Are we witnessing an Arctic Sea meltdown, right now?

The Arctic Sea freezes over. The Arctic Sea melts. This happens every year. The average date for the maximum extent of Arctic Sea ice, based on a period of 1981-2010, is March 12. The minimum extent is reached, on average, about September 15h.

Every year for the last several years, the minimum ice has been much lower than average in extent, and many years in a row have seen record minima. This is considered to be the result of global surface warming caused by human release of greenhouse gas pollution.

It is said that we can't use the maximum ice cover to predict the minimum ice cover very accurately, because a lot of things can happen to affect the total ice cover during those many months of melting. However, the maximum ice amount for, say, 1979-1988 (the first ten years for which we have really good data on this) was high compared to the last ten year period, and correspondingly, the minimum extent was greater for that first ten year period than the most recent ten years, so there is a correlation. Still, the date of the maximum extent has tended to not move around much, and the same is true for the date of the minimum extent.

Bt maybe not this year. This year's maximum Arctic Sea ice extent seems to have flatlined at a record low value, as shown in the graph above, from here. The current sea ice extent is that red line all by itself down near the bottom.

It may well be the case that the sea ice will start to re-freeze, and this line will go up again over the next two weeks or so, and max out near the historical average. The next week or so should be below freezing across much of the Arctic Sea, but there is a warm intrusion near Greenland and Europe, with above freezing air, expected to persist for that entire time. Overall, warm air and ice-breaking-up storms have invaded the Arctic repeatedly this winter. The sea ice extent may recover over the next several days, but I get the impression that most experts are quietly thinking it won't.

This is not terribly surprising, given that the Earth's surface temperatures are increasing, and sea ice is decreasing. This year, a El Ninño is adding fuel to the fire, as it were, and making these conditions even more extreme.

A concerning possible outcome is this: The Arctic Sea ice helps cool the planet by reflecting away sunlight. It is a reasonable assumption that during summers with much less ice, there is much less cooling. This can have impacts on the longer-lived fast ice* that is also melting in the arctic, and on nearby glaciers in greenland, and the planet overall. This is what is known as a "positive feedback" which is a somewhat misleading term, because this is not an especially "positive" event.

*CORRECTION: My friend and colleague Tenney Naumer, who watches both the weather and the Arctic very closely, contacted me to let me know that the "fast ice" is long gone. She told me, "In 2012, the ice in the channel between Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Island (to the south of Ellesmere) melted out -- that is the place where the ice had existed for more than 10,000 years. The Ward Hunt Ice Shelf broke off in 2002. The Ayles Ice Shelf broke off in 2005. In 2007, I watched (here) the ice break away from most of the Arctic side of the archipelago, and it has been all downhill since. It's all gone now."

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As we pass through Spring on the way to summer, the sea ice in the Arctic is starting to melt. The ice usually peaks by the end of the first week in March or so, then slowly declines for a few weeks, then by about mid-May is heading rapidly towards its likely September minimum. With global warming…
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There are additional factors: northern hemisphere snow cover is also at its lowest extent ever for the date, sea ice area is at its lowest extent ever for the date, and volume is now likely the 2nd lowest ever for the date.

Granted, there is little correlation between ice extent at this time of year and the final September minimum, but there are numerous signs that we could be in for a very interesting melt season - one to rival 2007 and 2012 perhaps.

Neven's Arctic Sea Ice blog - and particularly the forums - are the go to resource for all things arctic related.

By Kevin ONeill (not verified) on 24 Feb 2016 #permalink

It's not going to be that long before the modern maximum ice covers are below the minimum ice covers from just 35 years ago, if they're not doing that already.

By Miguelito (not verified) on 24 Feb 2016 #permalink

Er, "possible outcome"? That one's pretty much a certainty. The question is how much, how soon.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 24 Feb 2016 #permalink

Are we witnessing an Arctic Sea meltdown, right now?"

Yes and seems we have been for a while. Like decades and its just getting worse. Worse, faster, faster, worse.

Won't be long till sometimes Earth only has one polar ice cap.

But still some folk don't believe their eyes or the facts? What else will it take?

As another Steve (Bloom) wrote above - not if but when.

The greenies are sneaking onto the Arctic sea ice at night and painting it black so that the satellites can't see it so they report water instead of ice.

And during the day they go back to their bunker and carry on planning the implementation of Agenda21.

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 25 Feb 2016 #permalink

Not only are the ice caps melting but the amount the arctic ocean takes in carbon every year increases. Increased carbon dioxide levels cause increased heating which causes more ice to melt. This continues back in a cycle, and the melting ice causes more carbon dioxide to be taken in. What we need to be aware of is if the amount of CO2 going in is greater than or less than the amount of carbon coming out.

@1. Kevin ONeill : Thanks for those links - belated but sincere. Very good and interesting.

Hi Greg,

Here's the latest info on (modelled) volume. Smallest increase this year so far (Jan+Feb).

Interesting. The surface area has been fluctuating. It is now a matter of a few days (maybe a week) to see if March 2'nd is the peak this year or if it goes back up (12th is the average peak).