The daily sea ice extent images are sporadically displaying erroneous data. NSIDC is investigating with our satellite data providers.
Low Arctic sea ice extent for March caps a highly unusual winter in the Arctic, characterized by persistent warmth in the atmosphere that helped to limit ice growth. Above-average influx of ocean heat from the Atlantic and southerly winds helped to keep ice extent especially low in the Barents and Kara seas. Northern Hemisphere snow cover for both February and March was also unusually low
Overview of conditions
Sea ice extent reached its seasonal maximum on March 24 of 14.52 million square kilometers (5.607 million square miles), barely beating out February 25, 2015 for the lowest seasonal maximum in the satellite record. Arctic sea ice extent averaged for the entire month of March 2016 was 14.43 million square kilometers (5.57 million square miles), the second lowest in the satellite record. This is 1.09 million square kilometers (421,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average extent, and 40,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles) above the record low monthly average for March that occurred in 2015. At the end of the month, extent remained well below average everywhere except in the Labrador Sea, Baffin Bay, and Hudson Bay. Ice extent was especially low in the Barents and Kara seas.
Conditions in context
Because ice extent typically climbs through the first part of March until it reaches its seasonal maximum and then declines, the daily average ice growth rate for the month is typically quite small and is not a particularly meaningful number. This year’s seasonal maximum, while quite low, also occurred rather late in the month. Very early in the month, extent declined, raising anticipation that an early maximum had been reached. However, after a period of little change, extent slowly rose again, reaching the seasonal maximum on March 24.
March of 2016 saw unusually warm conditions over nearly all of the Arctic Ocean. Air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (about 3,000 feet above the surface) were typically 2 to 4 degrees Celsius (4 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over the Arctic coastal seas, with larger positive departures compared to average nearer the Pole (4 to 8 degrees Celsius or 7 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit). This was associated with a pattern of above-average sea level pressures centered over the northern Beaufort Sea north of Alaska, and below-average pressures over the Atlantic side of the Arctic, especially pronounced over Baffin Bay and Davis Strait. Through March, the Arctic Oscillation Index bounced between moderate positive and negative values.
March 2016 compared to previous years
Arctic sea ice extent averaged for March 2016 was the second lowest in the satellite record. Through 2016, the linear rate of decline for March extent is 2.7 percent per decade, or a decline of 42,100 square kilometers (16,200 square miles) per year.
The winter in review
The unusual warmth for March of 2016 continues a pattern of above-average temperatures for most of the Arctic and much of the Northern Hemisphere that has characterized the entire winter. As an exclamation point on the unusual warmth, there was a brief weather event at the very end of December 2015 when air temperatures near the Pole nearly reached the melting point. As we noted in our January post, the event was related to a pulse of warm air moving almost due south to north from the sub-tropical Atlantic to the regions north of Svalbard, an atmospheric river set between broad high and low pressure areas in Europe and the north Atlantic.
The December event also led to higher than average air temperatures over the Kara and Barents seas, reducing the sea ice concentration and causing thinning of the ice that was there. While sea ice normally grows and thickens over winter, the difference in thickness estimated from Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System (PIOMAS) shows that between December 28, 2015 and January 4, 2016, sea ice within the Kara and Barents seas thinned by more than 30 centimeters (Figure 4). Thinning also occurred north of Greenland and off the coast of Siberia, while the ice thickened over most of the Arctic Ocean. Higher than average temperatures remained in the region after the weather event had passed, which may have further prevented the ice from growing back. The reasons for the persistent warmth over the entire Arctic this past winter are currently under investigation; a link with the strong El Niño pattern of this winter may be involved.
While the warm atmospheric conditions played a role in the low ice extent for March 2016, the especially low extent that has persisted in the Barents and Kara seas appears to be linked with another heat source—an influx of warm Atlantic waters, entering between Bear Island and Norway (the Barents Sea opening). Ingrid Onarheim from the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research in Bergen, Norway has been studying this issue and predicted a small sea ice cover in the Barents Sea this winter based on observed Atlantic heat transport to the Barents Sea through April 2015 (Figure 5). In addition to the above-average ocean heat transport, prevailing southerly winds have pushed the sea ice northward since November 2015, bringing in warm air that damps the normally high ocean-air heat loss and favoring ice formation. This likely contributed to the below-average ice conditions in the Arctic this winter. Atlantic heat transport due to near-surface ocean currents reached a long-term maximum in the mid-2000s. Several studies have suggested a more moderate inflow of Atlantic waters may characterize the years ahead, leading to increases in the Barents Sea ice cover in the coming years.
Along with low sea ice extent and above-average temperatures, March of 2016 also saw a very low monthly snow cover extent for the Northern Hemisphere (Figures 6 and 7). Snow cover was low across northern Eurasia, with only minor areas of above-average snow cover in western Turkey, northern Kazakhstan and Mongolia, and easternmost High-Mountain Asia. In North America, snow cover was low across nearly all of the coterminous 48 states in the U.S., despite a series of storms late in the month in the central Rockies and Great Plains. Overall, March 2016 had 37.16 million square kilometers (14.35 million square miles) of snow cover extent, 2.97 million square kilometers (1.15 million square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average of 40.13 million square kilometers (15.50 million square miles). This makes March 2016 the 49th lowest out of 50 years on record in snow cover extent for the Northern Hemisphere. While April and May could still bring snow to the higher latitudes, we note that low snow cover, similar to low sea ice cover, leads to greater heat absorption by the surface in the Arctic and further warming as we move toward summer.
A younger ice cover
Ice age data for mid-March shows that 70 percent of the sea ice within the Arctic basin consists of first-year ice and only 30 percent is multiyear ice. First-year ice is generally only 1.5 to 2 meters (5 to 6.5 feet) thick. This implies a thinner ice pack as the melt season gets underway. In addition, the oldest ice, or ice at least 5 years or older, is at its smallest level in the satellite record, representing only 3 percent of the total ice cover. Some of this very old ice is found in the western Beaufort Sea and extending towards the Chukchi Sea regions where we have seen large summer ice losses in recent years. Typically this old ice is concentrated north of Greenland and within the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.
Not only is the oldest ice at record low levels, but it it is not recovering. Beginning 2007, we see a strong decline that lasts until 2012 and has not changed much since. If anything it has gone down. In that time we have seen some recovery in younger multiyear ice types: e.g., 2-year ice jumped back up after a one-year minimum, 3-year ice recovered to a lesser degree, and 4-year ice to an even lesser degree. It is not surprising to see some recovery and that first-year ice recovery propagates through time. However, that recovery happens less as the ice gets older, and for 5-year ice and older there is essentially no recovery. The bottom line is that ice no longer survives in the Arctic for very long. It is lasting three to four years tops before melting or advecting out through Fram Strait. This is a big change from the past when much of the ice cover would survive upwards of a decade.
Antarctic sea ice grew rapidly in March, rising from below-average daily extents to above-average extents during the month, and increasing by nearly 90,000 square kilometers (35,000 square miles) per day. Sea ice growth was particularly fast in the eastern Ross Sea. Winter temperatures on the continent through the month were near-average overall, but 4 to 6 degrees Celsius (7 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit) below average over the eastern Ross Sea and West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Arctic sea ice appears to have reached its annual maximum extent on March 24, and is now the lowest maximum in the satellite record, replacing last year’s record low. This year’s maximum extent occurred later than average. A late season surge in ice growth is still possible. NSIDC will post a detailed analysis of the 2015 to 2016 winter sea ice conditions in early April.
Overview of conditions
On March 24, 2016, Arctic sea ice likely reached its maximum extent for the year, at 14.52 million square kilometers (5.607 million square miles). This year’s maximum ice extent was the lowest in the satellite record, with below-average ice conditions everywhere except in the Labrador Sea, Baffin Bay, and Hudson Bay. The maximum extent is 1.12 million square kilometers (431,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average of 15.64 million square kilometers (6.04 million square miles) and 13,000 square kilometers (5,000 square miles) below the previous lowest maximum that occurred last year. This year’s maximum occurred twelve days later than the 1981 to 2010 average date of March 12. The date of the maximum has varied considerably over the years, occurring as early as February 24 in 1996 and as late as April 2 in 2010.
Conditions in context
Sea ice extent was below average throughout the Arctic, except in the Labrador Sea, Baffin Bay, and Hudson Bay. However, it was especially low in the Barents Sea. Below average winter ice conditions in the Kara and Barents seas have been a persistent feature in the last several years, while the Bering Sea has overall seen slightly positive trends towards more sea ice during winter.
Below average sea ice extent is in part a result of higher than average temperatures that have plagued the Arctic all winter. Air temperatures at the 925 hPa level from December 2015 through February 2016 were above average everywhere in the Arctic, with hotspots near the Pole and from the Kara Sea towards Svalbard exceeding 6 Celsius degrees (11 degrees Fahrenheit) above average. These higher than average temperatures continued into March, with air temperatures during the first two weeks reaching 6 degrees Celsius (11 degrees Fahrenheit) above average in a region stretching across the North Pole toward northern Greenland, and up to 12 degrees Celsius (22 degrees Fahrenheit) above average north of Svalbard.
These unusually warm conditions have no doubt played a role in the record low ice extent this winter. Another contributing factor has been a predominance of southerly winds in the Kara and Barents seas that have helped to keep the ice edge northward of its typical position. This area has also seen an influx of warm Atlantic waters from the Norwegian Sea.
There is little correlation between the maximum winter extent and the minimum summer extent—this low maximum does not ensure that this summer will see record low ice conditions. A key factor is the timing of widespread surface melting in the high Arctic. An earlier melt onset is important to the amount of energy absorbed by the ice cover during the summer. If surface melting starts earlier than average, the snow darkens and exposes the ice below earlier, which in turn increases the solar heat input, allowing more ice to melt. With the likelihood that much of the Arctic cover is somewhat thinner due to the warm winter, early surface melting would favor reduced summer ice cover.
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.
Arctic sea ice was at a satellite-record low for the second month in a row. The first three weeks of February saw little ice growth, but extent rose during the last week of the month. Arctic sea ice typically reaches its maximum extent for the year in mid to late March.
Overview of conditions
Arctic sea ice extent for February averaged 14.22 million square kilometers (5.48 million square miles), the lowest February extent in the satellite record. It is 1.16 million square kilometers (448,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average of 15.4 million square kilometers (5.94 million square miles) and is 200,000 square kilometers (77,000 square miles) below the previous record low for the month recorded in 2005.
The first three weeks of February saw little ice growth, but extent rose during the last week of the month primarily due to growth in the Sea of Okhotsk (180,000 square kilometers or 70,000 square miles) and to a lesser extent in Baffin Bay (35,000 square kilometers or 13,500 square miles). Extent is presently below average in the Barents and Kara seas, as well as the Bering Sea and the East Greenland Sea. Extent decreased in the Barents and East Greenland seas during the month of February. In other regions, such as the Sea of Okhotsk, Baffin Bay, and the Labrador Sea, ice conditions are near average to slightly above average for this time of year. An exception is the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which remains largely ice free.
In the Antarctic, sea ice reached its minimum extent for the year on February 19, averaging 2.6 million square kilometers (1 million square miles). It is the ninth lowest Antarctic sea ice minimum extent in the satellite record.
Conditions in context
NASA and NOAA announced that January 2016 was the ninth straight month of record-breaking high surface temperatures for the globe. In terms of regional patterns, the Arctic stands out, with surface temperatures more than 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1951 to 1980 average. These high temperatures were in part responsible for the record low sea ice extent observed for January. Persistent warmth has continued into February; air temperatures at the 925 hPa level were 6 to 8 degrees Celsius (11 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1981 to 2010 average over the central Arctic Ocean near the pole. The rate of ice growth for February was near average at 19,700 square kilometers (7,600 square miles) per day, compared to 20,200 square kilometers (7,800 square miles) per day for the 1981 to 2010 average.
