Arctic sea ice trends near a record low for this time of year

By Tom Yulsman | October 18, 2016 11:05 am

After tying for second lowest extent in September, Arctic sea ice began expanding rapidly. But that has turned around dramatically in October.

An animation of satellite images shows differences in sea ice in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska's coast between Oct. 14, 2014 and Oct. 12, 2016. The first image, captured by the Terra satellite in 2014, shows extensive snow cover around Alaska's Brooks Range and sea ice forming offshore. The second image, from the Aqua satellite in 2016, shows the same region — mostly snow- and ice-free. (Images: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

An animation of satellite images shows differences in sea ice in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska’s coast between Oct. 14, 2014 and Oct. 12, 2016. The first image, captured by the Terra satellite in 2014, shows extensive snow cover around Alaska’s Brooks Range (to the left), and sea ice forming offshore. The second image, from the Aqua satellite in 2016, shows the same region — mostly snow- and ice-free. (Images: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

Arctic sea ice has been been growing much more slowly than average during October. Its geographic extent is now in a rough tie with 2007 and 2012 for the lowest in the satellite record for this point in the year.

sea ice

Source: NSIDC

The chart at right compares the evolution of Arctic sea ice extent during 2007, 2012 and 2016. This year is plotted in red. Note how slow the growth of ice has been during October. (Please click on the thumbnail to enlarge it.)

Also check out just how low Arctic sea ice extent went during September, at the end of the warm season. In fact, 2016 tied with 2007 for the second-lowest extent in the satellite record.

But after that, freeze-up actually occurred fairly rapidly — until slowing dramatically at the beginning of October. What’s up with this Arctic sea ice roller coaster ride?

According to Ted Scambos, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, two big Arctic storms in August contributed significantly to the very low minimum extent in September. They probably did this by “breaking up the ice and stirring a trace of warmth up from deeper levels (5-10 meters below the surface),” Scambos says.

Not too long after the storminess subsided, the surface water refroze fairly quickly, accounting for the rapid expansion of sea ice after the low point in September.

sea ice

Source: NSIDC

That rapid freeze-up happened in the heart of the Arctic Ocean, where temperatures would normally be coldest. Meanwhile, more at the periphery — particularly in the Barents, Kara and Laptev seas — “the ice edge has barely changed,” says Julienne Stroeve, who also serves as a senior research scientist at NSIDC.

Sea ice has expanded somewhat in the Beaufort Sea, off Alaska’s north coast. But the edge is still far short of the long term average in the region. (Click on the thumbnail at left for a map of Arctic sea ice extent as of Oct. 17, 2016.)

I created the animation of satellite images at the top of this post to compare conditions in the Beaufort Sea between mid-October of 2014, when sea ice extent was closer to normal (but still low), and this year. You can tell which image was captured in 2014 because of all the snow cover in and around Alaska’s Brooks Range, and the ice that’s forming at sea. I find the comparison with this year to be quite stark.

Why has Arctic sea ice been growing so slowly in the past couple of weeks? Once again, Scambos says warm ocean temperatures are probably implicated. And it looks like that relatively warm sea surface may be having an effect on the air temperature above it:

sea ice

This plot shows how Arctic air temperatures (at about 300 feet above the surface) differed from average for the first two weeks of October, 2016. Yellows and reds indicate higher than average temperatures; blues and purples indicate lower than average temperatures. (Source: NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division)

The yellows and reds in the map above show just how anomalously warm the air has been at about 300 feet above the surface. (The North Pole is at the center of the plot.) Scambos thinks the warm sea surface temperatures that have been retarding ice growth also have been warming the air directly above the water. 

“It is not surprising that it is extremely warm in the weeks following near-record minimums [in sea ice extent], because open water beneath the atmosphere buffers the air temperature at near the freezing point for several weeks until several centimeters of ice are formed,” Scambos says. “In this case, I would say that the high air temperature anomaly is an effect, not a cause, of slow sea ice growth, and that the leading cause is ocean temperature.”

Why are ocean temperatures so warm? When sea ice shrinks in extent, more solar energy is absorbed by dark surface waters. And this has been happening more and more in the Arctic during recent years.

