Will we see record low Arctic ice VOLUME this year?


“Daily sea ice extent as of July 21. The solid blue line indicates 2009 … the purple line shows 2008; and the solid gray line indicates average extent from 1979 to 2000.”

The blogosphere and scientific community are all abuzz as to whether 2009 will beat 2007 in minimum Arctic sea ice area. See, for instance, RealClimate’s “Sea ice minimum forecasts.”  But while the Arctic ice’s two-dimensional measurements are easier to make, the more important record is the three-dimensional one, which looks to have been set in 2008 (see NSIDC stunner: Arctic ice at “Likely Record-Low Volume” and below).

Now the National Snow and Ice Data Center has a July 22 update, “Arctic sea ice extent tracking below 2008,” which notes:

During the first half of July, Arctic sea ice extent declined more quickly than in 2008, but not as fast as in 2007. As in recent years, melt onset was earlier than the 1979 to 2000 average. International sea ice researchers expect another low September minimum ice extent, but they do not yet know if it will fall below the 2007 record.

Arctic sea ice extent declined 37,000 square miles per day during this period, faster than in 2008 (34,000 square miles per day), but slower than in 2007 (43,000 square miles per day).

From the perspective of the death spiral of the Arctic ice system, it is the declining ice volume that is probably more important, since the increasingly thin ice simply has a tougher and tougher time recovering.  The NSIDC put out an analysis of this back in May (see North Pole poised to be largely ice-free by 2020: “It’s like the Arctic is covered with an egg shell and the egg shell is now just cracking completely”).

Then in July some of the leading cryoscientists at JPL, the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington, and NASA published a major peer-reviewed article, “Thinning and volume loss of the Arctic Ocean sea ice cover: 2003-2008” (subs. req’d).

You can find a basic discussion of their findings here on NASA’s website, which points out, “Arctic sea ice thinned dramatically between the winters of 2004 and 2008, with thin seasonal ice replacing thick older ice as the dominant type for the first time on record.”  That link has some excellent figures, like this one:

Arctic Ice Volume

“ICESat measurements of winter multi-year ice cover in the Arctic Ocean between 2004 and 2008, along with the corresponding downward trend in overall winter sea ice volume, and switch in dominant ice type from multi-year ice to first-year ice.”

Between 2007 — the record low ice extent — and 2008, some 2000 cubic kilometers of Arctic sea ice were lost.  Needless to say, if the recent trend in volume loss continues, the Arctic would be nearly ice free by 2020, which is the bet I’ve made (see “Another big climate bet “” Of Ice and Men“).

So, if 2009 has a lower sea ice area than 2008, will that mean we see a record low volume?  Not necessarily.  I put that question to NSIDC today, and Research Scientist Walt Meier replied:

It is too early to say how 2009 will end up and what we might be able to say about the volume. One thing is that last fall a lot of first-year ice remained. Younger ice is thinner ice in general.  That’s one reason why we thought 2008 was probably lowest. But that first-year ice thickened over the winter and this summer it is second-year ice, probably a bit thicker than last year. But some of that ice got moved out of the Arctic by the winds, so a lot depends on how much total ice and the proportion of ice of different ages in terms of making an assessment.

The big headline story this September will be the easily observed sea ice extent — and if it doesn’t beat the 2007 record, you can be sure the deniers jumping up and down (although presumably not on the thin Arctic ice).  But the smart money will be looking at the volume, which will take a bit longer to determine.

In any case, the end “” of a year-round ice-free Arctic “” is nigh.

Stay tuned.

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13 Responses to Will we see record low Arctic ice VOLUME this year?

  1. Gail says:

    Do you mean year-round, or summer, ice free arctic is nigh?

  2. Rick says:

    obviously summer – It’s like -50 up there in the winter

  3. Gail says:

    Sure, NOW it is. heh.

  4. Sasparilla says:

    Rick, just for reference, I heard a scientist talking about what an Arctic that is ice free in the summer would mean. One of the things he said is that once it becomes ice free in the summer there are natural processes that will quickly eliminate the ice in the winter with commensurate rises in overall temps to make that happen (we have lots of fossil evidence of tropical conditions up there in the arctic circle previously, Palm Trees and everything). He didn’t quantify what “quickly” would mean (decade or two?).

    So Joe is really probably talking about a year round ice free Arctic that is nigh. And it won’t be good when it happens – if you think about how much those colder temp air masses up north drive our weather patterns here in the US and Canada.

  5. Gail says:

    What is the definition of “nigh” and is it at all related to what “is” “is”?

    Either way, Sasparilla, we are in for something nigh that is not nice. I was just wondering how soon.

  6. Alex J says:

    And to think there are still editorials floating around on mainstream media outlets claiming we’re still in the midst of a global cooling trend (based on cherry picking of course). I guess the ice just doesn’t get it.

    Oh, and as an aside, I don’t know if anyone else has been having this problem, but for me, pages on climateprogress don’t always load properly at first (in Firefox 3.5.1). They stop halfway through the banner and I have to refresh to get the rest of the page. Maybe it’s just my setup.

  7. Wonhyo says:

    I think the “area with 15% ice extent” measure may mask the true extent of ice loss. If the ice cover is very stable, there will be very little calving. Most of the ice will be in large, solid chunks. The small pieces that calve off infrequently will not be enough to count in the “15% ice extent”.

    On the other hand, if the ice is unstable and there are lots of small pieces calving at a high right, what happens? My guess i you get a larger area that is just above the “15% ice extent” threshold.

    This is my hypothesis for why ice volume was a record low in 2008, even though “15%” ice area was not.

  8. Lou Grinzo says:

    The trend is -900 km^3/yr? That has to be once of the scariest numbers I’ve seen in quite some time regarding energy or environmental issues.

  9. pete best says:

    5 years ice FY/MY is not significant enough in the Arctic summer sea ice timeline would we not say ?

    [JR: No, we would say this study is a BIG deal.]

  10. Brett Jason says:

    The easiest way to visualize it, and probably a reasonably accurate way, is to think of the Arctic Ice Cap (and Greenland) as the central air conditioning unit for the Northern Hemisphere.

    Now, think about your own house. What happens when, in the middle of summer, your air conditioner stops working?

    Hint: There is no service company you can call to rush over and quickly repair the Arctic Ice Cap.

  11. From Peru says:

    “There is no service company you can call to rush over and quickly repair the Arctic Ice Cap”.

    But you can still make the people that caused the world fever pay for what they have done to the planet and to humanity.At least, justice is still possible.

  12. Michael Maxwell says:

    Now that it’s October, y’all might go and look at what actually happened:
    The minimum ice cover was larger than either 2007 or 2008. The up-to-date ice cover is here:
    (although that graph doesn’t allow comparisons with any year except 2007).

    So much for a record low.

  13. Would it qualify as ironic that Joe went so far as to put the word “VOLUME” in all caps?