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Arctic sea ice 2nd-lowest on record

Summertime sea ice in the Arctic reached a minimum on September 10 (unless it goes lower still). It’s now tied for the second-lowest minimum in the satellite era.

NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) said on September 15, 2016 that summertime Arctic sea ice appears to have reached its annual minimum on September 10. With fall approaching and temperatures in the Arctic dropping, it’s unlikely more ice will melt, and so the 2016 Arctic sea ice minimum extent will likely be tied with 2007 for the second-lowest yearly minimum in the satellite record. Satellite data showed this year’s minimum at 1.60 million square miles (4.14 million square km). The animation above tracks the evolution of Arctic sea ice cover during 2016.

The animation starts with 2016’s wintertime maximum extent of Arctic sea ice on March 24. It was the lowest winter maximum on record for the second year in a row. The animation ends with the ice’s apparent yearly minimum earlier this month. NASA said in a statement:

Since satellites began monitoring sea ice in 1978, researchers have observed a steep decline in the average extent of Arctic sea ice for every month of the year …

The sea ice cover of the Arctic Ocean and surrounding seas helps regulate the planet’s temperature, influences the circulation of the atmosphere and ocean, and impacts Arctic communities and ecosystems. Arctic sea ice shrinks every year during the spring and summer until it reaches its minimum yearly extent. Sea ice regrows during the frigid fall and winter months, when the sun is below the horizon in the Arctic.

This has been an usual year for Arctic sea ice in several ways. A few weeks ago, when scientists were contemplating this year’s pattern of melting, they were discussing the need for a possible new normal for Arctic sea ice.

2016's summertime Arctic sea ice minimum, in contrast to the average. Image via NASA/NSIDC.

2016’s summertime Arctic sea ice minimum, in contrast to the 1981-2010 average minimum sea ice extent, shown here as a gold line. Image via NASA/NSIDC.

The NASA/NSIDC statement explained why the melt of Arctic sea ice surprised scientists in 2016. For one thing, it changed pace several times:

The melt season began with a record low yearly maximum extent in March and a rapid ice loss through May. But in June and July, low atmospheric pressures and cloudy skies slowed down the melt. Then, after two large storms went across the Arctic basin in August, sea ice melt picked up speed through early September.

Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said:

It’s pretty remarkable that this year’s sea ice minimum extent ended up the second lowest, after how the melt progressed in June and July. June and July are usually key months for melt because that’s when you have 24 hours a day of sunlight – and this year we lost melt momentum during those two months.

But in August, two very strong cyclones crossed the Arctic Ocean along the Siberian coast. These storms didn’t have as much of an immediate impact on the sea ice as the great cyclone of 2012, but in late August and early September there was “a pretty fast ice loss in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas that might be a delayed effect from the storms.

Meier also said that decades ago, the melt season would slow down by the middle of August, when the sun starts setting in the Arctic. He said:

In the past, we had this remaining sea ice pack that was mostly thick, old ice. But now everything is more jumbled up, which makes it less resistant to melt, so even late in the season you can get weather conditions that give it a final kick.

A recently published study led by Claire Parkinson, a senior climate scientist at NASA Goddard, ranked 37 years of monthly sea ice extents in the Arctic and Antarctic. That study found that there has not been a record high in Arctic sea ice extents in any month since 1986. During that same time period, there have been 75 new record lows. Parkinson commented:

When you think of the temperature records, it’s common to hear the statement that even when temperatures are increasing, you do expect a record cold here or there every once in a while.

To think that in this record of Arctic sea ice that goes back to the late 1970s, since 1986 there hasn’t been a single record high in any month of the year, and yet, over that same period, there have been 75 record lows. It’s just an incredible contrast.

It is definitely not just September that’s losing sea ice. The record makes it clear that the ice is not rebounding to where it used to be, even in the midst of the winter.

Bottom line: Summertime sea ice in the Arctic appears to have reached a minimum on September 10, 2016. It’s tied for the second-lowest minimum in the satellite era.

Deborah Byrd

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