Video Credit: George Divoky
In mid-May, George Divoky spent a few days in Utqiaġvik preparing for his upcoming and 44th field season on Cooper Island. Unable to visit the actual island during his short trip, Search and Rescue pilots flew over Cooper and snapped a photo of George’s summer home — a one room, 8-by-16-foot cabin stuffed with gear and survival rations (stay tuned for field recipes this summer).
Currently, his Arctic abode is surrounded by snow drifts and still standing. In previous years, polar bears have broken into the cabin, hungry for the supplies stored here over the long Arctic winter.
Back in the Pacific Northwest where George lives, irises and peonies bloomed fuchia and deep purple, splashing unruly splotches of color across a lush green canvas. The temperatures hit 90 as stories about disappearing sea ice made ominous headlines in the New York Times, Scientific American, and many more outlets.
Experts predict that there will be no sea ice in the summer by mid-century, but record breaking ice trends may shift this timeline forward. Based on sea floor sediments, fossil records, and ice core samples, there may have been summers with minimal or no ice in the Arctic, but these periods are thought to have occurred about 8000 years ago. So, how will ice-free Arctic summers impact the region and the world beyond?
According the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), unlike glaciers, icebergs, and ice shelves that form on land, sea ice is frozen ocean water, floating with a covering of snow for much of the year.
Sea ice plays a vital role in regulating Earth’s climate and reflecting solar energy.
The bright reflective surface provided by sea ice bounces 80 percent of the sun’s light back into space. “As sea ice melts in the summer, it exposes the dark ocean surface. Instead of reflecting 80 percent of the sunlight, the ocean absorbs 90 percent of the sunlight,” according to NSIDC. “The oceans heat up, and Arctic temperatures rise further.”
Sea ice is measured by looking at the area of ocean covered by ice; by looking at the times of year when maximum and minimum areas of coverage occur, scientists are able to see trends emerge — trends like warming temperatures and unprecedented loss of sea ice.
Claire Parkinson is a senior scientist and climatologist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. She explains in video below, as temperatures rise over time, a feedback loop occurs wherein more heat is absorbed by the ocean, causing more ice to melt, and generating more warming.
Video credit: NASA Scientific Visualization Studio
While disappearing sea ice may hold benefits for some species such as algae and the organisms that feed on algae because they thrive in warmer environments, the overall impacts are likely to be dramatic.
Most people will never visit the Arctic circle (unless of course they can afford the $21,000 to $120,000 USD cost of sailing through the Northwest Passage on a luxury cruise ship), so disappearing sea ice may seem far removed from the many problems to prioritize in 2018. However, polar sea ice is crucial for the inhabitants of Arctic ecosystems — from polar bears, walruses, and seabirds like Divoky’s guillemots, down to the fish and tiny krill that feed these creatures.
More importantly, sea ice loss impacts the human communities living on the front lines of climate change — people who have survived for generations in the harshest of environments by living off the land. Alaska Department of Fish and Game note, “For most rural Alaska residents, subsistence hunting is critical to their nutrition, food security, and economic stability.”
This story is part of an ongoing series titled Arctic Change centered around George Divoky’s 44th field season studying Black Guillemots, sea ice, and climate change on a remote Arctic island off the coast of Alaska. To donate and support Divoky’s work on Cooper Island, visit the Friends of Cooper Island.
Cooper Island Research Part of SENSEI: Sentinels of the Sea Ice by George Divoky (2017)
In the Arctic, the Old Ice Is Disappearing by Jeremy White and Kendra Pierre-Louis (2018)
Sea Ice by Michon Scott and Kathryn Hansen for NASA Earth Observatory
Scenes from the End of the World by Eva Holland (2016)
Trying to stay optimistic in a seabird colony that is half full – when it is really half empty by George Divoky (2016)