Freezing in the dark

Rapid expansion of the Arctic sea ice cover is the norm for October as solar input dwindles and the remaining heat in the upper ocean is released upwards, warming the lower atmosphere and escaping to space. Because of late season growth, the seasonal Antarctic maximum we previously reported as occurring on September 15 was exceeded, with a new maximum set on October 11 and 12. This is the second-lowest and second-latest seasonal maximum extent in the satellite record.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for October 2017 was6.71 million square kilometers (2.60 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that month.

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for October 2017 was 6.71 million square kilometers (2.60 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 for October 2017 averaged 6.71 million square kilometers (2.60 million square miles), the fifth lowest in the 1979 to 2017 satellite record. This was 1.64 million square kilometers (633,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average and 820,000 square kilometers (317,000 square miles) above the record low October extent recorded in 2012. By the end of October, extent remained below average throughout most of the Arctic except within the Laptev Sea, which is fully ice covered. Ice growth over the month was most prominent within the Beaufort, East Siberian, and Laptev Seas and within Baffin Bay. In the Chukchi, Kara, and Barents Seas, the rate of ice growth was slower. Ice extent also remains far below average in the East Greenland Sea.

Conditions in context

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of November 2, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years. 2017 is shown in blue, 2016 in green, 2015 in orange, 2014 in brown, 2013 in purple, and 2012 in dotted 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.

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of November 2, 2017 along with daily ice extent data for five previous years. 2017 is shown in blue, 2016 in green, 2015 in orange, 2014 in brown, 2013 in purple, and 2012 in dotted 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 2b. This plot shows Arctic air temperature anomalies at the 925 hPa level in degrees Celsius for October 2017. Yellows and reds indicate higher than average temperatures; blues and purples indicate lower than average temperatures.

Figure 2b. This plot shows Arctic air temperature anomalies at the 925 hPa level in degrees Celsius for October 2017. 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

Figure 2c. This plot shows Arctic air temperatures as a function of both height and latitudes. Above average air temperatures for the Arctic as a whole extend up to approximately 9,200 meters (30,000 feet) high in the atmosphere. Colors indicate temperatures in degrees Celsius. Yellows and reds indicate higher than average temperatures; blues and purples indicate lower than average temperatures.

Figure 2c. This plot shows Arctic air temperatures as a function of height and latitudes. Above average air temperatures for the Arctic as a whole extend up to approximately 9,200 meters (30,000 feet) altitude. 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

Ice growth during October 2017 averaged 94,200 square kilometers (36,000 square miles) per day. This was 5,100 square kilometers (2,000 square miles) per day faster than the average rate of ice growth for the month. Total ice extent for the month remains more than 2 standard deviations below the 1981 to 2010 average.

October air temperatures at 925 hPa (about 3,000 feet above sea level) were 2 to 4 degrees Celsius (4 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over most of the Arctic Ocean and up to 7 degrees Celsius (13 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over the East Greenland Sea. Unusually high temperatures over the East Greenland Sea appear to largely reflect the transport of warm air from Eurasia, driven by the combination of above average sea level pressure over the Kara and Barents Seas, and below average pressure over the North Atlantic and Greenland. Elsewhere, above average near surface air temperatures reflect in part the exchange of heat from the ocean to the atmosphere as the ocean cools and sea ice forms, such as within the Chukchi Sea. A plot of temperatures as a function of both height and latitudes shows that the above average air temperatures for the Arctic as a whole extend up to approximately 9,200 meters (30,000 feet) high in the atmosphere.

October 2017 compared to previous years

Figure 3. Monthly October ice extent for 1979 to 2017 shows a decline of 9.3 percent per decade.

Figure 3. Monthly October ice extent for 1979 to 2017 shows a decline of 9.3 percent per decade.

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

The linear rate of sea ice decline for October is 77,600 square kilometers (30,000 square miles) per year, or 9.3 percent per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average. While this appears as an increase in the rate of October ice retreat compared to the trend reported last year, it is not a climate signal but is rather largely a result of using a different averaging method to derive the monthly average sea ice extent values (see below).

Effects of snow salinity on CryoSat-2 ice freeboard estimates

Figure 4. This schematic illustrates how salinity shifts the source of the radar signature in the icepack.

Figure 4. This schematic illustrates how salinity shifts the source of the radar signature in the icepack. Ice thickness can be over-estimated by radar satellites (CryoSat-2) when snow conditions are more saline.

Credit: V. Nandan
High-resolution image

After the end of sea ice melt season, the ocean cools and new sea ice forms. The ice crystals that form expel salt into the water. Some of this salt, or brine, is also expelled upwards to the surface of the ice or into snow that has fallen since the ice formed. The brine is then wicked upwards into the snowpack, leading to a slightly saline snowpack, ranging from 1 to 20 parts per thousand (standard seawater is about 35 parts per thousand). This saline snow is a strong reflector of radar energy.

A recent study led by the Cryosphere Climate Research Group at the University of Calgary investigated the impact of snow salinity on retrieving sea ice thickness from radar altimeters, such as CryoSat-2. The study shows that the snow layers observed over much of the Arctic’s first-year ice are salty enough to reflect the radar pulse from CryoSat-2, a radar altimeter used to measure sea ice thickness and ice sheet elevation. They calculate that a correction factor could compensate for this effect, and improve sea ice thickness measurements. While snow salinity is important, other factors, such as surface roughness and ice density also contribute to uncertainties in ice thickness, and they can potentially cancel each other out. Continued comparisons to observed thickness data is crucial to better quantify these uncertainties.

Antarctica’s double-humped sea ice maximum

Figure 5. This graph shows the first and second peaks in extent during the 2017 Antarctic sea ice freeze up.

Figure 5a. This graph shows the first and second peaks in extent during the 2017 Antarctic sea ice freeze up. The extent line for the year 2002 is also shown and has a similar pattern to 2017. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

Figure 5b. This map shows Antarctic sea ice concentration on October 31, 2017. Note the Maud Rise polynya at the top of the image. Data are from the Advanced Microwave Scannig Radiometer 2 (AMSR2)||Credit: Institute of Environmental Physics, University of Bremen|High-resolution image

Figure 5b. This map shows Antarctic sea ice concentration on October 31, 2017. Note the Maud Rise polynya at the top of the image. Data are from the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer 2 (AMSR2).

Credit: Institute of Environmental Physics, University of Bremen
High-resolution image

In our last post, we noted that Antarctic sea ice may have reached its maximum extent for the year on September 15, at 17.98 million square kilometers (6.94 million square miles). However, after two weeks of decline, extent increased again reaching a second and final maximum of 18.03 million square kilometers (6.96 million square miles) on October 11 and 12. This is tied with 2002 for the latest maximum on record and is the second lowest Antarctic maximum extent in the satellite data record, slightly higher than 1986. Interestingly, 2002 had a similar Bactrian maximum pattern.

The Maud Rise polynya (or Weddell Sea polynya) continues to be a significant feature of the sea ice cover near 5°E longitude and 65°S. The feature appeared around September 13 and grew to its approximate current extent by September 17. Its current size remains about 30,000 square kilometers (12,000 square miles).

Winds and ocean temperatures continue to drive Antarctic sea ice variability. Since there is no land boundary to the north of the Antarctic continent, sea ice in the Southern Hemisphere is free to expand toward the equator until it reaches water temperatures that are high enough to melt sea ice. As a result, changes in winds or ocean temperatures can have a large influence on the amount of sea ice year to year. Changes in winds related to the positive phase of the Southern Annular Mode (SAM) appear to explain the positive trend in total Antarctic sea ice extent. When the SAM is in a positive phase during austral summer, stronger than average westerly winds blow around the Antarctic continent, and sea ice is pushed both westward and slightly northward due to the Coriolis effect. In addition, below average sea surface temperatures persist through the summer and lead to increased sea ice growth the following autumn, while the negative phase precedes higher sea surface temperatures and reduced sea ice growth. A new study suggests the negative SAM mode during 2016/2017 austral summer largely explained the record minimum Antarctic sea ice extent observed in March 2017.

Revised computation of the monthly mean extent

Figure 6. This chart compares the monthly October Arctic sea ice extents generated from the old (black dashed line) and the new (solid black line) averaging method.

Figure 6. This chart compares the monthly October Arctic sea ice extents generated from the old (black dashed line) and the new (solid black line) averaging method. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

We have updated the way the monthly average sea ice extent is calculated in the NSIDC Sea Ice Index, the source for our sea ice extent estimates. The monthly average total extent (and area) are now computed as an average of the daily values over the month. Historically, the monthly mean sea ice extent has been calculated based on the monthly mean averaged sea ice concentration field. While there is a rationale for both approaches, the new method is more intuitive and eliminates unusual and unexpected results in months when there is rapid ice growth and retreat. Most of the new monthly mean extents are smaller than the previous values with a mean extent difference between -0.45+0.24 and -0.23+0.16 million square kilometers for the Arctic and Antarctic, respectively. The largest differences for the Arctic occur during the month of October due to the rapid ice growth rates typical at that time of year, with the largest difference of -1.20 million square kilometers in October 2012. Changes in rankings and trends were much smaller because the new method tends to affect all years of a given month in a similar manner. October is also the month with the largest trend difference, increasing in magnitude from -7.4 percent per decade to -9.3 percent per decade. Changes in Arctic trends for other months are much smaller.

Similarly, in the Antarctic, differences in averaging methods results in the largest changes during the month of December when the ice cover is rapidly receding. The largest difference of -1.27 million square kilometers occurs in December 1981. The largest changes in the trends are for January and December with a change in value from +2.7 to +3.5 and +1.2 to +1.9 percent per decade, respectively. For more detailed information on the impacts of the revised averaging methods on trends and rankings, please see NSIDC Special Report 19.

Further reading

Nandan, V., T. Geldsetzer, J. Yackel, M. Mahmud, R. Scharien, S. Howell, J. King, R. Ricker, and B. Else. 2017. Effect of snow salinity on CryoSat-2 Arctic first-year sea ice freeboard measurements: Sea ice brine-snow effect on CryoSat-2. Geophysical Research Lettersdoi:10.1002/2017GL074506.

