Major Arctic Sea Ice Loss Revealed by Satellites

By Tom Yulsman | February 13, 2013 12:27 pm

[Update: I’ve clarified how the two years of data depicted in the animation above help confirm that the volume of Arctic sea ice has decreased dramatically in 10 years.]

Just in today from British researchers: In only a decade, the volume of Arctic sea ice has declined by a bit more than a third in autumn, and by 9 percent in winter.

The volume of sea ice is different from its aerial extent, meaning how much territory it covers, which I discussed in my earlier post today about the Polar Paradox.

The animation above does not chart the volume of sea ice over the full 10-year period. The red dots chart seasonal changes to the volume of ice, based on observations by the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 satellite covering 2011 and 2012. But these data do confirm that in both autumn and winter of both years, ice volume was significantly lower than it averaged between 2003 and 2008.

These findings are consistent with simulations by the Pan-Arctic Ice-Ocean Modelling and Assimilation System (PIOMAS), which are shown with the solid white line in the animation. (To my eye, the PIOMAS model shows somewhat less ice decline that what has actually been observed.)

The background shows how the extent of Arctic sea ice has changed seasonally over the same two-year period. And as with ice volume, over the longer term, less and less of the Arctic Ocean and surrounding seas have been ice covered. With some ups and downs due to natural variability, the extent of Arctic sea ice in September, when it typically bottoms out for the season, has been declining since the advent of satellite recordsin 1979.

“The data reveal that thick sea ice has disappeared from a region to the north of Greenland, the Canadian Archipelago, and to the northeast of Svalbard,” says Katharine Giles, of the Center for Polar Observation and Modeling at University College London, and a member of the scientific team. She was quoted in an American Geophysical Union press release.

The AGU has accepted a paper about the findings, and has published the results online today.



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


See More


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar