Arctic sea ice reaches lowest extent for 2013

On September 13, Arctic sea ice reached its likely minimum extent for 2013. The minimum ice extent was the sixth lowest* in the satellite record, and reinforces the long-term downward trend in Arctic ice extent. Sea ice extent will now begin its seasonal increase through autumn and winter. Meanwhile, in the Antarctic, sea ice extent reached a record high on September 18, tied with last year’s maximum.

Please note that this is a preliminary announcement. Changing winds could still push ice floes together, reducing ice extent further. NSIDC scientists will release a full analysis of the melt season in early October, once monthly data are available for September.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for September 13, 2013 was 5.10 million square kilometers (1.97 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that day. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

On September 13, 2013, sea ice extent dropped to 5.10 million square kilometers (1.97 million square miles). This appears to have been the lowest extent of the year. In response to the setting sun and falling temperatures, ice extent will now climb through autumn and winter. However, a shift in wind patterns or a period of late season melt could still push the ice extent lower. The minimum extent was reached two days earlier than the 1981 to 2010 average minimum date of September 15.

Conditions in context

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of September 19, 2013, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years. 2013 is shown in blue, 2012 in green, 2011 in orange, 2010 in pink, 2009 in navy, and 2008 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray.  Sea Ice Index  data.||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|  High-resolution image

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of September 19, 2013, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years. 2013 is shown in blue, 2012 in green, 2011 in orange, 2010 in pink, 2009 in navy, and 2008 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray. Sea Ice Index data.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

This year’s minimum was 1.69 million square kilometers (653,000 square miles) above the record minimum extent in the satellite era, which occurred on September 16, 2012, and 1.12 million square kilometers (432,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average minimum.

Varying distribution of ice in 2013 versus 2012

Figure 3. This image compares differences in ice-covered areas between September 13, 2013, the date of this year’s minimum, and September 16, 2012, the record low minimum extent. Light gray shading indicates the region where ice occurred in both 2013 and 2012, while white and dark gray areas show ice cover unique to 2013 and to 2012, respectively.  Sea Ice Index data. About the data||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|High-resolution image

Figure 3. This image compares differences in ice-covered areas between September 13, 2013, the date of this year’s minimum, and September 16, 2012, the record low minimum extent. Light gray shading indicates the region where ice occurred in both 2013 and 2012, while white and dark gray areas show ice cover unique to 2013 and to 2012, respectively. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Comparing this year’s minimum extent to 2012, while extent was higher on average this year, there were variations from region to region. There was considerably higher sea ice extent in the Beaufort, Chukchi, and East Siberian sea regions, with the ice edge several hundred kilometers farther south compared to last year. This year the Canadian Archipelago also retained much more ice, keeping the Northwest Passage closed.  The most notable area of less ice this year compared to last was off the east coast of Greenland, south of Fram Strait. Other small areas of decreased extent were found north of the Kara and Laptev seas.

See an animation of this summer’s sea ice extent produced by the NASA Scientific Visualization Studio at http://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/goto?4104.

Previous minimum Arctic sea ice extents**

Table 1.  Previous minimum Arctic sea ice extents
 YEAR MINIMUM ICE EXTENT DATE
IN MILLIONS OF SQUARE KILOMETERS IN MILLIONS OF SQUARE MILES
2007 4.17 1.61 September 18
2008 4.59 1.77 September 20
2009 5.13 1.98 September 13
2010 4.63 1.79 September 21
2011 4.33 1.67 September 11
2012 3.41 1.32 September 16
2013 5.10 1.97 September 13
1979 to 2000 average 6.70 2.59 September 13
1981 to 2010 average 6.22 2.40 September 15

According to near-real-time data, this year’s minimum extent is slightly lower than 2009. However, the ranking between 2009 and 2013 is close, and may change once the final version of the data are processed. See our Frequently Asked Questions: Do your data undergo quality control? for more information about near-real-time data.

** Note that the dates and extents of the minimums have been re-calculated from what we posted in previous years; see our Frequently Asked Questions for more information.

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Melt season ending

Following a relatively cool summer, sea ice extent fell to a little over 5 million square kilometers (1.93 million square miles) over the first two weeks of September and is at or near the minimum extent for the year. NSIDC will announce the final minimum extent and date once it is confirmed.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for September 16, 2013 was 5.10 million square kilometers (X.XX million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole.  Sea Ice Index data. About the data||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|High-resolution image

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for September 16, 2013 was 5.10 million square kilometers (2.00 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Arctic sea ice extent as of September 16, 2013 was 5.10 million square kilometers (2.00 million square miles). This is substantially more ice than observed on the same date last year, yet sea ice extent remains quite low compared to the long-term 1981 to 2010 average. As is typical for this time of year, winds or currents can compact or spread apart the ice, resulting in small daily fluctuations of the ice cover.

