Updating the sea ice baseline

This July, NSIDC plans to change the baseline climatological period for Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis and the Sea Ice Index, the data set we use for our sea ice analysis. We are making this change to match the comparison time frames used by other climate research.

Until now, we have used the 22-year period 1979 to 2000 when comparing current sea ice extent to past conditions. When NSIDC first began to monitor and analyze sea ice extent, a longer period was not available. Since the satellite record is now extended, we are choosing to move to a more standard 30-year reference period, from 1981 to 2010.

A 30-year period typically defines a climatology (comparsion period) and is the standard used by organizations such as the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Thirty years is considered long enough to average out most variability from year to year, but short enough so that longer-term climate trends are not obscured.

These maxims about climate averages come from the world of weather and climate. Sea ice responds to changes in energy or heat differently from other systems on Earth. So the assumptions behind the use of 30-year averages for weather may not hold true for sea ice, particularly in light of the rapid decrease and repeated record low minimum extents in the Arctic during the past decade. However, matching the 1981 to 2010 period brings us in line with other climate research.

The monthly and daily sea ice extent images and data values will not change, but data and images that are based on the average or median will change. For example, the trend plot for sea ice extent will have a different scale, and the value of the slope, expressed as change in percent per decade, will change, because this value is relative to the average period. On the the monthly and daily extent images, the position of the average extent lines will change.

In our July analysis, we will provide more information to help readers put these changes into the larger context of changing climate and changing ice.

April on average

Arctic sea ice extent declined at an approximately average rate through April. While the Arctic Oscillation was in its negative phase for most of winter, in mid April it turned positive. This helped to bring in warm air over Eurasia, although air temperatures over the sea ice cover remain below freezing.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for April 2013 was X.XX million square kilometers (X.XX million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1979 to 2000 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 April 2013 was 14.37 million square kilometers (5.54 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1979 to 2000 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 averaged for the month of April 2013 was 14.37 million square kilometers (5.54 million square miles). This is 630,000 square kilometers (243,000 square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average for the month, and is the seventh-lowest April extent in the satellite record.

In the earlier part of the satellite data record, average April extent remained above 15 million square kilometers (5.8 million square miles). Since 1989 the extent has mostly remained between 14 and 15 million square kilometers (5.4 and 5.8 million square miles). The years 1993 and 1999 were exceptions, when extent exceeded 15 million square kilometers (5.8 million square miles), as well as 2006 and 2007, when extent dropped below 14 million square kilometers (5.4 million square miles).

A large area of open water has started to form around Franz Josef Land and north of Svalbard. Polynyas are also appearing in the Kara and East Siberian seas.

The walrus and whaling season has begun in Arctic Alaska. The Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH) Sea Ice for Walrus Outlook (SIWO) is now providing weekly sea ice outlooks as a resource for Alaska Native subsistence hunters, coastal communities, and others interested in sea ice and walrus or whales. With spring sea ice conditions being thinner and less predictable than in the past due to warming in the Arctic, the sea ice outlook helps hunters plan their activities.

Conditions in context

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of April 30, 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 1979 to 2000 average is in dark gray. 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 April 30, 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 1979 to 2000 average is in dark gray. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data. Note: 2011 was inadvertently omitted from this graph; corrected June 17. Sea Ice Index data.

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

Through the month of April, the Arctic lost 1.5 million square kilometers of ice (444,000 square miles), which is slightly higher than the average for the month. Air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (approximately 3,000 feet above sea level) in April were 5 to 7 degrees Celsius (9 to 13 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than average in the East Siberian Sea and 3 to 5 degrees Celsius (5 to 9 degress Fahrenheit) higher than average in the Kara Sea. Temperatures were 3 to 5 degrees Celsius (5 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit) below average over Alaska. The dominant feature of the Arctic sea level pressure field for April 2013 was unusually high pressure over Alaska and Siberia and below average pressure over the Kara and Barents seas.  During the middle of the month, the Arctic Oscillation switched from a negative to a positive phase, with anomalously high sea level pressure over Alaska combined with below average pressure over Greenland and the North Atlantic. This brought in warm air over Eurasia, and above average air temperatures throughout the eastern Arctic.

The reductions in April ice extent this year and over the satellite record are predominantly due to reduced ice cover in the Kara and Barents seas. In contrast, ice extent continues to remain slightly above normal in the Bering Sea.

April 2013 compared to previous years

Figure 3. Monthly April ice extent for 1979 to 2013 shows a decline of -2.3% per decade.

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

Average Arctic sea ice extent for April 2013 was the seventh lowest for the month in the satellite record. Through 2013, the linear rate of decline for April ice extent is -2.3 percent per decade relative to the 1979 to 2000 average.

IceBridge Arctic flights

Figure 4. This chart shows the flight tracks of IceBridge P-3 aircraft flights over the Arctic through April 26, 2013.

Credit: NASA Operation IceBridge
High-resolution image

On 20 March 2013, NASA resumed Operation IceBridge aircraft missions over the Arctic. The IceBridge mission was initiated in 2009 to collect airborne measurements of sea ice and ice sheet thickness, to bridge the gap between NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) and the upcoming ICESat-2 mission. This spring, areas not extensively covered in previous campaigns were a focus as well as flight tracks corresponding to the European CryoSat-2 satellite. Several successful flights were flown across the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in March and early April while the aircraft was stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska and Greenland’s Thule Air Base. Afterwards NASA’s P-3B aircraft was moved to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland for flights over the ice sheet. Towards the end of April, the aircraft was once again stationed in Thule, allowing additional ice sheet flights over the north central part of Greenland ice sheet and the resumption of sea ice flights over large portions of Arctic sea ice. The latter included a repeat of a 2012 flight line aimed at sampling a large region of the Canada Basin. This year’s Arctic IceBridge mission ended on 2 May, with the successful completion of ten sea ice and fifteen ice sheet flights.

Earliest satellite maps of Antarctic and Arctic sea ice

Figure 5. The National Snow and Ice Data Center scanned close to 40,000 images from Nimbus 1 satellite data to produce the earliest satellite images of Arctic and Antarctic satellite extent. The left image is a composite of the Arctic and the right image is a composite of the Antarctic.

Credit: NSIDC
High-resolution image

While the modern satellite data record for sea ice begins in late 1978, some data are available from earlier satellite programs. NSIDC has been involved in a project to map sea ice extent using visible and infrared band data from NASA’s Nimbus 1, 2, and 3 spacecraft, which were launched in 1964, 1966, and 1969. Analysis of the Nimbus data has revealed Antarctic sea ice extents that are significantly larger and smaller than seen in the modern 1979 to 2012 satellite passive microwave record. The September 1964 average ice extent for the Antarctic is 19.7 ± 0.3 million square kilometers (7.6 million ± 0.1 square miles. This is more than 250,000 square kilometers (97,000 square miles) greater than the 19.44 million square kilometers (7.51 million square miles) seen in 2012, the record maximum in the modern data record. However, in August 1966 the maximum sea ice extent fell to 15.9 ± 0.3 million square kilometers (6.1 ± 0.1 million square miles). This is more than 1.5 million square kilometers (579,000 square miles) below the passive microwave record low September of 17.5 million square kilometers (6.76 million square miles) set in 1986.

The early satellite data also reveal that September sea ice extent in the Arctic was broadly similar to the 1979 to 2000 average, at 6.9 million square kilometers (2.7 million square miles) versus the average of 7.04 million square kilometers (2.72 million square miles).

