Sea Ice Death Spiral Continues — Start of 2016 Sees Arctic Ocean Ice Hitting New Record Lows

In January, Arctic sea ice extent hit a new record average low for the month. Meanwhile, during the first days of February, both Arctic sea ice extent and area hit new daily record lows even as global sea ice area also entered the second lowest range ever recorded. And so it seems that the sea ice death spiral of a record warm world continues.

January lowest sea ice on record

(According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, Arctic sea ice extent averages were the lowest on record for the month of January since at least 1979. The new low beats out 2011, continuing an ongoing decadal January decline of about 420,000 square kilometers every ten years. Image souce: NSIDC.)

But before we go more into the new spate of record low Arctic and global sea ice measures, it’s important to consider the context — our world has not seen the current level of heat forcing from greenhouse gasses (CO2 + methane + NOx + other greenhouse gasses) in the atmosphere since about 15 million years ago. It’s an unprecedented amount of hothouse potential that is having equally unprecedented results.

Unprecedented Volume of Heat Trapping Gasses Drives Raging Atmospheric and Ocean Warming

About 50 billion tons of CO2 equivalent from all those greenhouse gasses hit the Earth’s atmosphere each year these days. In vast part driven by industrial fossil fuel burning and extraction, this unconscionable, monstrous, and difficult-to-imagine accumulation of heat-trapping vapors is pushing the world to warm up at an unprecedented rate. A pace that is now at least 20 times faster than the widespread warming that occurred at the end of the last ice age.

Temperatures above 80 North

(It’s likely been a record warm start of the year for the Arctic above the 80 degree North Latitude Line. Temperatures in that high Arctic region have tended well outside the 2 standard deviation range and have hit above the record line on numerous occasions. Image source: NSIDC.)

Back then, it took about 2,500 years for the Earth’s atmosphere to heat by 1 degree Celsius for a total of a 4 C temperature increase over 10,000 years. By just this past year, in 2015, fossil fuel burning had managed to do more in 135 years than what an Earth System rising up out of an ice age did in all of two and one half millenia. For 2015 hit a new record high of about 1.1 C above 1880s averages in all the major global temperature monitors (NASA, NOAA, JMA, UK MET Office). It’s amazing, crazy, terrifying to think about. The end of the last glacial period was a great upheaval that violently re-shaped our world. And fossil fuel industry is running a similar, if much more dangerous, geological process in fast forward by pumping out heat trapping gasses at a rate at least six times faster than anything seen in all of Earth’s history.

Yet as amazing as the current rate of atmospheric warming is, it’s just the thin lens through which a vast amount of heat is transferring into the world’s ocean systems. In fact, according to Peter Gleckler, an oceanographer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory “Ninety, perhaps 95 percent of the accumulated heat is in the oceans.”

Arctic Sea Ice Concentration January

(What was possibly the warmest January on record for the Arctic contributed to major sea ice losses in almost all of the major ice formation basins. Image source: NSIDC.)

And all that extra heat doesn’t just sit there. It goes to work transforming water to water vapor — shoving atmospheric moisture content 7 percent higher for each degree Celsius of warming even as it amps up the rate at which water evaporates from the Earth’s surface or falls down in the form of precipitation. Perhaps still more ominously, this heat goes to work melting the great white ice coverings it comes into contact with at the shoreline and upon the ocean surface.

Arctic Sea Ice Hits New Record Lows For January Through Early February

For 2016, that heat has led to new record lows in Arctic sea ice extent and area even as it has pushed global sea ice coverage within striking distance of a scant range never before seen in the whole of the modern era. New record daily lows for sea ice extent — now an almost annual occurrence for at least some time during the calendar year — are now also being breached.

Arctic Sea ice area new record lows

(Arctic sea ice area explores new record low territory on January 29 through 31 of 2016. Image source: Cryosphere Today.)

In the major monitors, Arctic sea ice extent hit a new record low average for the month of January, 2016. This average included a number of record daily lows early in the month even as the entire monitor held within 1st to 3rd lowest on record for each day throughout January. Record daily lows were again breached in the NSIDC measure on January 29th. A streak that continued on through February 1st with totals hitting 13.911 million square kilometers for the day. That’s 119,000 square kilometers below the previous record daily low for February 1 set in 2011 at 14.030 million square kilometers or a region of ice lost below the previous minimum extent slightly larger than the State of Virginia.

Arctic sea ice area as recorded by Cryosphere Today (see graphic above) followed a similar record low range through the end of January. By January 31st, the most recent date in the measure, Arctic sea ice area had hit 12.27 million square kilometers or about 61,000 square kilometers below the previous record daily low for sea ice area set during 2006.


(A very warm Arctic during January of 2016 likely contributed to shoving the global sea ice area measure into striking distance of new record lows by early February. Image source: Pogoda i Klimat. Data Source: Cryosphere Today.)

Also disturbing is the fact that global sea ice area — which has shown consistent losses over time — has also now come within striking distance of new record lows. The Cryosphere Today monitor now shows global sea ice area in the range of 14.5 million square kilometers or just above previous record lows set during 2006 for this time of year.

Conditions In Context — Amazing Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies, Major Winter Warm-ups Hit Sea Ice Hard

Arctic sea ice area negative anomaly is now in the range of -1.23 million square kilometers. With Antarctic sea ice at around 200,000 square kilometers below average, it’s pretty clear that the bulk of current global sea ice losses are now ongoing in the Arctic.

Warm ocean waters, especially in the Barents Sea and the Greenland Strait are likely major contributors to record low sea ice extents during recent weeks. These sea surface temperatures now show between 1 and an amazing 8 C above average reading in the NOAA sea surface temperature anomaly map below.

NOAA Sea surface temperature anomalies

(Sea surface temperatures are in the range of 4-8 degrees Celsius or 7-14 degrees Fahrenheit above average near sections of sea ice in the Northern Barents Sea. These very warm sea surfaces continue to suppress refreeze and provide melt pressure on into early February. Image source: NOAA.)

Such amazingly warm waters likely helped contribute to major atmospheric warming events in the high north over the past two months including one above freezing event at the North Pole during late December and another near freezing event for the same region during late January, likely added to the overall melt pressure. The very warm water in the Barents likely helped to enable the observed warm air slots that formed north of Svalbard and on toward the North Pole on numerous occasions.

Over the next seven days, Arctic air temperatures are expected to range about 1 C above average — as opposed to the 2-3 C above average range seen during the past month. This slight cooling may allow for a more rapid freezing of some regions including the Sea of Okhotsk. But overall warm waters and airs along the sea ice edge in the Bering and Barents should continue to suppress major ice formation there. By the second week of February, risk increases that high amplitude Jet Stream waves will deliver another burst of warm air to the far Northern Latitudes, potentially continuing the trend of extreme above average atmospheric temperatures in the region of the Arctic Ocean during 2016.






Arctic Sea Ice Graphs

The Arctic Sea Ice Blog

This is Where 90 Percent of Global Warming is Going

CO2 Rising Ten Times Faster Than PETM


Cryosphere Today

Pogoda i Klimat


NASA: Melting, Darkening Arctic Ocean Turns Up Solar Heat by 5 Percent

Atop the world lies a thinning veil of ice. A gossamer lid covering a deep, dark Arctic Ocean. It is a reflector screen for incoming solar radiation during the months-long-day of Polar Summer. And a recent NASA study shows that this heat shield is starting to fail.

Ever since the late 1970s an Arctic warming at 2-3 times the rate of the rest of the globe has set off a 13.3 percent decline of sea ice at end summer during each and every following decade. And that cumulative loss is having an extraordinary impact. For the white, reflective ice cover by September has now, on average, fallen by nearly 50%. What remains is a thinner ice cover. One full of holes and interspersed with great and widening expanses of dark water.