Doddridge, E. W. and J. Marshall. 2017. Modulation of the seasonal cycle of Antarctic sea ice extent related to the Southern Annular Mode. Geophysical Research Letters, 44, 9761–9768. doi: 10.1002/2017GL074319.

Windnagel, A., M. Brandt, F. Fetterer, and W. Meier. 2017. Sea Ice Index Version 3 Analysis. NSIDC Special Report 19. https://nsidc.org/sites/nsidc.org/files/files/NSIDC-special-report-19.pdf.

Arctic sea ice at minimum extent

On September 13, Arctic sea ice appears to have reached its seasonal minimum extent of 4.64 million square kilometers (1.79 million square miles), the eighth lowest in the 38-year satellite record. The overall rate of ice loss this summer was slowed by a persistent pattern of low sea level pressure focused over the central Arctic Ocean.

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 13, 2017 was 4.64 million square kilometers (1.79 million square miles), the eighth lowest in the satellite record. The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that day.

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for September 13, 2017 was 4.64 million square kilometers (1.79 million square miles), the eighth lowest in the satellite record. 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 13, 2017, sea ice extent reached an annual minimum of 4.64 million square kilometers (1.79 million square miles). This was 1.58 million square kilometers (610,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 median extent for the same day, and 1.25 million square kilometers (483,000 square miles) and 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles) above the 2012 and 2016 extents for the same day, respectively.

During the first two weeks of September, the ice edge continued to retreat in the Chukchi, East Siberian, and Kara Seas, whereas it slightly expanded in the Beaufort and Laptev Seas. The ice edge remains far to the north of its average position in the Chukchi Sea. The Northern Sea Route is largely open; Amundsen’s Northwest Passage (the southern route) has up to 50 percent ice cover in some places, though as noted in our last post, ships have successfully navigated through the southern route with icebreaker assistance. The northern Northwest Passage route, entered from the west via McClure Strait, remains choked by consolidated, thick, multi-year ice.

Conditions in context

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of September 17, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years. 2017 is shown in blue, 2016 in green, 2015 in orange, 2014 in brown, 2013 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

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of September 17, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years. 2017 is shown in blue, 2016 in green, 2015 in orange, 2014 in brown, 2013 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

Figure 2b. This image shows average sea level pressure over the Arctic Ocean for the period of September 1 to 16, 2017.

Figure 2b. This image shows average sea level pressure over the Arctic Ocean for the period of September 1 to 16, 2017.

Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division
High-resolution image

The date of the minimum ice extent for 2017 was two days earlier than the average minimum date of September 15. The earliest annual sea ice minimum in the satellite record occurred on September 5 in the years 1980 and 1987, and the latest on September 23, 1997.

As is typical of this time of year when the solar radiation received at the surface is quickly waning, the rate of ice loss slowed during the first half of September. Ice retreat from the beginning of September until the minimum averaged 25,300 square kilometers (9,770 square miles) per day, slightly faster than the 1981 to 2010 average for the same period of 22,800 square kilometers (8,800 square miles) per day.

The pattern of low sea level pressure over the central Arctic Ocean that persisted through this summer and inhibited summer ice loss has broken down. For the first half of September, the pattern has instead been one of above-average sea level pressure centered over the Barents Sea and extending across part of the Arctic Ocean (Figure 2b). Corresponding air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (about 2,500 feet above sea level) were above average over most of the Arctic Ocean. Above average temperatures over some parts of the Arctic Ocean likely reflect heat transfer to the atmosphere from areas of open water, hence cooling the ocean.

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

Table 1.  Ten 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 2016
2007
4.14
4.15
1.60
1.60
Sept. 10
Sept. 18
4 2011 4.34 1.67 Sept. 11
5 2015 4.43 1.71 Sept. 9
6 2008 4.59 1.77 Sept. 19
7 2010 4.62 1.78 Sept. 21
8 2017 4.64 1.79 Sept. 13
9 2014 5.03 1.94 Sept. 17
10 2013 5.05 1.94 Sept. 13

Effects of seasonal ice retreat in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas

Figure 3. This chart shows combined sea ice extent in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas from August 15 to October 7 for the years 2006 to 2016, including the extent so far for 2017. The colored dots show the day the minimum occurred in the region during a specific year. ||Credit: Courtesy R. Thoman/National Weather Service Alaska Region Environmental and Scientific Services Division| High-resolution image

Figure 3. This chart shows combined sea ice extent in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas from August 15 to October 7 for the years 2006 to 2016, including the extent so far for 2017. The colored dots show the day the minimum occurred in the region during a specific year. Data are from the Multisensor Analyzed Sea Ice Extent (MASIE) product.

Credit: Courtesy R. Thoman/National Weather Service Alaska Region Environmental and Scientific Services Division
High-resolution image

According to a report by the Alaska Dispatch News, the lack of sea ice forced walruses to the shore of Alaska’s Chukchi Sea earlier than any time on record. The lack of ice also forced biologists monitoring Alaska polar bears to cut short their spring field season. In turn, the NOAA National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center states that because of the extensive open water, air temperatures over the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas and along the North Slope of Alaska will likely be far above average through this autumn.

Rick Thoman of the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, Alaska compiled an analysis of the combined Chukchi and Beaufort Seas ice extent from the Multisensor Analyzed Sea Ice Extent (MASIE) product. MASIE is based on operational ice analyses at the U.S. National Ice Center and is archived and distributed by NSIDC. It shows that 2017 tracked near record lows for the region through much of the summer, but after mid-August the pace of ice loss slowed relative to recent years. While it appears unlikely that extent in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas will reach a record low (set in 2012), it will still be among the four or five lowest in the MASIE record (Figure 3). Note that the range in dates for the minimum extent in the region differs from those for the Arctic as a whole and tend to be later, ranging from September 10 in 2015 to September 25 in 2007 and 2008. In other words, the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas may continue to lose ice even after the overall Arctic minimum extent is reached. From the passive microwave data (not shown), the Chukchi/Beaufort minimum has occurred as early as August 14 in 1980 to as late as October 2 in 1991.

Antarctic sea ice approaching winter maximum

Figure 4a. The graph above shows Antarctic sea ice extent as of September 17, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years.

Figure 4a. The graph above shows Antarctic sea ice extent as of September 17, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2017 is shown in blue, 2016 in green, 2015 in orange, 2014 in dashed brown, 2013 in purple. 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 4b: This map shows Antarctic sea ice concentration on September 16, 2017. Note the Maud Rise polynya at the top of the image. Data are from the Advanced Microwave Scannig Radiometer 2 (AMSR2).

Figure 4b: This map shows Antarctic sea ice concentration on September 16, 2017. Note the Maud Rise polynya at the top of the image. Data are from the Advanced Microwave Scannig Radiometer 2 (AMSR2).

Credit: G. Heygster, C. Melsheimer, J. Notholt/Institute of Environmental Physics, University of Bremen
High-resolution image

Following the record low summer minimum extent in March, Antarctic sea ice extent is now nearing its winter maximum. This will likely be among the five lowest winter extents in the satellite era. As of mid-September, Antarctic ice extent was just under 18 million square kilometers (7 million square miles), which is approximately half a million square kilometers below the 1981 to 2010 median ice extent. Sea ice is below the typical extent in the Indian Ocean sector, the northern Ross Sea, and the northern Weddell Sea, and slightly above average extent in the northern Amundsen Sea region.

Between September 9 and September 17 of 2016, Antarctic sea ice lost nearly 100,000 square kilometers (38,600 square miles) of sea ice per day, and sea ice extent moved from near-average to a near-record-daily low by September 17. For the next 12 months Antarctic sea ice remained extremely low. Record low ice extents were set every day from November 5, 2016 to April 10, 2017. Extents averaged for November and December of 2016 were five standard deviations below average. No other 12-month period (September 2016 to August 2017) has had such persistently low sea ice extent. The year 1986 had near-record low extent for the winter period (June to December), but there were periods of near-average and even above-average ice extent earlier in the calendar year.

Beginning around September 2, an opening in the Antarctic sea ice pack formed north of Dronning Maud Land in the easternmost Weddell Sea (near 64°S, 5°E). By mid-September, this opening, or polynya, had grown to about 12,000 square kilometers (4,600 square miles). This feature has been observed intermittently in the Antarctic pack ice since the first satellite data became available in the 1970s. In 1974, 1975, and 1976, the polynya was much larger, averaging 250,000 square kilometers (96,500 square miles). It was absent for many years in the 1980s and 1990s. In recent years the feature has been observed sporadically and has been much smaller.

The polynya is formed when ocean currents uplift deep warm ocean water to the surface where it melts the sea ice. An oceanic plateau called the Maud Rise is responsible for forcing the vertical movement of the water. The persistence of certain atmospheric patterns, such as the southern annular mode, or SAM, is thought to play a role in driving the deep water layer against the Maud Rise.

2017 Arctic sea ice minimum animation

See the NASA animation of Arctic sea ice extent from the beginning of the melt season on March 8, 2017 to the day of the annual minimum on September 13, 2017 here.

Further reading

Gordon, A.L., Visbeck, M. and Comiso, J.C. 2007. A possible link between the Weddell Polynya and the Southern Annular Mode. Journal of Climate20(11), 2558-2571. doi:10.1175/JCLI4046.1

Holland, D.M. 2001. Explaining the Weddell Polynya–a large ocean eddy shed at Maud Rise. Science, 292(5522), 1697-1700. doi:10.1126/science.1059322.

Erratum

In Table 1, years 2014 and 2013 were both ranked ninth lowest. They should have been ninth and tenth respectively. This has been corrected.

 

 

The end of summer nears

Average sea ice extent for August 2017 ended up third lowest in the satellite record. Ice loss rates through August were variable, but slower overall than in recent years. Extensive areas of low concentration ice cover (40 to 70 percent) are still present across much of the Eurasian side of the Arctic Ocean.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for August 2017 was 5.51 million square kilometers (2.13 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that month.

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for August 2017 was 5.51 million square kilometers (2.13 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 for August 2017 averaged 5.51 million square kilometers (2.13 million square miles), the third lowest August in the 1979 to 2017 satellite record. This was 1.77 million square kilometers (683,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average, and 800,000 square kilometers (309,000 square miles) above the record low August set in 2012.

