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Sea ice

Unlucky 14

Editor’s Briefing | Record-low February sea-ice extent provides an omen as annual maximum approaches

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For sea ice to reach a record low in one year could be regarded as an anomaly. Last year marked the third time in a row a record low was set. It also meant that the 13th smallest extents had been recorded in a 13-year period.

Whether 2017 will make it four in a row remains to be seen. On average, the date of the annual maximum is March 12, but it has occurred as early as February 24 and as late as April 2. (When it occurrs does not necessarily say anything about the maximum extent or how the summer season will develop.)

That we are headed for 14 out of 14 seems all but guaranteed: with the exception of December, monthly sea-ice extents have hit a record low at the end of every month since the summer minimum (itself the second-lowest on record) on September 10. The trend, according to figures released today by the National Snow and Ice Data Center, a US research outfit, continued in February.

SEE RELATED: Present imperfect

That this has become something of a normal situation is reflected as much by the terse announcement as by its headline: ‘Another warm month in the Arctic’, with no mention of the record until close to the end of the first paragraph.

Ominously, the continuous decline means the maximum winter volume of sea ice is smaller than the summer minimums of the 1980s. (See tweet at right.) The winter maximum continues to cover about double the area of the summer minimum.

The trend has led to increasingly pessimistic predictions for when sea ice will disappear entirely in the summer. The most dire, put forward last year by Peter Wadhams, a British physicist, suggested that “next year or the year after that” the central Arctic Ocean would be free of ice. (See more in video at right.) It is only the date that is scoffed at by professionals; the underlying premise that ice-free summers are inevitable has become conventional wisdom.

This, however, need not necessarily be the case, according to the authors of a paper published on-line today by Nature Climate Change, a journal.

SEE RELATED: A farewell to ice

After reviewing previous predictions, James Screen and Daniel Williamson, both of the University of Exeter, reckon that sea ice is “virtually certain” (less than a 1-in-100,000 chance) to survive global warming, if – and here’s the catch – if temperatures do not rise more than 1.5°C, which is the “aspirational” goal identified by the 196 countries signing the 2016 Paris climate agreement.

Scientists had long urged decision-makers to work to keep temperature rises below 2°C. This remains the ultimate upper limit before dangerous warming sets in, but were temperatures to rise that much the chances of a summer ice out would be “about as likely as not”, the scientists wrote.

They mean that as a warning, but, with the way things are looking this year, even 50-50 looks like decent odds.



Photo: Nasa