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Arctic Ice Cover, Ice Thickness and Tipping Points

Abstract

We summarize the latest results on the rapid changes that are occurring to Arctic sea ice thickness and extent, the reasons for them, and the methods being used to monitor the changing ice thickness. Arctic sea ice extent had been shrinking at a relatively modest rate of 3–4% per decade (annually averaged) but after 1996 this speeded up to 10% per decade and in summer 2007 there was a massive collapse of ice extent to a new record minimum of only 4.1 million km2. Thickness has been falling at a more rapid rate (43% in the 25 years from the early 1970s to late 1990s) with a specially rapid loss of mass from pressure ridges. The summer 2007 event may have arisen from an interaction between the long-term retreat and more rapid thinning rates. We review thickness monitoring techniques that show the greatest promise on different spatial and temporal scales, and for different purposes. We show results from some recent work from submarines, and speculate that the trends towards retreat and thinning will inevitably lead to an eventual loss of all ice in summer, which can be described as a ‘tipping point’ in that the former situation, of an Arctic covered with mainly multi-year ice, cannot be retrieved.

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Acknowledgements

This is a contribution to the Arctic Tipping Points project (www.eu-atp.org) funded by FP7 of the European Union (contract #226248). The manuscript was improved by three anonymous reviewers.

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Correspondence to Peter Wadhams.

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Wadhams, P. Arctic Ice Cover, Ice Thickness and Tipping Points. AMBIO 41, 23–33 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-011-0222-9

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Keywords

  • Ice cover
  • Ice thickness
  • Multi-year ice
  • Ice loss