The melting sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is a problem that environmentalists are trying to solve — or, at the very least, slow down. While the 2016 calendar year will not be record breaking, rapid ice loss is an ongoing issue that is the “new normal,” according to experts at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
"Even when it's likely that we won't have a record low, the sea ice is not showing any kind of recovery. It's still in a continued decline over the long term," said Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement. "It's just not going to be as extreme as other years because the weather conditions in the Arctic were not as extreme as in other years."
"A decade ago, this year's sea ice extent would have set a new record low and by a fair amount. Now, we're kind of used to these low levels of sea ice — it's the new normal,” added Meier.
Melting sea ice started off with a bang this year, with melting sea ice covers exposing the surface ocean waters were at end-of-June average levels by the end of May. Things took a turn in June, when the rates slowed down significantly from low atmospheric pressure and winds. But the rate of ice loss has accelerated in the first two weeks of August and is currently higher than the average for this time of the year.
What’s more, there is a cyclone in the Arctic that can potentially accelerate the loss of ice—a similar storm in August 2012 resulted in rapid ice loss.
"This year is a great case study in showing how important the weather conditions are during the summer, especially in June and July, when you have 24 hours of sunlight and the sun is high in the sky in the Arctic," Meier said. "If you get the right atmospheric conditions during those two months, they can really accelerate the ice loss. If you don't, they can slow down any melting momentum you had. So our predictive ability in May of the September minimum is limited, because the sea ice cover is so sensitive to the early-to-mid-summer atmospheric conditions, and you can't foresee summer weather."
NASA plans to use a new method to measure sea ice thickness. Traditional radar instruments penetrate the ice to take measurements, but are limited since the salinity of the melting sea ice interferes with the reading. The space agency plans to use lasers instead to get more comprehensive data.
"We have a good handle on the sea ice area change," said Thorsten Markus, Goddard's cryosphere lab chief, in a statement. "We have very limited knowledge how thick it is."
Understanding how much sea ice is lost requires knowing how much exists. And in the Arctic, one-tenth of sea ice is above water surface level and nine-tenths is below. By gathering intel on volume and density, scientists can better understand how the Arctic is changing.
"If we want to estimate mass changes of sea ice, or increased melting, we need the sea ice thickness," said Markus. "It's critically important to understanding the changes in the Arctic."