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Current Affairs

Moving sea ice could spread pollution

Date: 21 March 2020 Tags: Climate Change


The movement of sea ice between Arctic countries could raise the risk of pollutants, like microplastics and oil, spreading between neighboring coastal states, researchers say.



The authors examined the movement of Arctic sea ice from the instrumental surface temperature record starting in 1979, when the first continuous satellite observations began.



  • The study predicts that by mid-century, the average time it takes for sea ice to travel from one region to another will decrease by more than half, and the amount of sea ice exchanged between Arctic countries such as Russia, Norway, Canada, and the United States will more than triple.

  • Increased interest in off-shore Arctic development, as well as shipping through the Central Arctic Ocean, may increase the amount of pollutants present in Arctic waters. And contaminants in ice travels much faster than those in open water that ocean currents move.

  • Historically, floating masses of Arctic sea ice could survive for up to 10 years: building up layers, lasting through each summer, and mostly melting locally with a small fraction transported to other regions. As the climate warms, however, that pattern has changed.

  • This thinner ice can move faster in the increasingly open waters of the Arctic, delivering the particles and pollutants it carries to waters of neighboring states.

  • The researchers used a global climate model, together with the Sea Ice Tracking Utility (SITU), track sea ice from where it forms to where it ultimately melts during the 21st century.

  • Russia’s exclusive economic zone and the Central Arctic Ocean are two places the researchers expect more ice to form, becoming major “exporters” of ice to other regions in the Arctic.

The implications of this study are clear. Faster moving sea ice brings countries closer together, and local coastal pollution or pollution transported by rivers from far inland locations can have an impact on the coastal environment of even distant countries.