Arctic Sea Ice Sets New Record Low For This Time Of Year

The arctic is warming much quicker than the rest of the planet. tuthelens/Shuttersock

Last year it was reported that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere else in the world, and as the region heats up, the ice continues to melt. This January and February saw the Arctic sea ice shrink to the lowest extent ever recorded by satellite for both months, making it a satellite-record low for two months in a row. And it seems that things aren't looking to get better, as the cover of ice is expected to remain low as it reaches its peak extent at the end of February and beginning of March. 

The new data has been released by the National Snow and Ice Data Center, which has said that January 2016 was “a remarkably warm month.” The figures released show how sea ice cover averaged 13.5 million square kilometers (5.2 million square miles) for this month, which is 1.04 million square kilometers (402,000 square miles) less than the 1981 to 2010 average. It is also 90,000 square kilometers (35,000 square miles) below the previous record January low, which happened in 2011. 

The figures for February are even worse. Last month saw the total ice cover come in at 1.16 million square kilometers (448,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average, and a shocking 200,000 square kilometers (77,000 square miles) less than the previous record low February in 2005. This is not shaping up to be a good year for the polar region, something that will no doubt be having a major impact on the wildlife that depends on the sea ice to survive.

The regions that have lost the most ice in the North Atlantic were in the Barents Sea, Kara Sea, and the East Greenland Sea, while on the Pacific side, they observed below average ice cover in the Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk. The reasons behind this dramatic loss of sea ice are thought to be influenced not just by the “unusually high air temperatures over the Arctic Ocean,” but also by a particularly strong negative Arctic Oscillation.

This is a pattern of sea-level pressure variations over the region, which are characterized by winds circulating counterclockwise around the Arctic. The pattern this year “featured higher than average pressure over northern central Siberia into the Barents and Kara sea regions,” while being lower than average over the North Pacific and North Atlantic. It is this, in combination with the atmospheric temperature being a whopping 6°C (13°F) higher than average, that is thought to be driving the decline in sea ice.  

The real test, however, will come this summer when scientists will see at what point the ice starts to break up, and then how far it retreats. It is normally at its lowest in September, with 2012 currently holding the record for the lowest total summer extent. But if the current trend continues, which for January is seeing a reduction in ice extent of 3.2 percent per decade, things are not looking good for the summer either. 

Image in text: Map showing the extent of the January winter sea ice compared to the average. National Snow and Ice Data Center

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