With the recent record of extreme drops in the ice caps, scientists are wondering if this is the beginning of the end. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, NSIDC, the sea ice that covers the Antarctic regions have dramatically dropped to 737,000 square miles. The last two years are the only instances where the levels have dropped below 2 million square miles, since record keeping began in 1978. The alarming dips are a signal to scientists that the climate crisis is heavily influencing this vast region. 

Compared to the Arctic region, where the rate of sea loss is consistently downward while climate change accelerates, the Antarctic sea levels continue on an unpredictable spectrum, making it extremely difficult to study how climate change is affecting this area. The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents, while Antarctica is a continent surrounded by ocean, with thinner ice that is easily malleable to the seasons. This region has seen a multitude of changes throughout the past decade. In 2014, the sea ice reached its record high at 7.76 million square miles, but in 2016 a steep decline occurred, confusing scientists. As previously stated, the Antarctic ice is fickle when it comes to seasonal changes, strong ups and downs are the result, but the last two years of receiving record lows, scientists are growing concerned. 

Various factors can be the cause for the strong decline, including strong winds, ocean heat, and ocean currents. Air temperatures have been higher than normal, around 1.5 degrees celsius (34.7F) above the average level. Adding to the harsh weather conditions are the Southern Annular Mode winds that circle Antarctica. These winds have been stronger than usual and can increase ice melt due to the circulation of warmer air. The strengths of the winds have been linked to the rise in Earth’s surface temperature from the hole in the ozone layer above the continent. The trapped gas within the atmosphere circles downward, being absorbed by the ocean’s surface, in turn heating up the water – naturally causing ice to melt. These three factors have a valid link effective by the progressive increase in GHG emissions from human activity.  

“It does feel like something has changed in the Antarctic and that things are fairly dramatic,” stated Glaciologist Ted Scambos from the University of Colorado Boulder. “It’s going to take a while to unpack. We’re still reacting to a relatively sudden change. Certainly the last few years have been a dramatic exclamation point on a trend that was just developing after 2016.”

The loss of sea ice around the continent leaves the coastal ice sheets and glaciers exposed and vulnerable to warm water currents – resulting in a faster melting process. The wildlife that inhabit the region are also greatly impacted. Microorganisms and algae that stabilize the food chain can see potential threats, in turn affecting those that consume these animals, such as penguins, seals, and whales. These heftier animals also rely on the ice for nesting, feeding, and resting, with the melting and disappearance of the ice sheets there will be significant home loss. 

Last year, scientists reported that West Antarctica’s main glacier, Thwaites Glacier, or now known as the “Doomsday Glacier,” was seen to be under immense stress due to planet-heating. These scientists have now estimated that global sea levels could increase up to 10 feet if Thwaites completely collapses. It is still too early in the study to officially say whether or not these sea ice levels will increase, or even go back to average.