‘Absurdly’ high Arctic warmth drives sea ice to record low

By Tom Yulsman | February 5, 2016 8:06 pm

Arctic sea ice extent in January was 402,000 square miles below average — an area equivalent to about 60 percent of Alaska

Warm Arctic temperatures drove sea ice to a record low in January.

The plot above shows how Arctic region air temperatures at about 3,000 feet above the surface varied from average in January 2016. The North Pole is at the center of map. The air temperature for the region at this height was about 13 degrees F above the 1981-2010 mean — a record. At the surface, January saw an average temperature that was 11 degrees above normal, also a record. (National Snow and Ice Data Center, courtesy NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Division)

In my previous article here at ImaGeo, I featured a Norwegian icebreaker with no winter sea ice to break in the high Arctic. Since then, the National Snow and Ice Data Center has published its monthly update on sea ice conditions — and the news is pretty dramatic.

Record warm Arctic air temperatures running an astonishing 11 degrees F above average at the surface helped drive sea ice to a record low in January.

A significant part of the 402,000-square-mile deficit came from unusually low ice coverage in the Barents Sea, including off the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Here, sailors aboard Norway’s KV Svalbard icebreaker were surprised by just how little ice they saw while on patrol recently.

SEE ALSO: As the ‘blue Arctic’ expands thanks to global warming, an icebreaker finds no ice to break

“January was absurdly warm in the Arctic,” says NSIDC director Mark Serreze, quoted by Bob Henson in his excellent, detailed story about these developments at Weather Underground.

A phenomenon known as the Arctic Oscillation, or AO, helped push up air temperatures when it went into a strongly negative mode in January.

During the positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation, a high altitude low-pressure system associated with frigid polar air is bottled up tightly over the Arctic by strong jet stream winds. (See the righthand map in the graphic below.)

When the AO switches into a negative phase, higher pressure develops in places, weakening those winds and thereby causing them to deform. This, in turns, allows blobs of cold, polar air to spill southward — and abnormal warmth to build up in its place. (See the lefthand map below.)

The mid-latitudes also tend to get stormier when the Arctic Oscillation kicks into its negative phase. And goodness knows, we’ve had a fair bit of that recently!

A negative Arctic Oscillation helped drive January temperatures higher than normal in January 2016, causing sea ice to reach a record low extent.

In both maps, the purple is indicative of the cold air of the polar vortex. The map on the left shows conditions on January 5, 2014, when the Arctic Oscillation had turned negative. The map on the right shows how things looked in mid-November 2013, with the oscillation in more positive territory. (Technically speaking, the maps show 500-millibar geopotential heights, meaning the altitude where the air pressure measures 500 millibars. But this is a good proxy for temperature. Maps by NOAA’s Climate.gov, based on NCEP Reanalysis data from NOAA ESRL Physical Sciences Division.)

While the Arctic Oscillation clearly played an important role in January’s record-high warmth and record-low sea ice extent, it also had co-conspirator: global warming — as this graphic illustrates:

Long-term warming in the Arctic is associated with long-term declines in sea ice.

The blue line plots annual temperature anomalies (in °C) recorded at Arctic land stations (north of 60°N). The red line shows the same for the globe as a whole. (Note: There were few stations in the Arctic, particularly in northern Canada, before 1940. Source: Arctic Report Card for 2015. The data are from the CRUTEM4 dataset.)

Take a close look at that blue line. It shows how temperatures recorded at land stations in the Arctic have varied from the 1981-2010 mean. The warming trend since the 1970s is obvious — especially compared to the warming of the globe as a whole, shown by the red line. In fact, the Arctic has been warming at twice the rate as lower latitudes since the early 2000’s.

So while it is true that natural variations from winter to winter, driven by factors like the Arctic Oscillation, play a role in what happens up there, those are little squiggles on top of the longer term warming trend — which is driven by, well, us.



  • OWilson

    Whether these “absurdly” high (hundredths of a degree) increases in Arctic temperatures correlate with the rise of C02 is up for debate and anyway are balanced over the planet.

    What is not disputed, however is the rise in global food production which is at record levels.

