Arctic sea ice is rapidly declining. Since 1979, the Arctic has lost, on average, an area of 74,000km2 of sea ice per year in summer and 32,000km2 per year in winter. The summer Arctic sea ice area in 2020 was the second lowest ever and sea ice is becoming younger and thinner. An almost ice-free Arctic sea in summer is projected to be a rare event for 1.5°C of global warming but will be the norm for 2.5°C warming. The maximum sea ice extent in the Baltic Sea shows a decreasing trend since about 1800 and reached its lowest value ever in the winter of 2019/20. This decreasing trend is projected to continue. 

Figure 1. Observed and projected decline in Arctic sea ice area

Observed and projected decline in Arctic sea ice area

Over the period 1979-2023, the sea ice area in the Arctic decreased by 32,000km2 per year in winter (measured in March) and by 74,000 km2 per year in summer (measured in September) (Figure 1, black line).

The decrease in summer sea ice is nearly 12.8% per decade. Summer sea ice cover in each of the last 17 years (2007-2023) was lower than in any previous year since satellite measurements began in 1979. Arctic sea ice is also getting much thinner and younger, as less sea ice survives the summer to grow into thicker, multi-year floes. Ice that is at least four years old was still widespread in the mid-1980s when it comprised about one third of total ice area in March, but the share of old ice has declined to about 5% since 2011.

The decline in Arctic sea ice is unprecedented in the last 1,000 years, based on historical reconstructions and paleoclimate evidence. At least half of the observed loss in summer sea ice area can be attributed to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The rapid changes in Arctic sea ice can trigger complex feedback processes in the global climate system, which can also affect climate and weather extremes in Europe .

Climate models agree that Arctic sea ice will continue to shrink and thin (Figure 1, coloured lines). Projections from the most recent global modelling exercise (CMIP6) suggest that a nearly ice-free Arctic Sea will likely be experienced at least once before 2050, even for low emissions scenarios, although there is evidence that ice-free conditions could also be reached earlier.

An ice-free Arctic in late summer is expected to be a rare event for 1.5°C of global warming (relative to pre-industrial levels), a frequent event for 2°C warming, and a permanent feature for warming above 2.5°C. Note that these details are not visible from Figure 1, because the multi-model mean shown there reduces the interannual variability compared to individual model runs.

Longer-term simulations suggest that the Arctic could become nearly ice-free year-round during the 22nd century for high emissions scenarios. An animation from NASA shows the decline in Arctic sea ice from 1979 to 2022.

Figure 2. Maximum extent of ice cover in the Baltic Sea in the winter and 15 year moving average

Maximum extent of ice cover in the Baltic Sea in the winter and 15 year moving average

The maximum winter sea ice extent in the Baltic Sea has mostly displayed a decreasing trend since about 1800. It reached a record low level in winter 2019/2020 (Figure 2). The decrease in sea ice extent appears to have accelerated since the 1980s.

The frequency of mild ice winters (defined as having a maximum ice cover of less than 130,000km2) has increased from seven occurances in 30 years during the period 1950-1979 to seven in 16 years during the period 1994-2023. However, the frequency of severe ice winters (at least 270,000km2 of ice) has decreased from 6 years to 1 year during the same time periods.

Baltic sea ice extent and thickness are projected to continue to shrink significantly. The best estimate of the decrease in maximum ice extent over the 21st century is 640km2/year for a medium emissions scenario (RCP4.5) and 1,090km2/year for a high emissions scenario (RCP8.5). For the latter scenario, largely ice-free winters are projected by the end of the century.