Arctic Sea Ice Could be Heading for a New Low

By Tom Yulsman | March 9, 2015 12:19 pm
sea ice extent

The extent of Arctic sea ice has been particularly low in the Sea of Okhotsk. In the animation above, the pink indicates areas where NASA’s Terra satellite detected sea ice on March 5, 2015. The orange line shows the long-term median extent of the ice in this region. I’ve removed the overlays in the animation’s second frame so you can see what the ice looks like from space. (Images: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

|Note: See updates below. |

In the ten days between February 25th and March 7th, swaths of sea ice floating across an area of the Arctic the size of Washington state simply vanished.

This sharp drop in Arctic sea ice, following on from a particularly low extent in February, may be a harbinger of a new record: the lowest maximum winter extent for Arctic sea ice in the satellite era.

Each year at the end of the warm season, falling temperatures cause ice to form atop Arctic waters and spread ever more widely during winter. The geographic extent of this ice typically reaches a maximum in the first or second week of March. After that, warming temperatures inexorably cause it to shrink until a minimum is reached, typically in September.

Thanks to human-caused global warming — which has affected the Arctic strongly — both the maximum winter extent of sea ice, and the minimum extent at the end of the warm season, have been getting smaller and smaller over the years.

sea ice extent

Source: NSIDC

February saw the third lowest extent of Arctic sea ice for the month. On February 25th, the ice actually stopped growing and began shrinking — two or three weeks before the long-term average peak. (Click on the thumbnail image at right for the details.)

In fact, between the 25th and March 7th, sea ice coverage shrank  by 175,000 square kilometers, or 67,568 square miles. That’s slightly smaller than Washington state.

One caveat is in order: In 2012, and 2014, Arctic sea ice rallied during much of March, growing in extent past the usual peak. And it’s entirely possible that this will happen over the next few weeks. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Air Temperature AnomaliesBut it’s already clear that particularly warm temperatures in some parts of the Arctic have had significant effects. One of those areas is the Sea of Okhotsk, in Russia’s far northwest. (Update 3/9/15: Click on the thumbnail at left for a graphic showing abnormally warm temperatures in that part of the world.)

The animation at the top of this post shows sea ice coverage in the region on March 5th, as detected by NASA’s Terra satellite. That’s the pink area in one frame of the animation. I’ve also drawn an orange line indicating the long-term average edge of the sea ice for this time of year. So as you can see, the ice coverage in the Sea of Okhotsk is particularly low. (I also included a second frame in the animation so you can see more clearly what the sea ice itself looks like from space.)

This is not the only area of low extent. In its February report, the National Snow and Ice Data Center noted this:

While low extent for the Arctic as a whole was largely driven by conditions in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea, extent was also slightly below average along the Barents Sea and parts of the East Greenland Sea.

To my non-expert eyes (and that’s an important caveat), things are not looking so promising for a rebound:

sea ice extent

This animation shows how the extent of Arctic sea ice has changed between late February and March 7th.

I created the animation above to provide a broader overview of what has happened to sea ice in the past 10 or so days. On one of the frames, I’ve circled the Bering Sea to the left, and the Barents Sea to the right. (Caveat: The Barents Sea circle does extend somewhat into the Arctic Ocean.)  Keep an eye on what happens in those regions between February and March 7th.

It’s pretty obvious, right? Dramatic shrinkage of sea ice in those areas — when it should still be growing. True, it does grow in some other places. But that doesn’t make up for the losses.

| Update 3/9/15: Bob Henson has an excellent post up at Weather Underground on what’s happening to Arctic sea ice right now. Check it out here|

Whenever I write about Arctic sea ice, I usually get comments from people who point out that while this is happening in the Arctic, sea ice coverage in the Antarctic is actually expanding. These comments reflect claims by prominent climate change doubters like Christopher Monckton, who has written this:

In fact, the global sea-ice record shows virtually no change throughout the past 30 years, because the quite rapid loss of Arctic sea ice since the satellites were watching has been matched by a near-equally rapid gain of Antarctic sea ice. Indeed, when the summer extent of Arctic sea ice reached its lowest point in the 30-year record in mid-September 2007, just three weeks later the Antarctic sea extent reached a 30-year record high. The record low was widely reported; the corresponding record high was almost entirely unreported.