Atmospheric circulation patterns have also favored low sea ice extent, particularly in the Barents and Kara seas. Ice motion drift data derived from the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer 2 (AMSR2) satellite and provided by the Centre ERS d’Archivage et de Traitement (CERSAT) show that since January 1, there has been cyclonic, or counterclockwise, sea ice motion in the Barents Sea helping to keep sea ice from advancing south. During the second half of January, an anti-cyclonic, or clockwise, circulation pattern developed in the Beaufort Sea, which subsequently strengthened and expanded to include most of the Arctic Ocean. This, combined with high pressure over Greenland and low pressure over Spitsbergen, has favored enhanced ice export out of Fram Strait, helping to flush old, thick ice out of the Arctic Ocean, leaving behind thinner ice that is more apt to melt away in summer. Whether this circulation pattern will continue and set the stage for very low September sea ice extent remains to be seen.
February 2016 compared to previous years
February 2016 sea ice extent was the lowest in the satellite record at 14.22 million square kilometers (5.48 million square miles). The linear rate of decline for February is now 3.0 percent per decade.
Record warmth revealed by the AIRS instrument
Since 2003, the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) onboard the NASA Aqua satellite has collected daily temperature and humidity profiles globally. Although the record is fairly short, AIRS data can provide insight into recent changes in Arctic climate. February average air temperatures, measured by AIRS at 925 hPa, are around 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 2003 to 2015 average over the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and the central Arctic Ocean. Above-average temperatures are also the rule over the Kara Sea and Northern Siberia (6 degrees Celsius or 11 degrees Fahrenheit above average). Regions with especially higher than average temperatures correspond to regions of low sea ice, demonstrating the role played by heat fluxes from open water areas. For example, the Sea of Okhotsk experienced below-average air temperatures, and also had above-average sea ice extents, whereas the Kara, Barents, and Bering seas and the Gulf of St. Lawrence had higher air temperatures compared to average, which coincides with lower than average sea ice extent.
A similar relationship is seen in the total precipitable water for February 2016. Precipitable water is the amount of water vapor in the atmospheric column totaled from the surface to the top of the troposphere, expressed as kilograms of water per square meter (one kilogram per square meter equals 1 millimeter of water depth). In February, areas with precipitable water between 12 percent (Bering Sea) to 70 percent (Kara Sea) above the 2003 to 2015 February average corresponded to regions with below-average sea ice extent. Water vapor is a greenhouse gas, and with more water vapor in the air, there is a stronger emission of longwave radiation to the surface. Conversely, the observation that above-average amounts of water vapor are found over areas of reduced sea ice extent points to a role of local evaporation, and evaporation is a cooling process that by itself will favor ice growth.
A late freeze-up
Sea ice reformed or refroze later than average throughout most of the Arctic, especially in the Kara and Barents seas where the freeze-up happened about two months later than average. Ice was also late to form in the Beaufort, Chukchi, East Siberian, and Laptev seas, between ten and forty days later than average. In contrast, the timing of freeze-up over the central Arctic Ocean near the pole was near average, as was also the case in Baffin Bay and parts of Hudson Bay. When freeze-up happens late, the ice has less time to thicken before the melt season starts, leading to a thinner ice cover that is more prone to melting out in summer.
NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Global Land-Ocean Temperature Index in 0.01 degrees Celsius. http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/tabledata_v3/GLB.Ts+dSST.txt.
NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. NASA, NOAA Analyses Reveal Record-Shattering Global Warm Temperatures in 2015. http://www.giss.nasa.gov/research/news/20160120.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Global Analysis – January 2016. https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/201601.
December ended with Arctic sea ice extent tracking between one and two standard deviations below average, as it did throughout the fall. This caps a year that saw the lowest sea ice maximum in February and the fourth lowest minimum in September. In Antarctica, December sea ice extent was slightly above average but far below the exceptionally large ice extents recorded for December 2013 and 2014. A slow-down in the rate of Antarctic sea ice growth in July was followed by near-average extents in the subsequent months. The first week of 2016 has seen very slow ice growth in the Arctic.
Overview of conditions
Sea ice extent for December 2015 averaged 12.3 million square kilometers (4.74 million square miles), the fourth lowest December extent in the satellite record. This is 780,000 square kilometers (301,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average for the month, and 260,000 square kilometers (100,000 square miles) above the record low for December recorded in the year 2010. The rate of sea ice growth slowed slightly through the month and nearly ceased advancing in the first days of the new year, perhaps related to a period of unusual warmth (see below). The ice is currently tracking near two standard deviations below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average. Sea ice extent is well below average in the Bering, Okhotsk, and Barents seas, partly balanced by slightly above average extent in Baffin Bay.
Conditions in context
Arctic sea ice growth for December averaged 65,000 square kilometers (25,000 square miles) per day compared to the long-term average of 64,000 square kilometers (24,700 square miles) per day. Cool conditions at the 925 hPa level (2 to 4 degrees Celsius or 4 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit below average) existed in Baffin Bay, the Alaskan North Slope, and parts of eastern Siberia. A broad area of Europe and western Russia, including the northern Barents Sea, saw temperatures as much as 4 to 8 degrees Celsius (7 degrees to 14 degrees Fahrenheit) above average at the 925 hPa level. Conditions were also fairly warm over the central Arctic Ocean, north of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Sea level pressure was below average over much of the Arctic, especially from the northern North Atlantic to the Barents Sea and central Russia, and from the Bering Sea and south along the Canadian Pacific coast (7.5 to 12 millibars below average). This is consistent with the positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation through most of the month, a pattern that has persisted since the end of October.
December 2015 compared to previous Decembers
Arctic sea ice extent averaged for December 2015 was the fourth lowest in the satellite record. Through 2015, the linear rate of decline for December extent is 3.4% per decade, or -44,200 square kilometers (-17,000 miles) per year.
