Arctic Sea Ice Loss: World Leaders Must Arrest Arctic Climate Change Impacts

Pancake ice on Arctic Sea Ice. Photo: Dave Walsh
Photo: Dave Walsh/

Arctic Sea Ice Loss: World Leaders Must Arrest Arctic Climate Change Impacts

London, 22 September 2020:- Reacting to news of the Arctic summer sea ice minimum reaching its second lowest extent in the 42-year satellite record on September 15, and to recent reports of a polar heatwave, Greenland ice sheet’s loss of million tonnes of ice per day, the collapse of the Spalte glacier and Milne Ice Shelf, and the Arctic’s shift to a new climate, the Clean Arctic Alliance today called on world leaders to take urgent action to slow Arctic warming [1,2].

“With temperatures reaching 38° Celsius north of the Arctic Circle in June, and Arctic sea ice melting faster than most climate models predicted, the Clean Arctic Alliance is calling on world leaders to take urgent action to curb warming of the Arctic region, by accelerating national and regional policies and practices that will fulfill the goals of the Paris Agreement, especially that of limiting the increase to 1.5o Celsius – requiring a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030”, said Dr Sian Prior, Lead Advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance. “The extreme summer of 2020 is demonstrating, with global mean temperatures already showing an increase of 1.1° Celsius, that unless urgent and collective action is taken, a 2° Celsius increase will prove detrimental to human health and wellbeing, our economies and the environment” [3].

The Clean Arctic Alliance, which comprises 20 international non-profit organisations, is campaigning for a robust and effective ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil by shipping in the Arctic, while advocating for shipping to decrease its climate impact, particularly through reductions in black carbon emissions.

This summer Arctic sea ice reached its lowest extent ever throughout July with substantial openings of the sea ice north of Alaska and within the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, while the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s Arctic coastline opened in July for the first time ever. The melting slowed somewhat during early August, but picked up again in September to reach the annual sea ice minimum in mid-September, and it is the second lowest summer sea ice extent since the records began, over 40 years ago. Scientists are now predicting summers with no sea ice by 2035 [4].

Arctic sea ice is important to minimising risks of reaching global warming tipping points and thresholds not just in the Arctic, but in the global climate system. Arctic summer sea ice is expected to be lost at around 1.7° Celsius global warming; by 1.5° Celsius – which is expected to be reached between 2030 and 2052 – there is likely to already be several days or weeks without ice and by 2° Celsius the Arctic would be ice free for several months every year. While this might be hailed as a boon for shipping in the Arctic, it is not good news for the global climate system, as it drives further warming through feedback loops. Ice loss from the Arctic ice cap drives the freshening of the oceans (decreased salinity due to fresh water from glaciers) and global sea level rise, while the melting Arctic permafrost releases climate warming gases including methane, that drive further climate changes. In addition, recent research suggests that loss of Arctic sea ice will lead to “projected Increases in extreme Arctic ocean surface waves” [5]. Loss of Arctic sea ice will have impacts outside the Arctic – affecting mid-latitude weather patterns. The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) observed that this has already happened with 1° Celsius of warming [6].

“The Earth has already undergone nearly 1° Celsius of warming since the late 1800s, and the Arctic is warming much faster – between 2 to 3° Celsius over the same period. Temperatures over the Barents Sea and around the Svalbard archipelago have increased by 1.5° Celsius per decade over the past 40 years. When the global temperature has increased by 1.7°Celsius, we will be on track for an ice-free Arctic for several months of the year”, continued Prior. “The loss of Arctic sea ice is not only catastrophic for Arctic communities, the ecosystems they depend upon and ice-dependent wildlife, it has enormous ramifications for the entire planet. It will potentially upset weather patterns further south, drive the loss of snow and glaciers from mid-latitude mountain regions and also have an impact on fisheries. [7]”


Ice Cap Loss and Sea Level Rise

A paper published in Nature Climate Change on August 31 2020 demonstrated that mass loss from the ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica due to melt-water and crumbling ice have, since 2007 to 2017, aligned almost perfectly with the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change’s (IPCC) most extreme forecasts, with the potential to cause catastrophic sea level rise worldwide. Sea level has already risen globally by over 60mm between 1997 and 2015, and in 2016 it was estimated that sea level is now rising at a rate of 3.4mm per year. If greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced, the whole Greenland ice sheet is expected to melt, resulting in between five and seven metres sea level rise in the next millennium. Even limiting emissions now so that they are declining by the end of this century could result in a two metre rise in sea level globally according to a NASA study published more recently [8].


