Boulder scientists see record low maximum Arctic sea ice third consecutive year

Delia Watkins
March 23, 2017

"There's a lot of year-to-year variability in both Arctic and Antarctic sea ice, but overall, until last year, the trends in the Antarctic for every single month were toward more sea ice", said Claire Parkinson, a senior sea ice researcher at NASA Goddard.

Last month saw the extent of sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic slip to a record low, scientists from the US National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have reported.

Floating sea ice at the top of the world has set another troubling record for its low spatial extent, shattering a prior record set just two years ago for this key component of the planet's climate system.

The shrinking sea ice exposes more water to the sun's rays in summertime. And it's about 37,000 square miles less than the 2015 maximum extent, the previous record-setting low.

According to the report, the average air temperature in the Arctic region was 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit above average for the entire Arctic, and some areas experienced temperatures 9 degrees warmer than normal.

"I have been looking at Arctic weather patterns for 35 years and have never seen anything close to what we've experienced these past two winters", said NSIDC's director, Mark Serreze.

For the past two years, however, Antarctica saw record high sea ice extents and decades of moderate sea ice growth. The warmer and shorter freeze seasons are making it harder for the ice to freeze as thickly as the past, setting up thinner, more fragile ice going into the melt season.

"We started from a low September minimum extent", Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, explained in a news release.

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The thaw is harming the hunting livelihoods of the indigenous peoples and threatening wildlife, such as polar bears. The ice cover generally reaches its maximum extent sometime in late February or March.

The sea ice minimum, which occurs in September at the end of the melt season, first began breaking records in 2005.

"It is tempting to say that the record low we are seeing this year is global warming finally catching up with Antarctica", added Meier.

This year's Arctic maximum spanned 5.57 million square miles. That changed in 2015 when the maximum extent also reached a record low.

Sea ice around the North Pole expands to its biggest extent of the year in February or March after a deep freeze in the winter polar darkness and shrinks to the smallest of the year in September, at the end of the brief Arctic summer. This year's Antarctic minimum extent was the lowest in the satellite record.

A record low has also been set in the southern hemisphere, now in the summer season, where Antarctic sea ice fell to it lowest extent on 3 March, at 2.1m sq km - the lowest in the satellite record.

NSIDC will release a full analysis of the winter season in early April, once monthly data are available for March.

The Arctic sea ice maximum has dropped by an average of 2.8 percent per decade since 1979, NASA said.

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