In memoriam

We dedicate this post to Dr. Katharine Giles, who was tragically killed cycling to work on 8 April 2013. Together with Dr. Laxon, Katherine Giles worked to retrieve sea ice thickness from satellite radar altimeter data. In 2007 she was the first to show that this data could also be used to show how winds affect the newly exposed Arctic Ocean. Since Dr. Laxon’s death earlier this year, Katharine worked hard to continue his legacy and supervise his students. We have lost yet another talented scientist and a great friend.

Reference

Meier, W. N., D. Gallaher, and G. C. Campbell. 2013. New estimates of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice extent during September 1964 from recovered Nimbus I satellite imagery. The Cryosphere, 7, 699–705, doi:10.5194/tc-7-699-2013.

A fractured winter

Arctic sea ice is nearing its winter maximum and will soon begin its seasonal decline. Ice extent remains below average, in part a result of the persistence of the negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation that has kept winter temperatures warmer than average. The Antarctic passed its summer minimum ice extent, reaching the second highest level in the satellite record at this time of year, primarily due to continued higher-than-average ice in the Weddell Sea.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for February 2013 was 14.66 million square kilometers (5.66 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1979 to 2000 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

Average sea ice extent for February 2013 was 14.66 million square kilometers (5.66 million square miles). This is 980,000 square kilometers (378,000 square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average for the month, and is the seventh-lowest February extent in the satellite record. Since 2004, the February average extent has remained below 15 million square kilometers (5.79 million square miles) every year except 2008. Prior to 2004, February average extent had never been less than 15 million square kilometers. Ice extent remains slightly below average everywhere except the Bering Sea.

Conditions in context

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of March 3, 2013, along with daily ice extent data for the 2012, the record low year. 2013 is shown in blue, and 2012 in green. 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

Through the month of February, the Arctic gained 766,000 square kilometers of ice (296,000 square miles), which is 38% higher than the 1979 to 2000 average for the month. Air temperatures at the 925 hPa level were 2 to 5 degrees Celsius (4 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than average across the Atlantic sector of the Arctic, especially near Iceland and in Baffin Bay. Temperatures were lower than average by 2 to 6 degrees Celsius (4 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit) north of Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago, and in the Beaufort, Chukchi and East Siberian seas, linked to anomalously low sea level pressure over Alaska and Canada. The dominant feature of Arctic sea level pressure for February 2013 was unusually high pressure over the East Greenland and Barents seas, consistent with a predominantly negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation.

February 2013 compared to previous years

Figure 3. Monthly February ice extent for 1979 to 2012 shows a decline of -2.9% per decade.

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

Average Arctic sea ice extent for February 2013 was the seventh lowest for the month in the satellite record. Through 2013, the linear rate of decline for February ice extent is -2.9% per decade relative to the 1979 to 2000 average. Although the relative reduction in winter sea ice extent remains small compared to reductions in summer, the linear trend represents an overall reduction of more than 1.57 million square kilometers (606,000 square miles) from 1979 to 2013.

Persistence of the negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation

Figure 4. These ice motion images for November 2012 (left) and December 2012 (right) show strong export of ice through the Fram Strait in November, while in December ice export through the Fram was about average.

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

As discussed in the January and February posts, sea level pressure in the Arctic has remained higher than average, resulting in persistence of the negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation (AO). During the negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation, enhanced poleward transport of warm air tends to keep temperatures in the Arctic above average. At the same time, the negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation allows for more cold Arctic air to intrude or mix with air at lower latitudes. These cold air outbreaks can result in low temperatures and increased storminess in mid latitudes.

The Arctic Oscillation also impacts sea ice movement in the Arctic. The negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation is linked to an increase in the strength of the Beaufort Gyre and reduced outflow of ice through Fram Strait. A negative AO used to help promote ice survival through summer by strengthening the Beaufort Gyre and thereby increasing the distribution of old, thick ice along coastal Alaska and Siberia. However, the location and strength of positive sea level pressure anomalies has varied throughout winter, with varied impacts on ice motion.

For example, during November (weak AO index of -0.111) positive sea level pressure anomalies were centered over the Bering Sea and Alaska, resulting in strong ice motion from the central Arctic towards coastal Canada and north of Greenland outwards towards Fram Strait. In December, the strong negative AO index of -1.749 was reflected in positive sea level pressure anomalies centered over the Kara and Barents seas, enhancing ice motion from the southern Beaufort into the Chukchi sea and out towards the Bering Sea. Export of ice out of Fram Strait was about average. Similar variations in positive sea level pressure anomalies have continued, with the largest positive anomalies over the central Arctic in January, and over the Barents Sea in February.

This pattern is similar to that observed during the extreme negative Arctic Oscillation year of 2009/2010, when old ice was transported into the southern Beaufort and Chukchi seas where it then melted out during summer 2010, further depleting the Arctic of its store of old, thick ice.

Ice fracture

Figure 5. In this series of images from February 13 to March 2, from the NASA Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), a large crack expands in the sea ice near the coasts of Canada and Alaska. Black areas indicate where the satellite instrument did not collect data due to lack of sunlight. The dark area decreases as the sun rises in the Arctic. Rapid Response imagery was obtained from the NASA Land Atmosphere Near-real time Capability for EOS (LANCE) system.

Credit: NASA LANCE/National Snow and Ice Data Center
View the image series

During the last couple of weeks of February, a broad area of sea ice has fractured off the coast of Alaska and Canada, extending from Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic to Barrow, Alaska. This fracturing event appears to be related to a series of storms that moved across central Alaska starting on February 10, 2013, causing intense easterly winds along the coast and strong off-shore ice motion.* The large area of fractured ice is located in predominantly first-year ice, which is thinner and easier to fracture than thick, multiyear ice. Similar patterns were observed in early 2011 and 2008, but the 2013 fracturing is quite extensive.  The animation (Figure 5) shows the progress of the fracturing, and the general strong rotation of the Beaufort Gyre ice motion pattern during late February. (See also this animation of the fracture from the AVHRR instrument, posted on the Arctic Sea Ice Blog.)

* Note: We originally attributed the fracturing event to a storm that passed over the North Pole, and stated “This fracturing event appears to be related to a storm that passed over the North Pole on February 8, 2013, creating strong off-shore ice motion.” We corrected this sentence after reexamining weather charts. The updated version now reads, “This fracturing event appears to be related to a series of storms that moved across central Alaska starting on February 10, 2013, causing intense easterly winds along the coast and strong off-shore ice motion.”

Antarctic sea ice extent continues above average

Figure 6. Antarctic sea ice extent for February 2013 was 3.83 million square kilometers (1.48 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1979 to 2000 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic South Pole. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

The Antarctic sea ice minimum extent appears to have passed, on February 20. Ice was quite extensive throughout the austral summer period. Monthly average sea ice extent for February 2013 was 3.83 million square kilometers (1.48 million square miles) and minimum daily sea ice extent for the Antarctic region was 3.68 million square kilometers (1.42 million square miles) on February 20. Unusual circulation patterns, likely resulting from higher-than-average pressure in the Bellingshausen Sea, pushed sea ice in the northwestern Weddell Sea far to the north, as we mentioned in our February post. NASA’s Earth Observatory posted this image of ice in the Weddell Sea as Image of the Day for March 1st, 2013. Extent was also well above average for the Ross Sea region relative to the entire 1979 to 2013 satellite record.

