Arctic sea ice at highest minimum since 2014

On September 16, Arctic sea ice likely reached its annual minimum extent of 4.72 million square kilometers (1.82 million square miles). The 2021 minimum is the twelfth lowest in the nearly 43-year satellite record. The last 15 years are the lowest 15 sea ice extents in the satellite record. The amount of multi-year ice (ice that has survived at least one summer melt season), is one of the lowest levels in the ice age record, which began in 1984.

In the Antarctic, sea ice extent is now falling rapidly, but it is still too early to assume that the maximum has been reached. The maximum for Antarctic sea ice typically occurs in late September or early October. However, Antarctic sea ice extent is highly variable near the maximum because of storms acting to expand or compact the extended ice edge.

Please note that this is a preliminary announcement. Changing winds or late-season melt could still reduce the Arctic ice extent, as happened in 2005 and 2010. NSIDC scientists will release a full analysis of the Arctic melt season, and discuss the Antarctic winter sea ice growth, in early October.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for September 15, 2020 was 3.74 million square kilometers (1.44 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that day. Sea Ice Index data. About the data||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|High-resolution image

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for September 16, 2021, was 4.72 million square kilometers (1.82 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that day. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

On September 16, sea ice reached its annual minimum extent of 4.72 million square kilometers (1.82 million square miles) (Figure 1). In response to the setting sun and falling temperatures, ice extent has begun rising and will continue to rise through autumn and winter. However, a shift in wind patterns or a period of late season melt could still push the ice extent lower.

The minimum extent was reached two days later than the 1981 to 2010 median minimum date of September 14. The interquartile range of minimum dates is September 11 to September 19.

Conditions in context

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent on September 15, 2020, along with several other recent years and the record minimum set in 2012. 2019 is shown in green, 2018 in orange, 2017 in brown, 2016 in magenta, and 2012 in dashed brown. The 1981 to 2010 median is in dark gray. The gray areas around the median line show the interquartile and interdecile ranges 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 on September 16, 2021, along with several other recent years and the record minimum set in 2012. 2021 is shown in blue, 2020 in green, 2019 in orange, 2018 in brown, 2017 in magenta, and 2012 in dashed brown. The 1981 to 2010 median is in dark gray. The gray areas around the median line show the interquartile and interdecile ranges of the data. Sea Ice Index data.

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

This year’s minimum set on September 16 was 1.33 million square kilometers (514,000 square miles) above the record minimum extent in the satellite era, which occurred on September 17, 2012 (Figure 2). It is also 1.50 million square kilometers (579,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average minimum extent, which is equivalent to twice the size of Texas.

In the 43-year-satellite record, 15 of the lowest minimums have all occurred in the last 15 years.

Multiyear ice extent is one of the lowest on record. First-year-ice coverage increased dramatically since last year, jumping from 1.58 million square kilometers (610,000 square miles) to 2.71 million square kilometers (1.05 million square miles). The increase in total extent from last year’s minimum to this year’s is hence comprised of first-year ice.

The overall, downward trend in the minimum extent from 1979 to 2021 is 13.0 percent per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average. The loss of sea ice is about 80,600 square kilometers (31,100 square miles) per year, equivalent to losing the size of the state of South Carolina or the country of Austria annually.

Fifteen lowest minimum Arctic sea ice extents (satellite record, 1979 to present)

Table 1. Fifteen lowest minimum Arctic sea ice extents (satellite record, 1979 to present)
RANK YEAR MINIMUM ICE EXTENT DATE
IN MILLIONS OF SQUARE KILOMETERS IN MILLIONS OF SQUARE MILES
1 2012 3.39 1.31 Sept. 17
2 2020 3.82 1.47 Sept. 16
3 2007
2016
2019
4.16
4.17
4.19
1.61
1.61
1.62
Sept. 18
Sept. 18
Sept. 10
6 2011 4.34 1.68 Sept. 11
7 2015 4.43 1.71 Sept. 9
8 2008
2010
4.59
4.62
1.77
1.78
Sept. 19
Sept. 21
10 2018
2017
4.66
4.67
1.80
1.80
Sept. 23
Sept. 13
12 2021 4.72 1.82 Sept. 16
14 2014
2013
5.03
5.05
1.94
1.95
Sept. 17
Sept. 15
15 2009 5.12 1.98 Sept. 13

Values within 40,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles) are considered tied. The 2020 value has changed from 3.74 to 3.82 million square kilometers (1.47 million square miles) when final analysis data updated near-real-time data. The 2020 date of minimum also changed from September 15 to September 16. 

On the home stretch

Sea ice loss during the first half of August stalled, though ice in the Beaufort Sea is finally starting to weaken. The Northern Sea Route appears closed off in 2021, despite being open each summer since 2008.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for XXXX XX, 20XX was X.XX million square kilometers (X.XX million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that day. Sea Ice Index data. About the data||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|High-resolution image

Figure 1a. Arctic sea ice extent for August 17, 2021 was 5.77 million square kilometers (2.23 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that day. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

Figure 1b. This satellite image of the Arctic Ocean on August 8, 2021, shows sea ice break up in the Northern Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. The magenta outline depicts smoke from Siberian fires moving over Arctic sea ice. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on board NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites took this image. ||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center/NASA Worldview|High-image resolution

Figure 1b. This satellite image of the Arctic Ocean on August 8, 2021, shows sea ice break up in the Northern Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. The magenta outline depicts smoke from Siberian fires moving over Arctic sea ice. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on board NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites took this image.

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

As of August 17, sea ice extent stood at 5.77 million square kilometers (2.23 million square miles), tracking above the last six years, as well as 2011, 2012, and 2007 (Figure 1a). Sea ice loss stalled between August 8 and 11 before picking up the pace again. While overall decline in total ice extent has slowed, the ice cover is becoming more diffuse within the northern Chukchi Sea and the western Beaufort Sea. Further reductions are likely in that region (Figure 1b). Ice motion during the first week of August pushed sea ice in the Beaufort Sea southwards, and ice within the Chukchi Sea moved towards the East Siberian Sea. While sea ice in the western Arctic has been more extensive than in recent summers, the Laptev Sea has lost more sea ice thus far than at any other time in the satellite record. However, ice remains south of Severnaya Zemlya in the Kara Sea, blocking the Northern Sea Route. Further south in the East Greenland Sea, there is only 119,000 square kilometers (45,900 square miles) of sea ice, the second least amount of ice for this time of year following 2002.

Conditions in context

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for XXXX XX, 20XX was X.XX million square kilometers (X.XX million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that day. Sea Ice Index data. About the data||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|High-resolution image

Figure 2a. Arctic sea ice extent for August 17, 2021 was 5.77 million square kilometers (2.23 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that day. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

Figure 2X. This plot shows the departure from average sea level pressure in the Arctic at the 925 hPa level, in degrees Celsius, for XXXmonthXX 20XX. Yellows and reds indicate higher than average air pressures; blues and purples indicate lower than average air pressures.||Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Laboratory| High-resolution image

Figure 2b. This plot shows the departure from average air temperature in the Arctic at the 925 hPa level, in degrees Celsius, between August 1 to 15, 2021. 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 Laboratory
High-resolution image

An unusually strong high-pressure system dominated over Siberia during the first half of August, extending towards the pole. This high pressure was coupled by low pressure over the Greenland Ice Sheet, promoting strong southwards ice motion from the center of the Arctic Ocean towards the North American and Siberian coastlines. Overall, air temperatures at the 925 millibar level (about 2,500 feet above the surface) were about 2 to 5 degrees Celsius (4 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over most of the Arctic Ocean, with air temperatures up to 7 degrees Celsius (13 degrees Fahrenheit) above average in the Kara Sea near Severnaya Zemlya (Figure 2b). However, while temperatures have mostly been higher than average, this is the time of the year when air temperatures start to drop as the sun dips lower on the horizon. Surface melting ends and melt ponds begin to refreeze, and thus remaining ice loss is primarily from below the sea ice, melting out the bottom from heat in the upper layer of the ocean.

Timing of melt onset is a mixed bag

Figure 3. This map shows the date of sea ice melt in the Arctic for the 2021 melt season. Shades in red depict up to 30 days earlier melt, while shades in blue depict up to 30 days later melt of sea ice. ||Credit: ?|High-resolution image

Figure 3. This map shows the date of sea ice melt onset in the Arctic for the 2021 melt season compared to the 1981 to 2010 average. Shades in red depict sea ice melt up to 30 days earlier than average, while shades in blue depict melt up to 30 days later than average.

Credit: Walt Meier, NSIDC; data courtesy J. Miller, NASA Goddard
High-resolution image

This summer sea ice retreated early within the Laptev Sea. This was in part a result of earlier melt onset, starting more than a month earlier than the 1981 to 2010 average over parts of the Laptev Sea (Figure 3). Earlier melt onset allows for earlier loss of the winter snow cover and earlier development of melt ponds that reduce the surface reflectivity, known as albedo. A lower surface albedo enhances summer ice melt by absorbing more of the sun’s energy. Melt this summer was also unusually early within Hudson Bay and Davis Strait, on average 16 days earlier. The sea ice within the Barents Sea near Franz Josef Land and within the Kara Sea around Novaya Zemlya also started to melt more than a month earlier than average. On the other hand, melt was about two to three weeks later than average in the northern Beaufort Sea, despite earlier melt observed near the coast. This later melt onset may have helped to reduce ice loss in the region this summer. Overall, pan-Arctic melt onset was five days earlier than average.

Multiyear ice near record low

Figure 4a. This graph shows the dire state of multiyear ice in the Arctic as of week 31 of the 2021 melt season, comparing this year to the satellite record that began in 1979. ||Credit: J. Stroeve, National Snow and Ice Data Center |High-resolution image

Figure 4a. This graph shows the near record-low amount of multiyear ice in the Arctic as of week 31 (July 30 to August 5) of the 2021 melt season, comparing this year to the same week in previous years of the satellite record that began in 1979. Historical data through 2020 are provided by Tschudi et al., 2019a and quicklook data for 2021 by Tschudi et al., 2019b

Credit: Robbie Mallett
High-resolution image

comparison of various melt years and multiyear ice area

Figure 4b. This graph compares the area of multiyear ice in the Arctic between 2021, 2020, and the average from 2008 to 2019 as it melts out throughout the spring and summer. The grey lines depict previous years for general comparison. The area is calculated by adding all pixels in the Arctic that are older than one year based on the NSIDC ice age data product, and multiplying by the area per pixel of each grid cell. Historical data through 2020 are provided by Tschudi et al., 2019a and quicklook data for 2021 by Tschudi et al., 2019b

Credit: Robbie Mallett
High-resolution image

While the multiyear ice that advected into the Beaufort Sea has helped to stabilize ice loss in that region, multiyear ice for 2021 in the Arctic as a whole is at a record low. Based on ice age classification, the proportion of multiyear ice in the Arctic during the first week of August is at 1.6 million square kilometers (618,000 million square miles). The loss of the multiyear ice since the early 1980s started in earnest after the 2007 record low minimum sea ice cover that summer, and while there have been slight recoveries since then, it has not recovered to values seen in the 1980s, 1990s, or early 2000s. This loss of the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic Ocean is one of the reasons why the summer sea ice extent has not recovered, even when weather conditions are favorable for ice retention.

2021 Arctic sea ice minimum forecasts

projections for 2021 sea ice minimum compared to other years

Figure 5. This figure shows Arctic sea ice extent projections for the 2021 minimum using data through August 1, 2021. The projections are based on the average loss rates for the 1981 to 2010 average in red, the 2007 to 2020 average in green, 2012 rates in dotted purple, and 2006 rates in dotted teal.

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

In about three or four weeks, Arctic sea ice will reach its minimum extent for the 2021 melt season. A community effort, called the Sea Ice Prediction Network (SIPN), each years runs the Sea Ice Outlook. The Outlook is a forum for researchers and other interested people to provide a seasonal forecast of the September monthly average extent and the daily seasonal minimum. One submission by Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis (ASINA) team member Walt Meier uses ice extent loss rates from previous years to project this year’s ice loss through the end of September (Figure 5). Projections of the minimum and September average extent are initially submitted using data through the beginning of May as starting points and updated Outlooks can be provided in following months as conditions evolve. Figure 5 shows the latest projection starting with observations on August 1, submitted to the August Outlook. The projections are based on the average loss rates for four different rates using data from previous years. The August Outlook report will be published later this month.

Further reading

Babb, D. G., J. C. Landy, D. G. Barber, and R. J. Galley. 2019. Winter sea ice export from the Beaufort Sea as a preconditioning mechanism for enhanced summer melt: A case study of 2016. Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, 124, 6575– 6600. doi:10.1029/2019JC015053.

Mallett, R. D. C., J. C. Stroeve, S. B. Cornish, et al. 2021. Record winter winds in 2020/21 drove exceptional Arctic sea ice transport. Communication Earth Environment 2, 149. doi:10.1038/s43247-021-00221-8.

Neck and neck

As of July 13, Arctic sea ice extent was tracking just below the 2012 record and very close to 2020, the years with the lowest and second lowest (tied with 2007) minimum ice extent in the satellite record. The Laptev Sea is essentially ice free. Multiyear ice persists close to the Alaskan shoreline near Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow), and low atmospheric pressure persists over the central Arctic Ocean, forcing a pronounced cyclonic (counterclockwise) ice motion pattern.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for XXXX XX, 20XX was X.XX million square kilometers (X.XX million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that day. Sea Ice Index data. About the data||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|High-resolution image

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for July 13, 2021 was 7.95 million square kilometers (3.07 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that day. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

Figure 1b. This map shows Arctic sea ice concentration based on data from the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer 2 (AMSR2) data. ||Credit: University of Bremen|High-resolution image

Figure 1b. This map shows Arctic sea ice concentration based on data from the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer 2 (AMSR2) data. Yellows indicate sea ice concentration of 75 percent, dark purples indicate sea ice concentration of 100 percent.

Credit: University of Bremen
High-resolution image

Sea ice loss continued at a brisk pace through the first two weeks of July. On July 13, Arctic sea ice extent stood at 7.95 million square kilometers (3.07 million square miles). This is 1.98 million square kilometers (764,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average. This extent is also just below the 2012 record and very close to 2020, the years with the lowest and second lowest (tied with 2007) minimum in the satellite record, respectively. By July 13, the Laptev Sea area, which began melting out much earlier than is typical for this time of year, was almost completely free of sea ice. This is broadly similar to last summer’s pattern, which holds the record for the lowest sea ice extent within the Laptev Sea at this time of year. The Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast is not yet ice free, and not really even close; as shown in the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer 2 (AMSR-2) imagery from the University of Bremen (Figure 1b), a substantial area of high concentration ice persists north of the Taymyr Peninsula and west of the Severnaya Zemlaya islands (the traditional “choke point”). The Northwest Passage through the channels of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago also remains choked with ice. Continuing the pattern discussed in our previous post, sea ice remains close to the shore north of Utqiaġvik, AK.

Conditions in context

Figure 2X. This plot shows average sea level pressure in the Arctic in millibars for XXXmonthXX 20XX. Yellows and reds indicate high air pressure; blues and purples indicate low pressure.||Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Laboratory| High-resolution image

Figure 2a. This plot shows average sea level pressure in the Arctic in millibars from July 1 to 12, 2021. Yellows and reds indicate high air pressure; blues and purples indicate low pressure.

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

Figure 2c. This plot shows the direction of sea ice motion for the period between June 25 and July 1, 2021.||Credit: M. Tschudi, W. Meier, and Stewart, NASA NSIDC DAAC|High-resolution image

Figure 2b. This plot shows the direction of sea ice motion for the period between June 25 and July 1, 2021. Data are from the Quicklook Arctic Weekly EASE-Grid Sea Ice Motion Vector, a NASA NSIDC DAAC data product.

Credit: M. Tschudi, W. Meier, and Stewart/NASA National Snow and Ice Data Center Distributed Active Archive Center (NSIDC DAAC)
High-resolution image

Figure 2X. This plot shows the departure from average sea level pressure in the Arctic at the 925 hPa level, in degrees Celsius, for XXXmonthXX 20XX. Yellows and reds indicate higher than average air pressures; blues and purples indicate lower than average air pressures.||Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Laboratory| High-resolution image

Figure 2c. This plot shows the departure from average sea level pressure in the Arctic at the 925 hPa level, in degrees Celsius, from July 1 to 12, 2021. Yellows and reds indicate higher than average air pressures; blues and purples indicate lower than average air pressures.

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

A pattern of unusually strong low pressure near the North Pole continued to dominate the average atmospheric circulation pattern for the first 12 days of July (Figure 2a). The pressure at the center of the system was up to 15 millibars below average. It is not unusual to see such a persistent pattern of low pressure set up near the pole in summer, but the center of low pressure is usually located towards the Bering Strait side of the central Arctic. Past research has shown that the low-pressure region is maintained by cyclones moving into the region from Eurasia and as well as the generation of lows (cyclogenesis) over the Arctic Ocean itself.

This persistent low pressure pattern has had a pronounced effect on sea ice motion based on NSIDC DAAC data (Figure 2b).  Since winds blow counterclockwise around low pressure centers (in the Northern Hemisphere) the sea ice motion has taken on the same counterclockwise pattern, the opposite of the long-term average. This may have an effect on the compaction and survival of multiyear ice later this season.

Compared to averages over the 1981 to 2010 period, air temperatures at the 925 level (about 2,500 feet above the surface) are mostly below average over most of the Arctic Ocean, particularly over north central Russia, part of the Kara Sea, northeastern Russia, Alaska, and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (Figure 2c). Scandinavia has seen record high temperatures this summer; for the first half of July, 925 hPa temperatures in this area were up to 6 degrees Celsius (11 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1981 to 2010 average, and relatively warm conditions extended into the largely ice-free Barents Sea. The extreme warmth that has plagued the Pacific Northwest has also influenced much of western Canada and has been linked to a string of forest fires in British Columbia.

