Steady decline, seasonal minimum approaching

August saw a remarkably steady decline in Arctic sea ice extent, at a rate slightly faster than the long-term average. Forecasts show that this year’s minimum sea ice extent, which typically occurs in mid to late September, is likely to be the third or fourth lowest in the satellite record. All four of the lowest extents have occurred since 2007. In mid-August, Antarctic sea ice extent began to trend below the 1981 to 2010 average for the first time since November 2011.

Overview of conditions

sea ice extent map

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for August 2015 was 5.61 million square kilometers (2.16 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

Average sea ice extent for August 2015 was 5.61 million square kilometers (2.16 million square miles), the fourth lowest August extent in the satellite record. This is 1.61 million square kilometers (621,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average for the month, and 900,000 square kilometers (350,000 square miles) above the record low for August, set in 2012.

The rapid pace of daily ice loss seen in late July 2015 slowed somewhat in August. The pace increased slightly toward the end of the month, so that by August 31 Arctic sea ice extent was only slightly greater than on the same date in 2007 and 2011. The ice is currently tracking lower than two standard deviations below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average.

Sea ice extent remains below average in nearly every sector except for Baffin Bay and Hudson Bay, where some ice persists in sheltered coastal areas. A striking feature of the late 2015 melt season are the extensive regions of low-concentration ice (less than 70% ice cover) in the Beaufort Sea. A few patches of multi-year sea ice surrounded by open water remain in the central Beaufort Sea.

Conditions in context

sea ice extent graph

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of August 31, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2015 is shown in blue, 2014 in green, 2013 in orange, 2012 in brown, and 2011 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 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
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Ice loss rates were quite steady through most of the month of August. Sea ice loss for August averaged 75,100 square kilometers per day (29,000 square miles), compared to the long-term 1981 to 2010 average value of 57,300 square kilometers per day (22,100 square miles per day), and a rate of 89,500 square kilometers per day for 2012 (34,500 square miles per day).

Cool conditions prevailed in the East Siberian, Chukchi, and western Beaufort seas, where air temperatures at the 925 millibar level were 1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius (3 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit) below average. However, a broad region of higher-than-average temperatures extended from Norway to the North Pole, 1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius (3 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit) above average. Sea level pressures were up to 10 millibars above average over the central Arctic Ocean, paired with slightly below average values in north-central Siberia, similar to the dipole-like pattern seen for July. The Arctic Oscillation was in its negative phase for most of the month, again similar to July.

August 2015 compared to previous years

trend graph

Figure 3. Monthly August ice extent for 1979 to 2015 shows a decline of 10.3% per decade.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
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Arctic sea ice extent averaged for August 2015 was the fourth lowest in the satellite data record. Through 2015, the linear rate of decline for August extent is 10.3% per decade.

 

Forecasting the minimum

||Credit: RESEARCHER'S NAME/ORGANIZATION *or * National Snow and Ice Data Center|  High-resolution image

Figure 4. The graph shows ice extent forecasts, based on ice extent as observed on August 31, 2015 and past years’ observed rates for selected years.

Credit: W. Meier, NASA Goddard Cryospheric Sciences Lab
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One way of estimating the upcoming seasonal minimum in ice extent is to extrapolate from the current extent, using previous years’ rates of daily sea ice loss. Assuming that past years’ daily rates of change indicate the range of ice loss that can be expected this year, this method gives an envelope of possible minimum extents for the September seasonal minimum. However, it is possible to have unprecedented loss rates, either slow or fast.

Starting with the ice extent observed on August 31 and then applying 2006 loss rates, the slowest rate in recent years, results in the highest extrapolated minimum for 2015 of 4.50 million square kilometers (1.74 million square miles), and a September monthly average extent of 4.59 million square kilometers (1.77 million square miles). The lowest daily minimum comes from using the 2010 pace, yielding an estimated 4.12 million square kilometers (1.67 million square miles) for the daily minimum, and a September monthly average extent of 4.33 million square kilometers (1.67 million square miles).

Using an average rate of ice loss from the most recent ten years gives a one-day minimum extent of 4.38 ± 0.11 million square kilometers (1.79 million square miles), and a September monthly average of 4.49 ± 0.09. As of August 31, the 5-day running daily average extent is 4.72 million square kilometers. If no further retreat occurred, 2015 would already be the sixth lowest daily ice extent in the satellite record.

The forecast places the upcoming daily sea ice minimum between third and fourth lowest, with fourth more likely. There is still a possibility that 2015 extent will be lower than 4.3 million square kilometers, the third lowest sea ice extent, surpassing the 2011 sea ice extent minimum, and a small chance of surpassing 2007, resulting in the second-lowest daily minimum. This assumes that we continue to have sea ice loss rates at least as fast as those of 2010. This was indeed the case for the final ten days of August 2015.

Northwest Passage icy; Northern Sea Route remains open

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Figure 5. Click on the image to view an animation of sea ice concentration north of Canada for August 23 to September 1, 2015.

Credit: Canadian Ice Service Daily and Regional Ice Charts
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The southerly route through the Northwest Passage is open. The passage was discovered during 1903 to 1906 by Roald Amundsen, who made the first transit of the passage from Baffin Bay to the Beaufort Sea. This route passes south of Prince of Wales Island and Victoria Island before entering the Beaufort Sea south of Banks Island. Data from the AMSR-2 satellite, which uses passive microwave emission, suggests that this path is ice-free. The higher-resolution Multisensor Analyzed Sea Ice Extent (MASIE) product, based on several data sources and human interpretation, shows only a few areas of low-concentration ice. The broader and deeper passage through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, between Lancaster Sound, Parry Channel, and McClure Strait, is still obstructed by ice, but at the end of August ice blocked only a short portion near Victoria Island. Before drawing conclusions about navigability, however, it is important to check with the operational services such as the National Ice Center (NIC) or the Canadian Ice Service (CIS). The Northern Sea Route, north of the European Russian and Siberian coasts, has remained largely clear of ice for the entire month.

Warm surface water near Alaska and the Kara Sea

Figure 6. The map shows average ocean sea surface temperature (SST) and sea ice concentration for August 30, 2015. SST is measured by satellites using thermal emission sensors (a global product, adjusted by comparison with ship and buoy data). Sea ice concentration is derived from NSIDC’s sea ice concentration near-real-time product. Also shown are drifting buoy temperatures at 2.5 meters depth in the ocean (about 8 feet deep: colored circles); gray circles indicates that temperature data from the buoys is not available.

Credit: M. Steele, Polar Science Center/University of Washington
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Strong winds from the east in spring of this year opened the ice pack in the eastern Beaufort Sea quite early, allowing early warming of the ocean surface. However, the winds shifted in later spring, forcing the warmed water layer against the North American mainland rather than dispersing it further into the Arctic Ocean. Sea surface temperatures (SSTs) were high as of late August 2015 in the Beaufort, Chukchi, and Laptev Seas, as well as in Baffin Bay and the Kara and northern Barents seas.

The remaining area of low concentration ice in the Beaufort Sea has large pockets of warming open water. This area is likely to melt out by the September ice minimum; however, maximum SSTs in this region will probably not be especially high (currently about 2.5 degrees Celsius, or 5 degrees Fahrenheit above the freezing point of seawater) owing to how late we are in the melt season.

NASA airborne mission flies over sea ice in 2015 to support ICESat-2

images from air campaign

Figure 7. The map at left shows flight tracks flown by NASA to evaluate laser reflection characteristics over sea ice and land ice. The image at top right shows sea ice with melt ponds in the Lincoln Sea. The photo at bottom right shows the view from the aircraft window of moderately loose pack in the area.

Credit: K. Brunt/NASA
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In support of the upcoming Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) mission, NASA recently deployed two instrumented aircraft to Thule Air Force Base, Greenland (near Qaanaaq) to collect data for the development of software to process the satellite data. Instrumentation for the three-week campaign (July 28 to August 19) included a laser altimeter called SIMPL and an imaging spectrometer called AVIRIS-NG. ICESat-2 is a satellite-borne laser altimetry mission that uses a new approach to space-borne determination of surface elevation, based on a high measurement rate (10,000 times per second), multiple ground tracks of laser data, and closely spaced orbital tracks to provide more detailed mapping. Specific science goals of the airborne campaign include assessing how melting ice surfaces and snow-grain-size variability affect the surface return of green-wavelength light (the color of the ICESat-2 lasers).

Over sea ice, the aircraft data provide important information on sea ice freeboard (height of flotation) and snow cover on sea ice. Both are important parameters for correcting satellite measurements of sea ice thickness. Of the more than thirty-five science flight hours of data collected based out of Thule, four flights targeted sea ice in the vicinity of Nares Strait, where loose pack ice, covered in surface melt ponds, was found. These data will be available on the NASA ICESat-2 Web site later in the year.