In fact, the Arctic overall has been warming faster than any other region on Earth, thanks to emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And sea ice has responded over the long term by declining in both geographic extent and volume.

sea ice

Screenshot from an animated visualization by Andy Lee Robinson of the decline of Arctic Sea Ice, showing the minimum volume reached every September since 1979. The map of New York provides a sense of scale. Click to watch the visualization on Youtube. (Video: Andy Lee Robinson)

The visualization linked to the screenshot above shows just how dramatic the downward trend in Arctic sea ice volume has been since 1979. I find it pretty unsettling.

Lastly, it’s important to realize that two weeks is a short period of time, and Arctic sea ice could start forming up at a more normal rate for this time of year. In fact, that’s what Scambos predicts: “Now I expect that sea ice growth will take a more typical path (typical for the past 5-8 years, at least).”

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  • nosmokewithout

    A good well balanced article. The long term trend is clear. Should the primary measure of the arctic condition be ice volume and not surface area. It seems ice area can be misleading. Meanwhile disinformation still appears in the mainstream press.

    http://www.express.co.uk/news/science/696717/CLIMATE-CHANGE-SHOCK-Ice-sheet-melt-caused-by-heat-from-Earth-s-core-NOT-global-warming

    Why do such articles still appear?

    • OWilson

      All they did was quote NASA.

      There’s a strange bizzaro world alternate reality going on in the U.S. these days.

      Must be an election fever. :)

      • https://ridingtheirownmelting.wordpress.com/ cgs

        Yes, there is a “strange bizzaro world alternate realty” and it’s not unusual to find skeptics wandering around in it. And the Express article represents a doorway to this land.

        If one wants to understand what a published research paper says, one should go to the source. That goes for “alarmists” as well as skeptics.

        So let’s take a closer look at the paper talked about here. Here’s the abstract:

        http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2015JF003803/abstract

        Here’s the NASA press release:

        http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=88505&src=eorss-iotd&utm_term=NASA&utm_source=Twitterfeed&utm_medium=Facebook

        Now, after reading these, let’s proceed through the article cited at the Express.

        The title:

        CLIMATE CHANGE SHOCK: Ice sheet melt caused by heat from Earth’s core NOT global warming

        After reading the links above, it is clear that climate scientists are not “shocked” to find melting at the base. They understand this is a likely possibility.

        The subtitle:

        THE MASSIVE Greenland ice sheet is being melted as a result of heat emitted from within the Earth, rather than rising atmospheric temperatures, a new NASA study has claimed.

        This is just incorrect, false and wrong. It’s not what the study claims. Shame on the article author.

        For the first time, the agency obtained a series of temperatures from the base of the sheet – the second biggest in the world after that in the Antarctic – and found it was up to tens of degrees warmer at the base than the surface.

        No, they did not FIND it was up to ten degrees warmer. They believe that it CAN be up to tens degrees warmer. I don’t know their exact findings because I can’t read the full paper. (And I am positive that the author of this article didn’t either.)

        Scientists found alarmingly high areas of ice at the base of the sheet had melted and come free from the bedrock below.

        I don’t detect any alarm from the scientists.

        The rest is indeed mainly quotes taken from the NASA press release. But the spin has already been put on by the time the reader gets to this point.

        • OWilson

          Nevertheless it is new “news” from NASA that there are other causations of melting ice, than my SUV. :)

          • nosmokewithout

            This guy covers the supernatural as well as the “natural”. He has really stretched this one too far! Such reporting is the norm for the Express! It certainly doesn’t give any indication that the heat has been there for 30 million years, so if it has not been responsible for melting the ice over the last 30 million years, it is unlikely to be responsible for the current ice mass loss!

          • OWilson

            There’s always been a lot of hype out there, and no one believes (or should believe) everything they read.

            What is sad, is that the Western governments have adopted hype and outright lies to keep their power and infuence.

            So we cannot trust these outrageous liars and their appointed officials that head your government agencies to give you accurate, non partisan information.

            The IRS (Head Pleads Fifth) Department of Justice (Lynch meets with perps husband on eve of FBI announcing no charges.

            Even that news was dumped by the FBI, in a cliche political move (Friday night before a long weekend :) The State Department is owned by Hillary, Kennedy and their friends.

            V.A. puts out known phony lists, while veteran’s die.

            Journalism, government, academia. MSM and entertainment culture are overwhelmingly liberal/progressive in their views, so today one must tread carefully before believing your Leader of The Free World, when he says, “You didn’t build that”, or “You can keep your plan, doctor, PERIOD! and you’ll save $2,500 om the deal.

            All pretense of morality, honesty and common sense has now officially been dropped from your government.

