenpeace Norway explains: Why we are suing the Norwegian government (Al Jazeera, Nov 2017).

This Guardian article discusses oil drilling in northern Siberia where the harsh Arctic conditions and remoteness can cause major problems: Arctic oil rush: Nenets’ livelihood and habitat at risk from oil spills (Dec 2016).

On a more positive note, many of the world’s major fishing nations (including Canada, Russia, China, the US, the EU, Japan, Iceland and South Korea) recently reached a deal to ban commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean for at least 16 years: 9 Countries and the EU Are Protecting the Arctic Ocean Before the Ice Melts (National Geographic, Dec 2017).

Useful teaching resources

Browse through resources in our database on the topic of Climate Change.

Discovering the Arctic – online resource developed by RGS. Targetted at GCSE level (ages 14-16) but is suitable for other age groups with some adaptation, and suggestions are provided for areas that can be used with primary pupils.

WWF: Arctic Climate Change – clear and simple explanations of what’s happening.

Geology.com: What is the Northwest Passage? – Gives a bit of history and explains how climate change is opening the passage up to shipping

The Arctic is melting – so what? (PDF) Lesson plan from the Environmental Science Journal for Teens

STEM Learning resources: How is the Arctic changing? – for ages 7 to 11

PBS Learning Media: Melting Ice – media-rich lesson enabling secondary students to explore the role ice plays on Earth, the factors causing it to melt, and the local and global consequences of melting ice

NASA: Impacts of a warming Arctic – background info for teachers.

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