Are scientists conservative about sea ice?

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy encountered only small patches of sea ice in the Chukchi Sea when this photograph was taken on July 20, 2011. (Courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy encountered only small patches of sea ice in the Chukchi Sea when this photograph was taken on July 20, 2011. (Courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

Guest post by Walt Meier, NSIDC Scientist

Arctic sea ice set a record minimum extent in September 2012, far below the previous record low in 2007. Summer extents have been far lower than average for the last decade, with several record or near-record years. Looking at the numbers, one is tempted to think that the Arctic Ocean may reach nearly sea ice-free conditions within just a few years. But most expert analyses indicate that we’re likely at least a couple decades away from seeing a blue Arctic Ocean during the summer.

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What is the Arctic’s new normal?

Although Arctic sea ice extent as of June 2013 falls within the normal range, sea ice overall is still declining compared to the average. This photograph was taken in August 2009, when sea ice extent nears its lowest annual extent before refreezing for the winter. (Courtesy Patrick Kelley, United States Coast Guard)

Although Arctic sea ice extent as of June 2013 falls within the normal range, sea ice overall is still declining compared to the average. This photograph was taken in August 2009, when sea ice extent nears its lowest annual extent before refreezing for the winter. (Courtesy Patrick Kelley, United States Coast Guard)

NSIDC recently switched the baseline against which we analyze Arctic sea ice extent. Previously, we relied on a baseline that coincided with the beginning of the satellite period and stretched 20 years, from 1979 to 2000. The new baseline runs from 1981 to 2010, covering 30 years. Why did we make such a change?

Switching to a 30-year baseline allows us to be consistent with other climate monitoring agencies, which commonly use a 30-year time period for conducting analyses. This new baseline also helps account for the wider variations observed in Arctic sea ice extent. Continue reading

A greener Arctic

As higher temperatures create more temperate environments across parts of the Arctic, vegetation is creeping northward. Places like Denali National Park in Alaska may soon see forests encroaching on what are currently tundra biomes. Photo credit: Timothy Wildey (http://www.flickr.com/photos/timothywildey/4964905772/)

If gardening in icy Greenland sounds unbelievable, think again. A chef in Kangerlussuaq has started growing tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and even strawberries for his restaurant, and Greenland’s potato production doubled between 2008 and 2012. These agricultural feats would have been impossible only a hundred years ago. The Arctic has been warming over the past several decades at a rate twice as fast as the rest of the globe. As the region warms, several teams of scientists have been tracking changes in Arctic vegetation, trying to see if higher temperatures mean more green. Continue reading

Are we in a snow drought?

The central and southwestern portions of the United States have experienced drought for the past several years. This photograph was taken in mid-February, 2010. By that point in winter, these rows would normally have been fully covered in snow. Photograph credit: Kristy Johnson (http://www.flickr.com/photos/kayaker1204/4359744393/)

In spite of the massive blizzards that have slammed parts of the northeastern United States, much of the country is experiencing a pronounced lack of snow. And where there is snow, it is less than usual. It follows a very low snow year from the previous season, causing people to worry if low snowfall is the new normal.

A previous Icelights post, Arctic sea ice and U.S. weather, discussed possible causes behind the changes in winter weather, trying to see if there are correlations to larger climate changes. Researchers like Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University are exploring the possibility that declining sea ice in the Arctic is altering atmospheric temperatures and weakening the jet stream. This change may shift the Northern Hemisphere storm track, leaving some places unusually snowy, or leaving normally snowy locations dry. Can a few good blizzards help reverse the snow drought across parts of the United States? Or is this string of dry winters yet another symptom of climate change? Continue reading

Greenland Ice Sheet Today

Photograph of a large melt pond on the Greenland Ice Sheet

A large melt pond on the Greenland Ice Sheet, photographed in 2004. Although melt ponds are normal phenomena during the summer melt season, scientists are paying closer attention to their frequency, extent, and duration. Courtesy John Maurer.

As warming alters the Arctic landscape, people are paying more attention to the changes happening to the Greenland Ice Sheet. The ice is melting more rapidly than before, leaving us to wonder, what’s going on?

To help answer your questions about Greenland, NSIDC’s newest Web site, Greenland Ice Sheet Today, will feature the latest research and imagery that researchers are using to monitor the ice. Scientists are discovering that while the ice sheet is in no danger of instantly melting, it is not immune to the Arctic’s rising temperatures. Continue reading