Comparison to previous years

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 and the record low year. 2021 is shown in blue, 2020 in green, 2019 in orange, 2018 in brown, 2015 in magenta, and 2012 in dashed brown. The 1981 to 2010 median is in dark gray. The gray areas around the median line show the interquartile and interdecile ranges of the data. Sea Ice Index data.||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|High-resolution image

Figure 3. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of July 13, 2021, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years and the record low year. 2021 is shown in blue, 2020 in green, 2019 in orange, 2018 in brown, 2017 in magenta, and 2012 in dashed red. The 1981 to 2010 median is in dark gray. The gray areas around the median line show the interquartile and interdecile ranges of the data. Sea Ice Index data.

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

The brisk pace of ice loss for the first half of July was at 124,000 square kilometers (47,900 square miles) per day, exceeding the long-term average of 80,000 square kilometers (30,900 square miles) per day. From June 1 through July 13, the Arctic Ocean lost a total of 1.73 million square kilometers (668,000 square miles) of sea ice. This is roughly equivalent in size to the state of Florida.

Thick ice in the Beaufort Sea

Figure 4a. This map shows the age of sea ice for the June 25 to July 1 period in the Arctic. Credit: M. Tschudi, W. Meier, and Stewart, NASA NSIDC DAAC|High-resolution image

Figure 4a. This map shows the age of Arctic sea ice for the June 25 to July 1 period. Note the lingering multiyear ice north of the Alaskan coast.

Credit: M. Tschudi, W. Meier, and Stewart, NASA NSIDC DAAC
High-resolution image

Figure 4b. This true-color composite image taken by the NASA Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensor shows sea ice off the coast of Alaska in the Beaufort Sea. ||Credit: NASA Worldview|High-resolution image

Figure 4b. This true-color image shows sea ice off the coast of Alaska in the Beaufort Sea, taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensor on the NASA Terra satellite on June 26, 2021. The more bluish ice—toward the right side of the image, with the bigger visible floes—is the multiyear ice. The grayish ice, more towards the coast is first-year ice.

Credit: NASA Worldview
High-resolution image

While ice extent is very low for the Arctic Ocean as a whole, with a nearly ice-free Laptev Sea, ice extent in the Beaufort Sea remains extensive and in areas extends to the Alaskan shores. This is explained by the presence of a tongue of fairly thick multiyear ice in the region that is resistant to melting out (Figure 4a). Some of this ice is at least four years old. As shown in a study in press led by R. Mallett and colleagues, winds associated with a period of strong high pressure transported this tongue of ice into the Beaufort Sea this past winter from the central Arctic Ocean and the shores of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The image from the NASA Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer for June 26, shows the difference between first-year ice close to the shore and the high concentration of multiyear ice farther north (Figure 4b). Whether this thick ice melts away through the remainder of this summer in the fairly warm waters of the Beaufort Sea remains to be seen; if it does, it will reduce the Arctic’s remaining store of multiyear ice.

Further Reading

Serreze, M. C. and A.P. Barrett. 2008. The summer cyclone maximum over the central Arctic Ocean. Journal of Climate, 21, 1048-1065, doi:10.1175/2007JCLI1810.1.

Keeping pace with the record holder

At the end of the first week of July, Arctic sea ice extent was tracking at record low for this time of year. July is the month with most rapid sea ice decline. As in most of the years in the past decade, June saw rapid ice loss in Hudson Bay, Baffin Bay, the Siberian coast, and the Chukchi Sea. However, ice remains extensive north of Alaska.

Overview of conditions

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 average extent for that month. 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 2021 was 10.71 million square kilometers (4.14 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that month. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

Loss of Arctic sea ice in June was relatively steady and rapid. The monthly average extent for June 2021 was 10.71 million square kilometers (4.14 million square miles). This was 300,000 square kilometers (116,000 square miles) above the record low for the month set in 2016 and 1.05 million square kilometers (405,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average. The average extent for the month ranks sixth lowest in the passive microwave satellite record. Large open-water areas developed in the Laptev and East Siberian Seas, and warm winds pushed the ice edge north in the Kara and Barents Seas near Novaya Zemlya. The Fram Straight region and the area to the north of northeastern Greenland had an unusually low ice concentration as the month drew to a close because of both pre-existing thin ice and unusually warm weather. By contrast, by June’s end, sea ice still persisted along the northern coast of Alaska.

Conditions in context

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of XXXXX XX, 20XX, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years and the record low year. 2021 is shown in blue, 2020 in green, 2019 in orange, 2018 in brown, 2015 in magenta, and 2012 in dashed brown. The 1981 to 2010 median is in dark gray. The gray areas around the median line show the interquartile and interdecile ranges 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 6, 2021, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years and the record low year. 2021 is shown in blue, 2020 in green, 2019 in orange, 2018 in brown, 2017 in magenta, and 2012 in dashed red. The 1981 to 2010 median is in dark gray. The gray areas around the median line show the interquartile and interdecile ranges of the data. Sea Ice Index data.

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

This plot shows average sea level pressure in the Arctic in millibars for June 2021.

Figure 2b. This plot shows average sea level pressure in the Arctic in millibars for June 2021. Yellows and reds indicate high air pressure; blues and purples indicate low pressure.

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

Average Arctic Air Temp plot

Figure 2c. This plot shows the departure from average air temperature in the Arctic at the 925 hPa level, in degrees Celsius, for June 2021. 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 Laboratory
High-resolution image

Unusually strong low pressure (up to 10 hPa below average) near the North Pole dominated the average atmospheric circulation pattern for June (Figure 2b). High pressure also hovered over western Europe, driving winds northeastward over the Norwegian Sea and into the Barents and Kara Seas. Temperatures at the 925 hPa level over Scandinavia were high as a result, averaging 2 to 5 degrees Celsius (4 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average (Figure 2c). Above average temperatures were also present over northeastern Siberia along the Laptev and East Siberian Sea coast, but cool conditions prevailed over central Alaska and central Siberia. Most of the Arctic Ocean was 1 to 3 degrees Celsius (2 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit) above average, although a region near the Severnaya Zemlya islands was near average. Air temperatures near strong low pressure areas over the Arctic Ocean have historically been associated with relatively cool conditions. However, June temperatures in the vicinity of the low-pressure pattern were near the long-term average.

June 2021 compared to previous years

Figure 3. Monthly XXXXX ice extent for 1979 to 20XX shows a decline of X.X percent per decade.||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center| High-resolution image

Figure 3. Monthly June ice extent for 1979 to 2021 shows a decline of 4.0 percent per decade.

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

The pace of ice loss for the month was faster than average; the Arctic lost a total of 2.39 million square kilometers (923,000 square miles) during the month of June. This corresponds to an average ice loss of 79,600 square kilometers (30,700 square miles) per day compared to the 1981 to 2010 average loss of 56,200 square kilometers (21,700 square miles) per day. Through 2021, the linear rate of decline for June sea ice extent is 4.0 percent per decade. This corresponds to 47,000 square kilometers (18,000 square miles) per year. The cumulative June ice loss over the 43-year satellite record is 1.99 million square kilometers (768,000 square miles), based on the difference in linear trend values in 2021 and 1979. The loss of ice since 1979 in June is equivalent to about three times the size of Texas.

“Last Ice Area” not lasting all that well

Figure X. Sea ice conditions in the Wandel Sea during the summer of 2020. a), locator map and sea ice concentration map of northern Greenland area in August 2020 as the RV Polarstern transited the area (marked by the red line). b), sea ice concentration for the area marked by the black outline over the course of the summer that year, derived from NSIDC Climate Data Record for sea ice. In most years since 1978, sea ice concentration average is above 90% (solid blue line) throughout the summer.

Figure 4. This map and graph shows sea ice conditions in the Wandel Sea during the summer of 2020. The top map includes a locator map and a map of sea ice concentration in the northern Greenland area in August 2020 as the RV Polarstern transited the area (marked by the red line). The bottom graph shows sea ice concentration for the area marked by the black outline over the course of the 2020 summer, derived from NSIDC Climate Data Record for sea ice. In most years since 1978, sea ice concentration average is above 90 percent (solid blue line) throughout the summer.

Credit: Schweiger et al. 2021
High-resolution image

The area north of Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago has recently been referred to as the “Last Ice Area” (LIA) because ice has persisted there in late summer decades while in other regions ice largely melts away. In the LIA, ice is the thickest and oldest in the Arctic, and ice circulation tends to keep ice pressed against the northern coasts of these islands. However, in the summer of 2020, the easternmost portion of the LIA, know as the Wandel Sea, had record low sea ice concentration (Figure 4). This provided easy access to the interior Arctic ice pack for the icebreaker RV Polarstern last summer as it returned to complete research associated with the year-long Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) expedition.

A recent paper by colleagues from University of Washington in Seattle, and the University of Toronto Mississauga explains that the record low ice concentration in the Wandel Sea was caused by both thinning of the thick multi-year sea ice and unusual wind-forced ice motion away from the area, particularly in mid- to late August. Changes in the winds replaced the old ice with thinner first-year ice. The authors note that the unusual winds were a significant factor, likely a result of natural variability but that persistent long-term thinning trends in the LIA multi-year sea ice pack were also partly to blame. Winds would not have had as large of an impact in previous decades when the pack was thicker on average.

