Rather than growing like it should in winter, sea ice off Alaska has been shrinking dramatically

By Tom Yulsman | February 18, 2018 3:07 pm

Meanwhile, ice losses elsewhere allowed a Russian tanker to make the first ever independent winter crossing of the Arctic

A decline in sea ice in the Bering Sea is seen in this animation covering Feb. 6-16, 2018. Lower sea ice concentrations are seen in darker blue colors. One hundred percent ice coverage (and snow as well) is shown in white. The animation consists of imagery from NASA's Terra satellite with an overlay of microwave data from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program. (Source: NASA Worldview)

This should not be happening: a dramatic wintertime decline in sea ice in the Bering Sea between Feb. 6-16. Darker blue colors show areas with the lowest sea ice concentrations. One hundred percent ice coverage (and snow as well) is shown in white. Western Alaska is at the bottom, the Aleutians to the left, and Siberia in the upper right. From top to bottom, the scene covers about 600 miles. The animation consists of imagery from NASA’s Terra satellite with an overlay of microwave data from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program. (Images and sea ice data: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman)

The Bering Sea off Alaska’s west coast has just experienced a shocking loss of ice over a 10-day period — in winter.

See the graph below for the details. To my eye it looks like sea ice extent declined from about 420,000 square kilometers on Feb. 6 to about 260,000 square kilometers on the 16th.

Dramatic decline in wintertime sea ice in the Bering Sea

Trends in ice extent for the Bering Sea off Alaska’s west coast. (Source: Multisensor Analyzed Sea Ice Extent/NSIDC)

That’s a drop of 38 percent (and an area of lost ice a little smaller than Wisconsin) — just when the ice should be expanding toward a cold season peak in March.

Although ice losses have been particularly dramatic in the Bering Sea, other Arctic areas are also seeing noteworthy reductions in winter sea ice.

Helped by relatively thin ice north of Siberia, the massive Russian vessel Eduard Toll was able to make the first independent winter crossing of the Arctic along the Northern Sea Route — with no help from an accompanying icebreaker.

“This is the first vessel to transit the Northern Sea Route independently in the late stage of ice formation in the Arctic,” Kirill Bogdanovskiy, shipping director for the Yamal liquified natural gas project, told Tradewinds. “Nobody has done it before.”

Here’s a time-lapse from the journey:

The tanker, built to plow through young ice that’s thinner than the thick, old ice that once dominated the Arctic, left Korea in December. It arrived at the Sabetta terminal on the Yamal Peninsula, where it was loaded with liquified natural gas.

Bering Sea

Arctic sea routes. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

From there the ship continued west along the sea route into the Barents Sea — which has experienced particularly significant winter ice losses in recent years, including 2017/2018 — and eventually to France.

As for the entire Arctic region overall, sea ice has been flirting with record lows for most of the winter. Last month saw the lowest Arctic sea ice extent for any January in the satellite record, dating back to 1979.

SEE ALSO: Arctic sea ice just set another record low – in winter

“The Arctic is one of the most rapidly changing environments on Earth, and the change in sea ice extent and duration is one of the most striking signs,” said Hauke Flores, an expert in sea ice ecology at Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute. He was speaking at the recent Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, Norway.

At first, the most dramatic changes were occurring during the warmer months. No longer, according to Ingrid H. Onarheim, a researcher at Norway’s University of Bergen. “We are losing sea ice in all seasons now,” she said in her own presentation at the conference.

Why care about what’s happening in a region so far away from where most of us live?

One answer is that as the region warms, nations are eyeing the Arctic’s resources — including large suspected reserves of oil and gas. And as the journey of the Eduard Toll illustrates, the Arctic is increasingly seen as a faster way to move goods between Asia and Europe.

At the same time, environmental changes in the Arctic portend disruptive impacts far to the south, according to Antje Boetius, head of the Helmholtz‐Max Planck Research Group on Deep Sea Ecology and Technology at the Alfred Wegener Institute. As she put it in an interview during the Arctic Frontiers conference:

We project a furthering of warming as we continue with business as usual — which will hopefully not be the case. Because then there will be further warming, more loss of sea ice, and a thawing of the soils along the coasts. And there will be extreme weather events happening in other regions as the jet streams change.

