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Record low sea ice underscores need for marine protections

Arctic sea-ice extent has hit a record low for the third year in a row, this year losing an area equivalent to the size of Iceland.

Low sea-ice extent means there is less habitat for critical Arctic species such as polar bears, walrus, seals, belugas, narwhals and bowhead whales.

This affects their ability to find food and evade predators.

Sea ice in Lancaster Sound, Nunavut. © Jessica Park / WWF-Canada
Sea ice in Lancaster Sound, Nunavut. © Jessica Park / WWF-Canada

About the spring 2017 Arctic sea ice extent

Sea-ice extent measures the amount of ice covering the sea surface in the Arctic at its most expansive point in the year, usually around the beginning of March.

The 2017 Arctic sea-ice extent was 14.42 million sq. km, down by 100,000 sq. km from this time last year, an area roughly the size of Iceland.

Previous records for low Arctic sea-ice extent were set in 14.52 million sq. km (2016), 14.54 million sq. km (2015) and 4.64 million sq. km (2006 & 2011).

What this means for wildlife and ecosystems

Polar bears need sea ice to feed and move across their range. Ringed seals, the main source of food for polar bears, also depend on sea ice to construct their birthing lairs.

Whales such as narwhals and belugas use the sea ice as cover to elude orcas, which are expanding their hunting grounds northward as the ice retreats.

Meanwhile, the Inuit depend on these species for their diet, culture and livelihood, and use the sea ice to travel through the winter months. They are able to rely less and less on established routes due to the weak integrity of the ice.

Furthermore Arctic sea-ice extent is expected to keep shrinking as climate change warms the planet. This makes regions such as the Last Ice Area, where summer sea ice is expected to last the longest, critical for marine protection.

According to Paul Crowley, WWF-Canada’s vice-president of Arctic conservation, this year’s record low sea-ice extent underscores the need to protect the Last Ice Area, where Arctic sea ice is projected to last the longest.

“We must protect both the integrity of the sea ice and the ecologically productive areas on the edges of it, such as Lancaster Sound and the North Water Polynya, as important refuges for Arctic species that are moving northward as the planet warms. Along with global actions to curb greenhouse gas emissions, creating a resilient network of marine protected areas will help maintain healthy Arctic species and the people that depend on them,” he said. Source: WWF Canada