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Antarctic sea ice falls to lowest level ever recorded

Alex Berry
April 19, 2022

Researchers have been left baffled as, unlike the Arctic, Antarctica has generally seen an increase in sea ice. This marks the second big dip in just five years.

Mountains covered with ice in Antarctic landscape
Unlike the Arctic, Antarctica comprises of a solid landmass as well as sea iceImage: Stanislav Rishnyak/Zoonar/picture alliance

This year, the extent of sea ice in the Antarctic fell to its lowest recorded level, according to a report published in the Advances in Atmospheric Science journal on Tuesday.

Chinese researchers from the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou and the Laboratory of Southern Marine Science in Zhuhai said the area covered by ice on February 22 was the lowest it had been since 1979, when records began.

The scientists are not sure about the cause for the decline — the second big drop in just five years.

Though global warming is causing the amount of ice in the northern Arctic to rapidly decline, the surface area covered by ice in the southern Antarctic has increased by about 1% per decade since the 1970s.

Scientists search for answers

The observation matched another by the EU's Copernicus program that was released last month.

February's dip took place during the summer in the Southern Hemisphere, and it marked the first time that the area covered by the ice has fallen below 2 million square kilometers (about 772,200 square miles).

It also marked a decrease of about 30% in comparison with the average area between 1981 and 2010.

The researchers have been investigating possible causes, including ocean currents and weather phenomena, but could give no conclusive answer in their report.

The 1,200-square-kilometer Conger ice shelf in East Antarctica collapsed in February, after a period of extreme heat when temperatures reached levels 40 degrees Celsius (104 F) higher than normal.

Such ice shelves take thousands of years to build up and can release enormous amounts of snow and ice that had been held in behind them.

The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report from the UN warned that melting ice sheets from Antarctica, among other places, are set to increase sea levels, forcing millions to flee their homes.

The Conger/Glenzer (Bowman Island) ice shelf and associated fast ice pre-collapse
Melting ice at the polar caps leads to rising sea levelsImage: NASA/AP/picture alliance

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said temperatures in February reached 40 degrees Celsius. The temperatures were rather 40 degrees higher than normal.

DPA contributed to this article.

Edited by: Farah Bahgat