Greenhouse Gas Emissions

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that it was necessary to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 45% by 2030 in order to keep the rise in global temperature below 1.5° Celsius this century [9]. To achieve this, policies and practices that will meet the Paris Agreement’s goals must be put in place now, and every sector must take responsibility for their own actions and ensure that all emissions are included in climate targets.

“Governments are facing the most consequential decision collectively made in the history of humanity: whether to take concrete steps to keep the planet below 1.5°Celsius warming, or make the decision – either explicitly, or de facto through inaction – to force the planet’s temperatures higher”, said Pam Pearson, Director and Founder, International Climate Cryosphere Initiative (ICCI).

“The message is clear: 2° Celsius means a completely unacceptable risk of loss and damage to human society, from cryosphere dynamics alone. We must aim for 1.5° Celsius, and to be frank, to the extent possible plan for a return to 1° Celsius as soon as possible because of the way the cryosphere will respond even at the long-term 1.5° Celsius level, through negative emissions measures.This is an issue of generational justice, and the legacy we leave behind”, said Pearson [10].

The International Cryosphere Climate Initiative’s Iceblog reports that “fires in the Arctic in June released more carbon dioxide and other polluting gases than in any previous month in the last 18 years of satellite-based monitoring” [11].

“The Arctic is not only impacted by activities in the region but also by emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and black carbon coming from the generation of energy for industry and transport, as well as land use and other sources from outside the region”, concluded Pearson.


Black Carbon

Black carbon, while not a climate gas, is a short-lived climate forcer – it is the strongest light-absorbing component of particulate matter, and is a critical contributor to human-induced climate heating, especially in the Arctic where the impact of black carbon emissions is magnified because of the proximity of snow and ice. Black carbon also has a negative impact on human health, including respiratory diseases and premature death [12,13].

In 2017, Ministers of the Arctic Council (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United State) adopted a collective, aspirational goal of reducing black carbon emissions by between 25 to 33 percent relative to 2013 levels by 2025 [14]. Two years later the Arctic Council expert group made a recommendation that relevant actors “develop, as appropriate, and report on measures and best practices to reduce particulate matter and black carbon emissions from shipping as a matter of urgency.

Despite efforts by the Arctic Council to reduce black carbon emissions from all activities in the Arctic, emissions are rising as shipping increases in the region. Between 2015 and 2019 there was a 85 percent increase in black carbon emissions from Arctic shipping, and a proposed ban on the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil in the Arctic is so weak it would only reduce black carbon emissions by five percent [15]. The Clean Arctic Alliance is calling for “a meaningful ban on HFO use and carriage which is “fit for purpose” and would reduce black carbon emissions by between 30 to 45 percent, and combined with the installation of a particulate filter could reduce black carbon emissions by over 90 percent” [16]. Such a ban is currently being considered by the UN body that governs international shipping, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), but the ban was recently denounced by the Clean Arctic Alliance as “full of dangerous loopholes” [17].


Shipping Sector Responsibility

“It is not enough to think that emissions’ reduction is someone else’s responsibility”, said Prior. “All sectors – from agriculture to construction, energy production to all forms of transport – aircraft, trains, road vehicles and ships, along with all shipping practices – cruising, carriage of cargoes, to fishing must change to ensure that all greenhouse gas emissions, including black carbon, are reduced in line with the Paris Agreement’s goals”. The IMO and its members must step-up and deliver action to eliminate black carbon emissions and rapidly reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane emissions with the intention of moving to decarbonise the sector by 2035. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, without further action, the international shipping sector could account for 17% of global CO2 emissions by 2050 – an increase from its current share of 3% [18].