The Odden

Figure 7. This image shows sea ice cover in early May, 2012 in the east Greenland Sea. Sea ice extent is provided at 4 kilometer resolution by the NSIDC/NIC multi-sensor MASIE product and sea ice concentration (varying from 0 to 1) at 25 kilometer resolution by NSIDC’s Near-Real Time Passive Microwave product. The red dot shows the estimated position of an ARGO profiling float deployed as part of a NASA-sponsored project led by Michael Steele  and Patricia Matrai. This float is capable of storing ocean data while under the ice pack, which are then received via satellite when the ice recedes. Ongoing analysis of these data indicates that cold, fresh surface water lies just under the ice extension along the Jan Mayen Ridge, a signature of Arctic waters.

Credit: M. Steele, University of Washington and P. Matrai, Bigelow Lab/National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Within the East Greenland Sea, an ice tongue about 1,300 kilometers (807 miles) in length, referred to as “The Odden” (Norwegian word for headland), would regularly form during winter months eastwards from the main East Greenland ice edge. The Odden would form in winter because of an eastward flow of very cold ocean waters in the Jan Mayen current and may have played an important role in winter ocean convection as new ice would form. It would form as early as December and as late as April and was present during the 1980s, a few times in the 1990s, and very rarely since 2000. While the Odden rarely formed in last two decades, there is frequently a small extension of ice along the Jan Mayen Ridge, which may indicate that eastward flow of cold ocean water is still occurring.

Winds and warmth influence freeze up

For the Arctic as a whole, ice growth for November was faster than average. However, the Kara and Barents seas remained largely ice free, contributing to above-average air temperatures in these regions.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for November 2012 was 9.9 million square kilometers (3.8 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1979 to 2000 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

November average sea ice extent was 9.93 million square kilometers (3.83 million square miles). This is 1.38 million square kilometers (533,000 square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average for the month and is the third lowest November extent in the satellite record.

By the end of the month, the central Arctic Ocean had almost completely frozen over. However, the Barents and Kara seas remained largely ice free. Extent remained below normal in the Baffin Bay and Hudson Bay, but ice extent in the Bering Sea by the end of the month was greater than average, continuing a pattern seen in recent years. Extent in the Bering Sea was at record high levels last winter.

Conditions in context

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of December 2, 2012, along with daily ice extent data for the previous five years. 2012 is shown in blue, 2011 in orange, 2010 in pink, 2009 in navy, 2008 in purple, and 2007 in green. The 1979 to 2000 average is in dark gray. The gray area around this 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

Extent can increase quickly during November because there is little solar energy and the ocean is rapidly losing the heat that it gained in summer. For the Arctic as a whole, ice growth for November 2012 was faster than average, increasing at an average rate of 98,600 square kilometers (38,100 square miles) per day. After remaining lower than levels observed in 2007 for most of the month, by November 30 ice extent matched or exceeded extent seen in 2007, 2006, and 2010.

November 2012 compared to previous years

Figure 3. Monthly November ice extent for 1979 to 2012 shows a decline of -4.8% per decade.

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

Average sea ice extent for November 2012 was the third lowest in the satellite record. This marks only the third year in the satellite record that November extent was below 10 million square kilometers (3.86 million square miles). Through 2012, the linear rate of decline for November Arctic ice extent is -4.8% per decade relative to the 1979 to 2000 average.

Air temperatures remain high over ice-free areas

Figure 4. This image shows air temperature anomalies at the 925 hPa level averaged for November 2012, compared to averages over the period 1981 to 2010. Temperatures were above average over the East Siberian, Barents, and Kara seas.

Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA/ESRL PSD
High-resolution image

November air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (approximately 3,000 feet) were above average over most of the Arctic Ocean. Notably, temperatures in the Barents and Kara seas were up to 6 degrees Celsius (11 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than average. This reflects in part the lingering open water in the regions, allowing strong upward transfers of heat from the ocean to the atmosphere. Unusually strong winds from the south contributed to the warmth and also helped keep the region ice free.

More striking were the unusually warm conditions over the ice-covered East Siberian Sea, where temperatures were 6 degrees Celsius (11 degrees Fahrenheit) above average. This appears to be due to persistent high pressure over the Bering Strait. Southerly winds on the west side of the high-pressure zone brought warm air into the East Siberian region. Colder, northerly winds on the east side of the high-pressure zone help explain the higher-than-average extent in the Bering Sea.

Arctic rapidly gaining winter ice

Ice extent doubled in October. The rate of increase since the 2012 minimum was near record, resulting in an October monthly extent 230,000 square kilometers (88,800 square miles) greater than the previous low for the month, which occurred in 2007. Despite this rapid growth, ice extent remains far below normal as we begin November.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for October 2012 was 7.0 million square kilometers (2.7 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1979 to 2000 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

Average ice extent for October was 7.00 million square kilometers (2.70 million square miles). This is the second lowest in the satellite record, 230,000 square kilometers (88,800 square miles) above the 2007 record for the month. However, it is 2.29 million square kilometers (884,000 square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average. The East Siberian, Chukchi, and Laptev seas have substantially frozen up. Large areas of the southern Beaufort, Barents and Kara seas remain ice free.

As of November 4, sea ice extent stood at 8.22 million square kilometers (3.17 million square miles). This is 520,000 square kilometers (201,000 square miles) below the extent observed in 2007 on the same date, and ice extent remains 2.04 million square kilometers (788,000 million square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average for this date.

Conditions in context

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of October 31, 2012, along with daily ice extent data for 2011 and for the previous record year, 2007. 2012 is in blue, 2011 is orange, and 2007 is shown in green. 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

After the record minimum ice extent on September 16 and through October 31, the Arctic gained 4.19 million square kilometers (1.62 million square miles) of ice. Ice extent doubled during the month of October. The average rate of ice growth for October was 121,000 square kilometers (46,700 square miles) per day, causing the extent to temporarily climb above the extent observed during October 2007 for a period. This led to a monthly average extent slightly above levels in 2007, the previous record low October. Slower ice growth during the last few days of the month then brought extent below 2007 levels.

On October 20, ice extent went above 6.0 million square kilometers (2.3 million square miles) for the first time since August 6.

October 2012 compared to previous years

Figure 3. Monthly October ice extent for 1979 to 2012 shows a decline of -7.1% per decade.

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

Due to the rapid ice growth during October, Arctic sea ice extent for October 2012 was the second lowest in the satellite record, above 2007. Through 2012, the linear rate of decline for October Arctic ice extent over the satellite record is -7.1% per decade.

Asymmetric ice growth and temperatures

Figure 4. This graph shows rates of ice growth in the Arctic since the September 16, 2012 minimum extent and through October 31. Growth has been particularly rapid in the East Siberian and Laptev seas.

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

While overall the Arctic rapidly gained ice throughout October, the rate of ice growth was not the same everywhere. Ice growth in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas averaged about 8,500 square kilometers (3,300 square miles) per day and large areas still remain ice free. In the eastern Arctic there was rapid ice growth in the East Siberian and Laptev seas exceeding, respectively, 28,000 and 18,000 square kilometers per day (11,000 and 7,000 square miles per day). As a result, most of the region is now completely frozen over. The slowest rates of ice growth have occurred in the Kara Sea (less than 3,000 square kilometers, or 1,000 square miles per day). In large part because of extensive open water in the Kara and Barents seas, air temperatures for October in this area at the 925 hPa level (about 3,000 feet above the surface) were 3 to 4 degrees Celsius (5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit) above average, with unusual warmth becoming more pronounced near the surface. October air temperatures over the ice-free southern Beaufort Sea were also far above average.

