Sea-ice levels at historic low in Antarctica, missing ice cover larger than Victoria

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The Antarctic’s sea-ice has reached a record low and the consequences could be devastating, polar experts have warned.

Satellite data shows that the sea-ice is significantly below any previous recorded winter level (March-October). The area of missing ice is equivalent to almost 1½ times the size of Victoria.

Up to 10,000 emperor penguin chicks were killed last month after the sea-ice melted.Credit: Shutterstock

“It’s so far outside anything we’ve seen, it’s almost mind-blowing,” said Dr Walter Meier, who monitors sea-ice with the National Snow and Ice Data Centre.

Antarctica’s huge ice expanse regulates the planet’s temperature – the white surface reflects the sun’s energy back into the atmosphere and also cools the water beneath and near it.

Without its ice cooling the planet, Antarctica could transform from Earth’s refrigerator to a radiator, experts have said.

Meier told the BBC he is not optimistic that the sea-ice will recover to a significant degree.

The sea-ice decline has already killed thousands of emperor penguin chicks this season and is expected to affect other Antarctic species.

Last month, it was reported that up to 10,000 emperor penguin chicks were killed after the sea-ice melted and broke apart before they could develop the waterproof feathers needed to swim in the ocean.

Other species such as krill, an important species in the Southern Ocean food web, as well as animals that live on the ice, such as Weddell and crabeater seals could be impacted.

Scientists are still trying to identify why the sea-ice is at such a low, but a shortage of historical information means much remains unknown.

“There is a chance that it’s a really freak expression of natural variability,” Meier said, meaning many natural factors could be affecting the region simultaneously.

This year’s record-warm oceans are likely a contributing factor as warm water will not freeze, while there may have also been changes in ocean currents and the winds that drive temperatures in the Antarctic.

The El Nino weather phenomenon, currently developing in the Pacific, could also be contributing.

Dr Robbie Mallet, who is based on the Antarctic peninsula, said it is becoming apparent “how much more vulnerable” Antarctica is to climate change than previously thought.

Melting: The Thwaites glacier in Antarctica. Credit: AP

There are “very, very good reasons to be worried”, he told the BBC.

“It’s potentially a really alarming sign of Antarctic climate change that hasn’t been there for the last 40 years. And it’s only just emerging now.”

The Telegraph, London

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