Ice retreat was most pronounced in the western Beaufort Sea. A large region in the Beaufort Sea and East Siberian Sea has low concentration sea ice (40 to 70 percent). Patches of low concentration sea ice and some open water northeast of the Taymyr Peninsula are also present.

While a record low minimum extent in the Arctic is unlikely this year, the ice edge in the Beaufort Sea is extremely far north. In parts of this region, the ice edge is farther north than at any time since the satellite record began in 1979. This highlights the pronounced regional variability in ice conditions from year to year. A couple of the models that contribute to the Sea Ice Prediction Network Sea Ice Outlooks forecasted significantly less ice in the Beaufort Sea in July this year compared to average conditions.

Conditions in context

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of September 5, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years. 2017 is shown in blue, 2016 in green, 2015 in orange, 2014 in brown, 2013 in purple, and 2012 in dotted 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 September 5, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years. 2017 is shown in blue, 2016 in green, 2015 in orange, 2014 in brown, 2013 in purple, and 2012 in dotted 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 2b. This image shows average sea level pressure over the Arctic for the month of August 2017.

Figure 2b. This image shows average sea level pressure in millibars over the Arctic for the month of August 2017.

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

Over the month, low atmospheric pressure prevailed over much of the Arctic Ocean, centered over the northern Beaufort Sea (Figure 2b). This helped to push the ice edge in that region northward. Summers dominated by low pressure, as has been the case for 2017, are generally not conducive to ice loss. Low pressure brings generally cool conditions and the cyclonic (counterclockwise) winds help spread the ice over a larger area. However, it appears that strong individual storms, such as the intense summer cyclone of 2012, may break up the ice and mix warm ocean waters into the sea ice, contributing to ice loss.

August 2017 compared to previous years

Figure 3. Monthly August ice extent for 1979 to 2017 shows a decline of 10.48 percent per decade.

Figure 3. Monthly August ice extent for 1979 to 2017 shows a decline of 10.5 percent per decade.

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

The linear rate of decline for August 2017 is 76,300 square kilometers (29,000 square miles) per year, or 10.5 percent per decade. The daily ice loss rate was variable over the month, slowing considerably during the middle and end of the month. Overall, the loss rate during August 2017 was slower than recent years, particularly 2012, when extent decreased rapidly during the first half of the month after a the passage of a strong storm.

A report on the Northwest Passage

Figure 4a. This shows the route of the Crystal Serenity (yellow line) overlaid on a map of ice cover in the Northwest Passage region.

Figure 4a. This shows the route of the Crystal Serenity (yellow line) overlaid on a map of ice cover in the Northwest Passage region for September 5, 2017.

Credit: Canadian Ice Service Daily and Regional Ice Charts
High-resolution image

Figure 4b. This chart shows sea ice area in the Parry Channel region of the Canadian Archipelago from April 30 to November 26 for the years 2010 (magenta), 2011 (dashed green), 2014 (blue green), 2016 (purple, and 2017 (red). The black line shows the 1980 to 2010 long-term average. ||Credit: Environment and Climate Change Canada|

Figure 4b. This chart shows sea ice area in the Parry Channel region of the Canadian Archipelago from April 30 to November 26 for the years 2010 (magenta), 2011 (dashed green), 2014 (blue green), 2016 (purple), and 2017 (red). The black line shows the 1981 to 2010 long-term average.

Credit: Environment and Climate Change Canada
High-resolution image

Figure 4c. This photo shows sea ice conditions along the route of the Crystal Serenity.||Credit: C. Haas|High-resolution image

Figure 4c. This photo shows sea ice conditions along the route of the Crystal Serenity.

Credit: C. Haas, York University
High-resolution image

Of particular interest each year are the ice conditions in the Northwest Passage. Our colleagues, Stephen Howell and Michael Brady of the Climate Research Division at Environment and Climate Change Canada, provided a status update based on sea ice charts produced by the Canadian Ice Service.

As of August 28, the northern route of the Northwest Passage was blocked by high concentration ice at the western (Parry Channel) entrance (Figure 4a), but overall extent in the passage is still tracking below the 1981 to 2010 average (Figure 4b). The record low seasonal extent in the northern route was in 2011. Low ice years in the northern route are typically the result of early breakup associated with above-average sea level pressure over the Beaufort Sea and Canadian Basin; this pattern tends to displace ice away from the western entrance. Conversely, low sea level pressure over the Beaufort Sea, such as seen this summer, packs ice up against the western entrance. It is unlikely the northern route will open in this year. Ice concentrations are much milder in the southern route (Amundsen’s Passage) but some ice still blocks the eastern part of that passage. This is primarily first year ice that may melt out in the coming weeks. During low ice summers, thick multi-year ice originating from the Arctic Ocean is typically advected into the channels of both the northern and southern routes, representing a significant hazard to transiting ships.

The Crystal Serenity luxury cruise ship, accompanied by an icebreaker, is attempting a repeat of last year’s cruise through the passage. Professor Christian Haas of York University in Toronto, who is providing sea ice expertise on board the ship, sent us a first-hand account of conditions:

“On August 29 and 30, we encountered some high concentration ice, up to 90 percent, just before entering Bellot Strait. The ice was mostly first-year ice, with about 30 percent multi-year ice having thicknesses greater than 2 meters (6.5 feet). Due to the relatively severe ice conditions, we were supported by the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Des Groseilliers, which helped clear some ice on our route into Franklin Strait. Overall, ice conditions have been much more severe than during the first transit of the Northwest Passage of the Crystal Serenity in 2016, when no ice was encountered at all.”

Figure 4c shows conditions along the route. The ship’s latest position is available at the cruise’s blog.

Also of note, the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica, set a new record for the earliest transit through the passage on July 29, traveling 10,000 kilometers (6,000 miles) in 24 days.

On the other side of the Arctic, the Northeast Passage (or Northern Sea Route) along the coast of Siberia appears largely open as shown by NSIDC data, though operational analysis by the U.S. National Ice Center shows some remaining ice along the coast of the Taymyr Peninsula.

A radar view of the Arctic

Figure 5. Composite image from Sentinel-1 SAR imagery for August 29, 2017 overlaid with passive microwave sea ice concentration from the JAXA AMSR2 sensor. Red/pink shades indicate regions of high (>90 percent) concentration, while green/brown shades indicate lower (~30-70 percent) concentration. Open water is in black to blue/gray shades. Open water is evident between floes of ice in the low concentration regions.

Figure 5. This figure shows a composite image from Sentinel-1 SAR imagery for August 29, 2017 overlaid with passive microwave sea ice concentration from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer 2 (AMSR2) sensor. Red/pink shades indicate regions of high (more than 90 percent) concentration, while green/brown shades indicate lower (~30-70 percent) concentration. Open water is in black to blue/gray shades. Open water is evident between floes of ice in the low concentration regions.

Credit: Image from Danish Technical University, courtesy Leif Pedersen and Roberto Saldo
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The passive microwave satellite imagery that NSIDC uses is ideal for showing long-term changes in sea ice because it provides a continuous record extending back to 1979. Its drawback is low spatial resolution. Satellite radar images, though more limited in spatial and temporal coverage, provide a more detailed picture of the ice cover. A daily composite of images from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellite, with a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) instrument, shows substantial open water well within the ice pack, north of 80° N latitude.

Which August will we get?

Average sea ice extent for July 2017 ended up fifth lowest in the satellite record. This reflects weather conditions that were not favorable for ice loss. It will be important to monitor August 2017, as weather conditions and storm events during this month have been closely related to the seasonal minimum sea ice extent in the recent years.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for July 2017 was 8.2 million square kilometers (3.2 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that month.

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for July 2017 was 8.21 million square kilometers (3.17 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
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Arctic sea ice extent for July 2017 averaged 8.21 million square kilometers (3.17 million square miles), the fifth lowest July in the 1979 to 2017 satellite record. The average July extent was 1.58 million square kilometers (610,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average, and 270,000 square kilometers (104,000 square miles) above the previous record low July set in 2011. July 2017 tracked 250,000 square kilometers (97,000 square miles) above the July 2012 extent and 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles) above the July 2007 extent.

Ice extent was lower than average over most of the Arctic, particularly on the Pacific side where the ice retreated throughout July in the Beaufort, Chukchi, and East Siberian Seas. In the eastern Beaufort Sea on the other hand, extent slightly expanded during July. This may relate to the cyclonic (counterclockwise) pattern of winds favoring the drift of sea ice into the region.

Conditions in context

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of August 1, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years. 2017 is shown in blue, 2016 in green, 2015 in orange, 2014 in brown, 2013 in purple, and 2012 in dotted 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

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of August 1, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years. 2017 is shown in blue, 2016 in green, 2015 in orange, 2014 in brown, 2013 in purple, and 2012 in dotted 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
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Figure 2b. The plot shows differences from average for Arctic air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (about 2,500 feet above sea level) in degrees Celsius. Yellows and reds indicate higher than average temperatures; blues and purples indicate lower than average temperatures.

Figure 2b. The plot shows Arctic air temperature differences relative to the 1981 to 2010 long-term average at the 925 hPa level (about 2,500 feet above sea level) in degrees Celsius. 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
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The air temperature pattern over the Arctic was rather complex in July. Temperatures were above average over Alaska, extending into the Beaufort Sea (1 to 2 degrees Celsius or 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit) and the Kara and Barents Seas (2 to 4 degrees Celsius or 4 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit). By contrast, temperatures were 2 to 4 degrees Celsius (4 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit) lower than average over Greenland, East Central Siberia, and the Laptev Sea. The air pressure pattern at sea level was dominated by a broad area of low pressure covering most of the Arctic Ocean, with the lowest pressures centered just south of the Pole and west of the date line. Another locus of low pressure was centered over the southern Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

A cyclonic circulation over the central Arctic Ocean is generally viewed as unfavorable for rapid summer ice loss. Ice loss rates tend to be higher when the central Arctic Ocean is dominated by high pressure during summer.