It should be noted that in 2012, the summer extent of Arctic sea ice reached an even lower point. But regardless, Monckton’s point is that the overall amount of sea ice has remained the same.

And he is wrong:

sea ice extent

Arctic and Antarctic Sea Ice Extent Anomalies, 1979-2012. Thick solid lines indicate 12-month running means, the dashed lines indicate the trends. Thin lines indicate monthly anomalies, meaning departures from the long-term mean. (Source: NSIDC)

As this graphic shows, Arctic sea ice extent declined sharply from 1979 to 2012. It’s true that in the Antarctic, sea ice did increase — but only slightly, and not enough to offset the losses in the Arctic.

Recent research shows that the global extent of sea ice — taking into account both hemispheres — has been declining at a rate of 1.47% per decade (± 0.25% decade). Moreover, despite the increases in Antarctic sea ice extent, the overall decline globally is actually speeding up.

We’ll know in a few weeks whether the Arctic has set a new record. I’ll post an update when the verdict is in.

  • Mike Richardson

    Actually, you would expect it to speed up somewhat, particularly if there’s a point at which the lowered albedo starts to add to the feedback. What’s particularly worrying is that with much of the warming in the northern regions, there only seem to be positive feedback mechanisms, such as the albedo effect and the release of methane from the permafrost (some of the pictures coming out of Siberia the past few months suggest that this might also be starting to speed up, explosively in some instances). Thanks for the graphs, though, and demonstrating that the overall net effect is still a loss of sea ice due to global warming.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Thank you Mike. This topic so often attracts highly negative comments, so it’s gratifying to read your thoughtful words.

      • Mike Richardson

        Anytime. When you’re doing a job you believe in, it can be tough when the most vocal voices you hear are negative. I’m a federal worker, so I’m pretty used to that. But as a layperson with a lifelong interest in science trying to keep up with an increasingly complicated world, I do appreciate the work of folks trying to explain it all. And for what it’s worth, when those negative voices are compensating for lack of facts with overabundance of volume, you’re probably doing something right.

  • Neven Acropolis

    Excellent article. Arctic sea ice extent is still going down, as we speak, so the window of opportunity for sea ice extent to bounce up one last time and exceed the preliminary maximum reached last month, is getting smaller.

    As for the global sea ice area disinformation meme, like I wrote a few weeks ago on the Arctic Sea Ice Blog:

    “It’s a neat trick, even though it’s like saying that one billion people
    starving globally is not a problem, because there are one billion obese
    persons. We all know that Antarctic sea ice has been increasing in
    winter, most likely because of winds that push the ice further out, with
    the open water left behind freezing up again. So if you compare
    Antarctic winter anomalies with those of Arctic summer anomalies –
    especially during rebound years such as 2013 and 2014 – it looks as if
    not much is happening.”

    Two extremes don’t cancel each other out. In fact, personally, I’d be much more at ease with stable sea ice numbers in the Antarctic. It looks as though AGW and ozone depletion may also be playing a role due to increased westerlies pushing the ice away from the shores, with open water freezing up again. But other factors could be at play too, like Manabe et al. already alluded to over 20 years ago (see here).

    • Tom Yulsman

      I’ve been following your blog, and I almost published the same graph of sea ice extent at minimum months. In fact, I think it is fair to say that your blog post was one of the things that got me working on this one. So thank you.

  • OWilson

    At the risk of being accused of “negative comments”, although my optimism about the about the ability of our Goldilocks planet to continue, after some 3.6 billion years, to allow life to develop, and indeed thrive, is considered “negative” only in the bizzaro liberal world.

    Or that natural variability is more effective than IPCC Pachauri’s “religious” beliefs in moderating potential runaway temperatures.

    How did the earth ever manage to provide our beautiful and happy home, with our long life, good health, record food production? All without the very recent Global Coolers, Global Warmers, and the latest addition to the cottage industry, Climate Changers.