Ice extent and bathymetry: The floor’s the limit

Figure 5. This image provides a snapshot of how ocean depth in the Arctic influences sea ice extent. Sea ice cover for August 28, 2012 is shown in semi-transparent white; ocean depths are indicated in blues, with deeper blues indicating greater depth. Sea ice data are from the Multisensor Analyzed Sea Ice Extent (MASIE), which provides more accurate ice edge position.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center courtesy Jamie Morison/Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington
High-resolution image

Research by our colleagues Jamie Morison at the University of Washington Seattle and NASA scientist Son Nghiem suggests that bathymetry (sea floor topography) plays an important role in Arctic sea ice formation and extent by controlling the distribution and mixing of warm and cold waters. At its seasonal minimum extent, the ice edge mainly corresponds to the deep-water/shallow-water boundary (approximately 500-meter depth), suggesting that the ocean floor exerts a dominant control on the ice edge position. However, in some cases, ice survives in the shallower continental shelf regions due to water circulation patterns. For example, the shelf area of the East Greenland Sea is almost always covered with sea ice because the southward-flowing cold Arctic surface water helps to limit melt.

In contrast, ice disappears in shallow areas like the Barents and Chukchi seas that are subject to warm ocean waters and river runoff. River runoff and ice melting have also contributed to changes in the amount and distribution of fresh water in the Arctic.

Further reading

Morison, J., R. Kwok, C. Peralta-Ferriz, M. Alkire, I. Rigor, R. Andersen, and M. Steele. 2012. Changing Arctic Ocean freshwater pathways. Nature 481, 66–70 (05 January 2012), doi:10.1038/nature10705.

Nghiem, S.V., P. Clemente-Colón, I.G. Rigor, D.K. Hall, and G. Neumann. 2012. Seafloor control on sea ice. Deep Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography, Volumes 77–80, 15 November 2012, pp. 52-61, ISSN 0967-0645, doi:10.1016/j.dsr2.2012.04.004.

Poles apart: A record-breaking summer and winter

The sun has set over the central Arctic Ocean and sea ice extent is now increasing. While much attention has been paid to the record minimum Arctic ice extent set on September 16, 2012, winter sea ice extent in Antarctica has reached a record high. The Antarctic extent increase is an interesting response to changes in circulation patterns in the Southern Hemisphere.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for September 2012 was 3.61 million square kilometers (1.39 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1979 to 2000 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

Following the record minimum that was set on September 16, 2012, Arctic sea ice has started its seasonal pattern of growth; maximum seasonal extent is expected to be reached by the end of March of next year.

Arctic sea ice extent averaged for September 2012 was 3.61 million square kilometers (1.39 million square miles). This was 3.43 million square kilometers (1.32 million square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average extent. September 2012 ice extent was 690,000 square kilometers (266,000 square miles) less than the previous record low for the month that occurred in 2007.

Conditions in context

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of September 30, 2012, along with daily ice extent data for the previous five years. 2012 is shown in blue, 2011 in orange, 2010 in pink, 2009 in navy, 2008 in purple, and 2007 in green. The 1979 to 2000 average is in dark gray. The gray area around this 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

The seasonal minimum in extent that occurred this year on September 16 was three days later than the average date of the minimum (September 13). Because ice extent falls through the first part of September and rises in the latter part, statistics on the average daily rate of ice loss or gain through the month are largely meaningless. More relevant is the total ice loss through the melt season. Between the seasonal maximum extent that occurred on March 20, 2012 and the September 16 minimum, the Arctic Ocean lost a total of 11.83 million square kilometers (4.57 million square miles) of ice; this is by far the largest seasonal loss of sea ice in the satellite record. The second largest seasonal loss was 10.65 million square kilometers (4.11 million square miles), in 2008. Due in part to transfers of heat from extensive open water areas to the atmosphere, air temperatures at the 925 hPa level averaged for September 2012 were from 2 to 5 degrees Celsius (4 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over much of the Arctic Ocean; much larger departures from average were the rule at levels closer to the surface.

September 2012 compared to previous years

Figure 3. Monthly September ice extent for 1979 to 2012 shows a decline of 13.0% per decade.

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

Arctic sea ice extent averaged for September 2012 was the lowest in the satellite record, and was 16% lower than the previous low for the month, which occurred in 2007. Through 2012, the linear rate of decline for September Arctic ice extent over the satellite record is now 13.0% per decade, relative to the 1979 to 2000 average. The six lowest September ice extents over the satellite record have all occurred in the last six years. Compared to the 1979 to 2000 average ice conditions, the September 2012 ice cover represents a 49% reduction in the area of the Arctic Ocean covered by sea ice. It is 2.91 million square kilometers (1.12 million square miles), or 45%, below the 30-year average over 1981 to 2010.

Summer weather conditions: 2012 compared to 2007

Figure 4. These images compare sea level pressure and temperature anomalies (at the 925 hPa level) during summer 2007, the previous record low extent year, and summer 2012. Anomalies were less pronounced in 2012 than in 2007 (as shown in reds and oranges). While weather was a factor in the 2007 record low extent, the 2012 record extent occurred during near average weather conditions.

Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA/ESRL PSD
High-resolution image

Weather conditions prevailing over the summer of 2012 were quite different from those in 2007. The summer of 2007 featured unusually high sea level pressure centered north of the Beaufort Sea and Greenland, and unusually low pressure along northern Eurasia, bringing in warm southerly winds along the shores of the East Siberian and Chukchi seas (3 to 5 degrees Celsius, or 5 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit above normal), favoring strong ice melt in these sectors and pushing the ice away from the coast, leaving open water. The pressure pattern also favored the transport of ice out of the Arctic Ocean and into the North Atlantic through Fram Strait.

In contrast, the summer of 2012 saw unusually low pressure along the Eurasian coastal seas and extending eastward into the Beaufort sea, most prominently over the East Siberian Sea, with unusually high pressure centered over Greenland and the northern North Atlantic. Air temperatures for summer 2012 were above average over most of the Arctic Ocean (1 to 3 degrees Celsius, or 2 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit), most prominently over the Beaufort Sea, where, because of the pressure pattern, winds were anomalously from the south. Melt began two to three weeks earlier than average in the Barents and Kara seas, leading to earlier retreat of sea ice in the region; however, air temperatures remained below average during summer in this region. This points to the impact the continued loss of old, thick ice is having on the ability of the sea ice cover to survive summer melt. Other than the August storm, the pressure pattern in 2012 does not appear to have been as favorable in promoting ice loss as was the case in 2007, and yet a new record low occurred.

Old, thick ice dwindles; young, thin ice prevails

Figure 5. These images from September 2007 (top, left) and September 2012 (top, right) show the decline of multiyear ice since the previous record minimum extent was set in 2007. The chart at bottom shows the changes in multiyear ice from 1983 to 2012. Ice of all ages has declined; 5+ year old ice has declined quite sharply. Much of the Arctic ice cover now consists of first-year ice (shown in purple), which tends to melt rapidly in summer’s warmth.