 

 

Arctic openings

Arctic sea ice extent is now tracking below 2010, 2013, and 2014. Openings in the ice cover have continued to expand within the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. While the Northern Sea Route has opened, the Northwest Passage remains clogged with considerable ice in the channels of the Canadian Archipelago. However, some data sources indicate narrow openings in the ice where navigation may be possible.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for August 16, 2015 was 5.79 million square kilometers (2.24 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

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for August 16, 2015 was 5.79 million square kilometers (2.24 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 August 16, 2015 sea ice extent stood at 5.79 million square kilometers (2.24 million square miles). This is 1.35 million square kilometers (521,200 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average, and 1.17 million square kilometers (451,700 square miles) above the level for the same date in 2012, the year of the record low extent.

The rate of ice retreat slowed compared to July, but remained faster than is typical for the month through the first half of August. Most of the ice in Baffin and Hudson bays has finally melted out. Large areas of open water and low concentration ice within the Beaufort and Chukchi seas continued to expand. Some of the low concentration ice depicted in the passive microwave data could be due to the presence of melt ponds on higher concentration ice. However, visible imagery from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensor on the NASA Terra and Aqua satellites confirm a very loose ice pack with considerable open water in the region. Most of the remaining ice appears to be fairly thick multiyear floes interspersed by thinner first-year ice that is rapidly melting out. In the eastern Arctic, the ice pack remains more consolidated.

Conditions in context

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of August 16, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2010. 2015 is shown in blue, 2014 in green, 2013 in orange, 2012 in brown, and 2010 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 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 August 16, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2010. 2015 is shown in blue, 2014 in green, 2013 in orange, 2012 in brown, and 2010 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 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

Atmospheric temperatures at the 925 millibar level during the first half of August were above average over the North Pole region and the Barents and Kara seas, but below average in the Laptev, East Siberian, Beaufort and Chukchi seas. This is a notable change from July, when above-average temperatures prevailed over most of the Arctic Ocean, including much of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Current conditions are likely due to a shift in atmospheric circulation from the July pattern of high sea level pressure centered roughly over the pole to a pattern of high pressure centered over the Kara and Laptev seas, and low pressure centered over the eastern Beaufort Sea. This low pressure brought colder air from the north into the western Beaufort Sea and the Chukchi Sea, and generally cloudier conditions to the region.

Forecasting the seasonal minimum

Figure 3. The above graph shows a forecast of mean probabilistic Arctic sea ice extent for September 2015 (issued August 9, 2015). ||Credit: Andrew Slater, National Snow and Ice Data Center|High-resolution image

Figure 3. The above graph shows a forecast of mean probabilistic Arctic sea ice extent for September 2015 (issued August 9, 2015). The forecast value, or expected September mean Arctic sea ice extent, is 4.55+/-0.35 million square kilometers.


Credit: Andrew Slater, National Snow and Ice Data Center.
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Several methods have been developed to make predictions of the September minimum in Arctic sea ice extent. NSIDC research scientist Andrew Slater developed a method that uses a statistical approach to calculate the probability of ice being present at each location (i.e., at each grid cell). The method correlates ice concentration at the time the forecast is made (issue date) with concentration at a desired later time (forecast); the difference between those two times or dates is known as the lead-time. While not as sophisticated as approaches using coupled ocean-ice-atmosphere models, this statistical method has the advantage that the forecasts for all points are completely independent in both space and time; that is, the forecast at any given point is not affected by its neighbors, nor its result from the prior day. Forecast skill improves as lead-time decreases.

The model has performed well compared to forecasts submitted to the Sea Ice Outlook prediction network. For example, the years 2005, 2007, and 2012 were correctly predicted as being record breaking (at the time) 50 days in advance. September average extent at 50-days lead time has been predicted to within 100,000 square kilometers (2009, 2010, 2011), but has also been as far off as 600,000 square kilometers (2007, 2008). Forecasting at seasonal time scales is difficult, but the model does have genuine skill in September (using a metric of comparison of the forecast error variance with the historically observed [de-trended] variance as was used in Schröder et al, [2014]) at lead times as long as ninety days.

A passage to India by way of Russia

Figure 4. The image above shows Arctic sea ice extent on August 16, 2015 from the Multisensor Analyzed Sea Ice Extent (MASIE) data product.||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|  High-resolution image

Figure 4. The image above shows Arctic sea ice extent on August 16, 2015 from the Multisensor Analyzed Sea Ice Extent (MASIE) data product.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
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The Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast appears to be open, both in the passive microwave imagery and in the Multisensor Analyzed Sea Ice Extent (MASIE) product that is more adept at detecting thin and deteriorating ice. MASIE still shows considerable ice north of the Taymyr Peninsula and the Severnaya Zemlya islands, but there is a narrow open water passage through the ice. On the other side of the Arctic, the Northwest Passage still contains a considerable amount of ice. According to MASIE, there is as yet no completely open route. Some passive microwave products, such as from the University of Bremen’s Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer 2 (AMSR2), indicate an open water route along Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s historical route through the southern part of the Archipelago. The apparent discrepancy between MASIE and the Bremen product is likely due to thin, heavily melting ice not detected by passive microwave imagery.

A change in Antarctic sea ice

Figure 5a. The graph above shows Antarctic sea ice extent as of August 17, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for the record low year. 2015 is shown in blue and 2012 in green. The 1981 to 2010 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 5a. The graph above shows Antarctic sea ice extent as of August 17, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for the record low year. 2015 is shown in blue and 2012 in green. The 1981 to 2010 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
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Figure 5b. The above images compare Antarctic sea ice concentration for August 1, 2015 and August 16, 2015. Data are from the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer 2 (AMSR2) sensor on the Global Change Observation Mission 1st - Water (GCOM-W1) satellite.||Credit: Institute of Environmental Physics, University of Bremen| High-resolution image

Figure 5b. The above images compare Antarctic sea ice concentration for August 1, 2015 and August 16, 2015. Data are from the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer 2 (AMSR2) sensor on the Global Change Observation Mission 1st – Water (GCOM-W1) satellite.

Credit: Institute of Environmental Physics, University of Bremen
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Growth in Antarctic sea ice extent has leveled off, increasing by just 250,000 square kilometers (96,500 square miles) between August 1 and August 17. This slow rate of growth has brought this year’s sea ice extent to below the 1981 to 2010 average for the first time in nearly four years. Figure 5b shows ice retreat around the Antarctic Peninsula, in the Ross Sea, and around the coast of Wilkes Land. These areas of retreat are offset by some ice growth in the northern Amundsen Sea and off the coast of Enderby Land.

Open and shut

Arctic sea ice extent is well below average for this time of year, although ice has persisted in Baffin Bay and Hudson Bay. The Northern Sea Route appears to be mostly open, except for a narrow section along the Taymyr Peninsula. The Northwest Passage is still clogged with ice. Antarctic sea ice extent remains high, but the growth rate has slowed and extent is now closer to its long-term average for this time of year.

Overview of conditions

extent map

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for July 2015 was 8.77 million square kilometers (3.38 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
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July 2015 average ice extent was 8.77 million square kilometers (3.38 million square miles), the 8th lowest July extent in the satellite record. This is 920,000 square kilometers (355,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average for the month.

While Arctic sea ice retreated at near average rates during the month of June, the pace of ice loss quickened in July such that the extent at the end of the month was within 550,000 square kilometers (212,000 square miles) of the extent recorded on the same date in 2012, and is now tracking below 2013 and 2014. Ice extent was at below average levels within the Kara, Barents, Chukchi, East Siberian, and Laptev seas, while extent was near average in the Beaufort Sea and the East Greenland Sea. Sea ice extent remained more extensive than average within Baffin Bay and Hudson Bay. While the ice extent remained overall higher than in 2012, this is largely a result of the higher extent within Baffin and Hudson bays. Despite average sea ice extent within the Beaufort Sea, higher resolution passive microwave satellite imagery from AMSR-2 and visible-band imagery from MODIS (Figure 6) reveals that the ice has become rather diffuse (low ice concentrations) with many large broken ice floes surrounded by open water.

Conditions in context

extent graph

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of August 2, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2015 is shown in blue, 2014 in green, 2013 in orange, 2012 in brown, and 2011 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 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
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Although the pace of ice loss is almost always faster in July than in June, the July rate of loss for 2015 has been pronounced. The rate of ice loss for July 2015 averaged 101,800 square kilometers (39,300 square miles) per day, compared to 97,400 square kilometers (37,600 square miles) in 2012 and 86,900 square kilometers (33,500 square miles) per day in the long-term 1981 to 2010 average. This rapid loss is in part a result of fairly high air temperatures over most of the Arctic Ocean. Temperatures at the 925 hPa level (3,000 feet above sea level) reached nearly 6 degrees Celsius (11 degrees Fahrenheit) above average directly north of Greenland, and up to 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average in the East Siberian Sea. In contrast, temperatures were up to 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) cooler than average in the Barents Sea. Sea level pressure was above average over most of the Arctic Ocean, most pronounced near the pole, and over the Greenland Ice Sheet. This was paired with below average pressures over Siberia. Overall, this pattern is very similar to what has come to be known as the Dipole Anomaly.

July 2015 compared to previous years

trend graph

Figure 3. July ice extent for 1979 to 2015 shows a decline of 7.2% per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
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Arctic sea ice extent averaged for July 2015 was the 8th lowest in the satellite data record. Through 2015, the linear rate of decline for July extent is 7.2% per decade.