July 2017 compared to previous years

Figure 3. Monthly July ice extent for 1979 to 2017 shows a decline of 7.4 percent per decade.

Figure 3. Monthly July ice extent for 1979 to 2017 shows a decline of 7.4 percent per decade.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
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The linear rate of decline for July 2017 was 72,500 square kilometers (28,000 square miles) per year, or 7.4 percent per decade.

Onset of surface melt

Figure 4. The plot on the left shows melt onset dates in day of the year (left). Warm colors indicate early melt onset and cooler colors indicate a later melt onset. The plot on the right shows departures from the average melt onset dates in number of days. Warmer colors indicate later than average melt onset and cooler colors indicate later than average melt onset.

Figure 4. The plot on the left shows the average melt onset dates in day of the year. Warm colors indicate early melt onset and cooler colors indicate a later melt onset. The plot on the right shows departures from the average melt onset dates in number of days. Warmer colors indicate later than average melt onset and cooler colors indicate earlier than average melt onset.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
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One important influence on the pace of summer sea ice retreat is the timing of the onset of surface melt. Surface melt drops the albedo, allowing more solar radiation to be absorbed at the surface. The onset of surface melt in 2017 was quite early in the Chukchi and Eastern Beaufort Seas—as much as 35 days earlier than the 1981 to 2010 average. Early melt was also seen in the Kara Sea, Baffin Bay, and Canadian Arctic Archipelago (10 to 20 days earlier than average). However, over a large portion of the Arctic Ocean’s central ice pack, melt onset was a few days later than average. Melt onset was up to ten days later than average in the polar areas at the northern extents of the Beaufort and East Siberian Seas. The spatial pattern in the timing of melt onset reflects the combination of the warm winter and early spring conditions along the edge of the pack on the Pacific side, very warm winter conditions in the Barents and Kara Sea areas, and relatively cool late spring to early summer conditions over the central Arctic Ocean.

Sea ice predictions for the 2017 minimum

Figure 5. This chart summarizes the 2017 summer September minimum forecasts from 36 different models and approaches to predicting the evolution of the Arctic pack.

Figure 5. This chart summarizes the 2017 summer September minimum forecasts from 36 different models and approaches to predicting the evolution of the Arctic pack.

Credit: SIPN/ARCUS
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A report released by the Sea Ice Prediction Network (SIPN), an activity of the Arctic Research Council of the United States (ARCUS), compiled 36 forecasts of September average sea ice extent that were submitted during July. Additionally, SIPN produces estimates for sea ice extent in the Alaska region and, new this year, for the Antarctic sea ice maximum (not shown). The September Arctic extent forecasts range from a new record low of 3.1 million square kilometers (1.2 million square miles) to an eleventh lowest extent of 5.5 million square kilometers (2.1 million square miles). The median of the estimates is slightly below the September 2016 value, currently the fifth lowest. A variety of methods are used to make these forecasts, ranging from coupled ice-ocean-atmospheric models to statistical approaches and heuristic guesses. NSIDC scientists Julienne Stroeve, Walt Meier, Andrew Barrett, Mark Serreze, and the late Drew Slater have regularly contributed to several separate estimations for the SIPN.

Sea ice retreat may be changing the AMOC

In the far northern Atlantic, warm water flowing northward from the tropics is cooled by the atmosphere, becomes denser, and eventually sinks to great depths. The descending water is key in driving a sub-surface and surface ocean circulation system called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), which is part of the global ocean conveyor belt of heat and salinity. Where the Atlantic water sinks has a very important effect on the climate of Northern Europe; the heat that the ocean loses to the atmosphere is what keeps Northern Europe quite warm relative to its latitude. For example, Amsterdam is at the same latitude as Winnipeg, Canada, but experiences much warmer winters.

Based on a recent modeling study, Florian Sévellec and colleagues propose that the ongoing loss of Arctic sea ice may disrupt the AMOC. The sea ice loss leads to a freshening of the northern North Atlantic and stronger heat absorption at the surface. This means that waters in the northern North Atlantic are less dense than they used to be, which has the effect of providing a cap, or lid, that may inhibit the northward flow of warm waters at the surface and the eventual sinking of these waters. The authors suggest that the Arctic sea ice decline may help to explain observations suggesting that the AMOC may be slowing down, and why there is a regional minimum in warming (sometimes called the Warming Hole) over the subpolar North Atlantic.

Further reading

Sea Ice Prediction Network. “2017: July Report.” Arctic Research Council of the United States. https://www.arcus.org/sipn/sea-ice-outlook/2017/july.

Sévellec, F., A. V. Fedorov, and W. Liu. 2017. Arctic sea-ice decline weakens the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation. Nature Climate Change, doi:10.1038/nclimate3353.

Arctic ice extent near levels recorded in 2012

Contrasting with the fairly slow start to the melt season in May, June saw the ice retreat at a faster than average rate. On July 2, Arctic sea ice extent was at the same level recorded in 2012 and 2016. In 2012, September sea ice extent reached the lowest in the satellite record. As a new feature to Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis, NSIDC now provides a daily updated map of ice concentration in addition to the daily map of ice extent.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for June 2017 averaged 11.06 million square kilometers (4.27 million square miles).

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for June 2017 averaged 11.06 million square kilometers (4.27 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
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Arctic sea ice extent for June 2017 averaged 11.06 million square kilometers (4.27 million square miles), the sixth lowest in the 1979 to 2017 satellite record. The average June 2017 extent was 900,000 square kilometers (348,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average, and 460,000 square kilometers (178,000 square miles) above the previous record low set in 2016.

Continuing the pattern seen in May, sea ice extent at the end of the month remained below average in the Chukchi Sea and in the Barents Sea. Ice extent was at average levels in the Greenland Sea. Areas of low concentration ice have developed along the ice edge and coastal seas.

Based on imagery from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the NASA Terra and Aqua satellites, summer melt ponds atop the ice cover were somewhat slow to develop. However, there is now widespread melt pond coverage in the Canadian Archipelago and the Laptev and East Siberian Seas. Data from the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer 2 (AMSR-2) instrument analyzed by the University of Bremen, as well as MODIS imagery, indicate that melt ponds have also developed over the Central Arctic Ocean. Researchers in Dease Strait in Northern Canada have observed melt ponds forming about two weeks earlier than average. Melt ponds are important as they decrease the albedo or reflectivity of the ice surface, which hastens further melt.

Conditions in context

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of July 4, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years. 2017 is shown in blue, 2016 in green, 2015 in orange, 2014 in brown, 2013 in purple, 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.

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of July 4, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years. 2017 is shown in blue, 2016 in green, 2015 in orange, 2014 in brown, 2013 in purple, 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
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The rate of decline in ice extent was fairly steady through the month, and the average rate of decline of 81,800 square kilometers (31,600 square miles) per day was slightly faster than the 1981 to 2010 long-term average of 56,300 square kilometers (21,700 square miles) per day. On July 2, extent was the same as that recorded in 2012 and 2016. The year 2012 ended up with the lowest September extent in the satellite record.

June air temperatures were modestly above average (1 to 3 degrees Celsius or 2 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit) in a band spanning the Arctic Ocean roughly centered along the date line and the prime meridian. This contrasts with below-average temperatures over the eastern Beaufort Sea and Canadian Arctic Archipelago and the Barents and Laptev Seas (1 to 3 degrees Celsius, 2 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit). Atmospheric pressures at sea level were below-average over the Kara Sea and extending north of the Laptev Sea.

June 2017 compared to previous years

Figure 3. Monthly June ice extent for 1979 to 2017 shows a decline of 3.7 percent per decade.

Figure 3. Monthly June ice extent for 1979 to 2017 shows a decline of 3.7 percent per decade.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
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The linear rate of decline for June is 44,300 square kilometers (17,100 square miles) per year, or 3.7 percent per decade.

Ice thickness

Figure 4. Figure 4. This figure shows that sea ice thicknesses for May 2017 were below the 2000 to 2015 average over most of the Arctic Ocean (areas in blue) except for the region north and west of the Svalbard archipelago (areas in red). ||Credit: University of Washington Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System

Figure 4. This figure shows that sea ice thicknesses for May 2017 were below the 2000 to 2015 average over most of the Arctic Ocean (areas in blue) except for the region north and west of the Svalbard archipelago (areas in red).

Credit: University of Washington Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System
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The University of Washington Seattle Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System (PIOMAS) regularly produces maps of ice thickness anomalies (departures from the long-term average). PIOMAS is based on a coupled ice-ocean model that is driven by data from an atmospheric reanalysis, and also assimilates data on observed ocean conditions and ice thickness (e.g., from NASA IceBridge). The PIOMAS analysis suggests that, relative to the average over the period 2000 to 2015, ice thickness for May 2017 (when the melt season was just beginning) was below average over most of the Arctic Ocean, especially in the Chukchi Sea and north of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. A small region with above-average ice thickness is depicted over the Atlantic side of the Arctic north and west of the Svalbard Archipelago, and in the Greenland Sea. Starting the melt season with below-average ice thickness raises the likelihood of having especially low September ice extent.

Freezing degree days and ice thickness

Figure 5. The figure shows departures from average in cumulate freezing degree days, extending from July 1 for a given year through July 1 of the next year, along with the range, 15th through 85th percentile and 30th to 70th percentile values over the base period 1981 through 2010.

Figure 5. The figure shows departures from average in cumulate freezing degree days, extending from July 1 for a given year through July 1 of the next year, along with the range, 15th through 85th percentile and 30th to 70th percentile values over the base period 1981 through 2010.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
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Cumulative Freezing Degree Days (FDD) is a simple measure of how cold it has been and for how long. Cumulative FDD is the sum of daily mean temperatures below zero from some start date. Here we start on July 1. Cumulative FDD is related to ice thickness because, on average, years with longer periods of temperatures below freezing will have more ice growth. A simple empirical model that has been used by scientists relates ice thickness to the square root of cumulative FDD.