2015 in review
The year will be remembered for three major events in sea ice extent: the lowest Arctic maximum in the satellite record, the fourth lowest Arctic minimum in the satellite record, and a return to average levels for Antarctic sea ice extent after more than two years of record and near-record highs.
The record-low Arctic maximum occurred on February 25, 2015 and was among the earliest seasonal maxima in the 37-year satellite record. It was likely a result of very warm conditions in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Barents Sea (4 degrees Celsius or 7 degrees Fahrenheit above average), and low ice extent in the Bering Sea in March (when the maximum would more typically occur). These climate conditions were related to an unusual jet stream pattern as discussed in our April 7, 2015 post.
The fourth lowest Arctic minimum occurred on September 11, 2015 and was likely a consequence of very warm conditions in July and an increasingly young and thin ice cover. The thinner ice is consistent with a tendency in recent years for large polynyas that appear in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in late summer. Although measurements by the CryoSat-2 satellite indicated that Arctic sea ice was thicker in 2015 compared to pre-2012 thicknesses, the ice behaved as though it was still quite thin.
From February 2013 through June 2015, Antarctic sea ice was at record or near-record daily extents. Antarctic sea ice set consecutive record winter maxima in 2012, 2013 and 2014. (Contrary to 2013 and 2014, autumn and spring conditions in 2012 were near-average.) But during this year’s austral mid-winter period, Antarctic sea ice growth slowed. Since then, extent in the Southern Hemisphere has generally been slightly above average. Climate effects from the building El Niño likely caused the shift during austral mid-winter. A strong El Niño is associated with a change in the position and strength of a major low pressure pattern near West Antarctica, called the Amundsen Sea Low. Weakening of the Amundsen Sea Low, and related impacts elsewhere around the ice edge in Antarctica, tend to reduce ice extent in the Ross Sea, eastern Weddell Sea, and elsewhere around Antarctica except near the Antarctic Peninsula.
The longer view
The satellite passive microwave record for sea ice now spans more than 37 years. As we have documented, clear downward trends characterize Arctic sea ice extent and concentration in all months, while somewhat less emphatic upward trends characterize Antarctic sea ice extent and concentration. A look at the geographic distribution of trends for the seasonal maximum and minimum periods provides insight into how the polar regions are changing. During the Arctic maximum, declines in extent and concentration are pronounced in the Barents Sea and Sea of Okhotsk, but ice cover has increased slightly in the Bering Sea. During the Arctic summer minimum, all areas show negative trends.
Antarctica presents a more mixed picture. During the Antarctic summer minimum, ice cover is increasing around much of the coastline from the Weddell Sea eastward to the western Ross Sea, but is declining sharply in the eastern Ross, Amundsen, and southern Bellingshausen seas. Winter ice cover in Antarctica is characterized by increases in the northern Ross Sea and the Indian Ocean sectors, and decreases in the northwestern Weddell Sea and the region south of Australia.
Ringing in the New Year with a brief polar heat wave
An exceptional weather event during the last days of the year brought a heat wave with surface air temperatures up to 23 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) above average in the far north, and a brief period when surface temperatures at the North Pole approached or perhaps even exceeded the freezing mark. A temperature of +0.7 degrees Celsius was briefly recorded by a buoy weather station near the North Pole on December 30, 2015. The event was linked to the combination of a very strong low pressure system near Iceland and a somewhat less intense low pressure system located near the North Pole. This was associated with an amplified trough at 500 hPa over the northern North Atlantic and a pronounced ridge of high pressure at 500 hPa to the east over central Europe, extending into the Kara Sea. This created a strong, deep inflow of warm, moist air into the Arctic Ocean’s high latitudes. The low near Iceland strengthened rapidly in the last days of December, reaching a minimum pressure of 935 millibars, equivalent to a hurricane. While the event was remarkable and may account for the slow ice growth during the first few days of January 2016, it was short lived and is unlikely to have any long-term effects on the sea ice cover.
Tilling, R. L., A. Ridout, A. Shepherd, D. J. Wingham. 2015. Increased Arctic sea ice volume after anomalously low melting in 2013. Nature Geoscience 8, 643–646, doi:10.1038/ngeo2489.
Thompson, A. “What happened to the Polar Vortex?” ClimateCentral.com. http://www.climatecentral.org/news/what-happened-to-the-polar-vortex-19866?
While Arctic sea ice extent is increasing, total ice extent remains below average, tracking almost two standard deviations below the long-term average.
Overview of conditions
Arctic sea ice extent for October 2015 averaged 7.72 million square kilometers (2.98 million square miles), the sixth lowest October in the satellite record. This is 1.19 million square kilometers (460,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average extent, and 950,000 square kilometers (367,000 square miles) above the record low monthly average for October that occurred in 2007.
Conditions in context
Air temperatures at the 925 millibar level were 4 to 5 degrees Celsius (7 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over the central Arctic, extending towards Fram Strait. This appears to be due to unusually low pressure over northwest Greenland and higher pressures over the Tamyr Peninsula and Scandinavia, which funneled warm air from the south into the central Arctic Ocean. Coastal regions were generally 1 to 3 degrees Celsius (2 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than average.
October 2015 compared to previous years
Through 2015, the October sea ice extent has declined 6.9% per decade over the satellite record.
New sea ice thickness information back for the winter
In recent years, two European Space Agency (ESA) satellites, CryoSat-2 and SMOS (Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity), have been providing information on sea ice thickness. Thickness information is valuable for assessing the overall condition of the sea ice cover. The sensors on these satellites cannot determine thickness during the summer melt season, but now that freeze-up has begun, information is again available.
CryoSat-2, launched in 2010, is a radar altimeter, which measures the height of the ice cover above the sea surface. Used with additional information on snow cover and its density, the height information can be converted into estimates of ice thickness. The Center for Polar Observation and Modeling (CPOM) at University College London has again started providing near-real-time maps of sea ice thickness from CryoSat-2.
