Why study sea ice?

Why study sea ice?

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When we think of the most important aspects of the climate, our first thought is not generally sea ice. However, sea ice is essential to the Arctic’s ecosystem, economy, and culture. It forms the foundation for Indigenous culture that is interconnected with the land. Traditional hunting practises integral to the communities’ culture and economy depend on the stability of the sea ice (Watt-Cloutier, 2018). Likewise, ice-dependent species survival depends on its stability (Post et al., 2013). 

Unfortunately, sea ice extent has been rapidly declining over the past fifty years (Stroeve et alt., 2012). Its volume has decreased by 75-80%. These changes have caused hunting to become dangerous, even fatal, due to thin ice. The decline in the feasibility of hunting has also contributed to food insecurity in the Arctic, which will continue to be exacerbated as sea ice extent continues to decrease (Ford & Beaumier, 2011). The decline of the feasibility of hunting has also resulted in change in the diet causing health issues within communities (Wesche et al., 2010). 

The retreating shoreline due to melting sea ice has caused coastal communities to be threatened by coastal erosion and sea surges. The community of Shishmaref, Alaska is one such communities leading to the displacement community members who are often identified as the first environmental refugees (Marino & Lazrus, 2015). Even many inland communities are facing potential displacement as melting permafrost damage homes and infrastructure. As Inuit Elder Sheila Watt-Cloutier put it: “The world I was born into has changed forever” (2018). 

The decline in sea ice extent is believed to be one of the major factors causing the Arctic to warm at three times the global average (AMAP 2021; Bush et al., 2019). This phenomenon – known as Arctic amplification – has even been linked to extreme weather events in the rest of the world including wildfires and tornado activity in the United States (Zou et al., 2021; Trapp et Hoogewind, 2018). That said, this is controversial (Barnes, 2013; Overland et alt., 2015). 

By mid-century, the Arctic is expected to be ice-free in the summer except for a 1,000,000 km2 region – about the size of the province of Ontario (Massonnet et al., 2012). This area includes the 360,000 km2 region north of Greenland with the densest ice known as the Last Ice Area (Moore et al., 2019). Due to its thickness, the Last Ice Area will likely be the last region with year-round ice, and therefore the last refuge for the ice-dependent aspects of the Arctic ecosystem and culture.

The recent formation of nearby polynyas – regions of uncovered water surrounded by ice – are concerning signs regarding the longevity of year-round ice within this region (Moore et al., 2018; Moore et al. 2021a). This concern has been compounded by the collapse of ice arches in the Nares Strait causing the dense multi-year sea ice to leave the Nares Strait and be replaced by younger and thinner sea ice (Moore et al., 2021b). This creates a positive feedback loop because the instability of ice arches has been linked to the thinness of the ice and so their collapse is expected to continue as the ice within Nares Strait becomes thinner (Kwok et al., 2009).  The objective of my research project is to map the trajectory of the thick old ice in the Last Ice Area. Understanding the trajectory of this ice is crucial to understanding how it is changing and, thus, understanding the future of the sea ice.


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