Serreze: Arctic is “continuing down in a death spiral. Every bit of evidence we have says the ice is thinning.”

UPDATE:  National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) director Mark Serreze slammed the anti-science disinformers yesterday:

There are claims coming from some communities that the Arctic sea ice is recovering, is getting thicker again. That’s simply not the case.  It’s continuing down in a death spiral.

Every bit of evidence we have says the ice is thinning.  That means there’s less energy needed to melt it out than there used to be.

Certainly the latest analysis from the  Polar Science Center bears that out:

Volume NS

Arctic sea ice volume, extent, and area continue to shrink apace as we approach the dramatic end to this year’s melt season.  The NSIDC tells me extent dropped to 4.76 million square kilometers today — which is below the majority of even the most recent expert predictions logged with the Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH).

Here’s one of the sea ice graphs on the web I haven’t posted before, from the University of Bremen (click to enlarge), one of the resources that SEARCH recommends:

An unexpected source suggested I ask NSIDC scientist Julienne Stroeve to explain what is going on.  I did, and she replied:

We’ve dropped to 4.76 today.

All the old ice that was transported into the Chukchi Sea over the winter is gone and about 50% of the old ice in the Beaufort Sea remains.

Arctic-wide there has been a 60% reduction in ice ages 5+ years from the end of April to the end of August.  Atmospheric circulation patterns in summer 2010 were not as favorable to ice loss as in 2007 and 2008, so this suggests that the ice may have been on the thin side.

I haven’t looked into detail on the SSTs, and there is compression towards the  pole in the Chukchi that is contributing, but given the continued ice loss this month, which is double that of climatology, and faster than in 2007 and 2009 (but a bit slower than 2008), I’m thinking it’s a combination of warmer SSTs and thin ice that is continuing the current ice loss.

The water is warm — see Captain’s log from the Chukchi Sea: “The water temperature is 7.5 degrees. If we weren’t sailing, it would be a great temperature for a swim!”; “North of Point Hope. Water temperature: 9.0ËšC.”

Sometimes it is the wind that helps push the ice together and drive down sea ice extent.  This year’s rapid end-of-season extent drop is partly due to some compression, but appears to be driven more by warmer waters  and thinner ice, which is not a big surprise — see Study: “It is clear “¦ that the precipitous decline in September sea ice extent in recent years is mainly due to the cumulative loss of multiyear ice.”

Human emissions of greenhouse gases are warming the planet and polar amplification is accelerating that process in the Arctic.

Featured Comment (from Steve Bloom):   Joe, I’ll suggest again posting this animation (by Jack Taylor via Neven’s Arctic sea ice blog) of UniBremen ice concentrations from 8/26 through 9/8. It demonstrates perfectly the thin and mobile ice conditions plus the effect of the dipole anomaly.

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27 Responses to Serreze: Arctic is “continuing down in a death spiral. Every bit of evidence we have says the ice is thinning.”

  1. Dan B says:


    The PIOMAS 3D graph on the left ends in 2009- Sept. I presume, although it’s labeled July – Sept. The 2D graph on the right ends in late August 2010 (also assumed). Is there any calculation of volume for the end of August 2010?

    The first graph covers ‘extent’, the second and third graphs are ‘volume’ – a detail that might escape a casual visitor to the site.

    [JR: Yes, if you go here. I posted it in my last Arctic piece, and I’m kind of alternating graphs.]

  2. Steve Bloom says:

    Joe, I’ll suggest again posting this animation (by Jack Taylor via Neven’s Arctic sea ice blog) of UniBremen ice concentrations from 8/26 through 9/8. It demonstrates perfectly the thin and mobile ice conditions plus the effect of the dipole anomaly.

  3. NeilT says:

    To anyone who had been looking at the MODIS overheads visually this would not be a surpise. It was clear at least a month ago that extent was covering vast areas of sea which was mostly open water.

    However the trend of significant open water in the Arctic basin itself grew over August. Leaving significant scope for compression.

    According to cyrospere today the ice is just on the cusp of dropping below 3m sq km (area), which would put it between 2008 and 2007.

    BTW, I use the Uni Bremen site daily but both my work and home firewalls don’t like the 8084 port. I have to use anonymouse to get to the site.

  4. catman306 says:

    Someone asked yesterday, does anyone keep track of the core temperature of the major ice sheets? Is it -40 C or is it closer to -10 C? Are there graphs of temperature X time?