Anomalies (departures from the average) in cumulative FDD illustrate the coldness of a given period relative to the long-term average (1981 to 2010). Figure 5 shows that most of the period from July 2016 to July 2017 was extremely mild and was milder (less cold) than both 2006 to 2007 and 2011 to 2012. September of both 2007 and 2012 ended up with very low September sea ice extent. This is consistent with below-average ice thickness seen in the PIOMAS data. Although conditions cooled in May and June, this likely had little impact on ice thickness. This is because ice in the Arctic reaches its maximum thickness earlier in the season during March or April. As noted earlier, ice retreated at a fast rate throughout June. This is likely linked to a thinner than average ice cover as seen in the PIOMAS analysis.

Sudden Antarctic sea ice decline in late 2016

A slight decrease in the rate of sea ice growth at the end of June brought Antarctic sea ice extent back to daily record lows. Sea ice extent in the Bellingshausen, eastern Amundsen, and western Ross Seas was below average.

Our post on December 2016 ice conditions highlighted a precipitous drop in Antarctic sea ice extent in the Weddell and Ross Sea sectors during September, October, and November of 2016. A recent study by John Turner and colleagues links this pattern of sea ice decline to a series of strong storms, marked by long periods of warm winds from the north. These changing weather conditions are associated with large shifts in the Southern Annual Mode index (SAM index).

Further reading

Turner, J., T. Phillips, G. J. Marshall, J. S. Hosking, J. O. Pope, T. J. Bracegirdle, and P. Deb. 2017. Unprecedented springtime retreat of Antarctic sea ice in 2016, Geophysical Research Letters, 44, doi:10.1002/2017GL073656.

Warm Arctic, cool continents

Arctic sea ice extent for April 2017 tied with April 2016 for the lowest in the satellite record for the month. Warm weather conditions and lower-than-average sea ice extent prevailed over the Pacific side of the Arctic, while relatively cool conditions were the rule in northern Europe and eastern North America. In the Southern Hemisphere, Antarctic sea ice extent remained lower than average.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for April 2017 was 13.83 million square kilometers (5.34 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that month.

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for April 2017 was 13.83 million square kilometers (5.34 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
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Arctic sea ice extent for April 2017 averaged 13.83 million square kilometers (5.34 million square miles), and tied with April 2016 for the lowest April extent in the 38-year satellite record. The April 2017 extent is 1.02 million square kilometers (394,000 square miles) below the April 1981 to 2010 long-term average. The largest reductions in ice extent through the month occurred on the Pacific side of the Arctic, within the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk. Little change in extent occurred in the Atlantic sector of the Arctic.

Conditions in context

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of May 2, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2017 is shown in blue, 2016 in green, 2015 in orange, 2014 in brown, and 2013 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.

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of May 2, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years. 2017 is shown in blue, 2016 in green, 2015 in orange, 2014 in brown, and 2013 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
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Figure 2b. These figures show April 2017 Arctic air temperature difference at the 925 hPa level (about 2,500 feet above sea level) in degrees Celsius (left) and sea level pressure (right). Yellows and reds indicate higher than average temperatures and pressure; blues and purples indicate lower than average temperatures and pressure.

Figure 2b. These figures show April 2017 differences from average for Arctic air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (about 2,500 feet above sea level) in degrees Celsius (left) and for sea level pressure (right). Yellows and reds indicate higher than average temperatures and pressure; blues and purples indicate lower than average temperatures and pressure.

Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Division
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Figure 2c. These maps show Arctic sea ice motion for April 13 to 15, 2017, which is representative of the general pattern seen throughout the month. Black arrows represent sea ice drift. The purple arrows represent "filled" values, data gaps that have been interpolated from surrounding data.

Figure 2c. These maps show Arctic sea ice motion for April 13 to 15, 2017, which is representative of the general pattern seen throughout the month. Black arrows represent sea ice drift. The purple arrows represent “filled” values, data gaps that have been interpolated from surrounding data.

Credit: EUMETSAT
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The decline in ice extent through the month was fairly steady, at a rate similar to what was observed over the previous two Aprils (2016 and 2015). Throughout the month, sea ice extent was either at daily record lows for the period of satellite observations, or within 100,000 square kilometers (~38,600 square miles) of record low values. At the end of the month, extent was below average in the Barents Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the western Bering Sea, similar to the pattern seen in March. Despite fairly warm conditions, sea ice extent was slightly above average in Baffin Bay.

Unusually warm conditions were observed across the Pacific side of the Arctic Ocean, with temperatures at the 925 hPa level (about 2,500 feet above sea level) north of the Bering Strait ranging from 6 to 8 degrees Celsius (11 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1981 to 2010 average. Western Alaska and easternmost Siberia also saw warm conditions. However, below average temperatures ruled across a broad swath of northern Canada. Of particular note, cooler-than-average conditions also prevailed over Greenland, leading to relatively little surface melting on the ice sheet in April (unlike the preceding two years).

The overall temperature pattern is consistent with the average sea level pressure pattern for the month, which had large areas of low and higher-than-average pressure in the Eastern and Western Hemispheres, respectively. This pattern produces a cross-Arctic airflow, with southerly winds from the Bering Sea blowing into the Chukchi Sea and central Arctic, and cool winds blowing from the north over Scandinavia and other areas of northern Europe. This cross-Arctic wind pattern is also evident in the sea ice motion field for April 2017. Sea ice motion is determined by tracking patterns in the sea ice in both visible imagery and in passive microwave data from satellites.

April 2017 compared to previous years

Figure 3a. Monthly April ice extent for 1979 to 2017 shows a decline of 2.6 percent per decade.

Figure 3a. Monthly April ice extent for 1979 to 2017 shows a decline of 2.6 percent per decade.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
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Figure 3b. This shows April 2017 Arctic sea ice concentration anomalies (left) and Arctic sea ice concentration trends (right).

Figure 3b. These images show April 2017 Arctic sea ice concentration anomalies (left) and Arctic sea ice concentration trends (right). Sea Ice Index data. About the data

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
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The linear rate of decline for April is 38,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles) per year, or 2.6 percent per decade.

Declining ice extent in the Barents Sea, Sea of Okhotsk, and off the coast of southeastern Greenland is a part of the long-term pattern of sea ice decline. Below-average ice extent in the western Bering Sea has to date not been a part of the long-term trend for April.

A report from the field

Figure 4. This photo shows broken up sea ice and some multi-year floes at Alert, on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, Canada. A researcher and a Twin Otter aircraft are obscured in the background.

Figure 4. This photo shows broken up sea ice and some multi-year floes at Alert, on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, Canada on April 2017. A researcher and a Twin Otter aircraft are obscured in the background.

Credit: J. Stroeve/NSIDC
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NSIDC scientist Julienne Stroeve continued her Arctic field work into early April, moving from Cambridge Bay, Canada to Alert in Ellesmere Island. In Alert, Stroeve focused on sampling ice thickness and snow pack characteristics along a CryoSat-2 flight track within the Lincoln Sea. This is an area between northernmost Greenland and Ellesmere Island where thick, old ice remains. The scientists flew by Twin Otter each day, out onto the sea ice between latitudes 83°N and 87.1°N. The field campaign was also supported by an aircraft from the British Antarctic Survey carrying a Ka band radar, LiDAR, and a broadband radiometer. A NASA Operation IceBridge flight also flew over the same track.

The group noted that the ice was unusually broken up and reduced to rubble, with few large multi-year floes, forcing the pilots to land on refrozen leads that at times were only 70 centimeters (28 inches) thick. Pilots remarked that they had never seen the ice look like this. Preliminary estimates suggest mean thicknesses ranging from 2 to 3.4 meters (6.6 to 11 feet), with the thickest ice found between an ice bridge in the Lincoln Sea and mobile pack ice to the north. Modal thickness, a representation of thermodynamically-grown level ice, ranged between 1.8 and 2.9 meters (6 and 10 feet), including 0.25 to 0.4 meters (10 to 16 inches) of snow. Second- and first-year modal ice thicknesses ranged between 1.8 and 1.9 meters (6 and 6.2 feet), about 0.2 meters (8 inches) thinner than previous airborne measurements indicated. More details can be found at the European Space Agency’s Campaigns at Work blog.

Arctic sea ice age

Figure 5. These maps shows 2016 (top left) and 2017 (top right) Arctic sea ice age for the end of March and the time series of percent coverage for the Arctic Ocean (bottom).

Figure 5. These maps shows 2016 (top left) and 2017 (top right) Arctic sea ice age for the end of March and the time series of percent coverage for the Arctic Ocean (bottom).

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center, courtesy M. Tschudi, C. Fowler, J. Maslanik, R. Stewart/University of Colorado Boulder; W. Meier/NASA Cryospheric Sciences
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Sea ice age is a proxy for ice thickness, with older ice generally meaning thicker ice. Though ice can pile up into rubble fields when the motion of the ice pushes up against the coast or thicker ice, level ice generally increases in thickness as it ages through more winter freeze cycles. Thus, ice age is a reasonable indicator of the sea ice thickness.

At the end of March, ice age data show only a small remaining coverage of old (5+ years) ice. Since 2011, the oldest ice has comprised less than 5 percent of the total ice cover. During the mid-1980s, such ice made up nearly a third of the ice.

The next oldest ice category, four-year-old ice has also dropped from about 8 to 10 percent to less than 5 percent. The coverage of intermediate age ice categories (2- and 3-year-old ice) has stayed fairly consistent through time. The oldest ice has essentially been replaced by first-year ice (ice that has formed since the previous September). First-year-ice has risen from 35 to 40 percent of the Arctic Ocean’s ice cover during the mid-1980s to about 70 percent now.

Comparison of March 2016 conditions to this year shows a similar percentage coverage for the different ice ages. However, the spatial distribution is different. In March 2016, bands of the oldest ice extended through the Beaufort Sea and into the Chukchi, with scattered patches north of the Canadian Archipelago and Greenland. This year, the oldest ice is consolidated against the coast of Greenland and the archipelago except for a short arm extending north to the region around the pole. Most of the third year ice is between Fram Strait and the pole, which means it is likely to exit the Arctic Ocean during the coming months.

Antarctic ice extent low, but not lowest

Figure 6. The graph above shows Antarctic sea ice extent as of May 2, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2017 is shown in blue, 2016 in green, 2015 in orange, 2014 in brown, and 2013 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.