Antarctic notes

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 and the record low year. 2021 is shown in blue, 2020 in green, 2019 in orange, 2018 in brown, 2015 in magenta, and 2012 in dashed brown. The 1981 to 2010 median is in dark gray. The gray areas around the median line show the interquartile and interdecile ranges of the data. Sea Ice Index data.||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|High-resolution image

Figure 5. The graph above shows Antarctic sea ice extent as of July 6, 2021, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years and the record low year. 2021 is shown in blue, 2020 in green, 2019 in orange, 2018 in brown, 2017 in magenta, and 2014 in dashed red. The 1981 to 2010 median is in dark gray. The gray areas around the median line show the interquartile and interdecile ranges of the data. Sea Ice Index data.

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

Sea ice in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica was well above the 1981 to 2010 average extent in June, rising above the ninetieth percentile near the end of the month. Areas north of Dronning Maud Land, Wilkes Land, and the Ross and Amundsen Seas were above average in extent, while regions on either side of the Antarctic Peninsula—the Bellingshausen Sea and the northwestern Weddell Sea—were below average.

The atmospheric circulation pattern for the month was characterized by a strong Amundsen Sea low pressure area (10 to 15 millibars lower than the average for the month) and a weak “wave-3 pattern” around the rest of the Southern Ocean. A wave-3 pattern consists of three high-pressure areas (in this case, the Weddell Sea, Indian Ocean, and southwest Pacific) interspersed with three low-pressure regions (the Amundsen Sea, the areas south of South Africa, and the area south of Australia).

Further reading

Schweiger, A. J., M. Steele, and J. Zhang et al. 2021. Accelerated sea ice loss in the Wandel Sea points to a change in the Arctic’s Last Ice Area. Communications Earth & Environment 2, 122 (2021), doi:10.1038/s43247-021-00197-5.

The dark winter ends

The seasonal maximum extent of Arctic sea ice has passed, and with the passing of the vernal equinox, the sun has risen at the north pole. While there are plenty of cold days ahead, the long polar night is over. Arctic sea ice extent averaged for March 2021 was the ninth lowest in the satellite record. With little ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, harp seal pups are struggling. At month’s end, Antarctic sea ice extent was slightly above average.

Overview of conditions

Arctic sea ice extent March 2021

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for March 2021 was 14.64 million square kilometers (5.65 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that month. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

Arctic sea ice extent averaged for March 2021 was 14.64 million square kilometers (5.65 million square miles). This was 350,000 square kilometers (135,000 square miles) above the record minimum set in 2017 and 790,000 square kilometers (305,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average. The average extent ranks ninth lowest in the satellite record, which began in 1979. Regionally, extent at the end of the month was below average on the Pacific side in the Bering sea and on the Atlantic side in the northern Barents Sea and well south of the Arctic in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Elsewhere, extent was close to the average, though generally somewhat lower. Ice loss during March was primarily in the Sea of Okhotsk, the southern edge of the Bering Sea, east of Svalbard, and in the northern part of the East Greenland Sea. The ice edge expanded in the southern part of the East Greenland Sea and to the north of Svalbard.

Conditions in context

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 and the record low year. 2020 to 2021 is shown in blue, 2019 to 2020 in green, 2018 to 2019 in orange, 2017 to 2018 in brown, 2016 to 2017 in magenta, and 2012 to 2013 in dashed brown. The 1981 to 2010 median is in dark gray. The gray areas around the median line show the interquartile and interdecile ranges 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 April 5, 2021, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years and the 2012 record low. 2020 to 2021 is shown in blue, 2019 to 2020 in green, 2018 to 2019 in orange, 2017 to 2018 in brown, 2016 to 2017 in magenta, and 2011 to 2012 in dashed brown. The 1981 to 2010 median is in dark gray. The gray areas around the median line show the interquartile and interdecile ranges of the data. Sea Ice Index data.

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

average air temperature over Arctic

Figure 2b. This plot shows the departure from average air temperature in the Arctic at the 925 hPa level, in degrees Celsius, for March 2021. 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

Average sea level pressure March 2021, Arctic

Figure 2c. This plot shows average sea level pressure in the Arctic in millibars March 2021. Yellows and reds indicate high air pressure; blues and purples indicate low pressure.

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

During March, sea ice extent tracked well below average, but as noted in our previous post, the seasonal maximum in extent, reached on March 21, one day after the vernal equinox, was only the seventh lowest in the passive microwave satellite record. Since ice extent in March increases through the first part of the month and then decreases thereafter, the daily average growth rate is not a very meaningful statistic.

Air temperatures at the 925 mb level (about 2,500 feet above sea level) in March were up to 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) below average across northern Eurasia and extending east over Alaska. Temperatures were 1 to 3 degrees Celsius (2 to 5 degrees) Celsius above average over the Atlantic side of the Arctic, with a tongue of above-average temperatures extending into the Beaufort Sea (Figure 2b). The associated atmospheric circulation for March features low pressure over the northern North Atlantic, with the lowest pressure focused over the Barents Sea (Figure 2c). After remaining in a fairly persistent negative phase for much of the past winter, the Arctic Oscillation index in March was mostly positive, but with large fluctuations.

March 2021 compared to previous years

Trend line of sea ice decline for March

Figure 3. Monthly March ice extent for 1979 to 2021 shows a decline of 2.6 percent per decade.

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

Through 2021, the linear rate of decline for March sea ice extent, relative to the 1981 to 2010 average extent, is 2.6 percent per decade, which corresponds to 39,700 square kilometers (15,300 square miles) per year, about the size of the US states of Maryland and Delaware combined or the country of Switzerland. The cumulative March ice loss over the 43-year satellite record is 1.67 million square kilometers (645,000 square miles), based on the difference in linear trend values in 2021 and 1979, which is equivalent in size to the state of Alaska.

Troubles in the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Figure 4. A harp seal pup rests on sea ice. Harp seal pups are born with long white fur that helps them absorb sunlight and stay warm while they’re still developing blubber. Pups shed their white fur after about three to four weeks old. Credit: Flickr/laika_ac | High-resolution image

Figure 4. A harp seal pup rests on sea ice. Harp seal pups are born with long white fur that helps them absorb sunlight and stay warm while they develop blubber. Pups shed their white fur after about three to four weeks old.

Credit: Flickr/laika_ac
High-resolution image

This winter ice extent was far below average in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which is an outlet for the US Great Lakes located northeast of New Brunswick. The unusually low sea ice extent is leading to the death of many harp seal pups. In December, harp seals arrive at the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, and then give birth to pups under snow on the ice cover.  With so little sea ice, many pups were forced to cluster on shore where they are vulnerable to predators, leading to high pup mortality. It is widely viewed that with continued warming and loss of sea ice, harp seal populations will decline.

Antarctic sea ice on the rise

Antarctic sea ice extent for March 2021

Figure 5. Antarctic sea ice extent for March 2021 was 4.45 million square kilometers (1.72 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that month. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

After reaching its seasonal minimum extent on February 21, Antarctic sea ice extent climbed rapidly, passing the long-term average daily extent on March 1. The rate of growth was very rapid between February 25 and March 8, expanding by over one million square kilometers (386,000 square miles) in the 12-day period. This is the fastest expansion in the four-decade record of sea ice extent for this time of year, and was caused by a rapid refreezing of the western Amundsen Sea and eastern Ross Sea areas. Since early March, growth has slowed to a more typical, slightly below-average pace. The Amundsen and eastern Ross Seas remain well above the average extent for the season. Sea ice extent in the Bellingshausen Sea and Weddell Sea are slightly below average. At the end of the month, Antarctic ice extent neared 5.5 million square kilometers (2.1 million square miles).

Arctic sea ice reaches an uneventful maximum

Arctic sea ice appears to have reached its maximum extent on March 21, 2021, tying for seventh lowest in the 43-year satellite record. NSIDC will post a detailed analysis of the 2020 to 2021 winter sea ice conditions in our regular monthly post in early April.

Overview of conditions

Sea ice extent maximum for 2021

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for March 21, 2021, was 14.77 million square kilometers (5.70 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that day. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

On March 21, 2021, Arctic sea ice likely reached its maximum extent for the year, at 14.77 million square kilometers (5.70 million square miles), tying for the seventh lowest extent in the satellite record with 2007. This year’s maximum extent is 870,000 square kilometers (336,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average maximum of 15.64 million square kilometers (6.04 million square miles) and 360,000 square kilometers (139,000 square miles) above the lowest maximum of 14.41 million square kilometers (5.56 million square miles) set on March 7, 2017. Prior to 2019, the four lowest maximum extents occurred from 2015 to 2018.

The date of the maximum this year, March 21, was nine days later than the 1981 to 2010 median date of March 12.

