Aerial image of Svalbard mountains and water in winter

Photo: Kt Miller / Polar Bears International

Missing Sea Ice in Svalbard

By Joanna Sulich, Consulting Scientist



03 Mar 2023

I’m writing to you from Svalbard, Norway, an archipelago sitting by the Barents Sea. On this winter day, I’m looking out to ice-free fjords.

Here, the winter sea ice loss is more extensive than anywhere else in the Arctic. The sea ice maps so far this year illustrate that trend very strongly. In January, the total Arctic sea ice ranked 3rd lowest in the satellite data record, yet in the region of Svalbard and the Barents Sea, a significant part of the sea ice was missing due to record-breaking heat—and it remains that way today.

January 2023 sea ice map showing the sea ice extent in the Arctic and in Svalbard

Photo: Graphic by Copernicus Climate Change Service.

Left: Average sea ice (red line) and the January 2023 sea ice concentration across the Arctic. Right: The anomaly in sea ice concentration. The Barents Sea region is marked with a dotted line.

Sea ice is a wonder

Think about it—in polar areas of the Earth, the cold can be so persistent that the top layer of the ocean freezes, creating a complex, floating platform that forms the basis of entire ecosystems! It’s a frozen ocean layer on top of liquid water. Like a thin film on a cooled-down cup of milk. So simple, yet so complex.

The Arctic sea ice is an essential substrate to the ocean algae growth, the feeding grounds for polar cod or the hunting platform for the polar bears. But it also helps to keep the Arctic cool (in all the meanings of the word). It separates the relatively warm ocean from the cold air, like a frozen lid on a steamy liquid.

Most importantly, the sea ice works like a giant (and a VERY effective) mirror!

How? What starts with elemental physics leads to processes of planetary-scale consequences. Light smooth surfaces reflect energy better than dark uneven ones. For the very same reason, we seek shade on hot sunny days under white shiny umbrellas (especially if we are wearing a dark T-shirt). We want the sun rays to be reflected away from us, so we don’t absorb the heat ourselves.

The sea ice serves like an umbrella to our planet. When it’s cold enough, the reflective sea ice builds up, covering up the dark absorbent waters. If the snow covers the sea ice, the mirror works perfectly, reflecting 90% of the sun's energy back into space!

If the sea ice is not there, dark open waters reflect only 7% of the radiation, over 10 times less than when sea ice is there. The remaining energy is absorbed by the ocean, further warming up our planet.

Graphic illustrating the albedo effect.

Photo: Graphic by Leszek Sulich and Joanna Sulich.

Open water absorbs about 90% of the sun’s energy, further fueling sea ice melt as surrounding water temperatures rise. Snow-covered sea ice absorbs only 10% of the sun's energy, reflecting the rest back into space.

A worrisome trend

I understand the global significance of sea ice and it fills me with wonder. Yet as we conduct our Maternal Den Study here in Svalbard this year, I can’t help but think how the moms and cubs will fare after they emerge from their snow dens and head to sea ice to hunt seals. With the sea ice extent so low, their hunting opportunities may be limited—underscoring the importance of our work and the need for meaningful action by societies to address greenhouse gas emissions.

As the sea ice shows us, we are all connected. Our actions may seem insignificant, yet combined they are a powerful force of change.

Here's How You Can Help

  • You can help motivate action on climate change by talking about it with your friends, family, and colleagues. By making climate change part of everyday conversations, and sharing why it matters to you, you’ll help make climate a kitchen table issue and a policy priority.

  • You can vote with the climate in mind, in each and every election, at every level of government—because we need policy changes to create sustainable systems. You can also regularly contact your representatives in support of climate action. And you can encourage your friends, family, and neighbors to join you in getting involved.

  • You can get involved with community projects that will help make a difference on a scale beyond your own household (because individual actions alone won’t get us where we need to be). This might mean advocating for electric buses, working with schools on no-idle zones, or supporting local bike lanes, farmers’ markets, and renewable-energy initiatives.

  • You can follow a conservation ethic in your own life, whether it’s switching to a clean energy source (most utility companies off this option), supporting companies that are taking meaningful steps to lower their emissions, or helping to bring about a shift to sustainable food systems by shopping at your local farmers market—and then talk about these choices with others, helping to make a climate-friendly living a social norm.