Figure 6. The graph above shows Antarctic sea ice extent as of May 2, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2017 is shown in blue, 2016 in green, 2015 in orange, 2014 in dashed brown, and 2013 in purple. 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
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Antarctic sea ice grew at a slightly faster-than average pace in April, but was still setting daily record lows until about April 10, after which extent rose above the 1980 ice extent. The April 2017 sea ice extent is lower than average in the Amundsen Sea and slightly lower than average in the Ross Sea and easternmost Weddell Sea. However, an area of above average extent is present in the north-central Weddell. Temperatures on the continent were above average over West Antarctica and western Wilkes Land, and considerably below average over the central Weddell sea.

Arctic sea ice maximum at record low for third straight year

Arctic sea ice appears to have reached its annual maximum extent on March 7. This is the lowest maximum in the 38-year satellite record. NSIDC will post a detailed analysis of the 2016 to 2017 winter sea ice conditions in our regular monthly post in early April.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for March 7, 2017 was 14.42 million square kilometers (5.57 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that day.

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for March 7, 2017 was 14.42 million square kilometers (5.57 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that day. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
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On March 7, 2017, Arctic sea ice likely reached its maximum extent for the year, at 14.42 million square kilometers (5.57 million square miles), the lowest in the 38-year satellite record. This year’s maximum extent is 1.22 million square kilometers (471,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average maximum of 15.64 million square kilometers (6.04 million square miles) and 97,000 square kilometers (37,000 square miles) below the previous lowest maximum that occurred on February 25, 2015. This year’s maximum is 100,000 square kilometers (39,000 square miles) below the 2016 maximum, which is now third lowest. (In 2016, we reported that year’s maximum as the lowest and 2015 the second lowest. An update to the Sea Ice Index last summer has changed our numbers slightly.)

Conditions in context

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of March 20, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2016 to 2017 is shown in blue, 2015 to 2016 in green, 2014 to 2015 in orange, 2013 to 2014 in brown, and 2012 to 2013 in purple. 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.

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of March 20, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years. 2016 to 2017 is shown in blue, 2015 to 2016 in green, 2014 to 2015 in orange, 2013 to 2014 in brown, 2012 to 2013 in purple, 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

Figure 2b. The plot shows Arctic air temperature differences at the 925 hPa level in degrees Celsius from October 1, 2016 to February 28, 2017. Yellows and reds indicate temperatures higher than the 1981 to 2010 average; blues and purples indicate temperatures lower than the 1981 to 2010 average.

Figure 2b. The plot shows Arctic air temperature differences at the 925 hPa level (about 2,500 feet above sea level) in degrees Celsius from October 1, 2016 to February 28, 2017. Yellows and reds indicate temperatures higher than the 1981 to 2010 average; blues and purples indicate temperatures lower than the 1981 to 2010 average.

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

It was a very warm autumn and winter. Air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (about 2,500 feet above sea level) over the five months spanning October 2016 through February 2017 were more than 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over the entire Arctic Ocean, and greater than 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over large parts of the northern Chukchi and Barents Seas. These overall warm conditions were punctuated by a series of extreme heat waves over the Arctic Ocean.

Data from the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 satellite indicate that this winter’s ice cover may be only slightly thinner than that observed at this time of year for the past four years. However, an ice-ocean model at the University of Washington (PIOMAS) that incorporates observed weather conditions suggests the volume of ice in the Arctic is unusually low.

The Antarctic minimum

Figure 3. Antarctic sea ice extent for March 3, 2017 was 2.11 million square kilometers (813,000 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for that day.

Figure 3. Antarctic sea ice extent for March 3, 2017 was 2.11 million square kilometers (815,000 square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that day. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

In the Southern Hemisphere, sea ice likely reached its minimum extent for the year on March 3, at 2.11 million square kilometers (815,000 square miles). This year’s minimum extent was the lowest in the satellite record, continuing a period of satellite-era record low daily extents that began in early November. However, the Antarctic system has been highly variable. As recently as 2015, Antarctic sea ice set record high daily extents, and in September 2014 reached a record high winter maximum.

The Antarctic minimum extent is 740,000 square kilometers (286,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average minimum of 2.85 million square kilometers (1.10 million square miles) and 184,000 square kilometers (71,000 square miles) below the previous lowest minimum that occurred on February 27, 1997.

Antarctic air temperatures during the autumn and winter were above average, but less so than in the Arctic. Air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (about 2,500 feet above sea level) near the sea ice edge have been about 1 to 2.5 degrees Celsius (2 to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1981 to 2010 average.

Final analysis pending

At the beginning of April, NSIDC scientists will release a full analysis of winter conditions, along with monthly data for March. For more information about the maximum extent and what it means, see the NSIDC Icelights post, the Arctic sea ice maximum.

Correction

On March 27, 2017, we made corrections to clarify the second paragraph under Conditions in context. The paragraph originally read:

Data from the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 satellite indicate that this winter’s ice cover is slightly thinner compared to the past four years. An ice-ocean model at the University of Washington that incorporates observed weather conditions suggests the volume of ice in the Arctic is unusually low for this time of year.

Another warm month in the Arctic

High air temperatures observed over the Barents and Kara Seas for much of this past winter moderated in February. Overall, the Arctic remained warmer than average and sea ice extent remained at record low levels.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for February 2017 was 14.28 million square kilometers (5.51 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 median 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 February 2017 was 14.28 million square kilometers (5.51 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for the month. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

Arctic sea ice extent for February 2017 averaged 14.28 million square kilometers (5.51 million square miles), the lowest February extent in the 38-year satellite record. This is 40,000 square kilometers (15,400 square miles) below February 2016, the previous lowest extent for the month, and 1.18 million square kilometers (455,600 square miles) below the February 1981 to 2010 long term average.

Ice extent increased at varying rates, with faster growth during the first and third weeks, and slower growth during the second and fourth weeks. Most of the ice growth in February occurred in the Bering Sea, though extent in the Bering remained below average by the end of the month. Sea ice extent in the Sea of Okhotsk substantially decreased mid-month before rebounding to almost typical levels at the end of the month. Overall, however, the ice retreated in this region. Extent in the Barents and Kara Seas remained low through the month as is has all season, with little change in the ice edge location.

Conditions in context

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of March 5, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2016 to 2017 is shown in blue, 2015 to 2016 in green, 2014 to 2015 in orange, 2013 to 2014 in brown, and 2012 to 2013 in purple. 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. About the data||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|High-resolution image

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of March 5, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2016 to 2017 is shown in blue, 2015 to 2016 in green, 2014 to 2015 in orange, 2013 to 2014 in brown, and 2012 to 2013 in purple. 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. About the data

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

Figure 2b. The plot shows Arctic air temperature differences at the 925 hPa level in degrees Celsius for February 2017. Yellows and reds indicate temperatures higher than the 1981 to 2010 average; blues and purples indicate temperatures lower than the 1981 to 2010 average.||Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Division| High-resolution image

Figure 2b. The plot shows Arctic air temperature differences at the 925 hPa level in degrees Celsius for February 2017. Yellows and reds indicate temperatures higher than the 1981 to 2010 average; blues and purples indicate temperatures lower than the 1981 to 2010 average.

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

Air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (approximately 2,500 feet above sea level) remained 2 to 5 degrees Celsius (4 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over the Arctic Ocean. The high air temperatures observed over the Barents and Kara Seas for much of this past winter moderated in February. February air temperatures over the Barents Sea ranged between 4 to 5 degrees Celsius (8 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average, compared to 7 degrees Celsius (13 degrees Fahrenheit) above average in January. Recall that these January temperature extremes were associated with a series of strong cyclones entering the Arctic Ocean from the North Atlantic, drawing in warm air. Sea level pressure in February was nevertheless lower than average over much of the Arctic Ocean. Sea level pressure was higher than average over the Bering Sea and just north of Scandinavia.

February 2017 compared to previous years

Figure 3. Monthly February ice extent for 1979 to 2017 shows a decline of 3 percent per decade.||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center| High-resolution image

Figure 3. Monthly February ice extent for 1979 to 2017 shows a decline of 3 percent per decade.

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

The linear rate of decline for February is 46,900 square kilometers (18,100 square miles) per year, or 3 percent per decade.

Antarctic minimum extent

Figure 4a. The graph above shows Antarctic sea ice extent as of March 5, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2016 to 2017 is shown in blue, 2015 to 2016 in green, 2014 to 2015 in orange, 2013 to 2014 in brown, and 2012 to 2013 in purple. 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 4a. The graph above shows Antarctic sea ice extent as of March 5, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2016 to 2017 is shown in blue, 2015 to 2016 in green, 2014 to 2015 in orange, 2013 to 2014 in brown, and 2012 to 2013 in purple. 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 4b. This graph shows monthly ice extent for February plotted as a time series of percent differences with respect to the average over the period 1981 through 2010. The dotted gray line shows the linear trend. Sea Ice Index data. About the data||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|High-resolution image

Figure 4b. This graph shows monthly ice extent for February, plotted as a time series of percent differences from the 1981 to 2010 average. The dotted gray line shows the linear trend. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

Antarctic sea ice is nearing its annual minimum extent and continues to track at record low levels for this time of year. On February 13, Antarctic sea ice extent dropped to 2.29 million square kilometers (884,000 square miles), setting a record lowest extent in the satellite era. The previous lowest extent occurred on February 27, 1997. By the end of February, extent had dropped even further to 2.13 million square kilometers (822,400 square miles). The record lows are not surprising, given Antarctic sea ice extent’s high variability. Just a few years back, extent in the region set record highs (Figure 4b).

Sea ice extent was particularly low in the Amundsen Sea, which remained nearly ice-free throughout February. Typically, sea ice in February extends at least a couple hundred kilometers along the entire coastline of the Amundsen. Near-average ice extent persisted in the Weddell Sea and in several sectors along the East Antarctic coast.

Continuity of the sea ice record

Figure 5. This chart shows the lifespans of current and future orbiting passive microwave sensors. ||Credit: Walt Meier, NASA| High-resolution image

Figure 5. This chart shows the lifespans of current and expected future orbiting passive microwave sensors.

