Changes in sea ice

Sea ice is declining rapidly in the Canadian Arctic due to climate change. This trend is projected to continue in the future.

Sea ice concepts

Sea ice is an important feature in the Canadian Arctic. It includes:

  • first-year ice that grows and melts each year
  • multi-year ice that remains present year-round

Sea ice can be measured in many ways, such as sea ice area. Sea ice area is the area covered by sea ice, measured in square kilometres (km2).

Sea ice area can be compared with a reference period to help measure the changes over time. These changes in sea ice area can be evaluated for the past, present and future against this reference climatological period.

Chart showing fall temperatures, September to November, from 1970 to 2017. See long description below for full data
Long description and data source

A graph showing the trend of decreasing sea ice area in Canada’s Arctic waters at an average rate of about 7% per decade since 1968.

Trend in sea ice area data was produced by Environment and Climate Change Canada, Climate Research Division, and presented in Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators (CESI): Sea Ice in Canada.

Patterns of sea ice change in Canada

Sea ice in the Canadian Arctic is decreasing rapidly. Between 1968 and 2015, the summer sea ice area in northern Canadian waters decreased by nearly 7% per decade on average.

Sea ice area is projected to continue decreasing due to climate change. Arctic waters could be nearly ice-free in summer by the 2050s. The Canadian Arctic Archipelago region will be one of the last areas where thick multi-year ice will be present in the Arctic during the summer.

Find sea ice data in the library of climate resources.

Impacts of sea ice change

Decreasing sea ice has a direct impact on the livelihoods and health of Indigenous peoples and northern communities in Canada. For example, it makes travel across sea ice less predictable and more dangerous, which can reduce access to traditional hunting and harvesting activities.

Decreasing sea ice is also leading to shorelines being more exposed to waves and storm surges, and more prone to erosion and flooding. These same changes impact ocean mammals and hunting practices.

Reduced sea ice is increasing opportunities for shipping, tourism, resource exploration and industrial activities in the North. However, these activities bring new risks of accidents and spills under harsher conditions, including floating ice, changing sea ice cover and extreme weather. These factors can put people and ecosystems at risk and place additional stress on limited search and rescue, and disaster response capacity.

Adapting to sea ice change

New technologies are being used to share information on sea ice thickness to reduce safety risks. For example, SmartICE is a community-based system for gathering and sharing observations and local knowledge of sea ice thickness and other surface features.

Industries, such as mining, are also exploring opportunities to take advantage of shorter shipping routes and longer shipping seasons due to reduced sea ice cover.

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