Table 1. Ten lowest maximum Arctic sea ice extents (satellite record, 1979 to present)

Rank Year In millions of square kilometers In millions of square miles Date
1 2017 14.41 5.56 March 7
2 2018 14.47 5.59 March 17
3 2016
2015
14.51
14.52
5.60
5.61
March 23
February 25
5 2011
2006
14.67
14.68
5.66
5.67
March 9
March 12
7 2007
2021
14.77
14.77
5.70
5.70
March 12
March 21
9 2019 14.82 5.72 March 13
10 2005 14.95 5.77 March 12

For the Arctic maximum, which typically occurs in March, the uncertainty range is ~34,000 square kilometers (13,000 square miles), meaning that extents within this range must be considered effectively equal.

Final analysis pending

Please note this is a preliminary announcement of the sea ice maximum. At the beginning of April, NSIDC scientists will release a full analysis of winter conditions in the Arctic, along with monthly data for March.

A lopsided January

Arctic sea ice extent for January 2021 tracked below average, with the monthly average finishing sixth lowest in the satellite record. While air temperatures were well above average on the Atlantic side of the Arctic, air temperatures were strongly below average over Siberia. A warm spell hit the Canadian Arctic, and rain fell on snow over Nunavut, Canada. According to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2020 tied for the highest global annual temperature with 2016.

Overview of conditions

Arctic sea ice extent Jan 2021

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for January 2021 was 13.48 million square kilometers (5.20 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that month. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

Arctic sea ice extent averaged for January 2021 was 13.48 million square kilometers (5.20 million square miles). This was 400,000 square kilometers (154,000 square miles) above the record low set in 2018 and 940,000 square kilometers (363,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average. Extent continued to track below average in the Barents Sea, Baffin Bay, Davis Strait, and the Labrador Sea. Extent was also below average on the Russian side of the Bering Sea, but elsewhere the ice edge was near its average location for this time of year. Ice extent expanded through the month on the Alaskan side of the Bering Sea and within the Sea of Okhotsk. Ice growth was also prominent in the northern Barents Sea west of Svalbard.

Conditions in context

Arctic sea ice extent compared to other years

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of February 1, 2021, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years and the record low year. 2020 to 2021 is shown in blue, 2019 to 2020 in green, 2018 to 2019 in orange, 2017 to 2018 in brown, 2016 to 2017 in magenta, and 2012 to 2013 in dashed brown. The 1981 to 2010 median is in dark gray. The gray areas around the median line show the interquartile and interdecile ranges of the data. Sea Ice Index data.

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

Difference from average air temperature over Arctic for January 2021

Figure 2b. This plot shows the departure from average air temperature in the Arctic at the 925 hPa level, in degrees Celsius, for January 2021. 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

Average Arctic sea level pressure, January 2021

Figure 2c. This plot shows average sea level pressure in the Arctic in millibars for January 2021. Yellows and reds indicate high air pressure; blues and purples indicate low pressure.

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

During January, sea ice extent tracked below measured values for most years except 2017 and 2016, but by the middle of the month, extent rose above the average for the last 10 years, from 2011 to 2020. Overall, in January the Arctic gained 1.42 million square kilometers (548,000 square miles) of ice.

Air temperatures at the 925 mb level (about 2,500 feet above sea level) in January were considerably above average over the Atlantic side of the Arctic, especially in the Baffin Bay region (up to 8 degrees Celsius or 14 degrees Fahrenheit) above average. Temperatures were 2 to 6 degrees Celsius (4 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over Canada and Alaska. By sharp contrast, air temperatures were between 6 and 8 degrees Celsius (11 and 14 degrees Fahrenheit) below average over Siberia. The atmospheric circulation associated with this lopsided pattern was dominated by high pressure over Siberia and low pressure over the Northern North Atlantic and Pacific Ocean.

January 2021 compared to previous years

Graph showing decline of sea ice for January from 1979 to 2021

Figure 3. Monthly January ice extent for 1979 to 2021 shows a decline of 3.1 percent per decade.

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

Through 2021, the linear rate of decline for January sea ice extent is 3.1 percent per decade, which corresponds to 44,700 square kilometers (17,300 square miles) per year, about twice the size of New Jersey. The cumulative January ice loss over the 43-year satellite record is 1.88 million square kilometers (726,000 square miles), based on the difference in linear trend values in 2021 and 1979.

2020 ties for the warmest year on record

Time-series of global annual mean air temperatures from 1880 through 2020.

Figure 4a. This time-series shows global annual average air temperatures from 1880 through 2020.

Credit: NASA
High-resolution image

Figure 4b. The plot on the left shows annual air temperature departures in 2020 from the 1951 to 1980 average for the Arctic, while the plot on the right shows air temperature departures for Antarctica for the same time period. ||Credit: NASA | High-resolution image

Figure 4b. The plot on the left shows annual air temperature departures in 2020 from the 1951 to 1980 average for the Arctic, while the plot on the right shows air temperature departures for Antarctica for the same time period.

Credit: NASA
High-resolution image

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the analysis of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), the global surface temperature for 2020 tied with 2016 as the highest in the instrumental record, at 1.02 degrees Celsius (1.84 degrees Fahrenheit) above than the baseline of 1951 to 1980 (Figure 4a). While both institutions use the same raw temperature record in their analysis, NOAA does not infer temperatures in the polar regions where observations are not as numerous. Whether travel restrictions may have opposed warming by reducing particulate air pollution and global CO2 emissions remains unclear. Year-to-year variability in global air temperatures is known to be partly tied to the phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). When ENSO is positive (El-Niño), more heat is exchanged between the ocean and the atmosphere, especially in the Pacific, leading to a higher global average temperature, such as in 1998 and 2016. While 2020 started in with modest El Niño conditions, it ended with La Niña conditions.

In the Arctic, NASA GISS analysis suggests that 2020 ranked as the warmest year on record, with extremely high temperatures relative to average over the Siberian Arctic; Temperatures were 6.4 degrees Celsius (11.5 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1951 to 1980 average. The region around north central Siberia was especially warm (Figure 4b). The North Atlantic, east of Greenland, is an exception to the Northern Hemisphere warmth. Previous studies have linked relatively cool conditions in this area to weakening of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), related to an increase in freshwater input to the North Atlantic from Greenland’s melt water. A new study suggests other factors are also involved, including more low-level clouds that reduce the amount of incoming sunlight in that region.

Over the Antarctic, air temperatures were mostly above average during 2020, with particularly warm conditions over the West Antarctic Peninsula and the Bellingshausen Sea. This contrasts with below average temperatures over the Weddell Sea.

Leaky Arctic plug

Nares Strait on map

Figure 5a. This map shows the Nares Strait in relation to Greenland, Ellesmere Island (a northernmost Canadian Island). The ice arch forms at the entrance into Nares Strait from the Lincoln Sea.

Credit: Moore et al., 2021, Nature Communications
High-resolution image

collapse of north water polynya in summer 2020

Figure 5b. These two images show the collapse of the North Water Polynya between June 24 and July 4, 2020.

Credit: Moore et al., 2021, Nature Communications
High-resolution image

The amount of Arctic sea ice can be reduced through more summer melt, less winter growth, or export out of the Arctic Ocean through various passages, notably Fram Strait and the narrow passages in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Nares Strait, a passage between Ellesmere Island and Greenland that connects the Lincoln Sea with Baffin Bay, is one of the last refuges for old thick ice (Figure 5a). Most of the year, ice dams, or ice arches, prevent ice in the Lincoln Sea moving through Nares Strait. However, a recent study shows that the seasonal duration of the ice arch has fallen from typically 200 to 300 days annually between 1997 and 2001 to about 150 days or less since 2003. This allows some of the old and thick ice to move southwards where it melts out in Baffin Bay. An increased flow of thick, multiyear ice into northern Baffin Bay may also negatively impact the formation of the North Water Polynya, also called Pikialasorsuaq, which is an important biologically rich open water area that plays an essential role for Inuit communities (Figure 5b).

Warm winters, more rain

Climate models predict that in coming decades more Arctic precipitation will fall as rain instead of snow, both on sea ice and land. When rain falls on a snowpack in winter, it can refreeze, forming a hard icy layer. On land, caribou and muskoxen cannot break through this hard icy crust to forage. Icy layers can also form when air temperatures rise above freezing during winter and then fall below freezing. One such warm spell recently hit the Canadian Arctic in the area of Iqaluit, Nunavut, and local observers experienced rain. Unseasonably warm conditions lasted until the last week of January.

Further reading

Keil, P. et al. 2020. Multiple drivers of the North Atlantic warming hole. Nature Climate Change. doi:10.1038/s41558-020-0819-8.

Moore, G. W. K., Howell, S. E. L., Brady, M. et al. 2021. Anomalous collapses of Nares Strait ice arches leads to enhanced export of Arctic sea ice. Nature Communications 12, 1. doi:10.1038/s41467-020-20314-w.

Persistently peculiar

Entering December, which is the start of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, sea ice extent remains far below average, dominated by the lack of ice on both the Pacific and Atlantic sides of the Arctic Ocean. As was the case for October, air temperatures averaged for November were well above average over much of the Arctic Ocean, notably over open water areas. Averaged for the month, total ice extent for November 2020 was the second lowest in the satellite record.

