The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that total Arctic summer sea ice loss is now inevitable, likely before 2050.

This is one of many sobering conclusions of the 2022 State of the Cryosphere Report, released on 7 November 2022 at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

In recognition of this “terminal diagnosis” for multi-year Arctic sea ice, the “totem” representing this portion of global cryosphere – Earth’s snow and ice regions – will be toppling on its side at the COP27 Cryosphere Pavilion. A ceremony recognizing this “toppled totem” will take place just after the high-level segment ends, with the participation of Arctic Youth, Indigenous people, and sea ice experts.

The first State of the Cryosphere Report, launched at COP26, described in detail the implications of a lack of action on emissions reductions – including potential collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, vanishing glaciers outside the polar regions, and unstoppable rates of global sea-level rise. The devastating impacts are largely far from cryosphere regions, in coastal cities, and well downstream of glaciers and snow.

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Just one year on, the 2022 Report released at COP27 holds even harsher news. This past year saw March rains on East Antarctica, with temperatures 40°C above normal; a spike in Greenland surface melt for the first time ever in September; loss of over 5% of glacier ice in the Alps this past summer; and the first documented rise in methane release due to global warming from a permafrost monitoring site. It also saw greater shell damage in parts of the Arctic Ocean, a clear sign of growing acidification. All of these impacts are irreversible on human timescales.

The 2022 Report emphasizes the IPCC Sixth Assessment’s alarming conclusion that even with very low emissions, summer loss of Arctic sea ice will occur at least once, likely before 2050. The ceremony at the Cryosphere Pavilion nevertheless emphasizes that although we cannot now prevent future loss of this key cryosphere dynamic, emission reductions consistent with the 1.5°C Paris limit will drastically decrease the risk of passing ever more damaging cryosphere thresholds.

“This occurrence lies outside modern human experience: the Arctic Ocean has not been ice-free for at least 8,000 years; and probably, not for 125,000 years” – says Robbie Mallett, University College London and Arctic sea ice researcher who will be speaking at the ceremony. “The impacts and feedbacks will be global, and dangerously unpredictable.”

“The two lowest emissions pathways or scenarios are the only ones with any possibility of preventing these catastrophic events that cannot be reversed in anything less than centuries, to tens of thousands of years. A decision to exceed these limits is a de facto decision to make this happen” says Julie Brigham-Grette, University of Massachusetts Amherst and former chair of the U.S- Polar Research Board.

“Our planet’s melting ice pays no attention to climate pledges and NDCs. It responds only to the level of CO2 and warming in the atmosphere, which shows no sign of pausing. Until our CO2 rise slows, halts, and begins to decrease, the ice will continue to respond as it always has: to the only number that really matters.” Pam Pearson, Director, International Cryosphere Climate Initiative.

Mountain Glaciers and Snow: 2022 Updates

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  • Summer heatwaves in the European Alps and Svalbard led to unprecedented melt and retreat of many glaciers in these regions, with extreme temperatures in the Alps potentially having led to glacier collapse and loss of life.
  • South Asian agriculture is increasingly dependent on freshwater from sources such as glacier melt and snowmelt, both of which are becoming increasingly erratic water sources.
  • Glaciers are important buffers of droughts even in basins with little glacier cover, but 2022 research confirms this buffer effect will decrease as glaciers disappear.
  • New research documents the clear link between glacier retreat and the growth of glacial lakes, increasing the risk of glacial lake outburst floods in the Himalayas.
  • Scientists have identified continuous glacier retreat in the Pyrenees, which is expected to become icefree in the coming decades.
  • New research highlights that any positive climate implications of greening in the Alps (e.g., new opportunities for carbon sequestration) will likely be outweighed by negative impacts such as climate feedbacks and reduced water availability.34
  • Increasing water temperatures of up to 3.5°C will occur by 2100 in Alpine high-elevation catchments,  as well as downstream with high emissions, potentially impacting these ecosystems and water resources.

According to the report, future loss and damage can be slowed and avoided only with sharp emissions reductions today. Low emissions pathways, minimizing overshoot, could make the difference between rapid and disruptive loss of regionally important snow and glacier systems, and significant steps towards their preservation.

Read the full report

About the State of the Cryosphere Report

State of the Cryosphere reports take the pulse of the cryosphere on an annual basis. The cryosphere is the name given to Earth’s snow and ice regions and ranges from ice sheets, glaciers and permafrost to sea ice and the polar oceans – which are acidifying far more rapidly than warmer waters. Reviewed and supported by over 60 leading cryosphere scientists, the 2022 Report details how a combination of melting polar ice sheets, vanishing glaciers, and thawing permafrost will have rapid, irreversible, and disastrous effects on the Earth’s population.

 Cover image by International Cryosphere Climate Initiative.

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