Seasonal ice hanging on in Baffin and Hudson bays

Figure 4. The graphs show daily sea ice extent from July 1, 2015 to August 3, 2015 (solid green line) compared to previous years, for the Baffin and Hudson bays. Data are from the Multisensor Analyzed Sea Ice Extent (MASIE) product.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center/National Ice Center
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This summer, the ice has been slow to retreat in the Baffin and Hudson bays, as highlighted by the Multisensor Analyzed Sea Ice (MASIE) product. Throughout July, ice in the bays remained more extensive than in recent summers, adding an extra 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles) of ice to the Arctic total. These areas, normally navigable at this time of year, are reported to be clogged with ice. The heavy ice conditions made fuel resupply difficult for some coastal communities in Nunavut and Nunavik. A supply ship was delayed three weeks attempting to reach Nunavik, and Arctic research projects have been delayed as well. More extensive ice than usual in the eastern part of Hudson Bay also resulted in delays of resupply for communities in Northern Quebec. Polar bears, which are usually farther out on the ice edge at this time of year, were observed in Iqaluit.

Melt started early in 2015

melt onset maps

Figure 5. The map at left shows melt onset dates for 2015. The map at right shows anomalies (departure from average) compared to the 1981 to 2010 long-term average. Data are from the Scanning Multichannel Microwave Radiometer (SMMR) and Special Sensor Microwave Imager (SSM/I) passive microwave time series.

Credit: Jeff Miller, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
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The timing of seasonal melt onset plays an important role in the amount of ice that can be melted each summer. When melt begins, the surface albedo drops, meaning that more of the sun’s energy is absorbed by the surface, favoring further melt and a further decline in albedo. Because microwave emissions are sensitive to liquid water in the snowpack, the timing of melt onset can be detected using the same satellite passive microwave data that is used for determining the sea ice extent, but with a different algorithm. This summer, melt began a month earlier than average in the Kara Sea, where the ice cover retreated early in the summer, and in the southern Beaufort Sea, where the ice cover is now very diffuse. In contrast, melt came later than average in Baffin Bay where the ice has been slow to completely melt out this summer. Melt also came later than average in parts of the East Siberian and Laptev seas.

Breakup of old, thick ice in the Beaufort Sea

Figure 6. The map at top, left shows ice age, in years, for the beginning of July 2015 (Week 27, June 29 to July 5). The MODIS satellite image (bottom, left) of the Beaufort Sea area, from July 22, 2015, shows a mélange of very large and smaller multiyear ice floes surrounded by open water. The AMSR-2 satellite image from July 22 (top, right) shows ice percent concentration. Ice age data are from C. Fowler and J. Maslanik, University of Colorado Boulder. MODIS data are from the Land Atmosphere Near-Real Time Capability for EOS (LANCE) System, NASA/GSFC. Sea ice concentration image courtesy University of Bremen from the JAXA AMSR-2 sensor.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
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Multiyear ice, which is ice that has survived at least one melt season, tends to be fairly thick. The location of multiyear ice and its age can be determined through tracking the ice motion from year to year. Ice age data from the beginning of July show a tongue of old multiyear ice extending from the southern Beaufort Sea towards Alaska into the Chukchi Sea. However, passive microwave imagery from AMSR-2 reveals that the ice pack has become very diffuse within the Beaufort Sea, with ice concentrations dropping below 50%. Corresponding visible-band imagery from MODIS shows a mélange of very large and smaller multiyear ice floes surrounded by open water. The presence of open water surrounding the floes allows for enhanced lateral and basal ice melt, raising the possibility that much of the multiyear ice in this region will melt out during the remainder of the summer.

Antarctic sea ice extent pauses, still high

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of XXXXX XX, 20XX, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 201X is shown in blue, 201X in green, 201X in orange, 201X in brown, and 20XX in purple. The 1981 to 2010 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 6. The graph above shows Antarctic sea ice extent as of August 3, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for 2010, 2013, and 2015. 2015 is shown in solid blue, 2014 in green, 2013 in dashed blue, and 2010 in pink. The 1981 to 2010 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

July average extent for Antarctica was 17.06 million square kilometers (6.59 million square miles). Sea ice extent grew at approximately 150,000 square kilometers per day (58,000 square miles per day) for the first half of July, but then growth slowed to just 10,000 square kilometers (3,900 square miles) per day for much of the rest of the month. The change was due to regional ice retreats in the northern Weddell Sea and northwestern Ross Sea,  almost balanced by continued growth in the northern Bellingshausen Sea west of the Antarctic Peninsula. The slower growth in sea ice extent places 2015 now at around 4th highest in terms of daily extent, below 2014, 2013, and 2010.

Relatively warm conditions prevailed for much of the month in the two regions of ice edge retreat, the northern Weddell Sea and northwestern Ross Sea, with average air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (3,000 feet above sea level) at approximately 4 degrees Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit) above average. However, sea surface temperatures just north of the ice edge were 0.5 to 1 degree Celsius (1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit) cooler than average, raising the potential for rapid ice growth through the remainder of the winter season.

Downwardly mobile

Arctic sea ice extent for June 2015 was the third lowest in the satellite record. June snow cover for the Northern Hemisphere was the second lowest on record. In contrast, Antarctic sea ice extent remained higher than average. The pace of sea ice loss was near average for the month of June, but persistently warm conditions and increased melting late in the month may have set the stage for rapid ice loss in the coming weeks. 

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for June 2015 was 11.0 million square kilometers (4.24 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 June 2015 was 11.0 million square kilometers (4.24 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

Arctic sea ice extent for June 2015 averaged 11.0 million square kilometers (4.24 million square miles), the third lowest June extent in the satellite record. This is 920,000 square kilometers (355,200 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average of 11.89 million square kilometers (4.59 million square miles) and 150,000 square kilometers (58,000 square miles) above the record low for the month observed in 2010.

Ice extent remains below average in the Barents Sea as well as in the Chukchi Sea, continuing the pattern seen in May. While extent is below average in western Hudson Bay, it is above average in the eastern part of the bay and near average east of Greenland.

Ice loss typically quickens in June with the largest loss rate occurring in July, the warmest month of the year. A total of 1.61 million square kilometers (622,000 square miles) of ice was lost through the month, slightly slower than the 1981 to 2010 average rate of decline of 1.69 million square kilometers (653,000 square miles). By the end of the month, ice extent for the Arctic tracked within one standard deviation of the 1981 to 2010 average.

Conditions in context

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of July 5, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2015 is shown in blue, 2014 in green, 2013 in orange, 2012 in brown, and 2011 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 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 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of July 5, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2015 is shown in blue, 2014 in green, 2013 in orange, 2012 in brown, and 2011 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 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
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June 2015 was fairly warm in the Arctic. Air temperatures at the 925 millibar level (about 3,000 feet above the surface) were above average over much of the Arctic Ocean, notably in the Kara Sea (2 to 5 degrees Celsius or 4 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit above average) and in the East Siberian Sea (2 to 3 degrees Celsius or 4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit above average).

Figure 2b. The plot shows Antarctic air temperature anomalies at the 925 hPa level in degrees Celsius for June 2015. Yellows and reds indicate higher than average temperatures; blues and purples indicate lower than average temperatures.||Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Division|  High-resolution image

Figure 2b. The plot shows Arctic air temperature anomalies at the 925 hPa level in degrees Celsius for June 2015. Yellows and reds indicate higher than average temperatures; blues and purples indicate lower than average temperatures.

Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Division
High-resolution image

The especially warm conditions in the Kara Sea, where ice extent is below average, is consistent with a wind pattern tending to bring in warm air from the south. The wind flows along the northern flank of a low-pressure area centered over the Barents Sea. Northerly winds on the western side of this low-pressure area brought cool conditions to the Norwegian Sea. Temperatures in the northern and eastern Beaufort Sea and much of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago were near or slightly below average.

June 2015 compared to previous years

Figure 3. Monthly June ice extent for 1979 to 201X shows a decline of 3.6% per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|  High-resolution image

Figure 3. Monthly June ice extent for 1979 to 2015 shows a decline of 3.6% per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.

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

Arctic sea ice extent averaged for June 2015 was the third lowest in the satellite record. Through 2015, the linear rate of decline for June extent is 3.6 % per decade.

Northern Hemisphere snow cover

Figure 4a. This snow cover anomaly map shows the difference between snow cover for June 2015, compared with average snow cover for June from 1981 to 2010. Areas in orange and red indicate lower than usual snow cover, while regions in blue had more snow than normal.||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center, courtesy Rutgers University Global Snow Lab|  High-resolution image

Figure 4a. This snow cover anomaly map shows how snow cover for June 2015 differs from the average snow cover for June from 1981 to 2010. Areas in orange and red indicate lower than average snow cover, while regions in blue had more snow than average.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center, courtesy Rutgers University Global Snow Lab
High-resolution image

Figure 4b. This graphs shows snow cover extent anomalies in the Northern Hemisphere for June from 1967 to 2015. The anomaly is relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center, courtesy Rutgers University Global Snow Lab|  High-resolution image

Figure 4b. The graphs shows snow cover extent anomalies in the Northern Hemisphere for June from 1967 to 2015. The anomaly is relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center, courtesy Rutgers University Global Snow Lab
High-resolution image

June snow cover for the Northern Hemisphere averaged 5.45 million square kilometers (2.10 million square miles), the second lowest of the 48-year record. This ranking also holds for June snow cover assessed for North America at 4.09 million square kilometers (1.58 million square miles) and Eurasia at 1.36 million square kilometers (525,000 square miles).