Overview of conditions

sea ice extent for Nov 2020

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for November 2020 was 8.99 million square kilometers (3.47 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that month. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

As reported in our previous post, sea ice extent averaged for October 2020 was the lowest in the satellite record. While extent increased through November as part of the annual cycle of autumn and winter growth, the November average extent of 8.99 million square kilometers (3.47 million square miles), ended up as second lowest in the satellite record for the month, just above 2016. This was 1.71 million square kilometers (660,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average and 330,000 square kilometers (127,000 square miles) above the record low of November 2016. Entering December, extent remains especially low over both the Barents and Kara Seas on the Atlantic side and the Chukchi Sea on the Pacific side of the Arctic Ocean.

Conditions in context

Arctic sea ice extent as of December 1, 2020 and several other years for comparison

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of December 1, 2020, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years and the record low year. 2020 is shown in blue, 2019 in green, 2018 in orange, 2017 in brown, 2016 in magenta, and 2012 in dashed brown. The 1981 to 2010 median is in dark gray. The gray areas around the median line show the interquartile and interdecile ranges of the data. Sea Ice Index data.

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

Arctic air temperatures, as a difference from average for November 2020

Figure 2b. This plot shows the departure from average air temperature in the Arctic at the 925 hPa level, in degrees Celsius, for November 2020. 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

Average sea level pressure, November 2020

Figure 2c. This plot shows average sea level pressure in the Arctic in millibars for November 2020. Yellows and reds indicate high air pressure; blues and purples indicate low pressure.

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

Arctic Oscillation Index from August 1 to November 30, 2020

Figure 2d. This graph shows the Arctic Oscillation (AO) index from August 1 to November 30, 2020.

Credit: National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
High-resolution image

Through the month of November 2020, sea ice grew by an average of 116,000 square kilometers (44,800 square miles) per day, which is the fastest daily average growth on record for the month, and 46,400 square kilometers (17,900 square miles) above the 1981 to 2010 average rate. However, growth rates varied greatly through the month. Continuing the pattern for late October, sea ice grew rapidly in the first week of November when the upper ocean lost its remaining summer heat back to the atmosphere and then to outer space. Thereafter, growth rates slowed, with a marked slowdown at the end of the month. Such temporary near pauses in ice growth, however, are not uncommon. As of early December, daily extents were the second lowest in the satellite record, behind 2016. Despite low extent for the Arctic as a whole, the Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast is now covered with ice.

Again continuing the pattern for October, air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (about 2,500 feet above the surface) averaged for November 2020 were above average over much of the Arctic Ocean (Figure 2b). Temperatures were 4 to 6 degrees Celsius (7 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, the northern Barents Sea, and the Laptev Sea. By contrast, temperatures at the 925 hPa level over the Canadian Arctic Archipelago were near average.

These air temperature “hot spots” correspond to areas of open water, where the ocean is still releasing large amounts of heat to the lower atmosphere; temperatures at the surface in these areas are locally more than 12 degrees Celsius (22 degrees Fahrenheit) above long-term November averages. Recall that we addressed this issue in our previous post with the aid of vertical profiles of temperature. However, the prevailing atmospheric circulation pattern for November also played a role—sea level pressure was quite low over the Atlantic side of the Arctic, which coupled with high pressure over northern Eurasia, favored the transport of warm air into the Barents, Kara, and Laptev Seas (Figure 2c).

Particularly notable about this sea level pressure pattern is that it manifests a return to a strongly positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation (AO) (Figure 2d). Recall from a previous post that much of the 2019 to 2020 winter was characterized by a positive AO phase. As of late November 2020, the AO index had regressed back to a neutral phase; whether this is temporary remains to be seen.

November 2020 compared to previous years

November rate of sea ice decline from 1978 to 2020

Figure 3. Monthly November ice extent for 1978 to 2020 shows a decline of 5.1 percent per decade.

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

Including 2020, the linear rate of decline for November sea ice extent is 5.1 percent per decade. This corresponds to a downward trend of 54,800 square kilometers (21,200 square miles) per year, or losing an area about the size of the state of West Virginia each year. Over the 42-year satellite record, the Arctic has lost about 2.30 million square kilometers (888,000 square miles) of ice in November, based on the difference in linear trend values in 2020 and 1978. This is comparable to about three times the size of Texas.

42 years of satellite data

Figure X. Monthly extent (thin lines) for Arctic (blue) and Antarctic (red) and 12-month trailing average (thick lines) for standardized anomalies (departure from the 1981 to 2010 average in each month divided by the 1981 to 2010 standard deviation for the month). The linear trend is overlaid in dashed lines. The trend values are provided below the plot, in # of standard deviations per decade with the +/- 95% confidence level; both trends are statistically significant. ||Credit: W. Meier, NSIDC|High-resolution image

Figure 4. This graph shows monthly extent (thin lines) for Arctic (blue) and Antarctic (red) and 12-month trailing average (thick lines) for standardized anomalies (departure from the 1981 to 2010 average in each month divided by the 1981 to 2010 standard deviation for the month). The linear trend is overlaid in dashed lines. The trend values are provided below the plot, in number of standard deviations per decade with the +/- 95 percent confidence level; both trends are statistically significant.

Credit: W. Meier, NSIDC
High-resolution image

The modern passive microwave satellite data started in late October 1978. November 2020 marks the start of 43 years of continuous and consistent observation of sea ice concentration and extent. The first 42 years of monthly extents from November 1978 through October 2020 provide a comparison of the trends and variability in the Arctic and Antarctic sea ice extent. By comparing each month’s departure from the 1981 to 2010 average for that month, the variability of sea ice extent becomes strongly evident (Figure 4). Here we remove the seasonal cycle of sea ice extent by dividing the departure from average of each month in the satellite record by the standard deviation of each month, both based on the climatological period of 1981 to 2010. The result is a time series of the number of standard deviations each month’s extent in the record is above or below the average. The plot for the Arctic reveals a clear downward trend with some monthly and annual variations. Overall, the Arctic ice extent has decreased by 0.97 standard deviations per decade. By contrast, the Antarctic ice extent is dominated by a lot of variation with a positive trend of 0.17 standard deviations per decade. The magnitude of the Arctic trend is hence roughly five times of the Antarctic trend. The large Antarctic variation is marked particularly by the dramatic reversal from record high extents in 2014 and 2015 to record low extents in 2016 and 2017. Since then, the extent has moderated to near-average conditions.

Antarctica: More ice, sparse ice, and Maud’s back

Sea ice concentration around Antarctica on Nov 30 2020

Figure 5. This map of Antarctica show sea ice concentration on November 30, 2020. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer-2 (AMSR2) shows a range from 0 percent (dark blue) to 100 percent (dark purple) in sea ice concentration. Several small shore polynyas, or openings in sea ice, are visible along the East Antarctic coast.

Credit: University of Bremen
High-resolution image

Antarctic sea ice extent for November 2020 continues to be well above the 1981 to 2010 average, a shift that began in August, with particularly above average extent in the Weddell Sea. However, low sea ice concentration dominates a large area of the Weddell Sea (Figure 5). Also notable is the retreat of ice along the eastern shore of the Antarctic Peninsula, a result of several warm chinook wind events off the Peninsula earlier in November. These strong winds blast warm and dry air downhill, pushing sea ice a tens of kilometers off the coast. On the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, the reduced sea ice extent in the Bellingshausen Sea and its sharp ice edge add further evidence of strong winds from the northwest. The adjacent Amundsen Sea and Ross Sea have above average ice extent, while below average extent is the rule along the Wilkes, Adelie, and Enderby Land coasts. Numerous small shore polynyas, or openings in sea ice, typical for this time of year, are present along the East Antarctic coast.

There are also open water areas in the Maud Rise region, initiating a few degrees east of the prime meridian and around 64 degrees S latitude. This recurring polynya reopened, where sea ice concentration dropped below 15 percent, on November 26, as well as a second less common polynya several hundred kilometers to the north and west.

Lingering seashore days

Following the sea ice extent minimum on September 15, 2020, expansion of the ice edge has been most notable in the northern Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. The ice edge along the Laptev Sea continued to retreat farther. Antarctic sea ice has climbed to its highest extent since 2014; it may have reached its maximum on September 28, but it is too soon to say for sure.

Overview of conditions

September average sea ice extent in Arctic

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for September 2020 was 3.92 million square kilometers (1.51 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that month. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

Arctic sea ice extent averaged for September 2020 was 3.92 million square kilometers (1.51 million square miles), the second lowest in the 42-year satellite record, behind only September 2012. This is 350,000 square kilometers (135,000 square miles) above that record low, and 2.49 million square kilometers (961,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average. Following the minimum seasonal extent, which occurred on September 15, ice growth quickly began along in the northern Beaufort, Chukchi, and East Siberian Seas (Figure 1). Expansion of the ice edge was also notable within the East Greenland Sea and within Canadian Arctic Archipelago. By contrast, the ice edge in the Kara and Barents Seas remained relatively stable until the end of the month when it started to expand, and within the Laptev Sea the ice edge retreated slightly. The Northern Sea Route remained open at the end of September whereas the Northwest Passage southerly route (Amundsen’s route) is now blocked by ice. Ten days after the minimum extent was reached, the total extent climbed above 4 million square kilometers (1.54 million square miles) and by the end of the month the ice extent was tracking at 4.25 million square kilometers (1.64 million square miles), still second lowest in terms of daily extent.