While these maps are valuable in providing near-real-time thickness estimates, converting the satellite measurements into thickness involves complex processing and there are many uncertainties. For example, Figure 4a depicts thin ice (less than 1 meter [3 feet]) over a wide area north of Greenland, an area where wind and ocean current patterns push the ice against the coast forming thick ridges and an extremely rough surface. This area has been shown by other studies to have some of the thickest sea ice in the Arctic, often exceeding 4 meters (13 feet). This ridging may have cause the difficulty in the current mapping.
CryoSat-2 also has difficulty retrieving thickness in very thin sea ice regions, resulting in no thickness values reported at the outer edge of the ice cover. SMOS is a microwave imaging radiometer that measures microwave brightness temperature at a range that is sensitive to thin ice (1.4 gigahertz). These data are also now available in near-real-time at the University of Hamburg Integrated Climate Data Center. SMOS cannot estimate thickness beyond 1 meter (3.28 feet) at most and often not beyond 0.5 meters (1.64 feet). While the map shows a wide region of 1 meter-thick ice, it is important to realize that this is just the maximum allowable value and in reality there is thicker ice over much of the region. However, SMOS provides valuable information on the coverage of thin ice during the winter ice growth season. Ideally, a blended CryoSat-2/SMOS product will provide more comprehensive information on thickness.
A large ozone hole over the Antarctic
While sea ice in Antarctica is near average, the ozone hole over the continent grew relatively large during the austral winter. This goes against the expected trend towards a smaller ozone hole since the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) was banned in 1996. The size of the hole in a given year depends on several factors, including temperatures in the high altitude stratosphere. Temperatures in the Antarctic stratosphere were low this year, aiding chemical processes that destroy ozone. For more information on this year’s ozone hole see this NASA Earth Observatory feature.
On September 11, Arctic sea ice reached its likely minimum extent for 2015. The minimum ice extent was the fourth lowest in the satellite record, and reinforces the long-term downward trend in Arctic ice extent. Sea ice extent will now begin its seasonal increase through autumn and winter. In the Antarctic, sea ice extent is average, a substantial contrast with recent years when Antarctic winter extents reached record high levels.
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
On September 11, 2015, sea ice extent dropped to 4.41 million square kilometers (1.70 million square miles), the fourth lowest minimum in the satellite record. This appears to be the lowest extent of the year. In response to the setting sun and falling temperatures, ice extent will now climb through autumn and winter. However, a shift in wind patterns or a period of late season melt could still push the ice extent lower.
The minimum extent was reached four days earlier than the 1981 to 2010 average minimum date of September 15. The extent ranked behind 2012 (lowest), 2007 (second lowest), and 2011 (third lowest). Moreover, the nine lowest extents in the satellite era have all occurred in the last nine years.
Both the Northern Sea Route, along the coast of Russia, and Roald Amundsen’s route through the Northwest Passage are open. How long they remain open depends on weather patterns and the amount of heat still present in the ocean mixed layer (about the top 50 feet of the ocean). The deeper and wider Northwest Passage route through Parry Channel, which consists of M’Clure Strait, Barrow Strait, and Lancaster Sound, still has some ice in it.
Conditions in context
This year’s minimum was 1.02 million square kilometers (394,000 square miles) above the record minimum extent in the satellite era, which occurred on September 17, 2012, and 1.81 million square kilometers (699,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average minimum.
Research has shown that especially low September sea extent tends to occur in years when the summer atmospheric circulation over the central Arctic Ocean is dominated by high atmospheric pressure, or anticyclonic conditions. This is because anticyclonic conditions tend to bring relatively sunny and warm conditions, and a clockwise wind pattern promotes ice convergence, making for a more compact, and thus smaller ice cover. The best example of this pattern occurred during the summer of 2007, which had the second lowest September extent in the satellite record. Conversely, Septembers with high extent tend to occur when the atmospheric circulation over the central Arctic Ocean is more cyclonic (counterclockwise), meaning unusually low pressure at the surface. This pattern brings more clouds, lower temperatures, and winds that spread the ice over a larger area.
Viewed in this framework, the pattern of atmospheric circulation for summer 2015 as a whole (June through August) favored a low September extent. Sea level pressures were higher than average over the central Arctic Ocean, as well as over Greenland and the surrounding region. Pressures were below average over north-central Eurasia. This was associated with air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (about 3,000 feet above the surface) that were above average over much of the Arctic Ocean, especially along the coast of eastern Siberia, in the Laptev Sea, and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago extending to the pole. However, it was not nearly as favorable as the 2007 pattern, when the area of unusually high pressure was located further south and east (over the northern Beaufort Sea), and unusually low pressure extended along much of the coast of northern Eurasia. This led to a pattern of warm winds from the south over the East Siberian and Chukchi Seas, promoting strong melt and transport of ice away from the coast. For both 2015 and 2007, the summer pressure patterns led to winds directed down the Fram Strait, helping to transport ice out of the Arctic Ocean into the East Greenland Sea.
Varying distribution of ice in 2015 versus 2012
While minimum extent was higher this year compared to 2012, there are many similarities in the spatial pattern of the ice cover. Both years had considerable ice loss in the Beaufort, Chukchi, and East Siberian seas, though this year the ice extent did not retreat as far north as in 2012. Both also show a tongue of ice extending further southward on the Siberian side of the Arctic. In 2012, the tongue extended toward the Laptev Sea. This year, the tongue is farther east, in the western part of the East Siberian Sea, and is related to thicker, older ice that did not melt completely. North of Svalbard and in the Kara Sea, sea ice extent was slightly higher this year than in 2012.