            The next 20 years should be, as the Chinese say, “Interesting times”. :)

          • Mike Richardson

            That’s a whole heaping lot of conspiracy theory. Needs some heavy duty tinfoil for a proper hat, from the looks of it. Keep it together for just a little bit longer, and you might seem coherent before the election. LOL… Oh, who am I kidding, it’s pretty much padded room territory from the looks of the above post. But entertaining, at least.

          • OWilson

            Mikey, a government employee who never saw a government scandal in his life.

            Just too dumb to notice?

            Or a good soldier for the cause! :)

          • Dano2

            We all note you never produce output from all your ideologically pure, free merkit scientist. Why is that?

            Best,

            D

          • OWilson

            Speaking of “good soldiers for the cause”.

            You’re late! :)

          • Dano2

            Thanks, we know you have no ideologically pure science to draw upon.

            Best,

            D

          • OWilson

            Adios amigo!

          • Dano2

            I’d run too if someone pointed out my statement can’t be supported. Run fast, pal.

            Best,

            D

          • OWilson

            I can have a lot of fun with one liner trolls like you.

            IF they are witty!

            (You’re not!)

            Cheers!

          • Dano2

            You sure are having fun by still not showing any ideologically pure science to validate your self-identity.

            Go you, barrel O’laffs! Yay you!

            Best,

            D

          • OWilson

            I’m having fun watching crooked Hillary’s daily lies and corruption, and the scrambling by her supporters to get the talking points straight.

            (30 years and counting) :)

            Another “Friday Night Special” dump by her own Administration’s FBI, the real “conspiracy theorists” who are still interested in her shennagins, apparently :)

            Best!

          • Dano2

            Still deflecting and prancing to avoid admitting it has no ideologically pure science. Look at that prance!

            Best,

            D

          • OWilson

            Deflection? :)

            I’m talking about your Dear Leaders who are in charge of your NOAA and NASA. :)

            (AS well as IRS, V.A, State Department, Justice Department, FBI)

            Yep, still having fun, one government lie at a time!

            Cheers!

          • Mike Richardson

            Nope, I’ve seen plenty of scandals in my day, but I’m bright enough not to ascribe them only to the left, and not the right. If that’s your litmus test for intelligence, you aren’t doing too well, Ol’Wilson. 😉

        • nosmokewithout

          The paper used secondary data and satellite scans to produce a first cut map of where the ice cap is not attached to the bedrock. In their own words, a pinata. It’s importance is in providing better information for improved modelling of how the ice flows under the influence of recent atmospheric warming.

          • Dano2

            a first cut map of where the ice cap is not attached to the bedrock

            See ice attachin to bedrock?!?!?!?!?!?!

            Tarnation Martha!

            Oh, wait: deflection from low sea ice.

            Best,

            D

          • nosmokewithout

            The Greenland ice sheet is not sea ice!

            You’ve not a clue about what is being discussed and have grabbed the wrong end of the stick! More haste less speed!

            Best

            N

          • Dano2

            Topic is sea ice. Do you need a remedial English class?

            Best,

            D

          • nosmokewithout

            No, The discussion changed direction further up, only you didn’t read carefully enough to make an appropriate comment. Best N

          • Dano2

            You’re correct – I missed it. Mea culpa

            Best,

            D

  • hu_wen

    Isn’t arctic ice at a record high? That seems to be what the tape is reporting: http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/IMAGES/seaice.anomaly.arctic.png

    • https://ridingtheirownmelting.wordpress.com/ cgs

      Obviously something is wrong with that chart as it shows the anomaly going to 3 million square kilometers. That chart comes from the University of Illinois. Below is the link to their main web page called “The Crysosphere Today”:

      http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/

      If you read the text in red near the top of that page it says:

      Special Sensor Microwave Imager and Sounder (SSMIS) on the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) F-17 satellite that provides passive microwave brightness temperatures (and derived Arctic and Antarctic sea ice products) has been providing spurious data since beginning of April. Working on resolving problem or replacing this data source.

      That’s why all of their data goes spurious in early 2016. (Just look at the data on the interactive chart.) NSIDC switched to a sensor from a different satellite so that they could continue to collect data. It seems that these guys have not done that yet.

  • random1

    The antarctic sea ice cover has also stopped growing and is below normal this tear.Whats up with that .Are you worried about the loss of property value in Florida?

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ImaGeo

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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