Credit: W. Meier, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory
High-resolution image

As noted last year, the sensor that NSIDC had been using for sea ice extent, the Special Sensor Microwave Imager and Sounder (SSMIS) on the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) F17 satellite, started to malfunction. In response, NSIDC switched to the SSMIS on the newer F18 satellite. Later, F17 recovered to normal function, though it recently started to malfunction again.

The DMSP series of sensors have been a stalwart of the sea ice extent time series, providing a continuous record since 1987. Connecting this to data from the earlier Scanning Multichannel Microwave Radiometer (SMMR) results in a continuous record starting in 1979 of high quality and consistency. However, with the issues of F17 and last year’s loss of the newest sensor, F19, grave concerns have arisen about the long-term continuity of the passive microwave sea ice record. Only two DMSP sensors are currently fully capable for sea ice observations: F18 and the older F16; these two sensors have been operating for over 7 and 13 years respectively, well beyond their nominal 5-year lifetimes.

The only other similar sensor currently operating is the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer 2 (AMSR2), which is approaching its 5-year design lifetime in May 2017. NSIDC is now evaluating AMSR2 data for integration into the sea ice data record if needed. Future satellite missions with passive microwave sensors are either planned or proposed by the U.S., JAXA, and ESA, but it is unlikely that a successor to the DMSP series and AMSR2 will be operational before 2022. This presents a growing risk of a gap in the sea ice extent record. Should such a gap occur, NSIDC and NASA would seek to fill the gap as much as possible with other types of sensors (e.g., visible or infrared sensors).

Low sea ice extent continues in both poles

Sea ice in the Arctic and the Antarctic set record low extents every day in December, continuing the pattern that began in November. Warm atmospheric conditions persisted over the Arctic Ocean, notably in the far northern Atlantic and the northern Bering Sea. Air temperatures near the Antarctic sea ice edge were near average. For the year 2016, sea ice extent in both polar regions was at levels well below what is typical of the past several decades.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for December 2016 was 12.10 million square kilometers (4.67 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole.

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for December 2016 was 12.10 million square kilometers (4.67 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

Arctic sea ice extent for December 2016 averaged 12.10 million square kilometers (4.67 million square miles), the second lowest December extent in the satellite record. This is 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles) above December 2010, the lowest December extent, and 1.03 million square kilometers (397,700 square miles) below the December 1981 to 2010 long-term average.

The rate of ice growth for December was 90,000 square kilometers (34,700 square miles) per day. This is faster than the long-term average of 64,100 square kilometers (24,700 square miles) per day. As a result, extent for December was not as far below average as was the case in November. Ice growth for December occurred primarily within the Chukchi Sea, Kara Sea, and Hudson Bay—areas that experienced a late seasonal freeze-up. Compared to the record low for the month set in 2010, sea ice for December 2016 was less extensive in the Kara, Barents, and East Greenland Seas, and more extensive in Baffin and Hudson Bays.

Conditions in context

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of January 2, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2016 to 2017 is shown in blue, 2015 to 2016 in green, 2014 to 2015 in orange, 2013 to 2014 in brown, and 2012 to 2013 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data.

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of January 2, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2016 to 2017 is shown in blue, 2015 to 2016 in green, 2014 to 2015 in orange, 2013 to 2014 in brown, and 2012 to 2013 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data. Sea Ice Index data.

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

Figure 2b. This plot shows air temperature difference from average for December 2016. Air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (approximately 2,500 feet above sea level) were more than 3 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1981 to 2010 average over the central Arctic Ocean and northern Barents Sea, and as much as 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over the Chukchi Sea.

Figure 2b. This plot shows air temperature difference from average for December 2016. Air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (approximately 2,500 feet above sea level) were more than 3 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1981 to 2010 average over the central Arctic Ocean and northern Barents Sea, and as much as 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over the Chukchi Sea.

Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division
High-resolution image

Air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (approximately 2,500 feet above sea level) were more than 3 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1981 to 2010 average over the central Arctic Ocean and northern Barents Sea, and as much as 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over the Chukchi Sea. Repeated warm air intrusions occurred over the Chukchi and Barents Seas, continuing the pattern seen in November.

In contrast, central Russia and northern British Columbia experienced temperatures 3 to 5 degrees Celsius (5 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit) below average (Figure 2b). Atmospheric circulation over the Arctic in December was characterized by a broad area of lower-than-average pressure over Greenland and the North Pole, extending across the Arctic Ocean to eastern Siberia, and another region of low pressure over the Ural Mountains. Higher-than-average pressure dominated Europe and the Gulf of Alaska. This set up the very warm southerly winds from both the northern North Atlantic and the Bering Strait areas, pushing Arctic air temperatures to unusually high levels for brief periods in early December and near Christmas.

December 2016 compared to previous years

Figure 3. Monthly December ice extent for 1979 to 2016 shows a decline of 3.4 percent per decade.

Figure 3. Monthly December ice extent for 1979 to 2016 shows a decline of 3.4 percent per decade.

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

Through 2016, the linear rate of decline for December is 44,500 square kilometers (17,200 square miles) per year, or 3.4 percent per decade.

While daily extents for December 2016 were at record lows, based on the method employed by NSIDC, the monthly average extent for December 2016 was slightly higher than that recorded for December 2010, the record low December in the satellite record. The monthly average extent for the month of December is higher than the month’s average of daily extents because of the way in which the Sea Ice Index algorithm calculates the monthly extent. The algorithm calculates the monthly average total extent from the monthly average gridded concentration field. Thus, when sea ice is retreating or advancing at a high rate over the course of the month, as was the case for December 2016, the Sea Ice Index monthly average can yield a larger extent than from simply averaging daily extent values. See the Sea Ice Index documentation for further information.

2016 year in review

Figure 4. Arctic temperatures at the 925 hPa level (about 2,500 feet above sea level) over the period January to December of 2016 were above average over nearly the entire Arctic region and especially over the Arctic Ocean. By contrast, air temperatures over the Antarctic region for the same period were above average in some areas, such as the Antarctic Peninsula and near the pole, but below average in others.

Figure 4. Arctic temperatures at the 925 hPa level (about 2,500 feet above sea level) over the period January to December of 2016 were above average over nearly the entire Arctic region and especially over the Arctic Ocean. By contrast, air temperatures over the Antarctic region for the same period were above average in some areas, such as the Antarctic Peninsula and near the pole, but below average in others.

Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division
High-resolution image

Average annual sea ice extent in both polar regions was low in 2016. Throughout the year, a wave of new record lows were set for both daily and monthly extent. Record low monthly extents were set in the Arctic in January, February, April, May, June, October, and November; and in the Antarctic in November and December.

For the Arctic, the year opened with daily sea ice extent at near record low levels. Sea ice extent in March tied with 2015 for the lowest maximum in the 37-year satellite period. Ice extent was as much as 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles) below any previous year in the record through most of mid-May to early June. However, the pace of decline returned to near-average rates by July, and the end-of-summer minimum sea ice extent, recorded on September 10, eventually tied for second lowest with 2007 (2012 remains the lowest in the satellite time series by more than 600,000 square kilometers or 232,000 square miles).

That September 2016 did not see a new record low is likely due to the unusually stormy atmospheric pattern that set up over the Arctic Ocean in the summer. Storm after storm moved into the central Arctic Ocean, including a pair of very deep low pressure systems in late August. While a stormy pattern will tend to chew up the ice cover, it also spreads the ice out to cover a larger area and typically brings cloudy and, in summer, relatively cool conditions, inhibiting melt. Sometimes these deep lows act to reduce extent by mixing warm ocean waters upwards, but at present there is no compelling evidence that this occurred in 2016.

In October, a pattern of warm air intrusions from the North Atlantic began. This pattern combined with unusually high sea surface temperatures over the Barents and Kara Seas and helped to keep Arctic sea ice extent at low levels for November and December. In the middle of November there was even a several-day period when Arctic sea ice extent decreased. Unusually warm conditions and record low daily sea ice extent levels continued through the end of the year. The unusually high sea ice surface temperatures reflect a shift in ocean circulation, enhancing the import of warm, Atlantic-derived waters into the Arctic Ocean.

In the Southern Hemisphere, overall sea ice extent shifted from near-average over the first half of the year to sharply below average in mid-August. This initiated a period of near-record, and then extreme record low extents that persisted until late in the year. While the Antarctic seasonal sea ice minimum was unremarkable (slightly earlier, and slightly lower, than the 37-year average), the sea ice maximum occurred early (August 31), followed by a period of rapid ice extent decline. By November, extent was more than 2 million square kilometers (772,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average extent. In combination with the low Arctic sea ice extent for November, this produced a remarkably low global sea ice total.

The cause of the rapid drop in Antarctic sea ice in the second half of 2016 remains elusive. Significant changes in Southern Ocean wind patterns were observed in August, September, and November, but air temperatures and ocean conditions were not highly unusual.

Sea ice cover in Chukchi Sea depends on Bering Strait inflow

Figure 5. This figure shows time series of the Julian dates of seasonal retreat and advance of sea ice in the Chukchi Sea. The trends in retreat and advance (show by the thin solid lines) are related to climate warming. The variations about the trends line are strongly related to variability in the Bering Strait heat inflow. ||Credit: Serreze, M. C., et al. 2016. Journal of Geophysical Research | High-resolution image

Figure 5. This figure shows time series of the Julian dates of seasonal retreat and advance of sea ice in the Chukchi Sea. The trends in retreat and advance (show by the thin solid lines) are related to climate warming. The variations about the trends line are strongly related to variability in the Bering Strait heat inflow.

Credit: Serreze, M. C., et al. 2016. Journal of Geophysical Research

High-resolution image

A recent study by NSIDC scientists Mark Serreze, Julienne Stroeve, and Alexander Crawford, along with University of Washington scientist Rebecca Woodgate, demonstrates strong links between seasonal sea ice retreat and advance in the Chukchi Sea and the inflow of ocean heat into the region through the Bering Strait. The Chukchi Sea region is important as a focus for resource exploration, and vessels transiting the Arctic Ocean must inevitably pass through it. The Chukchi Sea is also part of the seasonal migration route for Bowhead whales that supports subsistence hunting by local indigenous communities.