    Warm is good for crops and people.

    Ice, not so much :)

    • ginckgo

      Not sure if you are unable to read an x-axis, but the above graph shows Arctic temperature rise of almost 1.5 degrees since the 1998 El Nino – much more than ‘hundredths’.
      As for correlation of temperature and food production (ignoring the fact that this does not necessarily mean a causal link), there have been increased rates of crop losses over the past couple of decades, which could be on track to wiping out increases in production in coming decades.

      • OWilson

        “Could be…? In coming decades…?

        Just warmista wishful thinking :)

        And if pigs could fly…. :)

        We are in the satellite age now (37 years), and it shows no such temperature rise. It actually shows the opposite from the 1998 El Nino.

        And, I can read axis scales. I do that for a living now.

        (And I know how to exaggerate a trend by using an inappropriate scale. It’s just a cheap schoolboy trick)

        • Tom Yulsman

          I’m sorry Mr. Wilson, but you are wrong about the satellite record. It shows a clear warming trend in the north polar region since 1979 and the 1998 El Niño. (This is the RSS record. And you can create your own time series here: http://images.remss.com/msu/msu_time_series.html)

          • OWilson


            Here’s the satellite record for the entire planet.

            as in “Global” Warming. :)


          • ginckgo

            The problem with the satellite data is that they do not actually directly measure temperature. Their data needs to be recalibrated and corrected much more than any other, such as for gradual drift where they will slowly measure temperature later and later in the day (this alone accounts for a lot of the ‘cooling’).


          • OWilson

            Yeah, lets get rid of the satellites.

            The other day satellite “drift” caused my GPS to take me to Mexico rather than the 7-11.

            Maybe they’ll be bombing Paris instead of Syria next :)

            We should stick to compasses, ancient ice core and tree rings. :)

          • ginckgo

            I understand your instinct to dismiss any new information that may undermine your fixed world view, but it doesn’t change the fact that satellites have their own variables that affect the quality of the raw data, and this needs to be dealt with.
            Just this year, the scientists who manage the UAH (including Spencer and Christie, who are AGW skeptics) data made just such adjustments, and it ended up increasing the recent temperature trend upwards by a third of a degree per decade – that was more than enough to wipe out the supposed ‘hiatus’

          • OWilson
          • Lakota Clearwater

            It is a metaphysical certainty that if satellite data showed more warming than surface measurements, you’d post the same snarky smiley-faces and brush off the satellites as the proxy estimates that they actually are. You’re not a professional who reads any x-axis, and you’re horrible at masquerading as an intellectual with your ceaseless, ignorant, non-sensical drivel. Can’t Exxon afford more competent shills than this? Heck, I’ll sell out for the right price, and I’ll do a lot better than trot out meaningless tropes such as “we’re in the satellite era” — wtf, dude, wt actual f.

  • Jenny H

    Could we see some similar maps of the Antarctic??

    • OWilson

      Could we see some similar maps of Mars?

      A NASA press release indicates that “climate change [is] in progress”[119] on Mars… Based on the current rate of loss, the deposits of today may be gone in a hundred years.[116]


  • Mike Richardson

    Further evidence of the growing impact greenhouse gas pollution is having on the climate, particularly in the polar regions. Not really in dispute, except in the case of a few notable contrarians. Interestingly, this increasing warmth really hasn’t aided global food production, which has experienced gains due to improvements in agricultural science, including more efficient use of fertilizers, irrigation of arid regions, and even genetic engineering of crops. Warmth can be a good thing for people, unless they live in regions adversely affected by increasing floods and other extreme weather. It’s also pretty good for the expanding range of mosquitoes and their associated tropical diseases, like malaria and the Zika virus, and for things like coral bleaching. Just a balanced dose of reality as a counterpoint to the alternating “global warming is minimal/not happening” and “well, it could be happening, but it’s all good!” I suppose I should be more of a Pollyanna about climate change, but I don’t want to step on any toes around here. 😉

  • Matthew Slyfield

    What was the real temp, not anomaly for the arctic over this period?

