Climate change is a gradual, slow process—the global average temperature doesn’t just skyrocket overnight, and the sea levels don’t suddenly start flooding the coastlines. It’s difficult to point to a single occurrence and declare that it marks a turning point in the process. But there could be an event on the horizon that does exactly that. In recent years, scientists have become increasingly concerned about the possibility of a “Blue Ocean Event.” If you’ve heard the term floating around before, you might think that it doesn’t sound very worrisome—after all, it’s quite vague and nonthreatening.
But a Blue Ocean Event (or a BOE, as it’s often called) is far from nonthreatening. A BOE refers to a total absence of Arctic sea ice. Why is this such a huge problem? Well, aside from the fact that the Arctic melting to this extent sounds alarming, it also carries some serious consequences. When there is no ice at the Arctic, the sunlight can fully penetrate Arctic Ocean, which drastically increases the warming rate in the Arctic.
And the effects of this are not localized. A BOE has the potential to disrupt atmospheric and ocean currents around the world, and naturally, it will definitely contribute to a rise in sea levels.
The possibility of a BOE has been acknowledged by the scientific community for some time now, but until recently, most climate scientists thought that there was no chance it would happen for at least several decades. In fact, before 2012, very few people were really considering the possibility of a BOE until 2100. But in recent years, the temperatures in the Arctic have begun rising so quickly while sea ice measurements decline at a steeper rate than previous decades. With the effects of climate change becoming more apparent at a faster rate than most people anticipated, US Navy researchers began preparing for the possibility of a BOE back in 2016—and it’s not out of the question that we could see it happen within the next few years.
Researchers can measure Arctic sea ice by a few different metrics, including maximum extent of sea ice cover or total volume of sea ice. However, total volume is generally considered the most important indicator of the overall condition of the Arctic. Now that all of the data from 2018 has been recorded and analyzed, let’s see how everything stacked up.
In the winter of 2018, the maximum sea ice extent reached a high of 5.6 million, which was one of the lowest winter highs on record. Obviously, winter is the coldest time of year in the Arctic, and the sea ice extent shrinks in the summer. So if winter temperatures aren’t dipping as low as they should be, and there is far less ice than previous years, summer will naturally look even worse,
As far as other conditions go, the “wild” winter high temperature was about 45 degrees above normal. The North Pole reached temperatures above freezing despite being in total darkness during the coldest months of the year. In addition, some areas of Greenland experienced open water for the very first time, and the Bering Strait was also completely ice free for part of the winter.
In simple terms, higher temperatures mean more ice melting and less ice forming. And less ice means less solar radiation being reflected at the Arctic, and more heat being absorbed instead. Sea ice is a bright surface, which reflects 80% of the sunlight that hits it back into space. On the other hand, the ocean absorbs 90% of the sunlight. This is why melting ice can prompt a major increase in warming if it leads to a BOE—as well as some other scary effects.
Scientists have become concerned about the possibility of certain gasses that are currently trapped in ice shelfs being released as the ice melts, and the impact that this could have on our planet. For example, the East Siberian Arctic Shelf contains heat-trapping gasses, and it is already releasing record numbers of these gasses—what happens as melting continues?
Since we haven’t experienced a BOE yet, it’s hard to say exactly what the effects would really look like, but the fact that scientists have adjusted their predictions so drastically speaks to the fact that climate change is accelerating at a much faster rate than most people ever expected. Would an event like this signify the “point of no return” for people? Would images of such an event come to illustrate what climate change really means for us? Only time will tell, but an ice-free Arctic would certainly be a frightening sign of things to come.
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