June snow cover was especially low over Alaska and western Canada. This is in part related to last winter’s unusual jet stream pattern, discussed in our March post. The pattern brought unusually warm conditions to the region and promoted low sea ice extent to the Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk. Recall that the restart of the Iditarod Race had to be moved from Anchorage to Fairbanks because of poor snow conditions in the Alaska Range. This spring has also been warm and dry in Alaska. These conditions have contributed to a large number of lightning-induced wildfires in the state.

Sea ice loss and snowfall over Eurasia

Climate models predict that Arctic precipitation will increase through the 21st century. As the climate warms, the atmosphere can hold more moisture, which means a greater poleward transport and convergence of moisture by the atmosphere. The decline in Arctic sea ice extent may also play a role, as more open water will provide a moisture source. One would expect this latter effect to be most pronounced in autumn, when there will be a strong temperature (hence moisture) contrast between the open water and overlying air, promoting strong evaporation into the atmosphere. A recent study by Wegmann et al. provides evidence that more open water in the Barents and Kara seas has indeed led to an increase in autumn snowfall over Eurasia. Their analysis is based on snow observations from over 800 Russian land stations and an analysis of atmospheric moisture transport.

Sea ice in Antarctica

Figure 5. Antarctic sea ice extent for June 2015 was 14.9 million square kilometers (5.76 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 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

Figure 5. Antarctic sea ice extent for June 2015 was 14.9 million square kilometers (5.76 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 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

Sea ice extent in Antarctica averaged 14.93 million square kilometers (5.76 million square miles), the third highest June extent in the satellite record. Extent was slightly greater than the 1981 to 2010 average almost everywhere around the continent. The high amount of sea ice in the eastern Weddell and Ross seas is consistent with the pattern observed for the past several months.

Satellite data show unusually extensive sea ice growth along the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula. This new feature in sea ice growth could be influenced by the strong atmospheric wave-3 pattern that has persisted over the past few months. In a wave-3 pattern, there are three major low-pressure areas around the continent separated by three high-pressure areas. The low-pressure areas have been centered on the Antarctic Peninsula, the northwestern Ross Sea, and the eastern Weddell Sea.

Further reading

Wegmann, M., Y. Orsolini, M. Vasquez, L. Gimeno, R. Nieto, O. Bulygina, R. Jaiser, D. Handorf, A. Rinke, K. Dethloff, A. Sterin, and S. Bronnimann. 2015. Arctic moisture source for Eurasian snow cover variations in autumn. Environmental Research Letters, 10, doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/10/054015.

May in decline

Melt season is underway, and sea ice in the Arctic is retreating rapidly. At the end of May, ice extent was at daily record low levels. By sharp contrast, sea ice extent in the Southern Hemisphere continues to track at daily record high levels.

Overview of conditions

sea ice extent

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for May 2015 was 12.65 million square kilometers (4.88 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

Arctic sea ice extent for May 2015 averaged 12.65 million square kilometers (4.88 million square miles), the third lowest May ice extent in the satellite record. This is 730,000 square kilometers (282,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average of 13.38 million square kilometers (5.17 million square miles) and 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 square miles) above the record low for the month, observed in 2004.

The below average extent for this month is partly a result of early melt out of ice in the Bering Sea and the persistence of below-average ice conditions in the Barents Sea. Early breakup of sea ice in the Bering Sea also occurred last spring. Elsewhere, ice is tracking at near-average levels. By the end of May, several openings had appeared in the ice pack, most notably in the southern Beaufort Sea near Banks Island, off the coast of Barrow, Alaska, and in the Kara Sea. Now that we are entering the month of June, the rate of ice loss is likely to quicken, but how fast will depend on the weather conditions and the date of ice surface melt onset across the high Arctic.

Conditions in context

sea ice extent graph

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of June 1, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2015 is shown in blue, 2014 in green, 2013 in orange, 2011 in brown, and 2011 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 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 2b. In this satellite image, captured on June 2, 2015, broken up ice over the eastern Beaufort Sea is apparent. Eastern Russia is snow covered, while the Seward Peninsula is relatively snow free. Sea level pressures were high over the Arctic Ocean at this time. Greenland is seen clearly at the lower left. Image from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the NASA Terra satellite.

Credit: Land Atmosphere Near-Real Time Capability for EOS (LANCE) System, NASA/GSFC
High-resolution image

Overall, May was cooler than average over the central Arctic Ocean, the East Greenland Sea and the East Siberian and Laptev seas, notably north of the Greenland Ice Sheet where air temperatures at the 925 millibar level (about 3,000 feet above the surface) were 2 to 4 degrees Celsius (4 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit) below average. However, temperatures were 4 to 8 degrees Celsius (7 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit) above average in the Beaufort Sea and the Barents and Kara seas, with surface temperatures rising above the freezing point in Barrow, Alaska. These temperature patterns were linked to below-average sea level pressures over the Bering Sea, Baffin Bay and the North Atlantic, coupled with above average pressures over Siberia, Alaska, and Canada. Associated wind patterns also helped to push ice offshore from the coast of Alaska, leading to the formation of open water off the coast of Barrow, Alaska.

Temperature conditions during May may prove to be important, given the potential role that melt ponds in spring play in the evolution of the ice cover throughout summer. For example, during years with fewer melt ponds in May, September sea ice extent tends to be higher than during years with more melt ponds. (See our May 2014 discussion of the importance of spring melt ponds.)

Overall the total ice extent for May 2015 declined at a fairly rapid pace, losing 1.69 million square kilometers (653,000 square miles). This was slightly faster than the 1981 to 2010 average rate of decline of 1.41 million square kilometers (544,000 square miles). The ice extent is now tracking at more than two standard deviations below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average.

May 2015 compared to previous years

Figure 3. Monthly XXXXX ice extent for 1979 to 201X shows a decline of X.X% per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|  High-resolution image

Figure 3. Monthly May ice extent for 1979 to 2015 shows a decline of 2.33% per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.

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

Arctic sea ice extent averaged for May 2015 was the third lowest in the satellite record for the month. Through 2015, the linear rate of decline for May extent is 2.33% per decade.

Weather versus preconditioning

Figure 4. The images above compare patterns of winter (January-February-March) sea ice concentration anomalies (SIC, in percent concentration) with sea surface temperature anomalies (SST, in Kelvin) and sea level air pressures (SA, in pressure altitude), for a pre-industrial control model simulation.

Credit: M. Bushuk et al., Geophys. Res. Lett.
High-resolution image

The shrinking summer sea ice cover has fostered increased socioeconomic activity in the Arctic, such as resource extraction and ship traffic, leading to a focus on developing reliable methods to predict the summer minimum sea ice extent several months in advance.

Key to improving our ability to accurately forecast September sea ice conditions is a better understanding of the physical mechanisms underlying sea ice variability from year to year. An area of growing interest is sea ice reemergence: the observation that lower-than-average or higher-than-average sea ice extent tends to recur at time lags of 5 to 12 months. This reemergence phenomenon appears to be related to sea surface temperatures in the seasonal ice zones (from melt season to growth season), sea ice thickness in the central Arctic (from growth season to melt season) and atmospheric circulation (from melt season to growth season).

For example, a new study shows that when winter sea ice concentrations are above average in the East Greenland, Barents and Kara seas, ice concentrations tend to be below average in the Bering Sea. This spatial pattern of anomalies linking the North Atlantic and North Pacific is related to the sea level pressure pattern that drives surface winds and their associated movement of atmospheric heat. These conditions are in turn linked to cooler or warmer than average sea surface temperatures that provide memory, influencing regional sea ice concentrations the following autumn. Thus, while the atmosphere is critical in setting the spatial patterns of sea ice variability, the ocean provides the memory for reemergence.

Figure 4 shows the leading winter (January-February-March) patterns of sea ice reemergence in the Arctic, based on model output from a pre-industrial control simulation of the Community Climate System Model version 4 (CCSM4). The reemerging sea ice concentration (SIC) pattern is characterized by below-average SIC in the Bering Sea and above-average SIC in the Barents-Greenland-Iceland-Norwegian (Barents-GIN) seas. Local sea surface temperature anomalies (SSTs) have the opposite sign and provide memory that allows melt season SIC conditions to reemerge the following growth season. The sea level pressure (SLP) pattern drives winds that provide for communication between the North Atlantic and North Pacific.

The Sea Ice Prediction Network provides a forum for the sea ice forecasting community to share predictions of September mean sea ice extent using a variety of methods.