Previous minimum Arctic sea ice extents
|YEAR||MINIMUM ICE EXTENT||DATE|
|IN MILLIONS OF SQUARE KILOMETERS||IN MILLIONS OF SQUARE MILES|
|1979 to 2000 average||6.70||2.59||September 13|
|1981 to 2010 average||6.22||2.40||September 15|
Ten lowest minimum Arctic sea ice extents (1981 to 2010 average)
|RANK||YEAR||MINIMUM ICE EXTENT||DATE|
|IN MILLIONS OF SQUARE KILOMETERS||IN MILLIONS OF SQUARE MILES|
Note that the dates and extents of the minima have been re-calculated from what we posted in previous years. In March 2015, NSIDC made two revisions to Arctic Sea Ice Index extent values used in our analyses, to improve scientific accuracy. These changes do not significantly affect sea ice trends and year-to-year comparisons, but in some instances users may notice very small changes in values from the previous version of the data. First, calculations of ice extent near the North Pole were improved whenever a newer satellite orbited closer to the pole than older satellites in the series, by using a sensor-specific pole hole for the extent calculations. Second, the accuracy of ice detection near the ice edge was slightly improved by adopting an improved residual weather effect filter. Details on the changes are discussed in the Sea Ice Index documentation.
U.S. icebreaker reaches the North Pole
After four weeks at sea, the Coast Guard Icebreaker Healy reached the North Pole on September 5. The ship left Dutch Harbor on August 9 with about 145 people on board, including about fifty scientists. The Healy is a medium-duty icebreaker and in the years past would not have been suitable to navigate through thick ice floes to reach the pole. This is the first time that a U.S. ship has made a solo traverse of the North Pole. As clear evidence that the melt season was coming to a close, air temperatures were 21 degrees Fahrenheit (-6 degrees Celsius). The U.S. icebreaker’s capability is far behind that of Russia and other Arctic nations, and plans are ongoing for the U.S. to build a new polar-class icebreaking vessel.
Impact of sea ice convergence in 2013
Thick, deformed ice, made up of pressure ridges with deep keels, is formed when the sea ice cover is pushed against or converges on the coast. Sea ice convergence along the coasts of Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago is a source of the thickest ice (tens of meters) in the Arctic Ocean. The thicker ice is more likely to survive the summer to form the Arctic Ocean’s perennial ice cover. A new paper by Ron Kwok at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory shows that in summer of 2013, strong wind-driven onshore ice drift was forced by the relative location of high- and low- pressure centers over the Arctic Ocean (see Figure 5). A sampled ice parcel (in red) shows an area compression of 23% between May and October; the dashes indicate its area by end of summer. This is equivalent to an increase in thickness of ~30% within that area. If this thicker ice were transported to areas of high melt rates (like that in the southern Beaufort), it would have an impact on summer ice coverage. The presence of a band of sea ice that survived a large part of the summer in 2015, is likely due to the thicker ice that formed in this region.
Kwok, R. 2015. Sea ice convergence along the Arctic coasts of Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago: Variability and extremes (1992–2014). Geophysical Research Letters, (Accepted) doi:10.1002/2015GL065462.
Arctic sea ice extent is now tracking below 2010, 2013, and 2014. Openings in the ice cover have continued to expand within the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. While the Northern Sea Route has opened, the Northwest Passage remains clogged with considerable ice in the channels of the Canadian Archipelago. However, some data sources indicate narrow openings in the ice where navigation may be possible.
Overview of conditions
On August 16, 2015 sea ice extent stood at 5.79 million square kilometers (2.24 million square miles). This is 1.35 million square kilometers (521,200 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average, and 1.17 million square kilometers (451,700 square miles) above the level for the same date in 2012, the year of the record low extent.
The rate of ice retreat slowed compared to July, but remained faster than is typical for the month through the first half of August. Most of the ice in Baffin and Hudson bays has finally melted out. Large areas of open water and low concentration ice within the Beaufort and Chukchi seas continued to expand. Some of the low concentration ice depicted in the passive microwave data could be due to the presence of melt ponds on higher concentration ice. However, visible imagery from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensor on the NASA Terra and Aqua satellites confirm a very loose ice pack with considerable open water in the region. Most of the remaining ice appears to be fairly thick multiyear floes interspersed by thinner first-year ice that is rapidly melting out. In the eastern Arctic, the ice pack remains more consolidated.
Conditions in context
Atmospheric temperatures at the 925 millibar level during the first half of August were above average over the North Pole region and the Barents and Kara seas, but below average in the Laptev, East Siberian, Beaufort and Chukchi seas. This is a notable change from July, when above-average temperatures prevailed over most of the Arctic Ocean, including much of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Current conditions are likely due to a shift in atmospheric circulation from the July pattern of high sea level pressure centered roughly over the pole to a pattern of high pressure centered over the Kara and Laptev seas, and low pressure centered over the eastern Beaufort Sea. This low pressure brought colder air from the north into the western Beaufort Sea and the Chukchi Sea, and generally cloudier conditions to the region.
Forecasting the seasonal minimum
Several methods have been developed to make predictions of the September minimum in Arctic sea ice extent. NSIDC research scientist Andrew Slater developed a method that uses a statistical approach to calculate the probability of ice being present at each location (i.e., at each grid cell). The method correlates ice concentration at the time the forecast is made (issue date) with concentration at a desired later time (forecast); the difference between those two times or dates is known as the lead-time. While not as sophisticated as approaches using coupled ocean-ice-atmosphere models, this statistical method has the advantage that the forecasts for all points are completely independent in both space and time; that is, the forecast at any given point is not affected by its neighbors, nor its result from the prior day. Forecast skill improves as lead-time decreases.
The model has performed well compared to forecasts submitted to the Sea Ice Outlook prediction network. For example, the years 2005, 2007, and 2012 were correctly predicted as being record breaking (at the time) 50 days in advance. September average extent at 50-days lead time has been predicted to within 100,000 square kilometers (2009, 2010, 2011), but has also been as far off as 600,000 square kilometers (2007, 2008). Forecasting at seasonal time scales is difficult, but the model does have genuine skill in September (using a metric of comparison of the forecast error variance with the historically observed [de-trended] variance as was used in Schröder et al, ) at lead times as long as ninety days.
