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Arctic Sea Ice in Long-term Decline

Arctic sea ice is rapidly approaching its summer minimum, before the winter freeze sets in. Even towards the North Pole, the ice has been reported to be unusually patchy. But it is highly unlikely to reach its 2012 record-breaking low of 1.32 million square miles (18% below the previous record). Throughout August, the ice was well above last year's level - but way below the 1981 to 2010 average. Whilst this highlights the year-to-year variability, the bigger picture is crystal clear - there is a long term decline in Arctic sea ice extent.

In fact, the six lowest seasonal minimum ice extents on satellite record (i.e. since 1979) have all occurred in the last six years (2007 to 2012), and whilst not a new record low, this year's minimum is likely to continue that trend.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Centre.

Arctic sea ice extent as of August 18, 2013 (blue), alongside daily ice extent for the previous five years. 1981 to 2010 average shown in dark grey.

The Arctic has warmed at about twice the rate of the global average over the past few decades ii with much of the region reaching temperatures above zero in summer. As a result, climate change is already de-stabilising important arctic systems, including sea ice. Thicker multi-year ice is declining in extent meaning that Arctic sea ice is becoming increasingly vulnerable to melting, opening the region and in particular the Arctic ocean to commercial pressures including oil and gas exploration.

Sea ice is the defining characteristic of the Arctic ocean, and the life that inhabits it. Polar bears live on and around it. It provides a platform from which they hunt. But it is much more than just a platform: it's an entire ecosystem comprising plankton and micro-organisms, which support a rich food chain that nourishes seals that in turn become prey for polar bears. A warming Arctic and the loss of summer sea ice is the greatest single threat to this most iconic of Arctic species.


So tackling climate change remains as urgent as ever, for polar bears, for the Arctic and for the planet.

Here in the UK, the Government is committed to limiting the global average temperature rise to below 2◦ C above pre-industrial levels, defined by scientific consensus as the threshold that would constitute dangerous climate change. But, in its fight against dangerous climate change, the UK Government is focusing solely on reducing emissions (and adapting to change), but not limiting fossil fuel production. To me, this is a bit like a boxer going into the ring with one hand tied behind their back. It's absurd. Yet, as noted by the International Energy Agency, it is clear that for us to have any chance of achieving this target, at least two-thirds of existing fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground - and this estimate excludes to a large extent the new "unconventional" sources of fossil fuels that are continually being discovered. Put simply, the world already has far more fossil fuel "assets" than can be used. So going after high risk oil and gas in such a sensitive, poorly studied environment, is simply unacceptable.

The UK Government will shortly release its long-awaited UK Arctic policy framework. Whilst action to limit global average temperature rise, and the conservation of Arctic biodiversity, are expected to be underlying principles of the new policy, it is clear that the Department for Energy and Climate Change are still looking to Arctic hydrocarbons for the country's energy 'security'. And UK-based oil companies like Shell, BP, Cairn Energy, Tullow Oil, Faroe Petroleum and Valiant Petroleum are lining up to exploit offshore Arctic reserves. Indeed last week Tullow announced that it had struck oil off Norway's coast. In this dash for Arctic oil and gas, they are facing the inherent risks associated with operating in one of the most extreme environments on the planet. There is currently no proven method for effectively cleaning or controlling an oil spill in icy, arctic waters, where difficult weather conditions are common.

The long- term decline in Arctic summer sea ice should signal a call to action for the UK government and for UK based companies to urgently tackle climate change, especially given the unique political opportunity for doing so in the next two years. The environmental and economic case is compelling, according to the International Energy Agency, the World Bank and the United Nations Environment Programme, amongst others. And a recent BBC poll has demonstrated that the majority of the UK public is worried about climate change, and want to see more renewables. If Shell and other energy giants really want to be part of the solution in a future where we avoid the worst impacts of climate change, they need to demonstrate how we can meet our energy needs through efficiency and through safer, cleaner renewables.


Sommerkorn, M and Hassol, SJ (Eds) Arctic Climate Feedbacks: Global Implications. WWF International Arctic Programme, Oslo, 2009. 97 pp.

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