Down below, Antarctica above

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for XXXX 20XX 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 5. The graph above shows Antarctic sea ice extent as of June 1, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2015 is shown in blue, 2014 in green, 2013 in orange, 2012 in brown, and 2011 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 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

Beginning in late April, Antarctic sea ice extent surpassed the previous satellite-era record set in 2014, and for the entire month of May it has set daily record high ice extents. This makes May 2015 the record high month for the 1979 to 2015 period. As has been the case for several months, ice extent is unusually high in areas of the eastern Ross Sea – western Amundsen Sea, and in the northern and northeastern Weddell Sea. Unusually high extent has developed over the Davis Sea area of the far southern Indian Ocean.

Antarctic sea ice extent for May 2015 averaged 12.10 million square kilometers (4.67 million square miles). The linear rate of increase for May is now 2.88% per decade for the period 1979 to 2015.

Despite the record sea ice extent, air temperatures at the 925 millibar level (about 3,000 feet above the surface) remained generally above average for most of the continent and coastal areas of the surrounding ocean. Air temperatures were as much as 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1981 to 2010 average over the West Antarctic ice sheet and central Ross Sea. The region of high ice extent near the northeastern Ross Sea had near-average air temperatures in the vicinity of the ice edge. Cooler than average temperatures were observed near the ice edge in the northeastern Weddell Sea (2 degrees Celsius, or 4 degrees Fahrenheit, below average) and Davis Sea (4 degrees Celsius, or 7 degrees Fahrenheit, below average). Air circulation patterns were variable for the month. The Southern Annular Mode, a north-south movement of the westerly wind belt that circles Antarctica, was in a near neutral state for the month as a whole.

Further reading

Bushuk, M., D. Giannakis, and A. J. Majda (2015). Arctic sea-ice reemergence: The role of large-scale oceanic and atmospheric variability. J. Climate, doi:10.1175/JCLI-D-14-00354.1, in press.

Bushuk, M. and D. Giannakis (2015). Sea-ice reemergence in a model hierarchy. Geophys. Res. Lett., doi:10.1002/2015GL063972, in press.

Schroeder, D., D.L. Feltham, D. Flocco and M. Tsmados, (2014). September Arctic sea ice minimum predicted by spring melt pond fraction. Nature Climate Change, doi:10.1038/nclimate2203.

Stroeve, J., E. Blanchard-Wrigglesworth, V. Guemas, S. Howell, F. Massonnet and S. Tietsche, (2015). Developing user-oriented seasonal sea ice forecasts in a changing Arctic. EOS, doi:10.1175/JCLI-D-14-00354.1, in press.

 

Third dimension: new tools for sea ice thickness

As winter turns to spring, the seasonal decline in Arctic sea ice kicks into gear. April was marked by rapid ice loss at the beginning and end of the month. Air temperatures were higher than average over much of the Arctic Ocean. In the Antarctic, sea ice extent was the highest seen in April in the satellite record. This month we introduce data sets and online tools from new sensors that—combined with older sources—provide a more complete picture of ice thickness changes across the Arctic.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for April 2015 was 14.0 million square kilometers (5.0 million square miles).

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for April 2015 was 14.0 million square kilometers (5.4 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

Arctic sea ice extent for April 2015 averaged 14.0 million square kilometers (5.4 million square miles), the second lowest April ice extent in the satellite record. It is 810,000 square kilometers (313,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average of 15.0 million square kilometers (6.0 million square miles) and 80,000 square kilometers (31,000 square miles) above the previous record low for the month observed in 2007.

Ice extent remained below average in the Barents Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Bering Sea. Sea ice was slightly more extensive than average off Newfoundland, in the Davis Strait, and in the Labrador Sea. The Labrador Sea is an important breeding area for harp and hooded seals in early spring. More extensive ice in this region favors more seal cubs being fully weaned before the ice breaks up, increasing their chance of survival.

Conditions in context

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of May 5, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years.

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of May 5, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2015 is shown in blue, 2014 in green, 2013 in orange, 2012 in brown, and 2011 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 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

During April, the decline in ice extent starts to accelerate, though the total ice loss over the month is generally small. April 2015 was marked by a fairly rapid decline during the first week of the month, little change during the middle of the month, and then a steep decline over the final week. Overall, extent decreased 862,000 square kilometers (333,000 square miles).

April was marked by higher than average 925 hPa air temperatures (1 to 3 degrees Celsius or 2 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit) throughout the Arctic, except for Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago where temperatures were 1 to 3 degrees Celsius (2 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit) below average. Temperatures were 6 to 8 degrees Celsius (11 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than average in the Kara Sea, linked to unusually low sea level pressure over the North Atlantic. Associated wind patterns also resulted in strong warming over the Eurasian Arctic.

April 2015 compared to previous years

Figure 3. Monthly April ice extent for 1979 to 2015 shows a decline of 2.4% per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.

Figure 3. Monthly April ice extent for 1979 to 2015 shows a decline of 2.4% per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.

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

Arctic sea ice extent averaged for April 2015 was the second lowest in the satellite record for the month. Through 2015, the linear rate of decline for April extent is 2.4% per decade.

New data on sea ice thickness

Figure 4. This map shows sea ice thickness in meters in the Arctic Ocean from March 29, 2015 to April 25, 2015. ||Credit: Center for Polar Observation and Modelling, University College London|  High-resolution image

Figure 4. This map shows sea ice thickness in meters in the Arctic Ocean from March 29, 2015 to April 25, 2015.

Credit: Center for Polar Observation and Modelling, University College London
High-resolution image

Data from new sensors, combined with older sources, are providing a more complete picture of ice thickness changes across the Arctic. In a recently published paper, R. Lindsay and A. Schweiger provide a longer-term view of ice thickness, compiling a variety of subsurface, aircraft, and satellite observations. They found that ice thickness over the central Arctic Ocean has declined from an average of 3.59 meters (11.78 feet) to only 1.25 meters (4.10 feet), a reduction of 65% over the period 1975 to 2012.

In addition, near-real-time thickness data from the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 satellite are now available from the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling at the University College London. The spatial pattern of ice thickness in spring is a key factor in the evolution of sea ice through the Arctic summer, and CryoSat-2 data bring the promise of regular sea ice thickness monitoring over most of the Arctic Ocean.

The data indicate that Arctic sea ice thickness in the spring of 2015 is about 25 centimeters (10 inches) thicker than in 2013. Ice more than 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) thick is found off the coast of Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago, and scattered regions of 3-meter (10 feet) thick ice extend across the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Elsewhere, most of the ice is 1.5 to 2.0 meters (4.9 to 6.6 feet) thick, typical for first-year ice at the end of winter.

Older ice spreads out

Figure 5. These ice age maps show a change in distribution of older ice from just after the summer 2014 melt season (left) and the end of March 2015 (right). ||Credit: NSIDC courtesy J. Maslanik and M. Tschudi, University of Colorado|  High-resolution image

Figure 5. These ice age maps show a change in distribution of older ice from just after the summer 2014 melt season (left) and the end of March 2015 (right).

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

Thickness estimates from CryoSat-2 data and the Lindsay and Schweiger analysis agree well with reconstructions based on sea ice age produced at the University of Colorado Boulder. Since ice gets thicker as it survives several melt seasons, ice age is a good proxy for thickness. For example, the ice thickness map from CryoSat-2 (Figure 4) and the ice age map (Figure 5) both show increased ice thickness in the southern Beaufort Sea where there was a transport of 5+ year old ice this winter. Interestingly, the ice age map identifies the tongue of ice extending towards the New Siberian Islands as second-year ice, yet the ice thickness map shows that its thickness is more similar to first-year ice.

Arctic sea ice age data are now publicly available from NSIDC and can be viewed interactively on the NSIDC Satellite Observations of Arctic Change Web site. Data are currently available through December 2012.

After the 2014 September minimum, first-year ice expanded through the winter growth season and older ice was redistributed around the Arctic Ocean. Figure 5 shows that winds have compressed second-year ice towards the coast of Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago. Old multi-year ice (4+ years old) drifted into the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and spread out, with first-year ice forming between parcels of the older ice. Some of the multi-year ice (both second-year and older) drifted out of the Arctic through Fram Strait on its way to melting in the warm waters of the North Atlantic.

Overall, the area of second-year ice decreased by more than a third during the winter, while ice of four years and more declined by about 10%. In recent years, the Beaufort and Chukchi seas have seen substantial loss of ice during summer, even of the thicker, older ice.

Antarctica reaches record ice extent, but temperature trends vary

Figure 6. The graph above shows Antarctic sea ice extent as of May 5, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years.

Figure 6. The graph above shows Antarctic sea ice extent as of May 5, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2015 is shown in blue, 2014 in green, 2013 in orange, 2012 in brown, and 2011 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 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

Antarctic sea ice extent averaged 9.06 million square kilometers (3.5 million square miles) for the month and is now the highest April extent in the satellite record. April extent was 300,000 square kilometers (116,000 square miles) higher than the previous record observed in 2014, and 1.70 million square kilometers (656,000 square miles) above the 1981 to 2010 long-term average. The Antarctic April extent was also above the two standard deviations of the long-term average.