A passage to India by way of Russia
The Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast appears to be open, both in the passive microwave imagery and in the Multisensor Analyzed Sea Ice Extent (MASIE) product that is more adept at detecting thin and deteriorating ice. MASIE still shows considerable ice north of the Taymyr Peninsula and the Severnaya Zemlya islands, but there is a narrow open water passage through the ice. On the other side of the Arctic, the Northwest Passage still contains a considerable amount of ice. According to MASIE, there is as yet no completely open route. Some passive microwave products, such as from the University of Bremen’s Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer 2 (AMSR2), indicate an open water route along Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s historical route through the southern part of the Archipelago. The apparent discrepancy between MASIE and the Bremen product is likely due to thin, heavily melting ice not detected by passive microwave imagery.
A change in Antarctic sea ice
Growth in Antarctic sea ice extent has leveled off, increasing by just 250,000 square kilometers (96,500 square miles) between August 1 and August 17. This slow rate of growth has brought this year’s sea ice extent to below the 1981 to 2010 average for the first time in nearly four years. Figure 5b shows ice retreat around the Antarctic Peninsula, in the Ross Sea, and around the coast of Wilkes Land. These areas of retreat are offset by some ice growth in the northern Amundsen Sea and off the coast of Enderby Land.
Arctic sea ice extent for June 2015 was the third lowest in the satellite record. June snow cover for the Northern Hemisphere was the second lowest on record. In contrast, Antarctic sea ice extent remained higher than average. The pace of sea ice loss was near average for the month of June, but persistently warm conditions and increased melting late in the month may have set the stage for rapid ice loss in the coming weeks.
Overview of conditions
Arctic sea ice extent for June 2015 averaged 11.0 million square kilometers (4.24 million square miles), the third lowest June extent in the satellite record. This is 920,000 square kilometers (355,200 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average of 11.89 million square kilometers (4.59 million square miles) and 150,000 square kilometers (58,000 square miles) above the record low for the month observed in 2010.
Ice extent remains below average in the Barents Sea as well as in the Chukchi Sea, continuing the pattern seen in May. While extent is below average in western Hudson Bay, it is above average in the eastern part of the bay and near average east of Greenland.
Ice loss typically quickens in June with the largest loss rate occurring in July, the warmest month of the year. A total of 1.61 million square kilometers (622,000 square miles) of ice was lost through the month, slightly slower than the 1981 to 2010 average rate of decline of 1.69 million square kilometers (653,000 square miles). By the end of the month, ice extent for the Arctic tracked within one standard deviation of the 1981 to 2010 average.
Conditions in context
June 2015 was fairly warm in the Arctic. Air temperatures at the 925 millibar level (about 3,000 feet above the surface) were above average over much of the Arctic Ocean, notably in the Kara Sea (2 to 5 degrees Celsius or 4 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit above average) and in the East Siberian Sea (2 to 3 degrees Celsius or 4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit above average).
The especially warm conditions in the Kara Sea, where ice extent is below average, is consistent with a wind pattern tending to bring in warm air from the south. The wind flows along the northern flank of a low-pressure area centered over the Barents Sea. Northerly winds on the western side of this low-pressure area brought cool conditions to the Norwegian Sea. Temperatures in the northern and eastern Beaufort Sea and much of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago were near or slightly below average.
June 2015 compared to previous years
Arctic sea ice extent averaged for June 2015 was the third lowest in the satellite record. Through 2015, the linear rate of decline for June extent is 3.6 % per decade.
Northern Hemisphere snow cover
June snow cover for the Northern Hemisphere averaged 5.45 million square kilometers (2.10 million square miles), the second lowest of the 48-year record. This ranking also holds for June snow cover assessed for North America at 4.09 million square kilometers (1.58 million square miles) and Eurasia at 1.36 million square kilometers (525,000 square miles).
June snow cover was especially low over Alaska and western Canada. This is in part related to last winter’s unusual jet stream pattern, discussed in our March post. The pattern brought unusually warm conditions to the region and promoted low sea ice extent to the Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk. Recall that the restart of the Iditarod Race had to be moved from Anchorage to Fairbanks because of poor snow conditions in the Alaska Range. This spring has also been warm and dry in Alaska. These conditions have contributed to a large number of lightning-induced wildfires in the state.
Sea ice loss and snowfall over Eurasia
Climate models predict that Arctic precipitation will increase through the 21st century. As the climate warms, the atmosphere can hold more moisture, which means a greater poleward transport and convergence of moisture by the atmosphere. The decline in Arctic sea ice extent may also play a role, as more open water will provide a moisture source. One would expect this latter effect to be most pronounced in autumn, when there will be a strong temperature (hence moisture) contrast between the open water and overlying air, promoting strong evaporation into the atmosphere. A recent study by Wegmann et al. provides evidence that more open water in the Barents and Kara seas has indeed led to an increase in autumn snowfall over Eurasia. Their analysis is based on snow observations from over 800 Russian land stations and an analysis of atmospheric moisture transport.
Sea ice in Antarctica
Sea ice extent in Antarctica averaged 14.93 million square kilometers (5.76 million square miles), the third highest June extent in the satellite record. Extent was slightly greater than the 1981 to 2010 average almost everywhere around the continent. The high amount of sea ice in the eastern Weddell and Ross seas is consistent with the pattern observed for the past several months.
Satellite data show unusually extensive sea ice growth along the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula. This new feature in sea ice growth could be influenced by the strong atmospheric wave-3 pattern that has persisted over the past few months. In a wave-3 pattern, there are three major low-pressure areas around the continent separated by three high-pressure areas. The low-pressure areas have been centered on the Antarctic Peninsula, the northwestern Ross Sea, and the eastern Weddell Sea.
Wegmann, M., Y. Orsolini, M. Vasquez, L. Gimeno, R. Nieto, O. Bulygina, R. Jaiser, D. Handorf, A. Rinke, K. Dethloff, A. Sterin, and S. Bronnimann. 2015. Arctic moisture source for Eurasian snow cover variations in autumn. Environmental Research Letters, 10, doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/10/054015.
As winter turns to spring, the seasonal decline in Arctic sea ice kicks into gear. April was marked by rapid ice loss at the beginning and end of the month. Air temperatures were higher than average over much of the Arctic Ocean. In the Antarctic, sea ice extent was the highest seen in April in the satellite record. This month we introduce data sets and online tools from new sensors that—combined with older sources—provide a more complete picture of ice thickness changes across the Arctic.
