Has the Arctic Ocean ever been free of ice? According to geological records, yes. Last time was before monkeys existed, more than 1 million years before any of us developed any tools. Since then, ice has covered most of the Arctic circle consistently. In recent decades, however, the formidable ice sheet covering most of the Northernmost region in the world started to recede.

What is the Arctic? The Arctic (/ˈɑːrktɪk/) is the region that surrounds the North Pole. Its most accepted boundaries (although this is becoming more and more political as we will see) include the Arctic ocean and bordering countries, that is to say, Scandinavian countries, Greenland, Russia, Canada and the US through Alaska. Surprising to most, it has been a thriving ecosystem for plants, animals and humans alike. But this region is now experiencing rapid and upending changes in its dynamics. 

How do we know? Although a few scattered records on shore ice by Vikings and explorers exist, it was virtually impossible for humans to accurately track the vast expanses of the Northern frontier. Satellite monitoring and measures made it possible to understand changes that were once impossible to perceive. According to NASA’s Sea Ice Observatory, Between 1979 and 2015, the average monthly extent for September declined by 13.4% per decade. In every geographic area, in every month, and every season, Arctic sea ice extent is lower today than it was during the 1980s and 1990s.

Arctic sea ice minimum is a good indicator of rising temperatures

The Arctic Sea Ice Minimum happens in September when the Arctic sea is at its warmest (Credit: NSIDC/NASA)

Why is this important? For a few reasons. Less ice means less reflection. Our planet’s temperature is highly dependent on its capacity to absorb (or not) and reflect (or not) the power of the sun. Iced-out polar caps also keep the oceans cool, as would the ice cubes in a mid-afternoon Aperol Spritz. As the ice melts, the general water temperature rises, causing global sea levels to rise too. In short, the ice sheet cools the ocean AND isolates the planet from the rays of the sun. That is it for the physics part of the implications.

Politically, (and if you watch GoT, you know that’s when it gets complex) nations are getting ready for a frozen gold rush. One that involves -50°C temperatures, unaccounted natural resources and fresh lines of confrontation for major powers. What’s more, the increased navigability of this ocean could seriously affect the trade routes between North America, Europe and Asia. The fabled Northern Passages, long-sought-after by European explorers has become a reality in 2018 when the first cargo ship in history successfully crossed the Arctic to deliver Korean electronics and Russian fish from Vladivostok to Europe.

Arctic Council Map

The Arctic Council (in Blue) and its official observers. (Credit: Wikicommons)

In parallel, the public attention to this (un)frozen part of the world has grown faster than the time it takes to type “stop using fossil fuels to go to wildlife havens”. The Svalbard Archipelago, located North of Norway (yes, there is a North to Norway), has grown to become a hub for sub-zero tourism, with the unfortunate byproducts attached, such as plastic pollution and black carbon stains on the otherwise pristine ice and wildlife disruption.

What can we do? As ice retreats, larger flora takes its place. Underwater photosynthesis is booming, with species ranging from plankton to fully-fledged kelp growing both on land and underwater. Whether or not this is a silver lining is still unclear, given the disruption that this will represent for this ecoregion. So what can we do against the disappearance of our global cooling system? Well, we can recognise the correlation between carbon emissions, warming waters and human activity. What happens up there affects us down here. After all, it’s all one planet.