The high sea ice extent in the Antarctic was a result of above-average extent in the Weddell Sea, and slightly more expansive ice cover in the Ross Sea. Interestingly, 925 hPa air temperatures over a wide area in the Weddell Sea were 1 to 4 degrees Celsius (2 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit) above average for the month of April. Lower-than-average air temperatures (1 to 4 degrees Celsius or 2 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit below average) were found in the Ross Sea, but only in the far west and not near the regions of record ice extent. While there remains considerable year-to-year variability of sea ice extent in the Antarctic, the trend in April sea ice extent for the Antarctic from 1979 to 2015 now stands at 4.1% per decade.

References

Lindsay, R. and A. Schweiger. 2015. Arctic sea ice thickness loss determined using subsurface, aircraft, and satellite observations. The Cryosphere, 9, 269-283, doi:10.5194/tc-9-269-2015, 2015.

Tschudi, M., C. Fowler, and J. Maslanik. 2014. EASE-Grid Sea Ice Age. Boulder, Colorado USA: NASA National Snow and Ice Data Center Distributed Active Archive Center, doi:10.5067/1UQJWCYPVX61.

A double dip

After reaching its seasonal maximum on February 25, the beginning of the melt season was interrupted by late-season periods of ice growth, largely in the Bering Sea, Davis Strait and around Labrador. Near the end of March, extent rose to within about 83,000 square kilometers (32,000 square miles) of the February 25 value. The monthly average Arctic sea ice extent for March was the lowest in the satellite record.

Overview of conditions

sea ice extent map

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for March 2015 was 14.39 million square kilometers (5.56 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

Arctic sea ice extent for March 2015 averaged 14.39 million square kilometers (5.56 million square miles). This is the lowest March ice extent in the satellite record. It is 1.13 million square kilometers (436,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average of 15.52 million square kilometers (6.00 million square miles). It is also 60,000 square kilometers (23,000 square miles) below the previous record low for the month observed in 2006.

Conditions in context

sea ice extent timeseries

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of April 5, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2015 is shown in blue, 2014 in green, 2013 in orange, 2012 in brown, and 2011 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 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

The change in total Arctic sea ice extent for March is typically quite small. It tends to increase slightly during the first part of the month, reach the seasonal maximum, and then decline over the remainder of the month. Following the seasonal maximum recorded on February 25, this year instead saw a small decline over the first part of March, and then an increase, due largely to periods of late ice growth in the Bering Sea, Davis Strait and around Labrador. On March 26, extent had climbed to within 83,000 square kilometers (32,000 square miles) of the seasonal maximum recorded on February 25. Despite this late-season ice growth, analysts at the Alaska Ice Program report in their April 3 post that ice in the Bering Sea was very broken up.

March 2015 compared to previous years

sea ice trend graph

Figure 3. Monthly March ice extent for 1979 to 2015 shows a decline of 2.6% per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.

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

The monthly average Arctic sea ice extent for March was the lowest in the satellite record. Through 2015, the linear rate of decline for March extent is 2.6% per decade.

Overview of the winter season

Figure 4. The plot shows Arctic air temperature anomalies at the 925 hPa level in degrees Celsius for March 2015. Yellows and reds indicate higher than average temperatures; blues and purples indicate lower than average temperatures. ||Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Division|  High-resolution image

Figure 4. The plot shows Arctic air temperature anomalies at the 925 hPa level in degrees Celsius for March 2015. Yellows and reds indicate higher than average temperatures; blues and purples indicate lower than average temperatures.

Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Division
High-resolution image

As discussed in our previous post, the winter of 2014/2015 was characterized by an unusual pattern of atmospheric circulation, with the jet stream lying well north of its usual location over Eurasia and the North Pacific, and then plunging southwards over eastern North America. This pattern was associated with unusually warm conditions extending across northern Eurasia, the Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk, Alaska and into the western part of the United States, contrasting with cold and snowy conditions over the eastern half of the United States. The record low seasonal maximum in ice extent recorded on February 25, 2015 was largely due to low extent in the unusually warm Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk. This pattern of atmospheric circulation and temperatures largely continued through March.

Recent work by Dennis Hartmann of the University of Washington suggests that this unusual jet stream pattern was driven, at least in part, by a particular configuration of sea surface temperatures over the tropical Pacific known as the North Pacific Mode, or NPM. The NPM pattern consists of above-average sea surface temperatures in the western Tropical Pacific that extend north and east towards the California coast and across the far northern Pacific Ocean. While the better-known El-Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) pattern has been in a neutral state for the past few winters, the NPM has been in an extreme positive state since the summer of 2013.

The pattern of air temperatures seen this past winter has persisted through March; note the unusually warm conditions over northern Eurasia, Alaska and western North America, contrasting with unusually cold conditions over eastern North America.

Snow cover update

http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/files/2015/04/snow.png

Figure 5. This map shows the rank of snow water equivalent measured at SNOTEL sites across the western U.S. A rank of 1 (black dots) corresponds to the lowest SWE in the SNOTEL record; a rank of 31 (magenta dots) is the highest.

Credit: Andrew Slater, NSIDC
High-resolution image

The unusual atmospheric circulation pattern just discussed also helps to explain the snow drought over the western United States. NSIDC scientist Andrew Slater maintains regular updates of western U.S. mountain snowpack conditions using data from the SNOTEL (snowpack telemetry) system – a network of automated sensors that measure snow water equivalent. The automated SNOTEL sites are complemented by snowcourses, where snow water equivalent is measured manually on a periodic basis.

Typically, the snowpack peaks around April 1. As seen in Figure 5, the April 1 snowpack over most of the western United States is far below average. At many sites, snow water equivalent is at historic lows for this time of year. Conditions are somewhat better along the Front Range of Colorado and in Arizona, Wyoming and Montana.

Record warmth in Antarctica

Air temperatures reached record high levels at two Antarctic stations last week, setting a new mark for the warmest conditions ever measured anywhere on the continent. On March 23, at Argentina’s base Marambio, a temperature of 17.4° Celsius (63.3° Fahrenheit) was reached, surpassing a previous record set in 1961 at a nearby base, Esperanza. The old record was 17.1° Celsius (62.8° Fahrenheit). However, Esperanza quickly reclaimed the record a few hours later on March 24, reaching a temperature of 17.5° Celsius (63.5° Fahrenheit).

The cause of these warm conditions is familiar to people living in mountainous regions: a foehn or chinook wind, in which air flows up and over a steep mountain ridge. On the windward side, moisture is wrung out of the air mass in the form of rain or snow. As the air descends on the leeward (downwind) side, it compresses and warms.

This airflow pattern is a key part of the climate conditions that led to past ice shelf disintegrations in the region, such as the dramatic break-up of the Larsen B Ice Shelf in 2002. Air pressure patterns during the event indicated a near-stationary high pressure center in the Drake Passage north of the Antarctic Peninsula, and a strong area of low pressure at the base of the Peninsula, favoring the foehn pattern. Events like this have been recorded by a network of sensors installed by the National Science Foundation LARISSA project.  This network recorded temperatures as high as 16.9° Celsius (62.4° Fahrenheit), westerly winds up to 23 meters per second (45 miles per hour), and a ~100 hour period of temperatures above freezing over the Larsen B area. A recent publication by a colleague at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography describes the impact of foehn or chinook patterns on ice shelf and sea ice stability in the region, making use of the network of Automated Meteorology-Ice-Geophysics Observing Systems (AMIGOS) and other weather sensors in the region.

Further reading

Cape, M., M. Vernet, P. Skvarca, S. Marinsek, T. Scambos, and E. Domack. 2015. Foehn winds link climate-driven warming to coastal cryosphere evolution in Antarctica. Jour. Geophys. Res., Atmospheres, submitted.

Scambos, T., R. Ross, T. Haran, R. Bauer, D.G. Ainley, K.-W. Seo, M. Keyser, A. De, Behar, D.R. MacAyeal. 2013. A camera and multisensor automated station design for polar physical and biological systems monitoring: AMIGOS. Journal of Glaciology, 59 (214), 303-314, doi: 10.3189/2013JoG12J170.

Arctic sea ice reaches lowest maximum extent on record

On February 25, 2015, Arctic sea ice extent appeared to have reached its annual maximum extent, marking the beginning of the sea ice melt season. This year’s maximum extent not only occurred early; it is also the lowest in the satellite record. However, a late season surge in ice growth is still possible. NSIDC will post a detailed analysis of the 2014 to 2015 winter sea ice conditions in early April.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for February 25, 2015

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for February 25, 2015 was 14.54 million square kilometers (5.61 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 February 25, 2015 Arctic sea ice likely reached its maximum extent for the year, at 14.54 million square kilometers (5.61 million square miles). This year’s maximum ice extent was the lowest in the satellite record, with below-average ice conditions everywhere except in the Labrador Sea and Davis Strait. The maximum extent is 1.10 million square kilometers (425,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average of 15.64 million square kilometers (6.04 million square miles) and 130,000 square kilometers (50,200 square miles) below the previous lowest maximum that occurred in 2011. This year’s maximum occurred 15 days earlier than the 1981 to 2010 average date of March 12. The date of the maximum has varied considerably over the years, occurring as early as February 24 in 1996 and as late as April 2 in 2010.

