Antarctic sea ice extent appears to have broken the record low set last year. With a couple more weeks likely left in the melt season, the extent is expected to drop further before reaching its annual minimum. Much of the Antarctic coast is ice free, exposing the ice shelves that fringe the ice sheet to wave action and warmer conditions.
Overview of conditions
On February 13, 2023, Antarctic sea ice extent fell to 1.91 million square kilometers (737,000 square miles) (Figure 1a). This set a new record low, dropping below the previous record of 1.92 million square kilometers (741,000 square miles) set on February 25, 2022 (Figure 1b). This year represents only the second year that Antarctic extent has fallen below 2 million square kilometers (772,000 square miles). In past years, the annual minimum has occurred between February 18 and March 3, so further decline is expected.
Conditions in context
Extent has tracked well below last year’s melt season levels since mid-December. As noted in our previous post, a positive Southern Annular Mode has led to stronger-than-average westerly winds. Along with a strong Amundsen Sea Low, the weather conditions have brought warm air to the region on both sides of the Antarctic Peninsula. This has largely cleared out the ice cover in the Amundsen and Bellingshausen Seas, and reduced the sea ice extent in the northwestern Weddell Sea. Sea ice is patchy and nearly absent over a long stretch of the Pacific-facing coastline of Antarctica. Earlier studies have linked low sea ice cover with wave-induced stresses on the floating ice shelves that hem the continent, leading to break up of weaker areas.
Antarctic sea ice extent has been highly variable over the last several years. While 2022 and 2023 have had record low minimum extent, four out of the five highest minimums have occurred since 2008. Overall, the trend in Antarctic minimum extent over 1979 to 2023 is near zero. The current downward linear trend in the Antarctic minimum extent from 1979 to 2023 is 2,400 square kilometers (930 square miles) per year, or 0.9 percent per decade, which is currently not statistically significant. Nevertheless, the sharp decline in sea ice extent since 2016 has fueled research on potential causes and whether sea ice loss in the Southern Hemisphere is developing a significant downward trend.