    No matter how much above average it is, if the raw temperature is still below freezing, the temperature anomaly can not be the driving factor in the low sea ice

    • Tom Yulsman

      Mr. Slyfield: Thank you for your comment. I’d like to respond by saying that nature often is more complex than what common sense suggests. With that in mind, here is the answer to the issue you raise:

      Warm summer temperatures melt Arctic sea ice. When that happens, the dark ocean waters absorb and store a lot of heat energy. And with ongoing increases in summer melting thanks to amplified warming in the Arctic, the waters there have been absorbing even more heat energy than in the past.

      Now, flash forward to winter: Even when the atmosphere cools to below freezing, it takes a long time for the surface ocean waters to give up the heat they accumulated in summer. The colder the atmosphere, the faster that can occur — and also visa versa.

      So even though temperatures in the Arctic were mostly below freezing in December and January (with the exception of a remarkable melt event in the very high Arctic), they were considerably warmer than normal. Moreover, at the end of summer, ocean surface waters wind up with more accumulated heat energy than before. And those factors have delayed sea ice formation in a significant portion of the Arctic — especially the Barents Sea.

      I hope that’s helpful.

      • Matthew Slyfield

        No, it’s not. None of that negates the fact that you can’t melt so much as 1cc of ice without real temperatures above freezing.

        • Tom Yulsman

          Mr. Slyfield: I think you misunderstand the process I tried to explain. My apologies if it did not make sense. The long and short of it is that the issue is not about melting ice during the winter. You are absolutely right: Unless you can get the ice above freezing, it won’t melt. So that’s not what we’re talking about during winter. The issue in winter is a delay in the formation of sea ice in areas that became ice free during the warm summer months — when the sun returns in the high Arctic.

          Check out my previous explanation for the details. Suffice it to say that the more heat the sea water has accumulated in summer, and the warmer the air temperature is in winter (even if it is not below freezing), the longer it takes for sea ice to form. That’s what happened in January — areas that ordinarily would be iced over by that time had not, because the air temperatures were considerably warmer than usual.

          For an analogy, consider two pots. You fill Pot 1 with cold water, and then you put it in a freezer cooled to negative 40 degrees. The surface of the water in that pot will begin to ice over pretty quickly. Now, crank up the temperature in the freezer to just below freezing. And into Pot 2 put tepid water. I’m sure you will agree that when you stick it in the freezer it will take considerably longer to ice over.

          The Arctic of 40 years ago is akin to Pot 1. The Arctic of today is like Pot 2. Bottom line: large portions of our pot today remain ice free longer into the winter than in the past. And, in fact, some areas never manage to give up enough heat in winter to ice over like they used to. This is particularly true in some areas around Svalbard. I’ve talked to long-term residents there who confirm this.

          I hope that is helpful.

          • Lakota Clearwater

            Is it possible to make meaningful predictions about the likely maximum sea ice extent for this year, given that this will take place within the next two months? Or are there too many variables? It almost seems like a lock to break last year’s record.

            Also, casual observation of past sea ice records shows at least three prominent drops in minimum extent that occurred about 2 years after El Nino events — is this a spurious correlation or is it meaningful somehow? And if it’s meaningful, it would seem to suggest that we could see the first ice-free event in September of 2017. (I know, impossible to predict, but it’s fun.)

  • crocaduck .

    In the city where I live, there is a fair-sized lake in the middle of it and I’ve noticed that it is a fairly good gauge in averaging the temperature in my area. When the ice is thick, it has been a cold winter. This year, the lake has not frozen over and this reflects the warm winter we’ve had. Similarly, a huge body of water such as the oceans will give a very good yearly average of global temperatures. And from what decades of monitoring global ocean temperatures shows is that the oceans are warming.

  • Kizar_Sozay

    The graph assumes there were accurate and continuous temperature recordings since 1900. There were a few expeditions to the North Pole and fringes of the arctic but no one was keeping temperature logs. Until around 1950 there was no use for recording arctic temps until nuclear powered submarines began navigating under the ice cap. I’m sure some people will believe there were scientific stations above lat 60N year round and staffed by diligent observers.



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.


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