Research Press Release

Climate change: Record melting of Arctic’s ‘Last Ice Area’ explained

Communications Earth&Environment

July 2, 2021

Unusual summer winds combined with thinning ice triggered the dramatic sea ice loss during summer 2020 in the Arctic’s ‘Last Ice Area’, an important refuge for polar bears, seals and walruses, according to an article published in Communications Earth & Environment. The results suggest that the Last Ice Area may be more vulnerable to climate change than previously thought.

The Wandel Sea, a region north of Greenland in the Arctic Ocean, is normally covered by compact, thick, multi-year ice that is expected to persist longer than anywhere else in the Arctic in the face of climate change. This area is often termed the Arctic’s ‘Last Ice Area’, but in summer 2020, contrary to climate predictions, large areas of open water appeared in this region.

To investigate what caused this unexpected sea ice loss, Axel Schweiger and colleagues used satellite images and a numerical model that takes into account the environmental conditions in the Wandel Sea in 2020. The authors estimate that greater ice loss in summer 2020 was mostly driven by unusual weather, with strong summer winds blowing ice away from the Last Ice Area. The authors also present numerical simulations for the region based on data collected since 1979, which suggest that long-term thinning of sea ice caused by climate change contributed to enhanced ice melt in 2020, making the Last Ice Area more vulnerable to the unusual weather conditions.

Future research should attempt to quantify the resilience of the Last Ice Area to climate change for conservation purposes, the authors suggest, as this area may eventually be the last remaining summer habitat for some ice-dependent mammals.

doi:10.1038/s43247-021-00197-5

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