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The Arctic hasn’t been this warm for 3 million years – and that foreshadows big changes for the rest of the planet

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Source: Julie Brigham-Grette, Steve Petsch, The Conversation, 30 September 2020

Every year, sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean shrinks to a low point in mid-September. This year it measures just 1.44 million square miles (3.74 million square kilometers) – the second-lowest value in the 42 years since satellites began taking measurements. The ice today covers only 50% of the area it covered 40 years ago in late summer.

This year’s minimum ice extent is the lowest in the 42-year-old satellite record except for 2012, reinforcing a long-term downward trend in Arctic ice cover. Each of the past four decades averages successively less summer sea ice. NSIDC

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has shown, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are higher than at any time in human history. The last time that atmospheric CO2 concentrations reached today’s level – about 412 parts per million – was 3 million years ago, during the Pliocene Epoch.

As geoscientists who study the evolution of Earth’s climate and how it creates conditions for life, we see evolving conditions in the Arctic as an indicator of how climate change could transform the planet. If global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, they could return the Earth to Pliocene conditions, with higher sea levels, shifted weather patterns and altered conditions in both the natural world and human societies.
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