“The loss of summer sea ice, not only allows for greater access to the Arctic and its resources by ships and maritime industries, but it also lengthens the time over which ships can operate in the Arctic. These activities drive an increase in the risks to the Arctic, its communities and its wildlife – risks of heavy fuel and distillate oil spills, increased black carbon emissions, increased underwater noise, and discharges of greywater and scrubber wastes.”


The Clean Arctic Alliance is calling on world leaders to take the following urgent action to slow the impacts of climate change on the Arctic

  • Show leadership by example, by accelerating national and regional policies and practices that will fulfill the goals of the Paris Agreement, especially that of limiting the increase to 1.5o Celsius – requiring a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030.
  • Through the International Maritime Organization, adopt mandatory measures to reduce ship speed to effect deep immediate reductions in climate emissions from ships.
  • Agree an effective and credible International Maritime Organization regulation which bans the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil by Arctic shipping from January 2024 – without exemptions or waivers for any vessels. See: Clean Arctic Alliance Slams Proposed Arctic Shipping Regulation as Full of Dangerous Loopholes
  • Support a mandatory International Maritime Organization regulation requiring ships to switch from heavy fuels to distillate fuels (or other cleaner fuels) in the Arctic, and install efficient particulate filters in vessels, in order to reduce black carbon emissions by over 90% in the Arctic region, where black carbon emissions are especially damaging.




Dave Walsh, Communications Advisor, Clean Arctic Alliance, +32 691 826 764


[1] Arctic sea ice decline stalls out at second lowest minimum NSIDC September 32 2020,

On September 15, Arctic sea ice likely reached its annual minimum extent of 3.74 million square kilometers (1.44 million square miles). The minimum ice extent is the second lowest in the 42-year-old satellite record, reinforcing the long-term downward trend in Arctic ice extent. Sea ice extent will now begin its seasonal increase through autumn and winter. In the Antarctic, sea ice extent is now well above average and within the range of the ten largest ice extents on record, underscoring its high year-to-year variability. The annual maximum for Antarctic sea ice typically occurs in late September or early October.

“In the first week of September, sea ice extent took a sharp downward turn, exceeding the pace of decline for any previous year during that period, and placing the 2020 sea ice minimum firmly as second lowest—after 2012—in the 42-year continuous satellite record.”

NSIDC indicated that the average sea ice extent for August was the third lowest in the 42-year satellite record. The monthly August sea ice extent for 1979 to 2020 shows a decline of 10.7 percent per decade – this corresponds to an area about the size of New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts combined

[2] World Meteorological Organization, June 23, 2020: Reported new record temperature of 38°C north of Arctic Circle

Greenland ice sheet lost a record 1m tonnes of ice per minute in 2019

Communications Earth & Environment volume 1, Article number: 8 (2020, Return to rapid ice loss in Greenland and record loss in 2019 detected by the GRACE-FO satellites

Climate change: Warmth shatters section of Greenland ice shelf

Canada’s last fully intact Arctic ice shelf collapses

The Arctic Is Shifting to a New Climate Because of Global Warming, The New York Times, 14 September 2020

[3] WMO confirms 2019 as second hottest year on record, 15 January 2020

“The average global temperature has risen by about 1.1°C since the pre-industrial era and ocean heat content is at a record level,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. “On the current path of carbon dioxide emissions, we are heading towards a temperature increase of 3 to 5° Celsius by the end of century.”

UNFCCC: The Paris Agreement

[4] Sea-ice-free Arctic during the Last Interglacial supports fast future loss, Nature Climate Change, August 10, 2020

Arctic Sea Ice Could Be Gone by 2035, According to Earth’s Climate History

US National Snow and Ice Data Center, July 16, 2020: On July 15, Arctic sea ice extent stood at 7.51 million square kilometers (2.90 million square miles), 330,000 square kilometers (127,000 square miles) below the record for July 15, set in 2011. This places the extent at the lowest level for this time of year on the satellite record.

