Why is there so much Antarctic sea ice?

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Photograph from a ship traveling through Antarctic sea ice

Even during the Antarctic summer, heavy sea ice conditions are not uncommon. This photograph of sea ice was taken from the British icebreaker, HMS Protector, on its way to assist a Norwegian cruise ship that had become stuck in sea ice in January 2013.
–Credit: Royal Navy Media Archive (http://www.flickr.com/photos/rn_topten/8443836559/in/set-72157632684027667)

In late December 2013, the Russian research vessel, Akademik Shokalskiy, became trapped in thick sea ice off the coast of Antarctica. After several research vessels and icebreakers attempted rescue, the 52 passengers were evacuated. Soon after, one of the rescue ships also became stuck in the ice. However, conditions eased and both icebound ships safely churned out to open water.

Research in polar regions is inherently risky, and these events show how easily weather and ice conditions can disrupt research missions and travel during the already short Antarctic summer. But why was there so much sea ice around Antarctica to begin with, and why was it so thick? Antarctic sea ice is ruled by very different systems than Arctic sea ice. The reasons behind this increase are complex, and several recent studies show that scientists are still trying to understand them. Continue reading

What is the polar vortex?

Photograph of Chicago during the 2014 polar vortex

This view of Chicago was taken from Diversey Harbor on January 7, 2014, when a trough of the Northern Hemisphere polar vortex looped south across the United States, putting much of the country in a deep freeze. Credit: Edward Stojakovic (Creative Commons, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

Guest post by Mark Serreze, NSIDC Director and Professor, Department of Geography, University of Colorado Boulder

Lately there has been much talk about extreme cold weather in the United States and its connection to the polar vortex. Just what is the polar vortex, and how does it affect the lower latitudes? We asked Mark Serreze, NSIDC Director and a specialist in Arctic climatology, to provide an explanation. Here is his response:

A vortex is a region within a fluid where the flow is mostly a rotational motion around a given axis. The Earth’s atmosphere, while a gas, nevertheless behaves broadly as a fluid. The polar vortex is the region of the atmosphere that contains the hemisphere’s cold air, rotating from west to east. In the Northern Hemisphere, the axis of the rotation is generally located in the Arctic. There is also a polar vortex in the Southern Hemisphere, in which the axis of rotation is around the Antarctic continent. This post discusses the Northern Hemisphere polar vortex, recognizing that the same basic processes work in the Southern Hemisphere. Continue reading

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

The ebb and flow of glacial lakes

800px-Quelccaya_Glacier

The Quelccaya Glacier in Peru is the largest glacier in the tropics. This glacier provides water to the city of Lima and contributes to hydroelectric power. In the last fifteen years, it has retreated nearly 195 feet per year. The increasing presence of glacial lakes around it reflects its unprecedented recession. Photo credit: Edu Bucher (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Quelccaya_Glacier.jpg)

People sometimes ask us what it means if the world’s glaciers melt because of warmer temperatures. As Earth’s climate warms, the fate of the world’s shrinking glaciers matters to people who depend on them for meltwater. An increase in glacial lakes may mean more water for the present but leaves many to wonder how reliable this source of water will be if glaciers continue to recede. But what are glacial lakes and how do they form? Are they a part of a normal, healthy glacier, or evidence of glacier decline? Continue reading

Is stored heat causing Arctic sea ice to freeze later each year?

Graph showing Arctic sea ice minimum dates from 1979 through 2012, derived from satelite records

This graph shows the yearly trend toward later Arctic sea ice minimum dates, but also illustrates the wide variability from year to year. Credit: NSIDC

A reader recently asked if the date of the annual Arctic sea ice minimum is shifting later each year. And if so, is that shift a sign of heat being stored in the Arctic region?

According to the satellite record, Arctic sea ice generally melts to its minimum annual extent between the first and third week of September, after which ice begins freezing again. In recent decades, the Arctic has been gaining heat: Air, land, and ocean temperatures in the region have been slowly rising, and scientists have noted dramatic reductions in summer sea ice extent, as this heat causes more ice to melt away. But is this heat causing sea ice to form later each fall? Continue reading