During the first two weeks of September, sea ice extent continued to decline in the East Siberian, Laptev, and Kara seas while staying essentially constant in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas since the beginning of September. The Northwest Passage has seen more extensive ice this summer since 2007 and is not open. On the Eurasian side of the Arctic, the Northern Sea Route appears to have opened up briefly in September.

Conditions in context

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of September 16, 2013, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years. 2013 is shown in blue, 2012 in green, 2011 in orange, 2010 in pink, 2009 in navy, and 2008 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray. Sea Ice Index data.||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|High-resolution image

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of September 15, 2013, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years. 2013 is shown in blue, 2012 in green, 2011 in orange, 2010 in pink, 2009 in navy, and 2008 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray. Sea Ice Index data.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Ice loss through the first two weeks of September was faster than average. Air temperatures at the 925 hPa level were 1 to 3 degrees Celsius (2 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than average over much of the Arctic Ocean the first part of the month, in stark contrast to most of the summer when cooler temperatures dominated. Below average temperatures were found in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas where ice growth began around the first week of the month.

Even though extent at the beginning of this summer was similar to last year, the melt season ended with considerably more ice. This is not surprising, as climate models consistently project that there will be large variations in summer ice extent from year to year. A cool summer can help to retain a thin layer of ice, increasing the overall ice extent. Conversely, a warm summer can help to remove much of the thin ice cover.

Cold summer over central Arctic and Greenland

Figure 3: Figures above show the 925 hPa air temperature anomalies averaged from June, July and August 2013 relative to 1981 to 2010 (left) and relative to 2007 to 2012 (right). ||Credit: NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division||High-resolution image

Figure 3: These figures show air temperature anomalies averaged from June, July, and August 2013 at the 925 hPa level, relative to the 1981 to 2010 average (left) and relative to the 2007 to 2012 average (right).

Credit: NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division
High-resolution image

As a whole, air temperatures this summer have been below average over most of the central Arctic Ocean and Greenland, helping to slow down ice melting. Compared to the 1981 to 2010 average, air temperatures at the 925 hPa level have been -0.5 to -2.0 degrees Celsius (-0.9 to -3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) below average over central Greenland, north of Greenland and towards the pole, and over the Canadian Archipelago. Unusually low temperatures are also noted over the East Siberian Sea, where ice cover has remained near average throughout the summer.

The cool conditions that have prevailed this summer are even more remarkable when compared to the last six years, which have seen very low September sea ice extents. Compared to the 2007 to 2012 average, air temperatures at the 925 hPa level averaged over June, July and August were lower this summer throughout most of the Arctic by -0.5 to -3.5 degrees Celsius (-0.9 to -6.3 degrees Fahrenheit). The previous six summers have been dominated by high sea level pressure over the Beaufort Sea and Greenland, paired with low sea level pressure over Eurasia—a pattern that helps to transport warm air into the Arctic. In contrast, this summer was characterized by low sea level pressure over the central Arctic and Greenland. Cooler conditions have also led to less surface melting on the Greenland Ice Sheet.

Sea surface temperature trends

Figure 4: These maps show Arctic sea surface temperatures  (top) and temperature anomalies (bottom) for August 2013, in degrees Celsius. 

Credit: Michael Steele and Wendy Ermold, Polar Science Center, Applied Physics Lab, University of Washington
High-resolution image

Colleagues Michael Steele and Wendy Ermold at the University of Washington found that sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the Arctic Ocean were above the 1982 to 2006 average during August, as has been the case since 2007. Sea ice retreat was later and not as extreme relative to recent years in the western Arctic (i.e., the Beaufort, Chukchi, and East Siberian seas) and as a result, SSTs were near the long-term average there. SSTs were well above average in the eastern Arctic (Laptev, Kara, and Barents seas). This can be linked to early ice retreat in the Laptev Sea. However, warm conditions in the southern Barents and Kara seas are likely influenced by advection of warm water from the south in the Norwegian Sea. Overall, for the period 2007 to 2013 there is a pattern of declining SSTs in the western Arctic, and increasing SSTs in the eastern Arctic.