Dark water and thinner, less contiguous, ice absorbs more of the sun’s heat. NASA notes that this added absorption can have far-flung impacts:

While sea ice is mostly white and reflects the sun’s rays, ocean water is dark and absorbs the sun’s energy at a higher rate. A decline in the region’s albedo – its reflectivity, in effect – has been a key concern among scientists since the summer Arctic sea ice cover began shrinking in recent decades. As more of the sun’s energy is absorbed by the climate system, it enhances ongoing warming in the region, which is more pronounced than anywhere else on the planet.

For years, polar scientists have been warning of signs this powerful amplifying feedback was speeding an already drastic warming for the Arctic environment. Now, a 15 year satellite survey conducted by NASA provides direct evidence that this is indeed the case — with the Arctic now absorbing 5% more incoming solar energy than it did in the year 2000.

Arctic Sea Ice Changes

(Click Image to Enlarge. Left frame shows summer sea ice fraction change with measures in dark blue showing a greater than 50% loss on average. Right frame shows changes in absorbed solar radiation with most of the Arctic showing a 5 watt per meter squared or greater increase in solar radiation absorption and sections of the Beaufort Sea peaking at 50 watts per meter squared additional solar radiation absorption. Image source: NASA.)

Averaged over the Arctic, the failing summer sea ice and newly revealed dark waters absorb an extra 10 watts per meter squared of solar heat radiation. That extra heat is equivalent to having a 10 watt light bulb burning on every square meter of the Arctic Ocean surface throughout the entire polar summer. Twenty four hours per day, seven days a week for the seasonal period.

In some regions, like the Beaufort Sea near Northern Canada and Alaska, the extra heat absorption is as much as 50 watts per meter squared greater than year 2000 levels. An extraordinary increase in Arctic Ocean heat uptake and, perhaps, one of the chief reasons why higher Latitude ocean surface temperatures have tended to range so high in recent years.

It’s a massive realignment of the Earth’s radiative balance and one that has occurred in only a relatively short period.

NASA scientists are quick to caution that to fully take into account climate variability, the study will need to continue for another 15 years. But when taking into account the massive 35 year drop off in sea ice since 1979, it appears likely that radiative balance changes are even greater than the 15 year NASA study indicates.

September Arctic Sea Ice Loss 1979-2014

(NSIDC sea ice extent losses for Arctic since 1979 showing a 13.3% decadal rate of decline. Image source: NSIDC. Note NSIDC adds a linear trend line. However, historic rates likely show a more rapidly down curving melt progression — see image below.)

Overall, this loss of sea ice and related increased heat absorption has pushed melt season onset times a full week sooner than 1982 onsets 32 years ago. Earlier melt season starts lead to more heat absorption — a classic feedback cycle also recognized in the new NASA report.

In addition, the report links added Arctic Ocean summer heat absorption to loss of older, thicker ice observed throughout the Arctic region. Since 2000, more than 1.4 million square kilometers of 3 meter or thicker ice has melted out of the Arctic Ocean system. That ice has been replaced by coverages of less than 2 meters in thickness — another aspect of amplifying warming feedbacks at play in the Arctic.

Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland, notes:

Having younger and thus thinner ice during winter makes the system more vulnerable to ice loss during the summer melt season.

Whether these amplifying feedbacks will result in ice free summer conditions sooner rather than later is still a matter of some discussion among scientists. Following the 13.3 percent per decade trend puts us at ice free summers sometime around 2030-2035. But the large swings in annual variability could result in an earlier year in which ice free conditions occur. In addition, some scientists assert that amplifying heat feedbacks in the Arctic are enough to result in ice free summers as soon as 2017 to 2020.

To this point it may be worth considering that the 13.3 percent per decade rate may be steepening as is hinted at in the below long term graph:


(Long term melt trend compiled by Larry Hamilton. Image source: Here.)

Regardless of timing, the historic loss of Arctic sea ice is already resulting in dramatic impacts to the Earth’s radiative balance and to the distribution of global surface heat absorption. A circumstance that a number of studies have implicated in changing Jet Stream patterns and enhanced meridional (north to south and south to north) air flows.


Satellites Measure Increase of Sun’s Energy Absorbed in the Arctic

2014 Melt Season in Review

Arctic Melt Trends

Hat tip to TodaysGuestIs

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