Antarctic sea ice has reached a record low level for the year, scientists say

The sea ice acts as a buffer for some of the largest melting glaciers.

Scientists are keeping an eye on the Antarctic ice shelf, as recent activity could soon lead to rapid melting and rising sea levels.

Antarctic sea ice is likely to have reached minimum extent by 2023, fueling expectations from scientists that continued melting will occur at a record pace, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

On Feb. 21, at the peak of the region’s summer, Antarctic sea ice reached its annual minimum extent of 1.79 million square kilometers, or 691,000 square kilometers — the lowest extent of sea ice recorded for the second consecutive year, according to the center.

This year’s minimum extent was about 52,000 square kilometers lower than in 2022, the researchers said.

At its maximum extent in September, the sea ice mainly surrounds the Antarctic continent, and helps to buffer large floating ice shelves and large outlet glaciers. A decrease in the extent of sea ice means ocean waves will pound more furiously against the shores of the giant ice sheet, further reducing the ice shelves around Antarctica, Ted Scambos, a senior scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Environmental Sciences, said in a statement.

Among the larger glaciers are Pine Island and Thwaites — the fastest melting glaciers in the region, located in the Amundsen Sea in West Antarctica, and responsible for the largest contribution to sea level rise from the region.

As sea ice extent decreases, so do the buffers that prevent the massive amount of melting from the glaciers from dumping water into the ocean at high speed, which would create massive waves and cause more large calving events,

Walt Meier, senior research scientist at the University of Colorado’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, told ABC News. Calving events on Pine Island and Thwaites could “could trigger a dramatic increase in sea level rise before the end of this century,” Scambos said.

“They help anchor the glaciers and keep the ice from flying off the land,” Meier said of the sea ice. “But when the ocean is exposed, the ocean heats up, you get waves, which makes these (glaciers) less stable without the sea ice there.”

As global temperatures continue to rise, melting in Antarctica has not been as rapid as in the Arctic, which has been “the place of action,” Meier said.

“It’s been on a long-term, pretty steep decline,” he said. “We’ve had record lows or near record lows for the last 10 to 15 years.”

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, fueling sea level rise and further warming, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But the current downward trend in South Pole sea ice could be a signal that climate change is “finally affecting” the floating ice around Antarctica, Scambos said.

However, the Antarctic summers from 2013 to 2015 saw “near record” minimum extents, according to the Snow and Ice Data Center, which tracks sea ice using data from NASA. Scientists are still trying to determine whether the variations in maximum and minimum extent from year to year are a result of natural variation or a more significant indication of the effects of climate change, Meier said.

“It’s too early to tell,” Meier said.

A full analysis of the conditions will be released in early March, the center announced.

ABC News’ Tracy Wholf contributed to this report.

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