9 Facts About Arctic Sea Ice

Arctic Sea Ice Day is coming soon, July 15th, and once again, we’re drawing attention to this remarkable frozen ocean ecosystem, the ice loss taking place, and how a shift to renewable energy can help reverse that trend.

As part of our countdown to the day, staff scientist Alysa McCall shares nine key facts about Arctic sea ice.

1. Sea ice is to the Arctic ecosystem what soil is to the forest.

A polar bear on melting sea ice.

When ocean water gets cold enough to freeze it expels its salt, causing channels to form in the ice. Algae grow within these channels and form the base of the food chain. Algae feed the tiny organisms, like zooplankton, that inhabit these waters. Arctic cod feed on them. Seals eat Arctic cod. And polar bears prey on seals.

2. Polar bears rely on sea ice to efficiently catch their main prey, ice seals.

A seal resting on an ice floe.

Although seals can out-swim polar bears underwater, bears have the edge on top of the ice, using it to sneak up on and stalk their next meal. Ice seals, and related ice-dependent species like the walrus, rely on sea ice for survival, too—they use it to rest on and as a platform for giving birth to and raising their pups. 

3. Arctic sea ice is important to people living in the North, providing a platform for transportation and increased access to food.

Overhead view of fragmented sea ice.

But people around the world need sea ice too. Sea ice acts like a global air conditioner, helping to cool the planet by reflecting the sun's light and heat back into space rather than absorbing it into the water.

4. Less sea ice = extra heat absorbed into the ocean = less heat reflected away from Earth = disrupted climates.

Overview of Arctic waters with melting sea ice.

Just as a heart circulates blood and regulates the body’s temperature, the ocean controls the world’s climate system by circulating heat, moisture, and nutrients around the planet. Disruptions in this system, such as extra heat, have global impacts and can lead to more frequent and extreme weather events around the world.

5. Arctic sea ice is declining in both extent and thickness due to human-caused climate change.

A polar bear on melting sea ice.

When we burn fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas, we release carbon emissions into our atmosphere. These emissions act like a heat-trapping blanket: too many emissions trap too much heat around our planet. Just as a warm summer's day melts the ice in a glass of water, a warming planet causes Arctic sea ice to melt.

6. Some sea ice still remains in the Arctic year-round, with the lowest extent occurring each summer in September.

Bird's eye view of melting sea ice.

Despite year-to-year variation, satellite data show that the rate of sea ice decline for September sea ice is 82,300 square kilometers (32,000 square miles) per year, or 12.8 percent per decade compared to the 1981 to 2010 average. That’s like losing an area the size of South Carolina or New Brunswick every year.

7. Without action to reduce heat-trapping emissions, the probability of ice-free Arctic summers increases significantly from the mid- to late 2000s.

Walruses resting on a small ice floe.

Ice-free summers would greatly reduce the polar bear’s ability to hunt during these months, impact ice seal abundance, and affect people and wildlife around the world. Furthermore, the extreme weather events that sea ice loss can trigger will increasingly adversely impact agriculture, infrastructure, economics, and human lives.

8. Data shows we have entered a new era with sea ice.

A polar bear walking on a band of sea ice with a towering glacier in the background.

Today, there is more thinner, seasonal ice in some parts of the Arctic compared to the thicker, multi-year ice that used to be more common. This young ice is much more vulnerable to rapid melting and moves more easily, resulting in a treadmill-like effect for polar bears trying to find their next meal or mate. This causes the bears to burn more energy to find food, which has consequences for their health and, eventually, population-level impacts.

9. The 2019 sea ice minimum, set in September, tied for the second lowest in the satellite record, according to NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

A small band of sea ice curves into open ocean waters.

Despite the threats, it’s important to remember that it's not too late to save Arctic sea ice. Studies show there is no tipping point. The ice will rebound if we work together now to shift away from fossil fuels, replacing them with renewable energy sources like solar and wind. Not only will this help reduce the carbon emissions that are causing the planet to warm and the sea ice to melt, it will also create jobs, strengthen the economy, and improve the overall environment and our health.

Visit our Arctic Sea Ice Day page to learn how you can join us in celebrating sea ice and helping to safeguard its future.