Credit: M. Tschudi and J. Maslanik, University of Colorado Boulder
High-resolution image

Entering the melt season, a thinner ice cover made the Arctic sea ice cover more vulnerable to weather, such as the storm that tracked through the Arctic in early August. Because the ice was thin and already decaying by the time of the storm, it was quickly broken up and melted by winds and waves.

The end-of-summer sea ice cover was not only the least extensive in the satellite record, but also very likely the lowest volume, based on combined model-observation estimates from the University of Washington, and inferred from ice age. The extent of ice of nearly all age categories declined from last year and remained at record low levels. The only category that increased was 4-year-old ice. This is ice that has aged since the previous record low minimum extent in 2007, when substantial amounts of first-year ice were lost. This 4-year-old ice will now age into the 5+ year category as the ice-growth season begins. However, even with this replenishment this winter will see only approximately 20% of the old (5+ year) ice compared to the 1980s. Because of the record summer ice loss, this winter will see the Arctic Ocean region even more dominated by the thinner first-year ice. As shown in Figure 5, the amount of ice in nearly all age categories has decreased since 2007, particularly the oldest ice.

For more information and visualizations of thinning sea ice, see the NOAA Climate Watch article, “Arctic Sea Ice Getting Thinner, Younger.”

A view towards the south

Figure 6a. Antarctic sea ice extent for September 26, 2012 (top image) was 19.44 million square kilometers (7.51 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1979 to 2000 median extent for that day of the year. The black cross indicates the geographic South Pole. The graph (bottom) shows Antarctic sea ice extent as of September 30, 2012. The 1979 to 2000 average is in dark gray. The gray area around this 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 6b. The monthly September Antarctic extent trend for 1979 to 2012 is +0.9% per decade.

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

As the Arctic was experiencing a record low minimum extent, the Antarctic was reaching record high levels in the satellite record, culminating in a winter maximum extent of 19.44 million square kilometers (7.51 million square miles) on September 26. The September 2012 monthly average was also a record high, at 19.39 million square kilometers (7.49 million square miles) slightly higher than the previous record in 2006.

The September extent trend for 1979 to 2012 is just above the statistical significance level (0.9% per decade, plus or minus 0.6%). The new Antarctic sea ice September value is slightly greater than typical year-to-year variations, and is roughly equal to a 25 mile (40 kilometer) northward shift in the location of the ice edge relative to the 1979 to 2000 average. The trend for ice extent growth during Antarctic winters is about 16,000 square kilometers per year (6,200 square miles) or roughly an area the size of Connecticut. In comparison, the decline in Arctic summer sea ice extent is an area about the size of Indiana (91,600 square kilometers per year, or about 35,400 square miles).

Our colleague, Dr. Sharon Stammerjohn of INSTAAR, University of Colorado, provides a review of the differences between Arctic and Antarctic climate controls on sea ice and helps place the events in context. First, climate is warming over much of the Antarctic continent, as shown in several recent studies (e.g., Chapman and Walsh, 2007, Monaghan et al., 2008, Steig et al., 2009) and is related to Pacific Ocean warming (Ding et al., 2010) and circumpolar winds. Both warming and ozone loss act to strengthen the circumpolar winds in the south. This is due primarily to persistently cold conditions prevailing on Antarctica year-round, and a cold stratosphere above Antarctica due to the ozone hole. Stronger winds generally act to blow the sea ice outward, slightly increasing the extent, except in the Antarctic Peninsula region, where due to geography, winds from the north have also increased, pushing the ice southward. Thus, sea ice extent near the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula continues to decline rapidly, while areas in the Ross Sea and the southern Indian Ocean show significant increases (Stammerjohn et al., 2012). Circumpolar-averaged sea ice extent changes nearly cancel each other out for all months of the year (Parkinson and Cavalieri, 2012). This winter, atmospheric conditions were near average overall, with roughly equal areas of cooler and warmer air temperatures over the sea ice.

Comparing winter and summer sea ice trends for the two poles is problematic since different processes are in effect. During summer, surface melt and ice-albedo feedbacks are in effect; winter processes include snowfall on the sea ice, and wind. Small changes in winter extent may be a more mixed signal than the loss of summer sea ice extent. An expansion of winter Antarctic ice could be due to cooling, winds, or snowfall, whereas Arctic summer sea ice decline is more closely linked to decadal climate warming.

For more information on Antarctic climate and sea ice, see NSIDC’s Icelights, our Sea Ice Index, and our State of the Cryosphere Web sites. The NASA Goddard Ozone Watch site also provides additional background information.

Table 1: Previous Arctic sea ice extents for the month of September

Year Average Arctic Sea Ice Extent for September Trend, in % per decade (relative to 1979-2000 avg.)
in millions of square kilometers in millions of square miles
2007 4.30 1.66 -10.2
2008 4.73 1.83 -11.0
2009 5.36 2.08 -11.1
2010 4.90 1.90 -11.5
2011 4.61 1.78 -12.0
2012 3.61 1.39 -13.0
1979 to 2000 average 7.04 2.72
1979 to 2010 average 6.52 2.52

References

Parkinson, C., and D. Cavalieri. 2012. Antarctic sea ice variability and trends. The Cryosphere 6, 871-880, doi:10.5194/tc-6-871-2012.

Stammerjohn, S., R. Massom, D. Rind, and D. Martinson. 2012. Regions of rapid sea ice change: an inter-hemispheric seasonal comparison. Geophysical Research Letters 39, L06501, doi:10.1029/2012GL050874.

Ding, Q., E. Steig, D. Battisi, and M. Kuttel. 2011. Winter warming in West Antarctica caused by central tropical Pacific warming. Nature Geoscience 4, doi:10.1038/ngeo1129.

Steig, E., D. P. Schneider, S. D. Rutherford, M. Mann, J. C. Comiso, and D. T. Shindell. 2009. Warming of the Antarctic ice-sheet surface since the 1957 International Geophysical Year. Nature 457, 459-462, doi:10.1038/nature07669.

Monaghan, A. J., D. H. Bromwich, W. Chapman, and J. Comiso. 2008. Recent variability and trends of Antarctic near-surface temperature. Journal of Geophysical Research 113, D04105, doi:10.1029/2007JD009094.

Chapman, W. L., and J. E. Walsh. 2007. A synthesis of Antarctic temperatures. Journal of Climate 20 (16), 4096-4117, doi:10.1175/JCLI4236.1.

Video animations of sea ice extent

Arctic sea ice extent settles at record seasonal minimum

On September 16, Arctic sea ice appeared to have reached its minimum extent for the year of 3.41 million square kilometers (1.32 million square miles). This is the lowest seasonal minimum extent in the satellite record since 1979 and reinforces the long-term downward trend in Arctic ice extent. The sea ice extent will now begin its seasonal increase through autumn and winter.

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 16, 2012 was 3.41 million square kilometers (1.32 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1979 to 2000 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 16, 2012 sea ice extent dropped to 3.41 million square kilometers (1.32 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 three days later than the 1979 to 2000 average minimum date of September 13.

This year’s minimum was 760,000 square kilometers (293,000 square miles) below the previous record minimum extent in the satellite record, which occurred on September 18, 2007.  This is an area about the size of the state of Texas. The September 2012 minimum was in turn 3.29 million square kilometers (1.27 million square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average minimum, representing an area nearly twice the size of the state of Alaska. This year’s minimum is 18% below 2007 and 49% below the 1979 to 2000 average.

