Photo: NASA Ice

Bering Sea ice has been battered all year by warm waters and wild winter heat waves. But at least it won’t have to suffer any more, because now it’s nearly all gone, basically a month ahead of schedule.

The bizarre saga of Arctic sea ice this winter has extended into spring, with the Bering Sea north of Alaska being ground zero for freaky ice behavior. Ice there started to disappear in late February, a time when it should have been growing. It rebounded a bit in March, but started cratering in April until it basically hit rock bottom this month.

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Rick Thoman, a meteorologist in Alaska who tracks sea ice, tweeted a graphic showing that ice cover is at five percent of normal for mid-May noting that “there is almost nothing left except for near shore ice in protected areas.” It usually reaches its nadir in early July, so we’re way ahead of schedule.

The stunning demise of Bering Sea ice this year has been driven by warm oceans.

“Bering Sea SSTs [sea surface temperatures] have been at record or near record levels for months now. This represents a strong positive feedback,” Brian Brettschneider, a climate researcher with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told Earther via Twitter DM. “Warm waters are hard to freeze, which then allows for more solar absorption.”

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That means the oceans take up even more energy from the sun, pushing temperatures higher, and creating an environment that’s inhospitable for ice to form or stick around. The feedback loop driving ice extent into the ground in the Bering Sea is being felt in other parts of the Arctic, too.

Ice in the Bering Sea usually protects ice in the Chukchi Sea to the north. The great Bering Sea catastrophe in February caused open water to seep into the Chukchi, something that’s likely only happened in one other winter on record. The same is happening now with early melt underway in the Chukchi, creating a year that Brettschneider said is “unprecedented.”

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The reflective ice of the Bering Sea doesn’t just help keep the ocean cool. It also affects temperatures on land. Without it, Brettschneider noted that temperatures on land in Alaska have been warmer than normal for this time of year.

Beyond land and sea, the loss of ice also has very real impacts on people. It opens up the door for coastal erosion, driven by big storms and waves. Those storms can also wipe out sea ice, making matters even worse. And it can also impact whale hunts and other subsistence activities that remote communities rely on for their food security.

The most harrowing part of all this: Arctic melt season still has four more months to go.

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