    And, don’t get me started on those NSIDC misleading charts :)

    • Will Watson

      Our civilization is a Goldilocks as well. It only managed to develop within relatively narrow limits of climate: warmth, cold, moisture, sea level elevation and a host of other factors.

      When those limits are exceeded, civilization will cease to exist. Human activity is causing that to happen. We have become a geological force.

      • Mike Richardson

        Well put. I just hope that the so-called “Anthropocene” age doesn’t turn out to be the shortest of the geological periods due to shortsightedness of the geological force behind it. To paraphrase George Carlin, the Earth will be just fine — it’s us I worry about.

        • Tom Yulsman

          Good point Mike.

      • OWilson

        I don’t know which planet you live on, but man is able to occupy and thrive in all temperature zones on earth, from the frigid Arctic, to the Equatorial jungle, to the deserts, to the river delta swamplands, even well below sea level in Holland, and everywhere in between.

        (Well, real men anyways, maybe not Chicken Littles like you :)

        • Mike Richardson

          Wilson, if you’re want to prove your manliness, go over to the Seriously Science blog and check out the article on average penis size. You don’t have to go brave polar bears or tropical diseases. But if you’d like to do that, too, by all means. Maybe buy a few guns, and a big truck, too. I’ve heard that proves manliness, too. I guess I’ll just have to settle for a happy wife.

          • OWilson

            So far you’ve told us you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you.

            Now you say you have the equipment to keep a wife happy. (wink, wink)

            Say hello to the Missus for us, it was er, Morgan Fairchild wasn’t it?

            Yeah, that’s the ticket!

          • Tom Yulsman

            Mr. Richardson, can you please save the comments about penises for another blog? That kind of thing is not welcome here.

          • OWilson

            Don’t blame Mike, I apologize for starting it.

            Bad taste!

          • Tom Yulsman

            Thank you! Now w’ere on the right track.

          • Mike Richardson

            Sorry, Tom. Your blog, your rules, and I was definitely out of line.
            Back on topic, do you plan on doing an update on this story in the next week or so? According to NSIDC’s webpage, the actual maximum usually comes in the next couple of weeks, though their graphs seem to show it’s possibly flatlined for this winter.

          • Tom Yulsman

            Hi Mike, thanks for your comments. I appreciate it. And yes, there are more than enough places for people to bloviate and attack each other. I’m not sure why I have such a negative reaction to it, but I can’t stand it. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Brooklyn and had my fair share!

            As for following up, you can be sure that I will. Nature is fickle, so what looks significant now might not turn out to be. But I’m betting that this is going to be a very warm year with a lot of ice loss. An educated hunch. We’ll see.

            I hope you’ll come back and comment more. Thanks again.

        • Will Watson

          Civilized humans, with carbon energy, electricity, modern materials and all of the technological benefits of the industrial age can do those things. But, without them . . . not so much, or at least, not so MANY of us could. Given a few droughts, and a volcanic eruption or two at the wrong time and civilization would never have gotten to that point at all. Stone Age people can do those things, but 99.99% of the 7B folks on the planet are going to be clueless once the power goes out. And on our current course, that’s inevitable.

        • Tom Yulsman

          Please save the comments about “real men” for somewhere else…

          One commenter a few months ago referred to me as being similar to “Mr. Rogers.” He was referring to the fact that I harbor some old fashioned values like the idea that we should treat each other with respect. If that makes me like Mr. Rogers, so be it. Bottom line, I’m happy to see a diverse range of opinions expressed here. But they need to be thoughtful, considered, and evidence-based.

    • Tom Yulsman

      This is a straw man argument. I never write about this issue in terms of planetary survival. You and I both know that the Earth has weathered calamities that would make our current experiment with the climate system look tame. Planet Earth is not at issue here. Personally, I don’t think our survival as a species is either. (Although others would disagree.) What concerns me is the same thing that has concerned parents from time immemorial: What kind of world will my children and grandchildren inherit?

      Bottom line: I want to pass along a world that is in better shape, not worse. What about you, Mr. Wilson?

