Climate change

Arctic mission chief warns global warming may have already passed an irreversible tipping point

The Arctic mission chief warned that global warming may have already passed an irreversible tipping point. The Arctic mission chief, Professor Rex led scientists to the biggest-ever expedition to the Arctic.

The trip to the North Pole included 300 scientists drawn from 20 countries. The $165m expedition returned to Germany in October after 389 days drifting through the ArcticIce Ocean. The scientists brought devastating proof of a vanishing Arctic Ocean and warnings of ice-free summers in just decades. It also brought back 150 terabytes of data and more than 1,000 ice samples.

Presenting the first findings of the world’s largest mission to the North Pole, Markus Rex said that the researchers had found that Arctic ice is retreating faster than ever before due to global warming.

Markus Rex said during the presentation in Berlin that, “The disappearance of summer sea ice in the Arctic is one of the first landmines in this minefield, one of the tipping points that we set off first when we push warming too far.” 

“And one can essentially ask if we haven’t already stepped on this mine and already set off the beginning of the explosion.” He added.

The data collected during the expedition included readings on the atmosphere, ocean, sea ice, and ecosystems. To carry out the research, four observational sites were set up on the sea ice in a radius of up to 40 kilometres (25 miles) around the mission’s Polarstern ship.

Rex said scientists found that the Arctic Ocean ice had retreated “faster in the spring of 2020 than since the beginning of records” and that “the spread of the sea ice in the summer was only half as large as decades ago.”The ice was only half as thick and temperatures measured 10 degrees higher than during the Fram expedition undertaken by explorers and scientists Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen in the 1890s.

The scientists noted that because of the smaller sea ice surface due to global warming, the ocean was able to absorb more heat in the summer. This meant that ice sheet formation in the autumn was slower than usual.

“Only evaluation in the coming years will allow us to determine if we can still save the year-round Arctic sea ice through forceful climate protection or whether we have already passed this important tipping point in the climate system,” Rex added.

Sea ice physics specialist, Stefanie Arndt says that it is “painful to know that we are possibly the last generation who can experience the Arctic which still has a sea ice cover in the summer”.

“This sea ice cover is gradually shrinking and it is an important living space for polar bears,” said Arndt, recalling observations of seals and other animals in the polar habitat.

The data collected were water samples from beneath the ice to study plant plankton and bacteria. It will to better understand how the marine ecosystem functions under extreme conditions. More than 100 parameters were measured continuously throughout the year.

The research information will help in the development of models to predict what heatwaves, storms could look like in years to come.

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