Because of the variability of ice extent at this time of year, there can be some delay in pinpointing the date of the maximum extent, as was true this year. NSIDC calculates daily ice extent as an average of the previous five days (see the Sea Ice Index documentation for more information), and we also look for a clear downward trend for a number of days.

While the downturn in extent was quite pronounced on February 25, the trend subsequently flattened. This is in part due to recent ice growth in the Bering Sea, partly balancing continued ice retreat in the Barents and Kara seas. Over the next two to three weeks, periods of increase are still possible. However, it now appears unlikely that there could be sufficient growth to surpass the extent reached on February 25.

Conditions in context

Arctic sea ice extent as of March 18, 2015

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of March 18, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2014 to 2015 is shown in blue, 2013 to 2014 in green, 2012 to 2013 in orange, 2011 to 2012 in brown, and 2010 to 2011 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 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

Over the 2014 to 2015 winter season, sea ice extent grew 9.91 million square kilometers (3.83 million square miles). This was substantially less ice growth than last year, which saw record growth over the winter. Part of the explanation for the record low maximum lies with recent weather patterns. As discussed in our previous post, February was characterized by an unusual configuration of the jet stream, leading to warm conditions over the Pacific side of the Arctic that maintained low sea ice extent in the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk. Furthermore, since the last half of February through the middle of March, the Arctic Oscillation was in a strongly positive phase, with index values exceeding 5.0 for several days in the first week of March. This has been expressed as a strong Icelandic Low, a semi-permanent area of low atmospheric pressure found between Iceland and southern Greenland and extending into the Barents Sea. The strong Icelandic Low led to a pattern of surface winds over the Barents and Kara seas with an unusually strong component from the south.

Over the first two weeks of March, temperatures throughout the eastern Arctic at the 925 hPa level (approximately 3,000 feet altitude) were several degrees Celsius above average, with temperatures as much as 8 to 10 degrees Celsius (14 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit) above average in the Barents Sea between Svalbard and Franz Josef Land.

While the seven-day weather forecasts show continued warmer-than-average conditions over the eastern Arctic, colder-than-average conditions are expected over the Bering Sea and may still lead to some new ice formation. Thus, while the maximum appears to have occurred on February 25, late season ice growth may still occur.

Final analysis pending

At the beginning of April, NSIDC scientists will release a full analysis of winter conditions, along with monthly data for March. For more information about the maximum extent and what it means, see the NSIDC Icelights post, the Arctic sea ice maximum.

Updates to the Sea Ice Index

Recently, NSIDC made two revisions to Arctic Sea Ice Index extent values used in our analyses, to improve scientific accuracy. These changes do not significantly affect sea ice trends and year-to-year comparisons, but in some instances users may notice very small changes in values from the previous version of the data. First, calculations of ice extent near the North Pole were improved whenever a newer satellite orbited closer to the pole than older satellites in the series, by using a sensor-specific pole hole for the extent calculations. Second, the accuracy of ice detection near the ice edge was slightly improved by adopting an improved residual weather effect filter. Details on the changes are discussed in the Sea Ice Index documentation.

Possibly low maximum in the north, a high minimum in the south

Arctic sea ice extent continues to track well below average, but it is still unclear whether March will see an increase in ice, or establish a record low maximum. Regionally, Arctic ice extent is especially low in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea. In the Antarctic, sea ice shrank to the fourth highest minimum in the satellite record.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for February 2015

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for February 2015 was 14.41 million square kilometers (5.56 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

Arctic sea ice extent in February averaged 14.41 million square kilometers (5.56 million square miles). This is the third lowest February ice extent in the satellite record. It is 940,000 square kilometers (362,900 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average of 15.35 million square kilometers (5.93 million square miles). It is also 50,000 square kilometers (19,300 square miles) above the record low for the month observed in 2005.

With the Arctic Ocean completely ice covered, the remaining areas of potential new ice growth are limited to the margins of the pack in the northern Pacific and northern Atlantic. Sea ice extent is below average across the entire sea ice margin, most prominently along the Pacific sectors. A small region of above-average ice extent is located near Newfoundland and the Canadian Maritime Provinces.

The Arctic maximum is expected to occur in the next two or three weeks. Previous years have seen a surge in Arctic ice extent during March (e.g., in 2012, 2014). However, if the current pattern of below-average extent continues, Arctic sea ice extent may set a new lowest winter maximum.

Conditions in context

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of March 2, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of March 2, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2014 to 2015 is shown in blue, 2013 to 2014 in green, 2012 to 2013 in orange, 2011 to 2012 in brown, and 2010 to 2011 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 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

Arctic sea ice extent increased by 429,000 square kilometers (165,600 square miles) during the month of February. This gain was slightly less than the average for the month. While low extent for the Arctic as a whole was largely driven by conditions in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea, extent was also slightly below average along the Barents Sea and parts of the East Greenland Sea.

February 2015 compared to previous years

Figure 3. Monthly February ice extent for 1979 to 2015 shows a decline of 2.9% per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.

Figure 3. Monthly February ice extent for 1979 to 2015 shows a decline of 2.9% per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.

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

The monthly average Arctic sea ice extent for February was the third lowest in the satellite record. Through 2015, the linear rate of decline for February extent is 2.9% per decade.

Hot Bering(s)

Figure 4. The plot shows Arctic air temperature anomalies at the 925 hPa level in degrees Celsius for February 2015.

Figure 4. The plot shows Arctic air temperature anomalies at the 925 hPa level in degrees Celsius for February 2015. Yellows and reds indicate higher than average temperatures; blues and purples indicate lower than average temperatures.

Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Division
High-resolution image

The low ice extent in the Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk is linked to unusually warm conditions in the area. February air temperatures at the 925 hPa level were as much as 4 to 6 degrees Celsius (7 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit) above average in the northern Bering Sea, easternmost Siberia, and Sea of Okhotsk.

While these localized hotspots are in part driven by the low sea ice extent and the resulting large heat fluxes from the open water to the atmosphere, they are seen to be part of a broad area of unusually warm conditions extending across most of northern Eurasia, across Alaska, and into the western part of the United States. In contrast, cold and snowy conditions have persisted across the eastern half of North America. Broadly speaking, these opposing patterns of warmth and cold, along with low ice extent in the Sea of Okhotsk and Bering Sea, can be linked to an unusual jet stream pattern, with the jet lying north of its usual location over Eurasia and the North Pacific (meaning that warm air extends further north than is usual), and then plunging southwards over eastern North America.

Snow cover

Figure 5a. This snow cover anomaly map shows the difference between snow cover for February 2015, compared with average snow cover for February from 1981 to 2010.

Figure 5a. This snow cover anomaly map shows the difference between snow cover for February 2015, compared with average snow cover for February from 1981 to 2010. Areas in orange and red indicate lower than usual snow cover, while regions in blue had more snow than normal.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center, courtesy Rutgers University Global Snow Lab
High-resolution image

Figure 5b. This graphs shows snow cover extent anomalies in the Northern Hemisphere for February from 1967 to 2015.

Figure 5b. This graphs shows snow cover extent anomalies in the Northern Hemisphere for February from 1967 to 2015. The anomaly is relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center, courtesy Rutgers University Global Snow Lab
High-resolution image

This unusual jet stream pattern is clearly manifested in the pattern of Northern hemisphere snow cover for February. Snow extent was well above average over the northeastern U.S. However, the western U.S. and Northern Rockies saw less snow cover than average, especially along the Pacific coast where it has been particularly warm and severely dry. While the Tibetan Plateau saw a somewhat more extensive snow cover than average in December and January, extent for Tibet and Eurasia as a whole was below average in February. Higher-than-average snow cover in the eastern U.S. expanded and became more pronounced this month as well. All of these are continuations of the basic pattern seen in December and January, although the pattern of extensive snow over the northeastern U.S. became more pronounced this month. The low snow cover extent in much of Eurasia is consistent with the warmer-than-average conditions there as described above.

Seasonal Antarctic minimum reached

Figure 6a. This figure shows the concentration anomaly for February 2015 monthly average extent relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.  Sea Ice Index data. About the data||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|High-resolution image

Figure 6a. This figure shows the concentration anomaly for February 2015 monthly average extent relative to the 1981 to 2010 average. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

Figure 6b. Monthly Antarctic February ice extent for 1979 to 2015 shows a trend of 5.0% per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.

Figure 6b. Monthly Antarctic February ice extent for 1979 to 2015 shows a trend of 5.0% per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.

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

Antarctic sea ice extent reached its annual minimum, dipping to 3.58 million square kilometers (1.38 million square miles) on February 20. This is the fourth highest summer minimum extent on record, trailing behind 2008 (3.75 million square kilometers or 1.44 million square miles, highest), 2013, and 2003. The 2014 Antarctic minimum ranked the fifth highest (3.54 million square kilometers or 1.36 million square miles). For the month as a whole, February 2015 has the sixth highest ice extent (3.8 million square kilometers or 1.46 million square miles). The sea ice extent trend for February for 1979 to 2015 shows an increase of 5.0%  per decade. However, Antarctica’s sea ice extent is highly variable. As recently as 2011, Antarctic sea ice extent was at near-record low levels for the summer minimum.

