How low is low?

extent graph

Sea ice extent reached a new record low on August 27, 2012 and continued to decline. The last six years have seen minimum sea ice extents below the two standard deviation range of the data. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of August 13, 2012, along with daily ice extent data for the previous five years. 2012 is shown in blue, 2011 in orange, 2010 in pink, 2009 in navy, 2008 in purple, and 2007 in green. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data.

 

Satellite observations since 1979 show that sea ice melted to its lowest extent in the satellite record, during August 2012 . As of this post date, the ice continues to melt, with two to three weeks left before the days shorten enough for the ice extent to begin to expand through the winter. Readers often write to us asking what such records really mean. How far from normal is this year’s record low, and how do scientists decide what is normal? Continue reading

What does seeping methane mean for the thawing Arctic?

Photograph of bubbling methane melting a hole through lake ice

Bubbling methane melted a hole in the ice of this otherwise frozen lake in the Brooks Range, Alaska, in April 2011. Credit: Katey Walter Anthony

As people watch the decline of Arctic sea ice, the most obvious sign of climate warming in that region, scientists are noting other signs of change, like methane seeping out of the ground as permafrost thaws and glaciers melt across the Arctic. Scientists suspected these methane seeps existed, but no one had measured how much methane was escaping—until recently. Continue reading

Are icebreakers changing the climate?

On July 20, 2011, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy traveled through a break in the sea ice and melt ponds in the Arctic Ocean, during the NASA Impacts of Climate on Ecosystems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment (ICESCAPE) mission, a field survey aimed at understanding the ecology of the Arctic Ocean. Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen

In summer months, icebreaking ships head north into the Arctic Ocean, tearing through the sea ice and leaving trails of open water in their wakes. Readers occasionally write in to ask us whether the trails left by these ships contribute to the melting of sea ice. Continue reading

Modeling the Arctic climate

In February, polar climate researchers gathered at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado to discuss the newest updates to models of the Earth’s climate system. The researchers are working together to create better models of the Arctic and Antarctic climates, which will feed into larger models of the whole Earth that help scientists understand how climate will change in the future. What goes into a climate model, and what can scientists learn from models that they cannot learn from observations?

This image shows several aspects of climate, including sea ice, surface winds, and sea surface temperature. This image came from data simulated from NCAR’s Community Earth System Model. Credit: ©UCAR, image courtesy Gary Strand, NCAR

What’s in a model?
Computer climate models are based on scientists’ understanding of Earth’s climate. The models use mathematical relationships to try to quantify the relationships between parts of the climate system. If you tweak one factor in climate, how does the simulated climate system respond? Models that bring many factors together help scientists learn how the climate system works, and let them run simulations on Earth’s climate. They also allow scientists to assess how climate may be affected by present and future changes in greenhouse gases and solar forcing, and how much of a role natural variability plays. Continue reading

Sea ice down under: Antarctic ice and climate

The sea ice cover surrounding the continent of Antarctica is on average thinner than Arctic sea ice, and more susceptible to winds. This photo, from a 2003 research cruise, shows the trail of open water left by a research ship. In the background, an iceberg towers above the thinner sea ice cover. Credit: Ted Scambos, NSIDC

The Arctic Ocean is not the only place with sea ice. The ocean surrounding the continent of Antarctica also freezes over each winter. But we don’t hear much about sea ice on the bottom of the planet. What’s happening to Antarctic sea ice and why does it matter?

One reason that we hear less about Antarctic sea ice than Arctic sea ice is that it varies more from year to year and season to season than its northern counterpart. And while Arctic ice has declined precipitously over the past thirty years of the satellite record, average Antarctic sea ice extent has stayed the same or even grown slightly. Continue reading