Antarctic sea ice extent

Figure 5. XXXXXXInsertCaptionhereXXXXXXX.||Credit: The University of Bremen/AMSR2 for the top images and NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division for the bottom images|High-resolution image

Figure 5. Sea ice extent data from high-resolution passive microwave data (top left and right), and climate data for the period August 15 to September 15, 2013 (bottom images). These images show Antarctic sea ice extent near the satellite-era record high set last year. The geopotential height at 850 millibars (lower left) is an indication of the relative air pressure at ~5000 feet (~1500 meters) above sea level. This shows an unusually broad area of high pressure encompassing the entire continent out to near the sea ice edge, and low pressure surrounding that outside the edge – the opposite of the general trend. This has greatly reduced the average westerly wind flow (shows as negative values in the zonal wind plot, lower right), making for light winds at the sea ice edge.

Credit: University of Bremen/AMSR2 (top images) and NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division (bottom images).
High-resolution image

As ice extent approaches its summer minimum in the Arctic, the winter maximum is near for Antarctica. This year, as was the case in 2012, Antarctic sea ice extent is very high. As of September 16, the current extent is 19.45 million square kilometers (7.51 million square miles), a record for this date with respect to the 1979 to 2012 satellite era. This is about 3.9% above the average maximum extent for the 30-year comparison period 1981 to 2010. In contrast, this year’s Arctic summer minimum ice extent is approximately 30% below levels seen in the early 1980s, and the 2012 record low extent was around 60% below levels seen in the same period. This helps to highlight why scientists are more concerned by Arctic ice shrinkage than by Antarctic ice expansion.

Antarctic weather patterns in August were unusual. Contrary to a 50-year trend towards stronger westerly wind flow—a pattern associated with both ozone loss and increased heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere—August 2013 saw a period of very low westerly wind speed across the continent.

* Note: On September 19, 2013, we revised a sentence in this section for clarity. A sentence that originally read, “In contrast, this year’s Arctic summer minimum ice extent is approximately 30% below the 30-year period average, and the 2012 record low extent was nearly 60% below the average.” now reads, “In contrast, this year’s Arctic summer minimum ice extent is approximately 30% below levels seen in the early 1980s, and the 2012 record low extent was around 60% below levels seen in the same period.”

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A real hole near the pole

Sea ice continued its late-season summer decline through August at a near-average pace. Ice extent is still well above last year’s level, but below the 1981 to 2010 average. Open water was observed in the ice cover close to the North Pole, while in the Antarctic, sea ice has been at a record high the past few days.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for August 2013 was X.xx million square kilometers (X.XX million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. Sea Ice Index data. About the data||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|High-resolution image

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for August 2013 was 6.09 million square kilometers (2.35 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Sea ice extent for August 2013 averaged 6.09 million square kilometers (2.35 million square miles). This was 1.13 million square kilometers (398,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average for August, but well above the level recorded last year, which was the lowest September extent in the satellite record. Ice extent this August was similar to the years 2008 to 2010. These contrasts in ice extent from one year to the next highlight the year-to-year variability attending the overall, long-term decline in sea ice extent.

Extent in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas has dropped below average, after near average conditions in July. The only region with average extent is the East Siberian Sea.

Conditions in context

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of September 4, 2013, along with daily ice extent data for the previous five years. 2013 is shown in light blue, 2012 in green, 2011 in orange, 2010 in light purple, 2009 in dark blue, and 2008 in dark purple. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data. Sea Ice Index data.||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|High-resolution image

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of September 4, 2013, along with daily ice extent data for the previous five years. 2013 is shown in light blue, 2012 in green, 2011 in orange, 2010 in light purple, 2009 in dark blue, and 2008 in dark purple. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data. Sea Ice Index data.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Relatively cool conditions over the central Arctic Ocean continued, a pattern that has characterized this summer. Temperatures at the 925 hPa level in the high Arctic (north of Greenland to the North Pole) were 0.5 to 3 degrees Celsius (1 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit) below the 1981 to 2010 average. In comparison, temperatures in coastal areas of the Arctic were mostly near average, and temperatures in the Barents and Beaufort seas were about 2 degrees Celsius (4 degrees Fahrenheit) above average. The distribution of the temperature anomalies can be related to the sea level pressure pattern. Below-average sea level pressures were linked to cloudy and cool conditions near the North Pole and extending into the northern North Atlantic. In contrast, above-average pressures dominated the Eurasian coast.

