Credit: Anthony Powell/Antarctica New Zealand

NZ scientists sound alarm over Antarctic sea ice lows – SMC Briefing

New Zealand scientists are calling for an immediate and dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, after seeing the record low sea ice levels in Antarctica this year in Antarctica.

Antarctic sea ice is currently around 20% lower than normal for this time of year – the missing ice would normally cover an area about 10 times the size of Aotearoa. Around 50 scientists and researchers based in Aotearoa New Zealand gathered at an emergency summit to day to discuss the impacts of this event on Antarctica, the Southern Ocean, and New Zealand.

Researchers involved in the summit spoke to media in a SMC briefing immediately afterwards.

A recording of the briefing and abridged transcript is available below.


Question: These significant changes, this kind of one-year dramatic drop in sea ice, how do we know that this isn’t just an outlier?

Dr Natalie Robinson: “Well, we can see that […] the low that we’re seeing right now originated as a record low in the summer minimum. So that was a leftover remnant from what was already a low in 2022. Essentially, we can’t prove that it’s not only an outlier until we collect more data, but it certainly has moved in a direction that we would have expected. So you would expect in a warming ocean, and in a stormier environment, that sea ice would be reducing like we’ve seen it happen in the Arctic. So the fact that it hasn’t until now, or until recently I should say, is actually probably the most surprising thing. And we really would like to know what happens next. This has been essentially an alarming drop off the cliff, this year’s event, and we would like to think that it could be variability, but that would be the most optimistic outcome.”

Do you have an average of how much time we have left to tackle this?

Dr Craig Stevens: “[…] that’s where the statement closes. And it’s: we don’t have time left. We have to make these changes now. But it is a sliding scale. But the sooner and the stronger the changes are that we make, […] the better the outcomes for all our systems on the planet. So, it’s not like we want to give a time: a decade hence and it’s all cool up until then. The changes have to be made now.”

How can a small country like New Zealand be impactful on this?

Dr Natalie Robinson: “In some sense, you know, every citizen of the globe has to pull their own weight in this so the fact that we have fewer [people] doesn’t excuse any of our individuals from owning their part of the problem. […] The other opportunity for New Zealand is to demonstrate on the world stage what the possibilities are. The world obviously needs some examples of just what the possibilities are. And New Zealand has that opportunity.”

There was a bit of discussion throughout the summit on the human element of this and you’re all researchers looking at this day to day quite deeply. But it’s clearly prompted you to come together and form this summit outside of your regular business obligations. How do you feel when you see these kinds of sea ice extent lows and these kinds of massive changes?

Dr Craig Stevens: “Essentially, are you asking what keeps you up at night? Yeah, it’s certainly it weighs heavily. And I see that on my colleagues. I don’t know that we necessarily sort of signed up for being in this particular kind of role or place. But we have a bit of a unique position, and which is what’s prompted this sort of effort is that our work has given us this awareness of a serious situation. And it does figure into every aspect of my thinking through the day, but also — and the panel, we talked about this a lot — it also connects into how we talk to others, and especially younger people. And just working through the options, the positive things that can be done to keep the climate trajectory on something that we can call livable conditions. So yeah, I don’t quite know if that got at your question… but it does keep me up at night.

Dr Sam Dean: “[…]We, as scientists, we study the climate system, and it is beautiful, right? When you see the Earth, the sea ice is a huge part of it. It’s like a beautiful living creature and it’s unwell. We’re poisoning it. We’re doing so in full knowledge of what we are doing. And that is upsetting and distressing. […] Climate change is there. It is insidious, it is getting worse by the day. And the time for action is running out and drawing near. And I fear that we still don’t take it nearly seriously enough that we are prepared to spend the money that will be required to fix the problem, and that we are prepared to do the work and put our effort where [it] is needed. And if we do, then, on the positive side, you know, I’m hopeful the technological changes are there. We can all make decisions in our everyday lives. And we’re going to have to support, you know, international agreements, that climate change will be solved as a problem by [countries] working together […].

Dr Natalie Robinson: “I think Sam had a good point there where he said, you know, it is a beautiful system. And I recognise on a daily basis what a privilege it is to be working in this field, to be working to understand this system, to have the privilege of going to Antarctica on an almost annual basis to collect these precious data. But as the scientific consensus has built up and built up and built up — and you know, I’ve become part of that as well — it’s hard to look at the future that my children are going to experience. And just with total awareness of the insufficient action that we’re taking. We know what the problem is. We know what some of the solutions are. And as individuals, or in communities, we’re looking in a different direction because we don’t want to know about it.”