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Ice, ice data

A long-expected record

Warm, stormy weather set stage for lowest winter sea-ice extent ever

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Image (above): This year’s winter extent (white) compared with the long-term average (organge line). See full image

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge


Unseasonably warm temperatures, unfavourable winds and a series of storms that halted, and at some points reversed, sea-ice growth this winter combined for what scientists expect will be the lowest wintertime extent of Arctic sea-ice on record.

According to a report released today by the National Snow and Ice Data Centre, a Colorado-based research outfit, sea ice appears to have reached its maximum winter extent on March 7. The date, as well as the extent, have yet to be verified, but should the former hold, it would mean ice began its summer melt about a week before average – a moderate deviation in a window that stretches from late February to early April.

Should the extent – officially 14.42 million square kilometres – hold up, sea ice this year will have covered an expanse that was less than 1% smaller than in 2105, the previous record year*, and 3% less than the 1981-2010 long-term average. Since 1979, the winter extent has fallen by 2.8% per decade, according to the NSIDC.

SEE RELATED: Chilling outlook

In previous years, when sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has broken or approached record lows, scientists made it clear that the winter figure was of little use in predicting the summer minimum (which occurs at the end of the summer melting season, in September).

The reason is that weather – including factors like cloudiness, wind and storms – influence how fast ice breaks up. This year, however, the situation appears to be different; scientists are already warning that the summer minimum will be below normal, and that repeated unsually warm and turbulent winters may well have left the ice in a vulnerable state.

“Such thin ice going into the melt season sets up for the possibility of record-low sea-ice conditions this September,” said Julienne Stroeve, a NSIDC scientist, in a statement issued today in connection with the release of the sea-ice data.

Scientists also measure the health of sea ice by other parameters, including thickness and total volume. Both, according to recent data, are also below normal, according to the NSDIC.

SEE RELATED: No country for optimists

The annual maximum has typically received less attention from the public than the summer minimum. Scientists, too, have considered it to be less important. However, starting with the 2015 record, and followed by the 2016 extent, which at the time was the second-lowest on record, they began looking carefully the effects of rising temperatures on ice formation during the winter.

“The big concern this year,” we were told in in February by Jeremy Mathis, the director of Arctic research for Noaa, a US science agency, “is that changes in the Arctic are extending into the winter months. This means that the system isn’t getting the full reset that it normally gets, even after the warm summers we’ve seen in the past.”

More records, it would seem, should not be unexpected.

*After intially reporting that 2016 had surpassed 2015 for the record lowest maximum extent, revised NSDIC figures later indicated that it was, in fact, the second lowest extent on record.