Extraordinary warmth continues to afflict the Arctic, taking a wicked toll on its floating cap of sea ice

By Tom Yulsman | February 9, 2017 7:28 pm

In January, average extent of Arctic sea ice was the lowest on record

A polar bear perches on a slab of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, as photographed by Marcos Porcires aboard the research vessel Lance during the Norwegian N-ICE2015 expedition. (Source: Marcos Porcires/Norwegian Polar Institute)

A polar bear perches on a slab of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, as photographed by Marcos Porcires aboard the research vessel Lance during the Norwegian N-ICE2015 expedition. (Source: Marcos Porcires/Norwegian Polar Institute)

A journalist would never write a story saying, “No homes burned down today.” Novelty makes news, not humdrum, every day stuff.

So why another story here at ImaGeo saying that Arctic sea ice has set yet another record for lowest monthly extent since the satellite record began in 1979? After all, in addition to the low extent observed this past January, multiple record lows were also set last year — in January, February, April, May, June, October, and November.

Moreover, on a day-to-day basis, not just month-to-month, record lows are almost becoming, well, ho hum. As the National Snow and Ice Data Center puts it in their most recent update:

Record low daily Arctic ice extents continued through most of January 2017, a pattern that started last October.

Of course I’m being facetious about all of this becoming humdrum. The repetition of record lows is actually quite striking. Something really weird is going on.

And don’t just take my word for it. Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, has been studying the Arctic and its climate for 35 years, and he writes in a recent essay “that what has happened over the last year goes beyond even the extreme.”

Monthly January ice extent for 1979 to 2017 shows a decline of 3.2 percent per decade. (Source: NSIDC)

Monthly January ice extent for 1979 to 2017 shows a decline of 3.2 percent per decade. (Source: NSIDC)

According to the NSIDC’s analysis, the average extent of Arctic sea ice during January was 487,000 square miles below the long-term average for the month. That’s an area nearly three quarters the size of Alaska. Since 1979, the linear rate of decline in the extent of Arctic sea ice for January is 18,300 square miles per year, which works out to 3.2 percent per decade.

December through February 2015–2016 constituted the warmest winter season over the Arctic in the observational record, according to a recent study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.  The autumn of that year was also very warm, as was fall this year.

What’s going on? Serreze writes:

. . . both of the recent autumn/winter heat waves could be related to unusual patterns of atmospheric circulation drawing tremendous amounts of heat into the Arctic Ocean. There has also been a recent shift in ocean circulation, with more warm water from the Atlantic being brought into the Arctic; these warm ocean waters prevent sea-ice formation and warm the overlying air.

This is the kind of thing that may just happen from time to time. But it’s happening against the background of steady warming of Earth’s climate system due to human emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Moreover, that extra energy in the system appears to be loading the dice, making extreme events like the shocking warmth in the Arctic and resulting impact on sea ice, more likely.

I’ve got a couple of stories in the works on topics closely related to this. One focuses on why we should care about what’s going on in the Arctic. The other, by a student in the environmental journalism program I direct at the University of Colorado, focuses on why scientists are enamored of freezing their boats into the Arctic pack ice during winter’s polar night. I hope you’ll check back here for them.

  • Ryan Michael Harlow

    I recently read that the Atlantic circulation is slowing down and not pushing as far north which directly opposes what this article says. Actually, it was an animation from a government agency showing the AMO weakening and not pushing as far north.

    Maybe I’m just delusional and I didn’t see that? I’ll dig up the animation if requested and if presented with a response of substance.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Please do share what you come up with!

  • OWilson

    Yes indeed, yet another story of records broken. A usual mix of charts, graphs, statistics and anecdotes, describing the ever worsening condition of our favorite planet.

    But like all tales of a deteriorating patient, the question for the casual reader or the family is always, to quote Johnny Carson, is, “But, just how sick is he? and “Can we see him?”

    So I will play nurse and take you to see him for yourself.

    Here he is, how does he look to you? Is it time to call the Priest to administer the Last Rites?

    You decide!


  • DoRightThing

    It looks even worse when you consider the volume of the sea ice:
    Jan 2017 average vol: 14,695 km³ (last year 17,234 km³, prev record: 2012 15,862 km³). This is shocking.


    • Tom Yulsman

      Thank Andy for contributing this! Very useful.

  • Alice Ayers

    Not to worry! It’s just a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese! Don’t look at the graphs and pictures!

    • Mike Richardson

      That’s actually a pretty succinct imitation of arguments used by some of the more regular “skeptics” here.

  • Mike Richardson

    Such reports of broken records in sea ice loss, rising temperatures, and non-coincidentally, greenhouse gas levels may seem repetitious to some. However, this is important information that needs to be widely publicized, to better educate citizens of countries like the U.S. as to the consequences of business as usual. The data is cumulative, consistent, and compelling. Regardless of sad polar bears or those who think rhetorical references to them overcomes logical reasoning and the preponderance of objective evidence, continuing to document the effects of climate change remains a vital service to humanity. The only thing more important is what we choose to do with this knowledge.

  • OWilson

    Funny how NOAA passes of their daily graphic as an “image”.

    Maybe one day they will give us a real daily satellite image so we can compare and see for ourselves what all these, shocking, weird, wicked, extreme record breaking, month after month, year after year, destruction of the Arctic Ice Cap has wrought. :)

    They got real photos of Polar Bears, and even my house. Why no daily satellite photos of the Arctic?

  • James Owens

    Another way to look at Arctic sea ice is not by area or extent, but by volume – ice older than a year tends to be thicker, so more volume.
    The Polar Science Center at the Univ of Washington tracks the Arctic this way. The graphics also show the deterioration underway. If one Googles Polar Science Center and PIOMAS Arctic Sea Ice Volume Reanalysis, then you should get the page with its graphics. Another comment below shows a graph of the PIOMAS data in the form of a “death spiral” – getting smaller and smaller year by year.

    • OWilson

      “Oh no!, not the dreaded, “Death Spiral?”.

      Where’s that cool-ade? I’m outa here!

      • James Owens

        It’s just simple data and facts. Why do you need kool-aid/drugs/alcohol to try and to hide or avoid simple data and facts? Get help.

        • OWilson

          Just trying to figure if I should take out a big mortgage and max out my credit cards.

          As the Lefties are fond of reminding us, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste! :)



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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