Climate change in general, and extreme weather in particular — such as increasing heat waves, droughts, torrential downpours and flood — will have major social and political consequences, she noted. Among them: migration of people away from hard-hit areas to other regions. And that could prove very disruptive.

“We have no solution for that,” Boetius concluded.

The bottom line: What happens in the Arctic is not staying in the Arctic. And if we want to minimize the disruption we must transition to a more environmentally sustainable way of living on the home planet.

Note: I want to tip my hat to Sabrina Shankman of Inside Climate News, who I believe was the  first to report the news of dramatic ice losses in the Bering Sea. You can find her story here

  • OWilson

    In the interests of truth and balance:

    It is NOT the North West Passage, that was transitted. That is still frozen solid.

    Second, the Eduard Toll is classed as an Icebreaker, so of course this latest high tech purpose built ship didn’t need another ice breaker! :)

    Nevertheless the cargo of Fossil fuel natural gas was carried safely from Russia to France to fuel the cities and facories of the Europen Union!

    Commendable and no major spills, so far!

    • Tom Yulsman

      Thank you for your comments. I’ve updated my story to make it clearer that the Russian tanker is the first one to make the trip through the Northern Sea Route in winter independently — meaning without an accompanying heavy icebreaker. I also clarified that it does indeed break through ice (which is obvious, btw, from the video I included). And I point out now that the ship is designed to break through ice that’s considerably thinner than the old, thick stuff that once dominated the Arctic — but no longer does because of a warming climate.

      As for the Northwest Passage being choked with ice, I never said it was not.

  • CB

    Coastal ice isn’t the best indicator of long-term trends, though things out of the ordinary like this certainly are worrisome. The better indicator is the long-term disappearance of ice which forms directly from the sea:


  • JWrenn

    Not sure this blip makes much of a case. It is odd, but oddities like this in my opinion should not be hyped. When the turn around people go silly about how they were hyped.

    Good reporting on what scientists are talking about. I just wish they wouldn’t make such a big deal about weather sometimes.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. A few things to consider: What’s happening in the Bering Sea is not an isolated occurrence. Declines like this are happening elsewhere — this winter, and in past winters. It is also part of broader, long-term trends. Arctic sea ice overall has been declining significantly for many years now. And the declines are now shifting from summer to winter. The Bering Sea decline I wrote about is just the latest example. I wrote about the broader issue recently: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/imageo/2018/02/08/sea-ice-sets-record-low-in-winter-providing-evidence-of-new-arctic/

      Also, I think you may be confusing weather and climate. Both are obviously relevant here. For a good explanation of the differences, check this out: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/noaa-n/climate/climate_weather.html

      • JWrenn

        Not opposed to the idea of climate change. I completely agree it is happening and that this may be a sign of it. However in general something that happens in a 10 day period, that we don’t know the cause of the sudden change, is a weather event in the midst of climate change in my opinion.

        I totally agree it may be a sign of things to come, and be part of the ongoing pattern. It also just might be an odd weather event that caused a very odd 10 day period, that was exacerbated by the overall increase in temperature.

        In general I think if placed in context with other info you provided in this response it supports climate change. On it’s own it is weather. So sometimes it is all about context.

        Thank you for the response. It was quite insightful.

        • Tom Yulsman

          It is such a pleasure to converse with a reasonable, respectful and logical person. As I am sure you are aware, that’s unusual these days. So let me say thank you!

          • JWrenn

            Thanks and same to you. It is a rarity for sure. I find that when I do find it I get an inordinate amount of satisfaction out of it. Let’s hope we find it more often. Take care

      • Jerry Chaney

        This is not a unique situation and if they would include data from prior to 1979 people would see that what we are seeing is not unusual, and with the mandatory pushing of man made climate change seeing that sea ice was much lower in the past when CO2 was 100+ ppm lower doesn’t fit the narrative. How do you explain this: http://ocean.dmi.dk/arctic/icethickness/images/FullSize_CICE_combine_thick_SM_EN_20180522.png

        Also, why are no news outlets reporting the fact that most glaciers on the planet are advancing? All we hear about are glaciers melting, but when you look at the independent scientists reports, the vast majority of them report that glaciers are growing. Granted you have to filter out the propaganda to find the relevant articles, but that information can be found if you actually dig for it.



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