      • OWilson

        If, as you say, the survival of earth, or the survival of humanity is not at stake as far as climate considerations go, then we are in agreement on that one point at least.

        As for the “others who would disagree”, I have been asking for over a year now here, and in other major newspaper comment sections, one simple question.

        And although I’ve been called everything (by those others who would disagree) from mentally deficient, to criminally negligent for asking this and other questions, amazingly non of them, even here on your blog, have been able to answer.

        It requires only a one word answer, and it is not a trick question.

        The question is:

        What will the earth’s temperature be in 2050 if we take the satellite observed data from the last 36 years and project the same rate of increase?

        As for leaving the Earth a better place, the unsustainable spiraling debt presently being run up, so we can have our stuff NOW, is being kicked down the road to my and your grandchildren.

        Surely you can’t dismiss my concern for them?

        I just don’t believe that climate change is a problem. especially compared to the real and serious threats we face in the world today.

        (And don’t give me the bunk about multi-tasking, or walking and chewing gum at the same time – we and they are talking about PRIORITIES for our limited or non existent resources.)

        Thanks for tolerating a skeptic on your blog, Tom.
        Believe me I’m an environmentalist in the classic sense. In my old age, one of my pleasures is to visit the places I have lived and see the magnificent trees that have grown from the twigs I planted as a young man.

        • Tom Yulsman

          I agree that an international agreement in Paris later this year is unlikely, as you say, to “tune the planet’s climate to within 1 or 2 degrees.” In fact, treaty or no treaty, I think we are likely to blow right through the 2-degree C that was artificially set as the threshold beyond which dangerous things supposedly happen. Dangerous things are already happening in some places. And other dangerous things may not happen for a very long time. In any case, whether this makes a treaty a bad idea or not is beyond my field of expertise. I will say this, however: A treaty doesn’t have to be THE answer. If it helps put us a more sustainable course, then it’s a good idea.

          Despite the evidence, you seem to doubt that humanity is on an unsustainable course. I’m not sure how you can say that you are “an environmentalist in the classic sense” and not see that. Suffice it to say that unless we start heading on a new track, none of those other problems you mentioned are going to get solved. In the long run, they will probably get immeasurably worse.

          Lastly, I’m sorry people have said those things about you simply because of your views. As you know, that’s not my cup of tea. Although in the over-heated environment of the climate change wars, even I sometimes say things I regret. But at least I’m trying.

          • OWilson

            Thanks for the response.
            I note my sincere simple question still remains unanswered, namely:

            What will the earth’s temperature be in 2050 if we take the satellite observed data from the last 36 years and project the same rate of increase?
            The reason?
            It’s like asking someone to touch the emperor’s new clothes and tell us exactly what kind of material they are made from. :)

          • Mike Richardson

            Even the acceleration rate of gravity at sea level depends upon whether or not we’re talking vacuum or any given location on Earth, where humidity, local atmospheric pressure, surface area of falling object, or density of underlying mineral strata could affect the terminal velocity. And the circumference of the Earth at the equator can vary to a small degree, since the planet’s crust flexes to a certain degree. Granted, there’s probably a greater margin of error for predicting the average global temperature in 35 years, given the different variables that can come into play, such as methane release from permafrost and possibly deep sea reservoirs, the amount of fossil fuel extraction from arctic environs in the next few decades, and the degree to which we choose to alter our own behavior. But it’s still a pretty safe bet that it will continue to get warmer, and not colder. You can predict the effects of that, and what would be a sensible response. I’m not a scientist, but that is my own sincere response to your question and what I do know about the available evidence on the subject. I think any reasonable scientist working in the field will admit they can’t give you exact figures, but if all the ranges they provide you do result in some significant changes to sea level and other climatic conditions we take for granted, shouldn’t that be enough to start talking about solutions?

  • Will Watson

    Monckton’s claim about Antarctic sea ice is irrelevant. The Arctic Ocean is the thermostat for the planet, shaping high altitude air currents, the thermohaline flow, and weather patterns over the entire planet.

    Further, scientists are largely convinced that Antarctic sea ice expansion has been caused by shifts in prevailing winds around the continent, shifts related to climate change.



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