Overall there was a loss of 11.83 million square kilometers (4.57 million square miles) of ice since the maximum extent occurred on March 20, 2012, which is the largest summer ice extent loss in the satellite record, more than one million square kilometers greater than in any previous year.

Conditions in context

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of September 17, 2012, along with daily ice extent data for 2007 and 2005, the previous record low years. 2012 is shown in blue and 2007 in green. 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

The six lowest seasonal minimum ice extents in the satellite record have all occurred in the last six years (2007 to 2012). In contrast to 2007, when climatic conditions (winds, clouds, air temperatures) favored summer ice loss, this year’s conditions were not as extreme. Summer temperatures across the Arctic were warmer than average, but cooler than in 2007. The most notable event was a very strong storm centered over the central Arctic Ocean in early August. It is likely that the primary reason for the large loss of ice this summer is that the ice cover has continued to thin and become more dominated by seasonal ice. This thinner ice was more prone to be broken up and melted by weather events, such as the strong low pressure system just mentioned. The storm sped up the loss of the thin ice that appears to have been already on the verge of melting completely.

 Varying distribution of ice in 2012 vs. 2007

Figure 3. The image above shows the different distribution of ice extent at the time of the September 2012 minimum, compared to the September 2007 minimum. Dark gray indicates where ice extent was present only in 2007; white indicates where ice extent was present only in 2012; and light gray shows where ice extent was present in both 2007 and 2012.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High resolution image

The spatial pattern of ice extent at this year’s seasonal minimum is different than that observed for 2007. This year the ice is more extensive in some parts of the central Arctic Ocean. However, the ice is less extensive this year compared to 2007 in the Beaufort Sea, the western Laptev Sea, the East Greenland Sea, and parts of the Canadian Archipelago. As mentioned in our previous post, the Northern Sea Route opened around mid August this year, compared to 2007 when a tongue of ice extended to the coast, blocking the route throughout the summer.

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
1979 to 2000 average 6.70 2.59 September 13
1979 to 2010 average 6.14 2.37 September 15

Note that the dates and extents of the minimums have changed since we originally posted in 2007; see our Frequently Asked Questions for more information.

Arctic sea ice falls below 4 million square kilometers

Following the new record low recorded on August 26, Arctic sea ice extent continued to drop and is now below 4.00 million square kilometers (1.54 million square miles). Compared to September conditions in the 1980s and 1990s, this represents a 45% reduction in the area of the Arctic covered by sea ice. At least one more week likely remains in the melt season.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for August 2012 was 4.72 million square kilometers (1.82 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1979 to 2000 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

Throughout the month of August, Arctic sea ice extent tracked below levels observed in 2007, leading to a new record low for the month of 4.72 million square kilometers (1.82 million square miles), as assessed over the period of satellite observations,1979 to present. Extent was unusually low for all sectors of the Arctic, except the East Greenland Sea where the ice edge remained near its normal position. On August 26, the 5-day running average for ice extent dropped below the previous record low daily extent, observed on September 18, 2007, of 4.17 million square kilometers (1.61 million square miles). By the end of the month, daily extent had dropped below 4.00 million square kilometers (1.54 million square miles). Typically, the melt season ends around the second week in September. 

Conditions in context

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of September 3, 2012, along with daily ice extent data for the previous five years. 2012 is shown in blue, 2011 in orange, 2010 in pink, 2009 in navy, 2008 in purple, and 2007 in green. The 1979 to 2000 average is in dark gray. The gray area around this 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

In 2012, the rate of ice loss for August was 91,700 square kilometers (35,400 square miles) per day, the fastest observed for the month of August over the period of satellite observations. In August 2007, ice was lost at a rate of 66,000 square kilometers (25,400 square miles) per day, and in 2008, the year with the previous highest August ice loss, the rate was 80,600 square kilometers (31,100 square miles) per day. The average ice loss for August is 55,100 square kilometers (21,300 square miles) per day. This rapid pace of ice loss in 2012 was dominated by large losses in the East Siberian and the Chukchi seas, likely caused in part by the strong cyclone that entered the region earlier in the month and helped to break up the ice. However, even after the cyclone had dissipated, ice loss continued at a rate of 77,800 square kilometers (30,000 square miles) per day.

August air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (approximately 3,000 feet above the surface) remained slightly above average (1 to 3 degrees Celsius, or 2 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit) over the much of the Pacific sector of the Arctic Ocean as well as at its central sector, with slightly higher temperatures in the Beaufort Sea (approximately 4 degrees Celsius, or 7 degrees Fahrenheit above average). On the Atlantic side, the Kara and Barents seas continued to have air temperatures around 1 to 4 degrees Celsius (2 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit) below average.

At the end of August, ice remained in the Western Parry Channel, and neither the northern or southern routes of the Northwest Passage were open. While much of the ice has cleared out, ice still remains, as confirmed by our colleague Steve Howell at the Canadian Ice Service. In the latter half of August, more ice actually moved into the passage routes when ice was pushed down into the channels from the north. Whether that ice will clear out remains to be seen.

August 2012 compared to previous years

Figure 3. Monthly August ice extent for 1979 to 2012 shows a decline of 10.2% per decade.


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

The monthly averaged ice extent for August was 4.72 million square kilometers (1.82 square miles). This is 2.94 million square kilometers (1.14 million square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average extent, and 640,000 square kilometers (247,000 square miles) below the previous record low for August set in 2007. Including 2012, the August trend is -78,100 square kilometers (-30,200 square miles) per year, or -10.2 % per decade relative to the 1979 to 2000 average.

Evolution of sea surface temperatures in August

sea surface temperature images

Figure 4. A buoy deployed on August 8, 2012 in open water during the storm initially shows a very warm 10-meter (33-foot) thick surface mixed layer (upper left image). On August 12 (upper right image), the buoy enters a relatively cooler patch, gradually warms, enters another cool patch 12 days later (bottom left image), and then starts to warm again through August 26 (bottom right image). Red, orange, and yellow indicate higher temperatures, while blues and purples indicate lower temperatures.

Credit: University of Washington Polar Science Center
High-resolution image

In recent summers, Arctic Ocean sea surface temperatures (SSTs) have been anomalously high (see our 2010 and 2011 end-of-summer posts), in part linked to loss of the reflective ice cover that allows darker open water areas to readily absorb solar radiation and warm the mixed layer of the ocean. According to Mike Steele, Wendy Ermold and Ignatius Rigor of the University of Washington, SSTs in the Beaufort, Chukchi, and Laptev seas were once again anomalously high before the strong cyclone (mentioned earlier and discussed in our previous post) entered the East Siberian and Chukchi seas on August 5, 2012. SSTs were as much as 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal along the coastal areas in those seas. After the storm, the warm water that developed through summer was interspersed with large areas of cold water created by ice melt. By the third week of August, sea surface temperatures were mostly back to levels observed before the storm, but with a few more patches of colder water interspersed from additional ice melt.

A closer view of the variation in SSTs before and after the storm is recorded in the University of Washington Polar Science Center UpTempO buoy data. A buoy deployed on August 8, 2012 in open water during the storm initially shows a very warm 10-meter (33-foot) thick surface mixed layer, likely the result of solar heating. On August 12, the buoy enters a relatively cooler patch, gradually warms, enters another cool patch 12 days later and then starts to warm again through August 26. These patches of cooler water may be a result of ice melt and/or the impact of advection from the storm.

Old ice continues to decline

Figure 5. These images from March 2012 (left) and August 2012 (right) show the age of the ice cover in spring and at the end of summer. Much of the Arctic ice cover now consists of first-year ice (shown in purple), which tends to melt rapidly in summer’s warmth. However, the oldest ice, that had survived five or more summers (shown in white), declined by 51%.

Credit: M. Tschudi and J. Maslanik, University of Colorado Boulder
High-resolution image

Ice age is an important indicator of the health of the ice cover. Old ice, also called multiyear ice, tends to be thicker ice and less prone to melting out in summer. The last few summers have seen increased losses of multiyear ice in the Pacific sector of the Arctic; multiyear ice that is transported into the Beaufort and Chukchi seas tends to melt out in summer before being transported back to the central Arctic Ocean through the clockwise Beaufort Gyre circulation. This summer, the tongue of multiyear ice along the Alaska coast mostly melted out by the end of August, with a small remnant left in the Chukchi Sea. The ice on the Pacific side of the Arctic has melted back to the edge of the multiyear ice cover, which should help to slow further ice loss in the region. In the Laptev Sea, by contrast, a large amount of first-year ice remains. In the last two weeks, open water areas have developed within the first-year ice in the Laptev Sea, helping to further foster melt in that region.

Between mid-March and the third week of August, the total amount of multiyear ice within the Arctic Ocean declined by 33%, and the oldest ice, ice older than five years, declined by 51%.

Further reading

Kwok, R., and G. F. Cunningham. 2010. Contribution of melt in the Beaufort Sea to the decline in Arctic multiyear sea ice coverage: 1993–2009. Geophys. Res. Lett., 37, L20501, doi:10.1029/2010GL044678.

Maslanik, J.A., C. Fowler, J. Stroeve, and W. Emery. 2011. Distribution and trends in Arctic sea ice age through spring 2011. Geophys. Res. Lett., 38, L13502, doi:10.1029/2011GL047735.

A most interesting Arctic summer

Arctic sea ice extent declined quickly in July, continuing the pattern seen in June. On August 1, ice extent was just below levels recorded for the same date in 2007, the year that saw the record minimum ice extent in September. Low sea ice concentrations are present over large parts of the western Arctic Ocean. Warm conditions dominated the weather for most of the Arctic Ocean and surrounding lands. For a brief period in early July, nearly all of the Greenland ice sheet experienced surface melt, a rare event.

Overview of conditions

Sea ice image for July 2012

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for July 2012 was 7.94 million square kilometers (3.07 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1979 to 2000 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 for July 2012 averaged 7.94 million square kilometers (3.07 million square miles). This was 2.12 million square kilometers (819,000 square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average extent. July 2012 ice extent was 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles) above the 2011 record July low.

As throughout the summer, the low ice extent for the Arctic as a whole is primarily due to extensive open water on the Atlantic side of the Arctic (Kara, Laptev and East Siberian seas) and the Beaufort Sea. By August 1, open water in the Laptev Sea, along the Siberian coast, had reached nearly 80oN latitude. Ice extent remains near average in the Chukchi Sea, and ice continues to block sections of the both the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage. The ice extent recorded for August 1 of 6.53 million square kilometers (2.52 million square kilometers) is the lowest in the satellite record. The previous record for the same date was set in 2007 at 6.64 million square kilometers (2.56 million square miles), when the current record low September ice extent was set.

Conditions in context

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of August 5, 2012, along with daily ice extent data for the 2011 and for 2007, the record low year. 2012 is shown in blue, 2011 in orange, and 2007 in green. 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

In July, the Arctic lost a total of 2.97 million square kilometers (1.15 million square miles) of ice. The largest July total loss, 3.53 million square kilometers (1.36 million square miles) occurred in the year 2007. Warm conditions prevailed over most of the Arctic Ocean; temperatures at the 925 hPa level (about 3,000 feet above the ocean surface) were typically 1 to 3 degrees Celsius (1.8 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1981 to 2010 average over the Beaufort Sea and regions to the north, as well as over Baffin Bay. By contrast, temperatures were 1 to 3 degrees Celsius below average over the Norwegian Sea. Weather patterns over the Arctic Ocean varied substantially through the month, as they have done throughout the melt season.

July 2012 compared to recent years

Graph of sea ice extent trend

Figure 3. Monthly July ice extent for 1979 to 2012 shows a decline of 7.1% per decade.

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

Arctic sea ice extent for July 2012 was the second lowest in the satellite record, behind 2011. Through 2012, the linear rate of decline for July Arctic ice extent over the satellite record is 7.1% per decade.

MODIS data shows low concentration ice

MODIS image of sea ice

Figure 4. This image from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), taken in late July, shows areas of low concentration sea ice in the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska. Barrow, Alaska is at the top left. The resolution is 500 meters. The cloud band covering much of the lower right part of the image is associated with an approaching storm.

Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Rapid Response
High-resolution image

In our last post (July 24, 2012) we commented on large areas of low ice concentration depicted in Special Sensor Microwave Imager/Sounder (SSMIS) data in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, the Canadian Archipelago, the East Greenland Sea, and north of Siberia. These areas of low ice concentration ice can be seen clearly in visible-band data collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites.

The MODIS image shows polygonal floes of multi-year ice, as well as thin, gray first-year ice, and dark open water in the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska. Most of these areas of low concentration ice will likely melt over the next month. Because MODIS senses light reflected from the surface as opposed to the emission of microwave radiation, its ability to see the surface depends on cloud cover.

Comparisons between observed and modeled September sea ice trends

Graph of sea ice model results

Figure 5. This figure shows the observed September sea ice extent for 1952 to 2011 (bold black line) and extents for 1900 to 2100 from the CMIP3 models using the “business as usual” SRESA1B greenhouse gas emissions scenario (the blue line averaging results from all of the model runs with the blue shading showing the +/- 1 standard deviation of the different model runs) and from the CMIP5 archive, using the RCP 4.5 scenario (pink line and pink shading). The darker pink shading shows where the simulations from CMIP3 and CMIP5 overlap each other.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center courtesy Stroeve et al. 2012
High-resolution image

Previous research at NSIDC documented that September Arctic ice extent has declined faster than models predicted it would. The comparison was between observations and simulated trends from models participating in the World Climate Research Programme Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 3 (CMIP3). These climate models were used in the 2007 4th Assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In a new paper, Stroeve et al. (2012) compared the observed 1979-2011 September trend for the Arctic against trends over the same period from the next generation of models in the CMIP5 archive. While the newer CMIP5 models do a better job of simulating the observed trend, most of the modeled ice extent trends are still smaller than the observed downward trend. NSIDC is working with researchers to further improve the models, which help extend and refine our understanding of the climate system.

