Antarctica's sea ice level is at an all-time low, the University of Maine's Climate Change Institute announced last month. Melting at its fastest rate since tracking began, Antarctica, this year alone, has lost sea ice equivalent in size to Argentina, nearly a third of the entire area of the United States. By this time of year, much of the ice should have already rebuilt itself, but it seems that the loss is permanent, and scientists call it “shocking."
Unlike glaciers, which form on top of elevated mountain areas, sea ice is formed directly in the water. While this loss does not contribute to global sea level rises, it is still a cause for concern. Firstly, sea ice helps to reflect heat from the sun to prevent the warming of the ocean, and secondly, it protects land-bound glacial ice from the erosion caused by waves and storms.
Whether the rapid changes in Antarctica are entirely caused by human activity is still up for debate, but scientists do agree that greenhouse gas emissions trap heat and make the planet warmer, playing a major role in speeding up the process.
Glaciers around the world face a similarly rapid decline and it can be seen most clearly where snow and ice are visibly retreating. Overlooking Chamonix, the Montenvers glacier is melting at a rate of about 40 meters a year, as if recoiling from the human-induced heat. It is estimated that within three decades its skiable area will disappear altogether.
Meanwhile, after the hottest July on record, NASA images revealed staggering losses to the Frederikshåb Glacier in Greenland. The cruelly hot summer has negatively affected vast parts of the planet everywhere, with Phoenix, Arizona recording 31 consecutive days of temperatures of 110 Fahrenheit (roughly 38 degrees Celsius) and above.
Admittedly, the Earth’s ice cover has been diminishing for many decades, with the famed snows of Kilimanjaro now 80 percent lower than in 1912. Yet it is not the change in general, but the recent acceleration, both on land and sea, is cause for concern. The effects of the big thaw are likely not only to increase the frequency of extreme weather, but will also disturb annual weather patterns around the globe.
While scientists are searching for alternative methods of protecting glacial ice, reducing our greenhouse gas emissions remains the surest way to slow down global warming so that we can save much more than ice.