Conditions in context

Arctic sea ice extent as of October 4, 2020

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of October 4, 2020, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years and the record low year. 2020 is shown in blue, 2019 in green, 2018 in orange, 2017 in brown, 2016 in purple, and 2012 in dashed brown. The 1981 to 2010 median is in dark gray. The gray areas around the median line show the interquartile and interdecile ranges of the data. Sea Ice Index data.

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

September 2020 Arctic air temperature, as difference from average (left) Average sea level pressure (right)

Figure 2b. The plot on the left shows the departure from average air temperature in the Arctic at the 925 hPa level, in degrees Celsius, for September 2020. Yellows and reds indicate higher than average temperatures; blues and purples indicate lower than average temperatures. The plot on the right shows average sea level pressure in the Arctic in millibars (hPa) for September 2020. Yellows and reds indicate high air pressure; blues and purples indicate low pressure. The apparent high pressure over Greenland is an artifact of the high elevation there; errors are incurred in extrapolating from the surface of the ice to sea level.

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

Arctic air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (about 2,500 feet above the surface) remained overall above the 1981 to 2010 average during September. This warmth was primarily observed on the Eurasian side of the Arctic, where air temperatures along the coastal regions of the Laptev Sea reached up to 8 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) above average. Below average temperatures prevailed over Greenland. Warm conditions over the Siberian side of the Arctic were driven by a strong high pressure ridge over Siberia coupled with a strong low-pressure trough centered over Svalbard. This is also manifested as a positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation (AO). A cyclonic (counterclockwise) circulation pattern set up over the Laptev Sea, bringing in warmer air from the south. At the same time, this circulation pattern enhanced ice drift out through Fram Strait and out of the Arctic Ocean. Winds from the south in the Kara and Barents Seas also kept the ice edge from expanding in that region, and led to retreat of the ice edge within the Laptev Sea.

September 2020 compared to previous years

Ice extent decline from 1979 to 2020 for September

Figure 3. Monthly September ice extent for 1979 to 2020 shows a decline of 13.1 percent per decade.

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

The overall rate of sea ice decline in September is now at 83,700 square kilometers (32,300 square miles) per year, or a rate of ice loss of 13.1 percent per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.

A look back at summer 2020

Ranking of Arctic Temperatures by month from 1979 to 2020

Figure 4a. This graphic ranks months based on their Arctic air temperature from 1979 to 2020 at 925 hPa from the National Centers for Environmental Prediction/National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCEP/NCAR) Reanalysis for all areas north of 70 degrees N. Dark reds indicate warmest months; dark blues indicate coldest months.

Credit: Z. Labe, Colorado State University, Colorado
High-resolution image

Arctic air temperatures for May through August 2020, difference from average

Figure 4b. This plot shows the departure from average air temperature in the Arctic at the 925 hPa level, in degrees Celsius, for May, June, July, and August 2020. 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

Average sea level pressure for April, May, June, and July 2020

Figure 4c. These four plots show average sea level pressure in the Arctic in millibars (hPa) for May, June, July, and August 2020. Yellows and reds indicate high air pressure; blues and purples indicate low pressure.

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

Sea surface temperatures (SST) in the Arctic Ocean

Figure 4d. These maps show sea surface temperature (SST) in degrees Celsius and sea ice concentration for August 23, 2020 on the left and September 13, 2020 on the right. SST data are from the University of Washington Polar Science Center Upper layer Temperature of the Polar Oceans (UptempO) buoys and satellite-derived values from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and ice concentration is from the NSIDC Sea Ice Index.

Credit: University of Washington
High-resolution image

While average and below average air temperature characterized the Arctic Ocean in the winter of 2019 to 2020, exceptionally warm conditions prevailed this past summer. Indeed, the summer of 2020 appears to be the warmest since at least 1979. According to the NCEP/NCAR reanalyses, monthly averaged air temperatures (at the 925 hPa level) over the Arctic Ocean, north of 70 degrees N, were at record highs in May, July, and August. June ranked as the second warmest behind 2005 (Figure 4a). Exceptionally high temperatures in May led to early development of melt ponds along the Russian coast (Figure 4b). This, combined with exceptional warmth over Siberia in June and thin ice in the region, fostered by the strongly positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation (AO) in winter (see discussion below), resulted in early development of open water within the Laptev Sea. This led to record low ice extent in the region starting in mid-June. By mid-July, Arctic sea ice extent was tracking at record lows over the period of satellite observations, fueled by the early ice retreat along the Russian coast.

Sea level pressure patterns this melt season shifted from month to month (Figure 4c). For example, high air temperatures in May were linked to a high pressure ridge over Alaska that extended into the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Meanwhile, unusually low pressure was focused over the central Arctic Ocean and Scandinavia, driving winds from the south over to the Kara Sea. In June, the high pressure moved over to the western Arctic Ocean. High pressure also developed throughout the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, Greenland, and Scandinavia. This, combined with low sea level pressure near the pole and over the Kara Sea and Eurasia, spilled cold Arctic air into Eurasia and warm air over Siberia. In July, the high pressure ridge moved further east to the Kara and Laptev Seas. Coupled with low pressure over Siberia and Scandinavia, this circulation pattern funneled warm air from Scandinavia and Eurasia towards the pole, while pushing cold Arctic air from the Kara Sea over to Russia and from the central Arctic over to Alaska.

As August started, the pace of ice loss slowed and by the end of the month, total Arctic sea ice extent went from the lowest to the second lowest in the satellite record. This was despite August being the warmest August recorded since at least 1979.

By late August, sea surface temperatures showed large variations across the Arctic, with generally warm water to the south and colder, near-freezing water near the ice edge in most locations (Figure 4d). According to our colleague Mike Steele at the University of Washington, this cold water persists near the ice edge as the ocean gives up its heat to melt ice; this signals the last stage of summer ice retreat. The resulting new open water hardly warms up because there is little atmospheric heating late in the season from lack of solar energy. An exception is the eastern Beaufort Sea, where ice was swept southward this year into warm water along the northern coast of northwest Canada and Alaska. By mid-September, the cold northern band of sea surface temperatures expanded in response to continued ice retreat and weak atmospheric heating of the ocean. Many areas, such as the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, Canada Basin, and Baffin Bay, had lower sea surface temperatures at this time relative to August. This surface cooling happens as the calm winds of summer  are replaced by windier conditions in the fall, which mixes the ocean heat downward. The date of maximum sea surface temperature is often earlier than the date of minimum sea ice extent. This is not so evident in the eastern Arctic Ocean, possibly because of the influence of warm ocean currents that continue to pump heat into the area through late summer.

Comment on the northernmost ice edge position in the Kara and Barents Seas

Three-month average Arctic Oscillation from 1950 to August 2020


Figure 5. These graphs show the 3-month average Arctic Oscillation (AO) index from 1950 through August 2020.

Credit: National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
High-resolution image

The near record minimum Arctic sea ice extent in September 2020, and particularly the loss of ice along the Russian margin of the Arctic Ocean, is consistent with wind patterns associated with the persistently strong positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation (AO) this past winter. During the positive phase of the winter AO, there tends to be a pattern of offshore winds along the Russian side of the Arctic, drawing ice out of the Siberian shelf seas (Kara, Laptev, East Siberian, and Chukchi Seas) and causing new ice formation in the openings left behind. The result is that the spring ice cover along the Siberian coast is thinner than usual and more likely to melt out in summer. The 2019 to 2020 winter AO was at a record or near record positive phase (Figure 5). According to our colleague Jamie Morrison at the University of Washington, this summer’s pronounced retreat of ice north of the Laptev-Kara-Barents-Seas region is consistent with the effects of the positive winter AO. Morison notes that the winter AO has been generally positive over the past 30 years, particularly so over the last 10 years. He speculates that the atmospheric circulation pattern associated with the AO may also favor a greater influence of Atlantic water heat on the sea ice cover through weakening the cold halocline layer—the cold, but low density water at the ocean surface.

