Arctic's 'Last Ice Area' shows earlier-than-expected melt

  • In this March 2016 photo provided by Kristin Laidre, a polar bear is perched on a thick chunk of sea ice north of Greenland. These thicker, older pieces of sea ice don't fully protect the larger region from losing its summer ice cover. (Kristin Laidre/University of Washington via AP)

    In this March 2016 photo provided by Kristin Laidre, a polar bear is perched on a thick chunk of sea ice north of Greenland. These thicker, older pieces of sea ice don't fully protect the larger region from losing its summer ice cover. (Kristin Laidre/University of Washington via AP) Associated Press

  • This Aug. 16, 2020 photo provided by Felix Linhardt shows sea ice on the Wandel Sea north of Greenland seen from the German icebreaker Polarstern, which passed through the area as part of the year-long MOSAiC Expedition. This area used to remain fully covered in ice throughout the year. Satellite images show that Aug. 14, 2020, was a record low sea ice concentration for this region, at 50%. (Felix Linhardt/Kiel University via AP)

    This Aug. 16, 2020 photo provided by Felix Linhardt shows sea ice on the Wandel Sea north of Greenland seen from the German icebreaker Polarstern, which passed through the area as part of the year-long MOSAiC Expedition. This area used to remain fully covered in ice throughout the year. Satellite images show that Aug. 14, 2020, was a record low sea ice concentration for this region, at 50%. (Felix Linhardt/Kiel University via AP) Associated Press

 
 
Updated 7/1/2021 1:29 PM

Part of the Arctic is nicknamed the 'úLast Ice Area,'Ě because floating sea ice there is usually so thick that it's likely to withstand global warming for decades. So, scientists were shocked last summer when there was suddenly enough open water for a ship to pass through.

The opening, documented by scientists aboard a German icebreaker, popped up in late July and August in the Wandel Sea north of Greenland. Mostly it was due to a freak weather event, but thinning sea ice from decades of climate change was a significant factor, according to a study Thursday in the journal Communications Earth and Environment.

 

While scientists have said most of the Arctic could be free of summer sea ice by mid-century, the Last Ice Area was not part of that equation. They figure the 380,000-square-mile (1-million-square-kilometer) area won't be ice-free in the summer until around 2100, said study co-author Kent Moore, a University of Toronto atmospheric physicist.

'úIt's called the Last Ice Area for a reason. We thought it was kind of stable,'Ě said co-author Mike Steele, a University of Washington oceanographer. 'úIt's just pretty shocking. ... In 2020, this area melted out like crazy.'Ě

Scientists believe the area - north of Greenland and Canada - could become the last refuge for animals like polar bears that depend on ice, said Kristin Laidre, a co-author and biologist at the University of Washington.

The main cause for the sudden ice loss was extraordinary strong winds that pushed the ice out the region and down the coast of Greenland, Moore said.

That had happened in smaller, infrequent episodes, but this time was different, Moore said. The researchers used computer simulations and 40 years of Arctic sea data to calculate that 'úthere was a significant climate change signal" - about 20%, they estimate - in the event, Moore said.

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In the past, thicker Wandel Sea ice would have resisted the strong winds, but in 2020 it was thinner and 'úmore easily broken up and pushed out,'Ě said National Snow and Ice Data Center scientist Walt Meier, who wasn't part of the study.

Another part of the Last Ice Area, off Canada's Ellesmere Island, had open waters after the July 2020 collapse of part of the Milne ice shelf, but scientists are still studying it to determine if there is a climate change connection, Moore said.

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Read stories on climate issues by The Associated Press at https://apnews.com/hub/climate.

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Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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