The modern sea ice satellite record turns 40

Sea Ice Prediction Network: 2020: July Report, 27 July 2020:

National Snow and Ice Data Center, Summer’s Last Stand, August 18, 2020

Steep Decline Sputters Out, August 4th, 2020

Barents Observer: Ships moving in as Arctic sea ice level reaches record low

[5] Geophysical Research Letters: Sea Ice Retreat Contributes to Projected Increases in Extreme Arctic Ocean Surface Waves, Mercè Casas‐Prat, Xiaolan L. Wang, First published: 10 May 2020

[6] Nature, December 2019: Arctic change and mid-latitude weather

“The Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the planet, a phenomenon called Arctic amplification. The enhanced warming results in a massive loss in sea ice and snow cover, which in turn interact with the atmosphere. These changes can have consequences beyond the Arctic region and they have been related to an increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events across the Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes.”

A tug-of-war over the mid-latitudes, Nature Communications volume 10, Article number: 5578 (2019), 9 December 2019

IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, September 2019

A.1.4: “Feedbacks from the loss of summer sea ice and spring snow cover on land have contributed to amplified warming in the Arctic (high confidence) where surface air temperature likely increased by more than double the global average over the last two decades. Changes in Arctic sea ice have the potential to influence mid-latitude weather (medium confidence), but there is low confidence in the detection of this influence for specific weather types”

[7] Science Advances: The polar regions in a 2°C warmer world

Science Advances 04 Dec 2019:

Vol. 5, no. 12, eaaw9883

[8] NASA: Study Predicts More Long-Term Sea Level Rise from Greenland Ice, June 2020

[9] Ice Sheet Melting Is Perfectly in Line With Our Worst-Case Scenario, Scientists Warn (AFP)

Ice-sheet losses track high-end sea-level rise projections, Thomas Slater, Anna E. Hogg & Ruth Mottram, Nature Climate Change, August 31, 2020

[10] The Cryosphere1.5° Report Why Cryosphere Dynamics Demand 1.5° Pathways For 2020 And Beyond

[11] Burning the High Arctic: 2020 Spring and Summer Fire Season in Sakha Republic. A Precursor of Fire Seasons to Come?

[12] Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C approved by governments, 8 October 2018

[13] Arctic Council Expert Group On Black Carbon And Methane, Summary of Progress and Recommendations 2019

[14] Expert Group On Black Carbon and Methane Summary of Progress and Recommendations 2017

[15] The International Maritime Organization’s proposed Arctic heavy fuel oil ban: Likely implications and opportunities for improvement, International Council on Clean Transportation, September 2020

4th Reduction of GHG Emissions from Ships: Fourth IMO GHG Study 2020 – Final report

[16] Clean Arctic Alliance Slams Proposed Arctic Shipping Regulation as Full of Dangerous Loopholes

[17] Clean Arctic Alliance, 3 September 2020: Clean Arctic Alliance Slams Proposed Arctic Shipping Regulation as Full of Dangerous Loopholes

[18] The International Council on Clean Transportation: Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Global Shipping, 2013–2015


About Heavy Fuel Oil:

Already banned for nearly a decade in Antarctica and in some of the waters around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, heavy fuel oil is a viscous and polluting fossil fuel that powers ships throughout our seas and oceans – accounting for 80% of marine fuel used worldwide. Around 75% of marine fuel currently carried in the Arctic is HFO. If HFO is spilled in cold polar waters, it is likely to break down very slowly, and prove almost impossible to clean up. A HFO spill would have long-term devastating effects on Arctic indigenous communities, livelihoods and the marine ecosystems they depend upon. As sea ice melts and opens up Arctic waters further, even larger non-Arctic state-flagged vessels running on HFO are likely to divert to Arctic waters in search of shorter journey times, greatly increasing the risks of HFO spills. Already four of the top five flags, based on volume of HFO on board as fuel, originate from outside of the Arctic region – Panama, Marshall Islands, Liberia, and Singapore – with Russia the Arctic nation.

