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Arctic could be ice-free as early as 2030s says study

A close up of Arctic sea ice.

A file photo of sea ice near Ellesmere island in Canada’s arctic archipelago.

Photo: Getty Images / Mario Tama


New modeling suggests that even under a low emissions scenario, the Arctic could experience ice-free Septembers as early as the 2030s.

It is surprising and concerning, that even if we’re able to reduce emissions, we’re still projecting an ice-free Arctic, Nathan Gillett, one of the Canadian co-authors of the study, told Eye on the Arctic.

But if we don’t reduce emissions, we will see considerably worse impacts in the Arctic such as a longer ice-free season and much warmer temperatures.

The new time period suggested by the research is about a decade earlier than other projections have previously indicated.

Results indicate that the first sea ice-free September will occur as early as the 2030s–2050s irrespective of emission scenarios, said the study, published Tuesday, in the journal Nature Communications (new window).

Extended occurrences of an ice-free Arctic in the early summer months are projected later in the century under higher emissions scenarios.

Icebergs float in the water with the sun low in the sky and reflecting off the water.

Icebergs floating in Disko Bay, Ilulissat, western Greenland.

Photo: Getty Images / Odd Andersen/AFP

To conduct the study, South Korean, Canadian, and German researchers examined sea ice data from different satellite information sets and climate models covering the period from 1979 to 2019.

These results emphasize the profound impacts of greenhouse gas emissions on the Arctic, and demonstrate the importance of planning for and adapting to a seasonally ice-free Arctic in the near future, the research paper said.

Possible changes irrespective of emission scenarios

The 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report said the international community was close to reaching the warming threshold of 1.5 C.

It also warned that if action wasn’t taken to restrict greenhouse gas emissions immediately, and on a large scale, that limiting warming to even 2 C could be beyond reach with drastic implications for humanity, especially for the North where the report said ” The Arctic is likely to be practically sea ice-free in September at least once before 2050.”

However, authors of the paper published Tuesday said their modeling suggests this is an underestimation.

Three men on a snowy hill looking in binoculars.

Hunters from the community of Cambridge Bay use binoculars to try to spot mukoxen on Victoria Island in Nunavut. Sea ice changes in the Arctic affect both the marine and land environment Arctic Indigenous peoples rely on for food and transportation.

Photo: Eye on the Arctic / Eilis Quinn

Our observationally-constrained projections based on attribution results also suggest that we may experience an unprecedented ice-free Arctic climate in the next decade or two, irrespective of emission scenarios, the study said.

This is something that would have profound impacts for the globe, as well as the people of the North, said Gillett, also a research scientist with Environment Climate Change Canada.

Inuit depend on the ice for hunting and when the ice-free season is longer that’s going to disrupt those kinds of activities, he said.

An ice-free Arctic also means a faster rate of warming in the air above the Arctic, including Northern Canada, leading also to thawing permafrost and impacts on infrastructure, impacts on food systems.

A group of children walk along an eroded road.

A 2019 file photo of schoolchildren walking beside severe erosion of the permafrost tundra next to their school in Napakiak, Alaska.

Photo: Getty Images

Gillett said the research findings are sobering but that he hopes the takeaway is about the importance of action. 

We don’t want the message to be that reducing emissions isn’t going to work, he said.

We need to adapt to these changes by reducing emissions to net zero rapidly so we can limit future climate change. And we can limit the warming compared to what would happen if we’re not able to reduce emissions.

Growing alarm over rapid changes to cryosphere

The research published this week follows on the heels of British Antarctic Survey report last Friday saying Antarctic changes could become tipping points with global implications.

Also last week, the World Meteorological Organization called for cryosphere changes to be put at the top of the global agenda with greater international cooperation and data sharing in order to close knowledge gaps in the polar regions. 


Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic (new window)

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change (new window),about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture? (new window)” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, Bridging the Divide, was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series Best in China.