Almost All of the Arctic's Oldest Ice Is Already Gone

About 95 percent of the Arctic's multiyear ice has melted since 1985.

Drift ice - ice floes in the Arctic Ocean, Nordaustlandet.
ArterraGetty Images

The Arctic is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, and will be one of the most heavily impacted. Much of the planet’s excess carbon dioxide is concentrated at the North Pole, and temperatures are increasing faster there than anywhere else.

A new study from NOAA highlights just how bad things have already gotten: It says .

The Arctic is made up of two different kinds of ice: seasonal ice that grows during the winter and melts during the summer, and permanent ice that stays all year-round. This permanent ice acts as the backbone of the entire region, keeping the waters cold enough to let new ice form and stick around even in the summer.

But things are changing in the Arctic. NASA’s Operation IceBridge has been keeping tabs on the region with aerial surveys, and during recent excursions north of Greenland, they witnessed thin strips of newly formed ice where there used to be thick, continuous sheets of ancient ice. Follow-up studies found that 95 percent of that multiyear ice had melted since 1985.

Over the summer, this ancient ice actually broke apart for the first time in recorded history. This winter, the area showed a weak attempt at repairing itself. There’s a chance this younger ice will eventually become stronger and more permanent, but that’s not likely. Instead, this ice will probably break up again this summer, and permanent Arctic ice will completely disappear.

That sort of scenario will be disastrous for the planet, since the Arctic depends heavily on that permanent ice to keep the North Pole cold. Bright ice reflects sunlight; with that ice gone, more sunlight will be absorbed by the darker ocean water. More sunlight absorbed means more warming, which means even more melting ice in a devastating feedback loop.

Eventually, we’ll reach the point where the Arctic will only have ice in the winter. There’s no way to know when something like that will happen, but the claimed that such an event could happen once every decade if we fail to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. And an ice-free Arctic will increase warming for the rest of the planet, making climate change worse for everyone. That’s a scary reality that could be coming sooner than we hoped.

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