Arctic sea ice age

Arctic sea ice age map at end of 2020 melt season

Figure 6. The upper left map shows sea ice age distribution toward the end of the melt season for 1985 and the upper left map shows the end of the 2020 melt season. The bottom time series of different age categories shows the minimum extent for 1985 to 2020. Note that the ice age product does not include ice in the Canadian Archipelago. Data from Tschudi et al., EASE-Grid Sea Ice Age, Version 3

Credit: W. Meier, National Snow and Ice Data Center and M. Tschudi et al.
High-resolution image

With the minimum reached, the remaining sea ice has had its “birthday,” aging one year. Assessing the ice age just before this birthday gives an indication of the health of the ice at the end of the melt season. The extent of the oldest ice (4+ years old) at that time in 2020 was 230,000 square kilometers (89,000 square miles). This is considerably higher compared to last year, when the 4+ year old ice extent stood at 55,000 square kilometers (21,000 square miles) at the 2019 minimum. The increase in 4+ year old ice in 2020 was compensated by a slight decrease in 2- to 3-year old ice and 3- to 4-year old ice (Figure 6). Overall, since the 1980s, when older ice covered over 2 million square miles (772,000 square miles) of the Arctic Ocean, sea ice has become much thinner and younger. The linear downward trend in 4+ year old ice extent at the sea ice minimum is 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 square miles) per year, equivalent to a decline of 6.1 percent per year relative to the 1984 to 2020 average.

Antarctica maximum may have been reached

Antarctic sea ice extent map for September 2020

Figure 7. Arctic sea ice extent for September 2020 was 18.77 million square kilometers (7.25 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that month. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

Antarctic sea ice extent may have reached its maximum of 18.95 million square kilometers (7.32 million square miles) on September 28, but the extent could still expand in the coming days. As is typical this time of year, there are wide swings caused by winds and storms along the extensive ice edge. Ice extent is now well above the 1981 to 2020 median extent. This follows a remarkable transition from generally below median extent beginning in August 2016 to well above median extent just in the seven weeks preceding October 1, 2020. Ice extent is above the median extent along a broad area off the Wilkes Land coast and western Ross Sea, near the median extent from the Amundsen Sea clockwise to the Weddell Sea and above the median north of Dronning Maud Land, Enderby Land, and the Cosmonaut Sea. The only major area of below the median extent is in the Indian Ocean sector near the Amery Ice Shelf and eastward.

References

Morison, J. 2020. Workshop on observing, modeling, and understanding the circulation of the Arctic Ocean and Sub-Arctic Seas. Retrieved here.

Moore, G. W. K., Schweiger, A., Zhang, J., and M. Steele. 2019. Spatiotemporal variability of sea ice in the arctic’s last ice area. Geophysical Research Letters, 46, 11237– 11243. doi:10.1029/2019GL083722.

Polyakov, I. V., Pnyushkov, A. V., Alkire, M. B., Ashik, I. M., Baumann, T. M., Carmack, E. C., et al. 2017. Greater role for Atlantic inflows on sea-ice loss in the Eurasian Basin of the Arctic Ocean. Science, 356 (6335), 285. doi:10.1126/science.aai8204.

Rigor, I. G., Wallace, J. M., and R. L. Colony. 2002. Response of sea ice to the Arctic oscillation. Journal of Climate, 15(18), 2648-2663. doi:10.1175/1520-0442.

Steele, M., and T. Boyd. 1998. Retreat of the cold halocline layer in the Arctic Ocean. Journal of Geophysical Research Oceans, 103(C5), 10419-10435. doi:10.1029/98JC00580.

Steele, M., Zhang, J., and W. Ermold. 2010. Mechanisms of summertime upper Arctic Ocean warming and the effect on sea ice melt, Journal of Geophysical Research, 115, C11004. doi:10.1029/2009JC005849.

Steele, M., and S. Dickinson. 2016. The phenology of Arctic Ocean surface warming, Journal of Geophysical Research Oceans, 121, 6847– 6861. doi:10.1002/2016JC012089.

 

Arctic sea ice decline stalls out at second lowest minimum

On September 15, Arctic sea ice likely reached its annual minimum extent of 3.74 million square kilometers (1.44 million square miles). The minimum ice extent is the second lowest in the 42-year-old satellite record, reinforcing the long-term downward trend in Arctic ice extent. Sea ice extent will now begin its seasonal increase through autumn and winter. In the Antarctic, sea ice extent is now well above average and within the range of the ten largest ice extents on record, underscoring its high year-to-year variability. The annual maximum for Antarctic sea ice typically occurs in late September or early October.

Please note that this is a preliminary announcement. Changing winds or late-season melt could still reduce the Arctic ice extent, as happened in 2005 and 2010. NSIDC scientists will release a full analysis of the Arctic melt season, and discuss the Antarctic winter sea ice growth, in early October.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for September 15, 2020

Figure 1a. Arctic sea ice extent for September 15, 2020 was 3.74 million square kilometers (1.44 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that day. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

Figure 1b. The map above compares the 2012 Arctic sea ice minimum, reached on September 17, with the 2020 Arctic sea ice minimum, reached on September 15. Light blue shading indicates the region where ice occurred in both 2012 and 2020, while white and medium blue areas show ice cover unique to 2012 and to 2020, respectively. Sea Ice Index data. About the data||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|High-resolution image

Figure 1b. The map above compares the 2012 Arctic sea ice minimum, reached on September 17, with the 2020 Arctic sea ice minimum, reached on September 15. Light blue shading indicates the region where ice occurred in both 2012 and 2020, while white and medium blue areas show ice cover unique to 2012 and to 2020, respectively. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

A sharp decline of Arctic sea ice at the beginning of September dropped the extent below 4.0 million square kilometers (1.54 million square miles) for only the second time since the beginning of the satellite record in 1979. After September 8, daily melt began leveling out, reaching its seasonal minimum extent of 3.74 million square kilometers (1.44 million square miles) on September 15 (Figure 1a). This appears to be the lowest extent of the year. In response to the setting sun and falling temperatures, ice extent will begin increasing through autumn and winter. However, a shift in wind patterns or a period of late season melt could still push the ice extent lower.

Compared to 2012, the minimum extent this year has more ice in the Beaufort Sea, but somewhat less ice in the Laptev and East Greenland Sea regions (Figure 1b). The minimum extent was reached one day later than the 1981 to 2010 median minimum date of September 14. The interquartile range of minimum dates is September 11 to September 19.

The 14 lowest extents in the satellite era have all occurred in the last 14 years.

Conditions in context

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent on September 18, 2019, along with 2007 and 2016—the years tied for second lowest minimum—and the record minimum for 2012. 2019 is shown in blue, 2016 in light brown, 2012 in dotted pink, and 2007 in dark brown. The 1981 to 2010 median is in dark gray. The gray areas around the median line show the interquartile and interdecile ranges 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 on September 15, 2020, along with several other recent years and the record minimum set in 2012. 2019 is shown in green, 2018 in orange, 2017 in brown, 2016 in magenta, and 2012 in dashed brown. The 1981 to 2010 median is in dark gray. The gray areas around the median line show the interquartile and interdecile ranges of the data. Sea Ice Index data.

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

14 year trends for Arctic sea ice loss

Figure 2b. This graph shows linear trends of Arctic sea ice extent for three 14-year periods for the day of the annual minimum. Trend percent values are relative to the 1981 to 2010 average minimum extent. On the right, the average (square) and range of highest and lowest extents at the minimum for each period are given.

Credit: W. Meier, NSIDC
High-resolution image

This year’s minimum set on September 15 was 350,000 square kilometers (135,000 square miles) above the record minimum extent in the satellite era, which occurred on September 17, 2012 (Figure 2a). It is also 2.51 million square kilometers (969,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average minimum extent, which is equivalent in size to roughly the states of Alaska, Texas, and Montana combined, or Greenland and Finland combined.

The 42-minimum-extent values in the satellite record can be broken down into three 14-year periods. Most notably, minimum extents in the last 14 years of the time series are the lowest 14 in the 42-year record (Figure 2b). All three periods show a downward trend. The middle period, 1993 to 2006, shows the steepest downward trend of 13.3 percent per decade, relative to the 1981 to 2010 average. The earliest period, 1979 to 1992, has a downward trend of 6.4 percent per decade, while the most recent period of low extents, 2007 to 2020, has a downward trend of 4.0 percent per decade.

The overall, downward trend in the minimum extent from 1979 to 2020 is 13.4 percent per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.

Fourteen lowest minimum Arctic sea ice extents (satellite record, 1979 to present)

Table 1. Fourteen lowest minimum Arctic sea ice extents (satellite record, 1979 to present)
RANK YEAR MINIMUM ICE EXTENT DATE
IN MILLIONS OF SQUARE KILOMETERS IN MILLIONS OF SQUARE MILES
1 2012 3.39 1.31 Sept. 17
2 2020 3.74 1.44 Sept. 15
3 2007
2016
2019
4.16
4.17
4.19
1.61
1.61
1.62
Sept. 18
Sept. 18
Sept. 10
6 2011 4.34 1.68 Sept. 11
7 2015 4.43 1.71 Sept. 9
8 2008
2010
4.59
4.62
1.77
1.78
Sept. 19
Sept. 21
10 2018
2017
4.66
4.67
1.80
1.80
Sept. 23
Sept. 13
12 2014
2013
5.03
5.05
1.94
1.95
Sept. 17
Sept. 13
14 2009 5.12 1.98 Sept. 13

Values within 40,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles) are considered tied. The 2019 value has changed from 4.15 to 4.19 million square kilometers (1.62 million square miles) when final analysis data updated from near-real-time data.