Overview of conditions
Arctic sea ice extent for April 2015 averaged 14.0 million square kilometers (5.4 million square miles), the second lowest April ice extent in the satellite record. It is 810,000 square kilometers (313,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average of 15.0 million square kilometers (6.0 million square miles) and 80,000 square kilometers (31,000 square miles) above the previous record low for the month observed in 2007.
Ice extent remained below average in the Barents Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Bering Sea. Sea ice was slightly more extensive than average off Newfoundland, in the Davis Strait, and in the Labrador Sea. The Labrador Sea is an important breeding area for harp and hooded seals in early spring. More extensive ice in this region favors more seal cubs being fully weaned before the ice breaks up, increasing their chance of survival.
Conditions in context
During April, the decline in ice extent starts to accelerate, though the total ice loss over the month is generally small. April 2015 was marked by a fairly rapid decline during the first week of the month, little change during the middle of the month, and then a steep decline over the final week. Overall, extent decreased 862,000 square kilometers (333,000 square miles).
April was marked by higher than average 925 hPa air temperatures (1 to 3 degrees Celsius or 2 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit) throughout the Arctic, except for Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago where temperatures were 1 to 3 degrees Celsius (2 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit) below average. Temperatures were 6 to 8 degrees Celsius (11 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than average in the Kara Sea, linked to unusually low sea level pressure over the North Atlantic. Associated wind patterns also resulted in strong warming over the Eurasian Arctic.
April 2015 compared to previous years
Arctic sea ice extent averaged for April 2015 was the second lowest in the satellite record for the month. Through 2015, the linear rate of decline for April extent is 2.4% per decade.
New data on sea ice thickness
Data from new sensors, combined with older sources, are providing a more complete picture of ice thickness changes across the Arctic. In a recently published paper, R. Lindsay and A. Schweiger provide a longer-term view of ice thickness, compiling a variety of subsurface, aircraft, and satellite observations. They found that ice thickness over the central Arctic Ocean has declined from an average of 3.59 meters (11.78 feet) to only 1.25 meters (4.10 feet), a reduction of 65% over the period 1975 to 2012.
In addition, near-real-time thickness data from the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 satellite are now available from the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling at the University College London. The spatial pattern of ice thickness in spring is a key factor in the evolution of sea ice through the Arctic summer, and CryoSat-2 data bring the promise of regular sea ice thickness monitoring over most of the Arctic Ocean.
The data indicate that Arctic sea ice thickness in the spring of 2015 is about 25 centimeters (10 inches) thicker than in 2013. Ice more than 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) thick is found off the coast of Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago, and scattered regions of 3-meter (10 feet) thick ice extend across the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Elsewhere, most of the ice is 1.5 to 2.0 meters (4.9 to 6.6 feet) thick, typical for first-year ice at the end of winter.
Older ice spreads out
Thickness estimates from CryoSat-2 data and the Lindsay and Schweiger analysis agree well with reconstructions based on sea ice age produced at the University of Colorado Boulder. Since ice gets thicker as it survives several melt seasons, ice age is a good proxy for thickness. For example, the ice thickness map from CryoSat-2 (Figure 4) and the ice age map (Figure 5) both show increased ice thickness in the southern Beaufort Sea where there was a transport of 5+ year old ice this winter. Interestingly, the ice age map identifies the tongue of ice extending towards the New Siberian Islands as second-year ice, yet the ice thickness map shows that its thickness is more similar to first-year ice.
Arctic sea ice age data are now publicly available from NSIDC and can be viewed interactively on the NSIDC Satellite Observations of Arctic Change Web site. Data are currently available through December 2012.
After the 2014 September minimum, first-year ice expanded through the winter growth season and older ice was redistributed around the Arctic Ocean. Figure 5 shows that winds have compressed second-year ice towards the coast of Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago. Old multi-year ice (4+ years old) drifted into the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and spread out, with first-year ice forming between parcels of the older ice. Some of the multi-year ice (both second-year and older) drifted out of the Arctic through Fram Strait on its way to melting in the warm waters of the North Atlantic.
Overall, the area of second-year ice decreased by more than a third during the winter, while ice of four years and more declined by about 10%. In recent years, the Beaufort and Chukchi seas have seen substantial loss of ice during summer, even of the thicker, older ice.
Antarctica reaches record ice extent, but temperature trends vary
Antarctic sea ice extent averaged 9.06 million square kilometers (3.5 million square miles) for the month and is now the highest April extent in the satellite record. April extent was 300,000 square kilometers (116,000 square miles) higher than the previous record observed in 2014, and 1.70 million square kilometers (656,000 square miles) above the 1981 to 2010 long-term average. The Antarctic April extent was also above the two standard deviations of the long-term average.
The high sea ice extent in the Antarctic was a result of above-average extent in the Weddell Sea, and slightly more expansive ice cover in the Ross Sea. Interestingly, 925 hPa air temperatures over a wide area in the Weddell Sea were 1 to 4 degrees Celsius (2 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit) above average for the month of April. Lower-than-average air temperatures (1 to 4 degrees Celsius or 2 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit below average) were found in the Ross Sea, but only in the far west and not near the regions of record ice extent. While there remains considerable year-to-year variability of sea ice extent in the Antarctic, the trend in April sea ice extent for the Antarctic from 1979 to 2015 now stands at 4.1% per decade.
Lindsay, R. and A. Schweiger. 2015. Arctic sea ice thickness loss determined using subsurface, aircraft, and satellite observations. The Cryosphere, 9, 269-283, doi:10.5194/tc-9-269-2015, 2015.
Tschudi, M., C. Fowler, and J. Maslanik. 2014. EASE-Grid Sea Ice Age. Boulder, Colorado USA: NASA National Snow and Ice Data Center Distributed Active Archive Center, doi:10.5067/1UQJWCYPVX61.