Serreze and colleagues looked at time series of the date of retreat and advance in which linear trends related to general warming were removed. They found that 68 percent of the variance in the date that ice retreats from the continental shelf break in the Chukchi Sea in spring can be explained by fluctuations in the April through June Bering Strait oceanic heat inflow. The Bering Strait heat inflow data comes from a mooring located within the strait maintained by the University of Washington. They also found that 67 percent of the variance for the date at which ice advances back to the shelf break in autumn and winter can be related to the combined effects of the July through September Bering Strait inflow and the date of ice retreat. When seasonal ice retreat occurs early, low-albedo open water areas are exposed early, which gain a lot of energy from the sun. With more heat in the upper ocean, autumn ice growth is delayed. These relationships with the Bering Strait inflow and ocean heat uptake are superimposed upon the overall trends due to a warming climate. While these relationships lay a path forward to improving seasonal predictions of ice conditions in the region, developing an operational prediction scheme would require more timely acquisition of Bering Strait heat inflow data than is presently possible.

Global sea ice tracking far below average

Figure 6. This time series of daily global sea ice extent (Arctic plus Antarctic) shows global extent tracking below the 1981 to 2010 average. The lower axis of the graph shows month of the year, ticked at the first day of the month

Figure 6a. This time series of daily global sea ice extent (Arctic plus Antarctic) shows global extent tracking below the 1981 to 2010 average. The X axis shows the month of the year, aligned with the first day of the month. Sea Ice Index data.

Credit: NSIDC
High-resolution image

Figure 6b. Waiting for caption. Lorem ipsum. ||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center| High-resolution image

Figure 6b. This graph shows daily global sea ice difference from average, relative to the 1981 to 2010 reference period in square kilometers for the satellite record from 1979 through 2016

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

Figure 6c. Waiting for caption. Lorem ipsum. ||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center| High-resolution image

Figure 6c. This graph shows daily sea ice difference from average in units of the standard deviation (based on 1981-2010 variation from the average) for this period.

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

Global sea ice (Arctic plus Antarctic) continues to track at record low levels in the satellite record, but the deviation from average has moderated compared to what was observed in November. This reflects a December pattern of faster-than-average growth in the Arctic, and slightly slower-than average sea ice extent decline in the Southern Ocean. The gap between the 1981 to 2010 average and the 2016 combined ice extent for December now stands at about 3.0 million square kilometers (1.16 million square miles), down from a peak difference of just over 4 million square kilometers (1.50 million square miles) in mid-November. This globally combined low ice extent is a result of largely separate processes in the two hemispheres.

Changes to our graphics for 2017

 Figure 7. This comparison shows the changes that will be made to NSIDC time series graphs.

Figure 7. This comparison shows the changes that will be made to NSIDC time series graphs.

Credit: NSIDC
High-resolution image

NSIDC is transitioning the sea ice extent time series graphs to show interquartile and interdecile ranges, with the median extent value, in place of standard deviations and the average values. Standard deviations are most useful with data that are clustered towards the average, or “normally distributed” like a bell curve, with few outliers. Sea ice extent data, however, has become skewed due to the strong downward trend in ice extent, with a wider spread of values and more values falling at the low end of the range. Interquartile and interdecile ranges, along with the median value, are better for presenting data with these characteristics. The interquartile and interdecile ranges more clearly show how the data are distributed and can better distinguish outliers, and so provide a better view of the variability of the data.

Further reading

Serreze, M. C., A. Crawford, J. C. Stroeve, A. P. Barrett, and R. A. Woodgate. 2016. Variability, trends and predictability of seasonal sea ice retreat and advance in the Chukchi Sea. Journal of Geophysical Research, 121, doi:10.1002/2016JC011977.

Sluggish ice growth in the Arctic

After a quick initial freeze-up during the second half of September, ice growth slowed substantially during early October. On October 20, 2016, Arctic sea ice extent began to set new daily record lows for this time of year. After mid-October, ice growth returned to near-average rates, but extent remained at record low levels through late October. High sea surface temperatures in open water areas were important in limiting ice growth. October air temperatures were also unusually high, and this warmth extended from the surface through a considerable depth of the atmosphere.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for October 2016 was 6.40 million square kilometers (2.5 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month.

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for October 2016 was 6.40 million square kilometers (2.5 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

In October 2016, Arctic sea ice extent averaged 6.40 million square kilometers (2.5 million square miles), the lowest October in the satellite record. This is 400,000 square kilometers (154,400 square miles) lower than October 2007, the second lowest October extent, and 690,000 square kilometers (266,400 square miles) lower than October 2012, the third lowest. The average extent was 2.55 million square kilometers (980,000 square miles) below the October 1981 to 2010 long-term average.

As of early November, extent remains especially low within the Beaufort, Chukchi, East Siberian, and Kara Seas. Since the beginning of October, ice growth occurred primarily in the Laptev Sea, stretching from the New Siberian Islands towards the coast. Little ice growth occurred in the Kara and Barents Seas, while ice extent increased in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

Conditions in context

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of November 1, 2016, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2016 is shown in blue, 2015 in green, 2014 in orange, 2013 in brown, and 2012 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of November 1, 2016, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2016 is shown in blue, 2015 in green, 2014 in orange, 2013 in brown, and 2012 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data. Sea Ice Index data.

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

Figure 2b. Sea surface temperatures were unusually high over the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, as well as the Barents and Kara seas along the Eurasian coast, helping to limit ice growth. This figure shows conditions on October 25, 2016.

Figure 2b. Sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in October were unusually high over the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, as well as the Barents and Kara Seas along the Eurasian coast, helping to limit ice growth. This figure shows SSTs on October 25, 2016.

Credit: Climate Change Institute/University of Maine
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Figure 2c. Air temperatures at the 925 hPa level were usually high over the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and the East Greenland Sea (up to 8 degrees Celsius or 14 degrees Fahrenheit above average).

Figure 2c. Air temperatures at the 925 hPa level were usually high over the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas and the East Greenland Sea (up to 8 degrees Celsius or 14 degrees Fahrenheit above average).

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

Figure 2d. This latitude by height cross section shows that for the Arctic as a whole, air temperatures were above average not just at or near the surface but through a deep later of the atmosphere. This manifest the combined effects of high sea surface temperatures in open water areas and the effects of atmospheric circulation drawing warm air into the region.

Figure 2d. This latitude by height cross section shows that for the Arctic as a whole, air temperatures were above average not just at and near the surface but through a deep layer of the atmosphere. This resulted from the combined effects of high sea surface temperatures in open water areas and the effects of atmospheric circulation drawing warm air into the region.

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

After an early rapid freeze-up in late September, the rate of ice growth slowed in the first half of October. From October 1 to 15, ice extent increased only 378,000 square kilometers (146,000 square miles), less than a third of the 1981 to 2010 average gain for that period. By October 31, Arctic sea ice extent stood at 7.07 million square kilometers (2.73 million square miles), the lowest extent in the satellite record for that date.

A primary culprit behind the slow growth is that sea surface temperatures in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, the Barents and Kara Seas along the Eurasian coast, as well as the East Siberian Sea, were above average. The open water areas in the highest latitudes at the date of the minimum in September had only recently formed and there was little input of solar radiation so far north. So those waters were just above the freezing point. When the atmosphere cooled in September, ice formed rapidly. However, further south, the sea ice had retreated far earlier in the season and a lot of solar energy was absorbed through the summer. This ocean heat inhibited the growth of ice in these regions. Finally toward the end of October, the surface ocean heat began to dissipate, triggering ice formation. However, even by October 25, sea surface temperatures were above average in these areas (Figure 2b).

The atmospheric circulation also played a role. October air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (about 2,500 feet above sea level) were unusually high over most of the Arctic Ocean (Figure 2c), especially over the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas and over the East Greenland Sea (up to 8 degrees Celsius or 14 degrees Fahrenheit above the 1981 to 2010 average). In part, these high temperatures resulted from high sea surface temperatures over the open water areas. However, unusually high sea level pressure centered over northern Scandinavia brought southerly winds from the East Siberian and Barents Seas, contributing to high air temperatures in these regions. In turn, unusually low pressure on the Pacific side centered roughly over the western Bering Sea brought southerly winds over the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, contributing to unusually high air temperature there. The combined effects of the high sea surface temperatures and atmospheric circulation led to a pattern in which for the Arctic, unusual warmth in October extended from the surface through a deep layer of the atmosphere (Figure 2d).

As noted in our post last month, the Arctic is losing it’s oldest and thickest ice. A new animation from NASA Goddard’s Scientific Visualization Studio shows this loss over the past 30 years. 

October 2016 compared to previous years

Figure 3. Monthly October ice extent for 1979 to 2016 shows a decline of 7.4 percent per decade.||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center| High-resolution image

Figure 3. Monthly October ice extent for 1979 to 2016 shows a decline of 7.4 percent per decade.

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

Through 2016, the linear rate of decline for October is 66,400 square kilometers or (25,600 square miles) per year, or 7.4 percent per decade.

Antarctic sea ice dropping

Figure 4. Antarctic sea ice extent for October 2016 was 17.6 million square kilometers (6.8 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic South Pole.

Figure 4. Antarctic sea ice extent for October 2016 was 17.6 million square kilometers (6.8 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic South Pole. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

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

After a reaching its maximum extent unusually early and then following a period of relatively unchanging overall extent, Antarctic sea ice extent started to decline in earnest. Daily sea ice extent levels have been at second lowest in the satellite record since October 20 and below the two standard deviation range. Only the 1986 austral spring extent is lower. Ice extent is particularly low on both sides of the Antarctic Peninsula. The rapid early reduction in sea ice cover in this region may create favorable conditions for the break up of the eastern Peninsula ice shelves at the end of austral summer. Similar sea ice trends and weather conditions were present during the spring seasons preceding past ice shelf retreats (e.g., 2001 to 2002). Extensive open water, created by the downsloping fosters warmer air and surface melting, and allows longer-period ocean waves to reach the ice front of the ice shelves. Other areas of reduced sea ice cover are the Southern Ocean north of Dronning Maud Land, and the area west of the Ross Sea and north of Wilkes Land.