Nevertheless, the recent series of high-ice-extent minima is part of a remarkable recent uptick in extent year-round for Antarctica, dominated by extensive ice in both the Weddell Sea (south of Africa) and the Ross Sea (south of New Zealand). Sea ice in the eastern Weddell Sea presently extends several hundred kilometers further north and east of its typical extent, while ice extent in the Ross Sea is presently near average. The debate continues regarding the cause of the recent Antarctic trends, but the best explanation so far involves a combination of strengthening low pressure in the eastern Ross Sea (the Amundsen Sea Low) and the eastern Weddell Sea, and a persistently positive phase of the Southern Annular Mode. The freshening of surface seawater around Antarctica may also play a role.

Global sea ice trends

Claire Parkinson of NASA recently presented the global average (Arctic plus Antarctic) trend in sea ice extent for the period 1979 to 2013. Overall, global sea ice has declined, despite the positive trend in Antarctic extent. The annual average trend is -35,000 square kilometers (-13,500 square miles) per year, or about -1.5% per decade. The strong Arctic decline in September leads to the largest magnitude monthly trend for global sea ice in that month, at -68,000 square kilometers (-26,300 square miles) per year, or -2.6% per decade. See the NSIDC FAQ on global sea ice here.

Further reading

Parkinson, C. L. 2014. Global sea ice coverage from satellite data: annual cycle and 35-year trends. Journal of Climate, doi: 10.1175/JCLI-D-14-00605.1.

Vary January

Arctic sea ice extent was the third lowest for the month of January. Ice extent remained lower than average in the Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk, while ice in the Barents Sea was near average. Antarctic sea ice extent declined rapidly in late January, but remains high.

Overview of conditions

map of sea ice extent

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for January 2015 was 13.62 million square kilometers (5.26 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 in January averaged 13.62 million square kilometers (5.26 million square miles). This is 910,000 square kilometers (351,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average of 14.53 million square kilometers (5.61 million square miles), and 50,000 square kilometers (19,000 square miles) above the record low for the month observed in 2011.

This below-average Arctic extent is mainly a result of lower-than-average extent in the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk. On the Atlantic side, Barents Sea ice extent is near average. This is in sharp contrast to the general pattern seen since 2004 of below average extent in this region, but above average extent in the Bering Sea. Ice extent is also near average in the East Greenland Sea, Baffin Bay and the Labrador Sea.

Conditions in context

comparison of Arctic sea ice extent

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of February 2, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2014 to 2015 is shown in blue, 2013 to 2014 in green, 2012 to 2013 in orange, 2011 to 2012 in brown, and 2010 to 2011 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 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

During most of January, the Arctic Oscillation (AO) was in a strongly positive phase. When the AO is in a positive phase, sea level pressure in the Arctic is particularly low, and sea level pressure is relatively high in the middle latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. Variability in Arctic sea ice conditions is strongly influenced by the phase of the AO. Typically, during the positive phase of the AO, surface winds push ice away from the shores of Siberia, leading to the formation of more young, thin ice that is prone to melting out in summer. The positive phase also tends to increase the transport of thick, multiyear ice out of the Arctic through Fram Strait.

Air temperatures (at the 925 millibar level, about 3,000 feet above the surface) were mostly above average over most of the Arctic Ocean, with positive anomalies of 4 to 6 degrees Celsius (7 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit) over the Chukchi and Bering seas on the Pacific side of the Arctic, and also over the East Greenland Sea on the Atlantic side.

January 2015 compared to previous years

average monthly arctic sea ice extent

Figure 3. Monthly January ice extent for 1979 to 2015 shows a decline of 3.2% per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.

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

Arctic sea ice extent for January was the third lowest in the satellite record. Through 2015, the linear rate of decline for January extent over the satellite record is 3.2% per decade.

Barents Sea ice variability

Barents Sea Ice Area and Ocean Tempearture

Figure 4. The graph shows Barents Sea ice area (blue line) and ocean temperatures in the Barents Sea Opening (red line) from 1980 to 2015. The sea ice area tends to be smaller for higher Atlantic water temperatures, with a lag of 1 to 2 years (note the reversed scale for Atlantic water temperatures). The data are based on Årthun et al. (2012), who find that the ocean temperature largely reflects changes in volume of Atlantic water inflow. Sea ice area anomalies are from the NASA Team algorithm (Cavalieri et al., 1996), provided by the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Ocean temperature has been sampled by the Institute of Marine Research (IMR), Norway, and is a section between Norway and Bear Island (BSO; 71.5-73.5N, 20E).

Credit: Ingrid Onarheim, Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research
High-resolution image

Variability in winter sea ice in the Barents Sea largely reflects ocean heat transport. The inflow of Atlantic water between Norway and Bear Island (the Barents Sea Opening or BSO) is the Barents Sea’s main oceanic heat source. Because there are no significant freshwater sources reaching the central Barents Sea, this warm Atlantic water extends to the surface and readily impacts the sea ice. This contrasts with the rest of the Arctic Ocean, where the Atlantic water lies well beneath the slightly fresher polar surface layer. The import of sea ice in the northern straits is also small, around 20% of the sea ice area exported southwards in the Fram Strait, meaning that the Barents Sea primarily consists of thin, first-year ice. Thus, periods with large volumes of warm Atlantic water entering into the Barents Sea are correlated with less sea ice formation and overall less sea ice extent.

Variations in winter ice extent in the Barents Sea are well correlated with variations in overall Arctic sea ice extent, as assessed over the satellite record. This winter is an exception. Sea ice extent in the Barents Sea is fairly high compared to recent years, while it is low for the Arctic as a whole. According to colleagues at the University of Bergen, this is due to a reduced overall inflow of Atlantic waters. A maximum in the ocean heat transport occurred in the mid 2000s, yet since then, the inflow has in general lessened, both along the Norwegian coast, through the Fram Strait, and through the Barents Sea Opening between Norway and Bear Island. Variations in Atlantic inflow is a focus of ongoing research at the Bjerknes Centre in Bergen, as well as in other research centers in Europe.

Antarctic sea ice declines rapidly, still high

Antarctic sea ice extent as of 2/2/2015

Figure 5a. The graph above shows Antarctic sea ice extent as of February 2, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2014 to 2015 is shown in blue, 2013 to 2014 in green, 2012 to 2013 in orange, 2011 to 2012 in brown, and 2010 to 2011 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 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

Antarctic sea ice extent reached record high levels for late December 2014 and early January 2015, peaking around January 10 at more than 2.5 million square kilometers (965,000 square miles) above the 1981 to 2010 average, and 1.05 million square kilometers (580,000 square miles) above the previous record (2014) for that date. As noted last month, the largest excursions are occurring in the northern Weddell Sea and the northern Ross Sea. After January 10, and particularly after January 19, sea ice extent dropped rapidly (~250,000 square kilometers, or 96,500 square miles, per day), and large areas of the northern Ross Sea became ice free. The northern Weddell region still has a very large ice extent relative to average conditions.

Antarctic wind and air temperature anomalies

Figure 5b. These images show Antarctic wind vector (top) and air temperature (bottom) anomalies for late December 2014 to early January 2015, compared to 1981 to 2010 averages.

Credit: NOAA ESRL Physical Sciences Division
High-resolution image

Weather conditions during late December and January help to explain these changes. In the northern Weddell Sea, southerly winds (more so than average) and cool conditions relative to the 1981 to 2010 average prevailed for late December and all of January, and sea ice there remained high relative to long-term averages for the month. For the northern Ross Sea, air temperatures at the 925 hPa level have been slightly above average for the entire period, but winds in this area shifted during January, from southerly (pushing ice outward) to northwesterly. The combination of northerly winds and slightly warm conditions seems to have reduced the ice extent anomaly significantly in this sector.

Further reading

Smedsrud, L.H., I. Esau, R. B. Ingvaldsen, T. Eldevik, P. M. Haugan, C. Li, V. S. Lien, A. Olsen, A. M. Omar, O. H. Otterå, B. Risebrobakken, A. B. Sandø, V. A. Semenov, and S. A. Sorokina. 2013. The role of the Barents Sea in the Arctic climate system.
Reviews of Geophysics, 51, doi:10.1002/rog.20017.

Årthun, M., T. Eldevik, L. H. Smedsrud, Ø. Skagseth, and R. B. Ingvaldsen. 2012.
Quantifying the Influence of Atlantic Heat on Barents Sea Ice Variability and Retreat. Journal of Climate, Volume 25, pp. 4736-4743, doi:10.1175/JCLI-D-11-00466.1.

Schauer, U. and A. Beszczynska-Möller. 2009. Problems with estimation and interpretation of oceanic heat transport – conceptual remarks for the case of Fram Strait in the Arctic Ocean, Ocean Sci., 5, 487–494.