August 2013 compared to previous years

Figure 3. Monthly June ice extent for 1979 to 201X shows a decline of X.X% per decade.||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center |High-resolution image

Figure 3. Monthly August ice extent for 1979 to 2013 shows a decline of 10.6% per decade.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

The seasonal decline of extent through the month of August was slightly above average at 56,400 square kilometers (21,800 square miles) per day, but more than a third slower than the record decline rate in August 2012. This year’s August extent was the sixth lowest in the 1979 to 2013 satellite record.

August 2013 ice extent was 1.38 million square kilometers (533,000 square miles) above the record low August extent in 2012. The monthly trend is –10.6% per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.

Water near the pole

Figure 4. This image from the AMSR2 satellite instrument shows Arctic sea ice concentration for September 2, 2013. A dark blue area of apparent open water can be seen near the North Pole, surrounded by a low ice concentration area. The gray circle indicates where the instrument did not acquire data, due to its orbit.|\Credit: NSIDC/University of Bremen|High-resolution image

Figure 4. This image from the AMSR2 satellite instrument shows Arctic sea ice concentration for September 2, 2013. A dark blue area of apparent open water can be seen near the North Pole, surrounded by a low ice concentration area. The gray circle around the North Pole indicates where the instrument did not acquire data, due to its orbit.

Credit: NSIDC/University of Bremen
High-resolution image

Earlier this summer, there was considerable interest in seeing liquid water in the North Pole Environmental Observatory (NPEO) web cam. As explained in our August 7 post, that region was simply a shallow melt pond of water atop the ice and not an actual opening in the ice. Nevertheless, our August 19 post described an extensive region of low ice concentration located fairly close to the pole.

Now, a large hole (roughly 150 square kilometers or 58 square miles) of near-zero ice concentration appears to have opened up at about 87 degrees North latitude. Small areas of open water are common within the ice pack, even at the North Pole, as the ice pack shifts in response to winds and currents, resulting in cracks (called leads) in the ice. The current opening seen in our satellite imagery is much larger. In 2006, a larger polynya appeared in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, but it was much farther south.

Melting ice from above and below

Figure 4. . Results from six ice mass balance buoys that operated throughout the summer of 2013. The red dot denotes the buoy position on 28 August 2013. The red bar indicates the total amount of summer surface melt and the yellow bar shows bottom melt. The white background is the MASIE ice extent on 28 August 2013 mapped on Google Earth.||Credit: Julienne Stroeve/National Snow and Ice Data Center |High-resolution image

Figure 5. This map of the Arctic shows results from six ice mass balance buoys that operated throughout the summer of 2013. A red dot denotes each buoy position on August 28, 2013. The red bars indicate the total amount of summer surface melt and the yellow bars show bottom melt. The white background is the MASIE ice extent on August 28, 2013 mapped on Google Earth.

Credit: NSIDC courtesy Jackie Richter-Menge and Don Perovich/CRREL
High-resolution image

It may seem contradictory for a polynya-like opening to form near the pole while temperatures are lower than average, but it highlights the complex interplay between the ice, atmosphere, and ocean. Such openings in the ice occur two ways: through winds pushing the ice apart, or through melting. Both processes likely played a role in forming the current opening, but another key factor is a significant amount of thin, first-year ice in the region. This thin ice was more likely to melt completely than surrounding thicker ice. Heat from the ocean also contributes to melting of the ice from below, even though air temperatures have been below average in the region. Buoys that measure ice mass can provide information on surface and bottom melting.

During the summer of 2013 there were six ice mass balance buoys deployed in the Arctic over a wide area (red dots in Figure 5). The buoys were deployed in undeformed, multiyear ice, with a thickness between 2.2 and 3.5 meters (7 and 11 feet) before melt began. Data from the buoys show that the amount of surface ice melting ranged from 0 in the central Arctic, to 75 centimeters (30 inches) in the Beaufort Sea. Bottom melting varied from 8 to 108 centimeters (3 to 43 inches). The largest amount of bottom melting was observed at a buoy near the ice edge in the Beaufort Sea. This buoy had the largest total amount of melt, thinning from 339 centimeters (133 inches) in early June, to 157 centimeters (62 inches) on August 28. Ice thicknesses at the other buoys on August 28 ranged from 121 to 267 centimeters (48 to 105 inches). While bottom melting is continuing in some locations, most of this year’s surface melting has occurred. Data from the ice mass balance buoys are available at http://imb.crrel.usace.army.mil. (Thanks to Jackie Richter-Menge and Don Perovich at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory [CRREL] for this part of the discussion.)

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