Extensive melt over the Greenland Ice Sheet

Figure 6. This figure shows the daily, cumulative area of the Greenland ice sheet showing surface melt for 2012, 2011, 2010 and for the 1980 to 1999 mean. While melt was unusually extensive through May and June of 2012, the melt area increased rapidly in early July in response to an unusually warm weather event.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center courtesy Marco Tedesco, CUNY
High-resolution image

This summer, the ocean has not been the only place where unusual melt has been observed in the Arctic. NASA researchers reported that for several days in early July, nearly the entire Greenland ice sheet experienced a brief period of surface melt, including at the summit of the ice sheet. Typically, about half of the ice sheet sees some surface melting during summer, but this tends to be confined to the lower elevations. The 2012 event was associated with a high-pressure weather pattern bringing unusually warm temperatures over the higher elevations of the ice sheet. While the event has not been seen previously in the 34-year satellite record, there is evidence in ice core data from Summit, Greenland of similar events occurring several times over the past few thousand years. These melt events recorded in the ice cores from Summit show an overall average frequency of about once every 150 years since the end of the last ice age. Perhaps more important, however, is the extraordinary high melting occurring this year around the lower elevations in Greenland. Figure 6 shows that the first few months of melt exceeded past higher-than-average melt seasons. Flooding and damage to structures has been reported in some areas where this melt runs off the ice sheet and fills streams and rivers along the Greenland coast. The surface melt runoff, as well as the flow of ice and the resulting calving of icebergs, are contributors to sea level rise. Along with the substantial summer sea ice extent decline and the early Northern Hemisphere snow melt, the pace of Greenland surface melt suggests that 2012 is yet another interesting summer in the Arctic.

For more information and images, visit Greenland Melting.

References

Stroeve, J. C., V. Kattsov, A. P. Barrett, M. C. Serreze, T. Pavlova, M. M. Holland, and W. N. Meier. 2012. Trends in Arctic sea ice extent from CMIP5, CMIP3 and observations. Geophys. Res. Lett., doi:10.1029/2012GL052676, in press.

Rapid sea ice retreat in June

Arctic sea ice extent declined quickly in June, setting record daily lows for a brief period in the middle of the month. Strong ice loss in the Kara, Bering, and Beaufort seas, and Hudson and Baffin bays, led the overall retreat. Northern Hemisphere snow extent was unusually low in May and June, continuing a pattern of rapid spring snow melt seen in the past six years.

sea ice extent

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for June 2012 was 10.97 million square kilometers (4.24 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1979 to 2000 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
Daily data files

Overview of conditions
Arctic sea ice extent for June 2012 averaged 10.97 million square kilometers (4.24 million square miles). This was 1.18 million square kilometers (456,000 square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average extent. The last three Junes (2010-2012) are the three lowest in the satellite record. June 2012 ice extent was 140,000 square kilometers (54,000 square miles) above the 2010 record low. Ice losses were notable in the Kara Sea, and in the Beaufort Sea, where a large polynya has formed. Retreat of ice in the Hudson and Baffin bays also contributed to the low June 2012 extent. The only area of the Arctic where sea ice extent is currently above average is along the eastern Greenland coast.

The ice extent recorded for 30 June 2012 of 9.59 million square kilometers (3.70 million square miles) would not normally be expected until July 21, based on 1979-2000 averages. This puts extent decline three weeks ahead of schedule.

graph of sea ice extents

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of July 2, 2012, along with daily ice extent data for the previous five years. 2012 is shown in blue, 2011 in orange, 2010 in pink, 2009 in navy, 2008 in purple, and 2007 in green. 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
Daily data files

Conditions in context
In June, the Arctic lost a total of 2.86 million square kilometers (1.10 million square miles) of ice. This is the largest June ice loss in the satellite record. Similar to May, the month was characterized by a period of especially rapid ice loss (discussed in the mid-month entry, June 19th) followed by a period of slower loss. Warm conditions prevailed over most of the Arctic; temperatures at the 925 hPa level (about 3000 feet above the ocean surface) were typically 1 to 4 degrees Celsius (1.8 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1981 to 2010 average, and as much as 7 to 9 degrees Celsius (12.6 to 16.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over northern Eurasia and near southern Baffin Bay. Weather patterns over the Arctic Ocean varied substantially through the month.

Figure 3. Monthly June ice extent for 1979 to 2012 shows a decline of 3.7% per decade.

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

June 2012 compared to recent years
Arctic sea ice extent for June 2012 was well below average for the month compared to the satellite record from 1979 to 2000. It was the second lowest in the satellite record, behind 2010. Through 2012, the linear rate of decline for June Arctic ice extent over the satellite record is 3.7% per decade.

ice conditions in the field

Figure 4. These photographs show sea ice on the fast ice near Barrow, Alaska. (a) Chris Polashenski stands in a melt pond with instrumentation, (b) honeycombed sample of rotten ice taken from the bottom of a melt pond, (c) sea ice rubble field after winds pushed the weakened sea ice onto the shore.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center, courtesy Chris Polanshenski of CRREL as part of the SIZONET project.
High-resolution image

A report from the field
Dr. Chris Polashenski of the Cold Regions Research Lab (CRREL) recently returned from making sea ice measurements on landfast ice a few kilometers offshore near Barrow, Alaska as part of the National Science Foundation and NASA funded Seasonal Ice Zone Observing Network (SIZONET) project. He and his fellow researchers made some interesting observations. Prior to the onset of melt, the ice was thicker than observed in recent years – around 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) as compared to typical conditions of around 1.4 meters (4.6 feet). Despite this thick ice at the beginning of the season, melt proceeded relatively rapidly. Melt ponds began forming on June 4—a typical timing for recent years, but high temperatures, sunny afternoons, and foggy nights combined to speed the melt of ice thereafter.

On June 17-18, a confluence of weather conditions, including a daytime high of 19 degrees Celsius (66 degrees Fahrenheit), overnight condensing fog, and bright sun in the afternoon combined to produce exceptional surface melt of just under 11 centimeters (4.3 inches) in a 24-hour period, according to preliminary lidar data. By June 18, ice conditions had deteriorated significantly and with strong winds forecast out of the west, safety dictated it was time to get off the ice. Collisions of the pack with the weakened shore fast ice on June 21-23 resulted in substantial deformation and a series of ice pushes onto the beach, an amazing process to watch from the safety of land.

Such field observations may only be representative of the local area. However, they provide context for basin-wide observations and a better understanding of local processes.

map of snow cover anomaliesmap of snow cover anomalies

Figure 5. June 2012 set a record low for Northern Hemisphere snow cover extent. Figure 5 (a) graphs snow extent for Junes from 1967 to 2012. Figure 5 (b) maps snow cover anomalies in the Northern Hemisphere.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center courtesy Rutgers University Snow Lab.

High-resolution image: June snow cover anomalies graph
High-resolution image: June snow cover anomalies map

Graph of May snow cover anomalies

Map of May snow cover anomalies

Low June snow extent
Snow cover over Northern Hemisphere lands retreated rapidly in May and June, leaving the Arctic Ocean coastline nearly snow free. June 2012 set a record low for snow extent (for a 45-year period of record spanning 1967-2012) by a significant margin. Snow extent for June 2012 was more than 1 million square kilometers (386,000 square miles) below the previous record set in 2010. Snow extent for 2011 was a close third lowest. May 2012 had third lowest snow extent for the period of record. This rapid and early retreat of snow cover exposes large, darker underlying surfaces to the sun early in the season, fostering higher air temperatures and warmer soils.

A note on the daily sea ice data
NSIDC has published the underlying data used for the Daily Sea Ice Extent image and the Daily Sea Ice Extent 5-Month Time Series graph. Please see the links below for documentation for the Sea Ice Index and links to the data:

Documentation–Daily extent data file

Documentation–Climatology file