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New study: Fast methane action could help save Arctic summer sea ice and prevent effects of global warming


(March 15, 2022) New research shows that immediate action to reduce methane emissions could help preserve summer sea ice in the Arctic this century. Previous studies predict that summer sea ice in the Arctic could disappear by mid-century without climate action. The new findings suggest that immediate action to reduce the powerful climate pollutant methane, as well as drastic reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2), could help preserve Arctic summer sea ice until 2100 and beyond.

This study is one of the first to examine how practical methane mitigation affects critical parts of the climate system beyond increasing temperature. According to the study, if we achieve net zero CO2 by 2050 (as driven by the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement) and rapidly adopting methane reductions using all currently available solutions, the chances of saving our summer sea ice this century could go from almost zero without action to more than 80%.

“Reducing current methane emissions represents a huge opportunity to help curb global warming,” said Tianyi Sun, lead author of the study. “Quickly cutting methane with CO2 is our best chance of preserving the Arctic summer sea ice in our lifetime and for future generations. We have to do both.

Preserving Arctic sea ice is crucial to avoiding some of the most disastrous effects of global warming, which a recent report according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are occurring much faster than our ability to adapt.

Preserving summer sea ice in the Arctic is important not only because it is a vital part of Arctic communities and ecosystems, but also because its absence can rapidly accelerate the rate of global warming. The loss of bright reflective sea ice exposes a darker water surface, which absorbs more sunlight and creates additional warming. The warming of the Arctic region is also contributing to the thawing of permafrost, which can add more methane and CO2 to the atmosphere and increase the risk of future warming.

The full study is available today in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Why methane is important for sea ice

The rapid decline of summer sea ice in the Arctic is caused by the increase in temperature in the Arctic which is three times faster than the rest of our planet. According to the IPCC, man-made CO emissions2 and methane are probably the main drivers of Arctic sea ice loss.

GRAPHIC: Rapidly reduce methane with CO2 could help save the Earth’s sea ice.

Methane is the second greenhouse gas after CO2 and is responsible for more than 25% of current global warming. Over the next two decades, the methane we emit today will capture more than 80 times more heat than an equal amount of CO2. This is why methane reduction is now so important to slow warming and reduce the risk of Arctic sea ice loss in summer.

This study is part of a rapidly growing body of research aimed at highlighting the significant benefits and feasibility of immediate methane reduction. An earlier study found that a rapid reduction in emissions could slow the rate of warming by around 30%.

How Arctic summer sea ice affects climate, ecosystems and politics

About 40% of summer sea ice in the Arctic has missing since 1979 (the year the record keeping started). We lose about 13% of our sea ice each decade. Recent estimates suggest that we could experience our first summer without ice from the 2030s.

A seasonally ice-free Arctic has significant implications for the global climate. According to recent researchif the Arctic Ocean is free of sea ice during the sunny part of the year, it could generate the same heat as 25 years of man-made CO2 emissions at the current level.

The preservation of sea ice maintains habitat for walruses, polar bears and other Arctic wildlife and provides a vital source for hunting and fishing among Arctic indigenous communities. It can also help prevent geopolitical complications that can arise from open access to Arctic waterways.

Global response and methane solutions

At the latest United Nations climate conference, world leaders from more than 100 countries committed to reducing global methane emissions by 30% below 2020 levels by 2030 – a promising initiative to help respond to the climate crisis.

The main sources of methane emissions come from cattle farming, leaky equipment related to the production, processing and transportation of oil and gas, and organic matter that decomposes in landfills. But the most affordable methane reductions can be deployed at oil and gas facilities around the world. the International Energy Agency estimates the oil and gas industry could reduce its methane by 75% with existing technologies, and more than 40% could be implemented at no net cost, because stopping gas leaks ultimately preserves the product of the industry.

Advances in methane sensing technology – including current and future methane sensing satellites – will also make it easier and faster to find and fix the oil and gas industry’s largest methane leaks.

This study clearly shows, however, that the methane reduction tools and technologies that are available today can make significant progress toward preserving Arctic sea ice in summer and slowing the rate of global warming if we let’s deploy now.