Burning HFO produces black carbon particles which are emitted in the exhaust fumes. When they fall on snow, on glacier ice and sea ice, the reflectivity (albedo) is reduced and the absorption of heat increases. More Arctic shipping using HFO will lead to increased black carbon emissions, fueling an already accelerating feedback loop.

The threat from oil spills on Arctic ecosystems and livelihoods is real, as are the impacts of climate change on the Arctic, and the knock-on effects of those impacts on the rest of the planet. The Arctic is under pressure – climate change is fuelling temperature rises double the rate of further south. In early March 2020, it was reported that ice loss from the ice caps of Greenland and the Antarctic are “tracking the worst-case scenario”, losing ice six times faster than in the 1990s. In 2019, in just two months, the loss of 600 billion tonnes of ice from Greenland raised global sea level by 2.2mm.

Read more: Clean Arctic Alliance Slams Proposed Arctic Shipping Regulation as Full of Dangerous Loopholes


About Black Carbon

Black carbon (BC), a harmful air pollutant, is the product of incomplete combustion of organic fuels, and contributes up to 21% of shipping’s climate warming impact on a twenty year timeline. The largest sources of BC are fossil fuel, biomass and biofuel combustion. Ships emit more BC per unit of fuel consumed than other combustion sources due to the quality of the fuel used. BC has human health impacts and is a potent climate forcer. When emitted in the Arctic, black carbon particles absorb heat from the sun and reflected heat from the planet, they fall on snow, on glacier ice and sea ice, causing melt and reducing their reflectivity (albedo) and increasing the absorption of heat. As multi-season sea ice recedes due to climate change, Arctic waters will open up to increased shipping – which could lead to increased black carbon emissions, fueling an already accelerating feedback loop.

Recognising the threat to the Arctic from black carbon the Arctic Council’s Framework for Action on Enhanced Black Carbon and Methane Emissions Reductions (agreed in Iqaluit in 2015), commits the Arctic countries to demonstrate leadership by reducing Black Carbon (and methane) emissions produced beyond the borders of Arctic States. The Framework for Action includes a commitment to actively work with and within relevant forums and agreements, which includes the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee, to promote actions and decisions that lead to enhanced black carbon and methane emissions reductions.

Heavy fuel oil is a greater source of harmful emissions of air pollutants, such as sulphur oxide, and particulate matter, including black carbon, than alternative fuels such as distillate fuel and liquefied natural gas (LNG). When emitted and deposited on Arctic snow or ice, the climate warming effect of black carbon is up to five times more than when emitted at lower latitudes, such as in the tropics.

Infographic: How Can We Reduce Black Carbon Emissions From International Shipping?

Infographic: Urgent and immediate action needed to cut black carbon emissions from ships

Report: Black Carbon Emissions and fuel use in global Shipping

Report: The impacts of an Arctic shipping HFO ban on emissions of Black Carbon

Letter: Fuel Industry must work to reduce shipping’s black carbon and CO2 emissions

Response: Impacts of Black Carbon Emissions from Very Low Sulphur Fuel Oils

Watch: Webinar: Black carbon, the Arctic and Shipping, July 21 2020

About the Clean Arctic Alliance

The following not-for-profit organisations form the Clean Arctic Alliance, which is committed to a ban on HFO as marine fuel in the Arctic:

90 North Unit, The Altai Project, Alaska Wilderness League, Bellona, Clean Air Task Force, Green Transition Denmark, Ecology and Development Foundation ECODES, Environmental Investigation Agency, European Climate Foundation, Friends of the Earth US, Greenpeace, Iceland Nature Conservation Association, Nature And Biodiversity Conservation Union, Ocean Conservancy, Pacific Environment, Seas At Risk, Surfrider Foundation Europe, Stand.Earth, Transport & Environment and WWF. For more information visit