  5. Steve Bloom says:

    Also, the PIPS ice displacement graphic shows how the ice continues to move out into the North Atlantic. Once there it promptly encounters warmer conditions and melts.

  6. Dan B says:


    Thanks for the link. I know one of the researchers whose focus is the Arctic. He won’t talk about his research with his family because he has a 7 year old daughter. He doesn’t see any hope. If you’re minding the mine canary (Arctic ice seems to be it, doesn’t it?) there’s not much encouraging news. With the current solar minimum he should be studying the increase in ice.

    Friends got him to talk about his research and his view of the future once, a year ago, after midnight and many bottles of wine.

  7. Andy says:

    A blogger out there mentioned that as long as the PIPS shows big arrows then ice extent will continue to decrease. I believe he predicts two or three more days of high melt before storms mix things up.

  8. Oslo says:

    There is little discussion on the new Greenland study regarding reduced ice loss. As far as my understanding goes there are a quite a few issues which seems to contradict this study (sea level rise, increase of melt area, other studies with different methods). If the study is correct there need to be other causes of sea level rise – more ocean warming or other sources?

    [JR: Tobis has a good piece on it. The study isn’t actually good news for the planet compared to, say, the IPCC reports. Nor is one study dispositive — if it were, the oceans would be done for.]

  9. MapleLeaf says:

    Oslo @8,

    Good questions. Sea level data are important b/c they represent the net result of thermal expansion and glacial melt, and the rate of increase of global sea level has not really showed any signs of slowing in recent years. If the recent loss of glacial ice from WAIS and Greenland has been overestimated, then that seems to point to more thermal expansion (i.e., more ocean warming).

  10. adelady says:

    oslo, the Arctic melt cannot contribute to sea level rise because it is sea ice. It’s already part of the ocean system.

    When Greenland and the Antarctic start to carve more and bigger bergs off the glaciers and melt off the icesheets there will be an effect on sea level rise.

  11. MapleLeaf says:

    To be honest, I was expecting sea-ice extent to be close to 2009, and not 2008 as seems its going to be the case–heck, it may even drop below 2008 but that is unlikely at this point. As if that is not alarming enough, we have a dramatic loss of ice volume.

    The canary in the coal mine is showing us something very important…..we ignore it at the peril of future generations.

  12. Steve Bloom says:

    Oslo, melting ice and thermal expansion are the only sources. Even after there’s firm scientific agreement on the amount of ice sheet melt, noting that the new study you refer to is not the final word, the sea live rise budget probably still won’t be closed. My suspicion is that good measurements of deep ocean heat will be needed for that to happen.

    The critical point to bear in mind is that ice sheet mass loss, while still small in absolute terms, is on a quickly rising trend that if it continues will rapidly overwhelm all of the other factors in sea level rise.

  13. noiv says:

    I’ve created an animation of radar images from this month, showing two things: the rotten ice has only one direction – towards Atlantic and given the ice ends as compacted as three years before, it will easily hit the record.

    Actually it is hard to believe, that today there is more ice in the Arctic than in 2007, whatever the extent is telling.

    All weather models do not forecast any significant changes in next two weeks. As long as the wind is strong enough, we’ll see some interesting headlines soon.

  14. Jeremy says:

    I completely reject the notion that a water temperature of 7.5 degrees would make for a “great” swim.

  15. richard pauli says:

    I follow Google alerts on the word “Kivalina” – and an interesting story just popped up on the Arctic Sounder site out of Anchorage:

    “A large male Alaska skate washed up on the beach near Kivalina recently. The skate, whose scientific name is Bathyraja parmifera, is not in itself terribly remarkable, except that none of its kind has ever been spotted so far north.

    “It’s hugely interesting,” said Catherine “Kitty” Mecklenburg, a research associate for the Department of Ichthyology at the California Academy of Sciences. She’s currently stationed in Auke Bay.

    The skate is about 37.4 inches long and was discovered by Cyrus Koenig on a beach near Kivalina. The School of Fisheries and Ocean Science sent the skate to Mecklenburg for identification.

    “Whether dead or alive, this is the first skate reported from the Chukchi Sea,” Mecklenburg said.

    The farthest north a skate has been spotted was in the Norton Sound more than a hundred years ago. The man who collected it, Lucien Turner, wrote in 1876 that people there had seen only a few others.”

  16. BBHY says:

    According to my conservative friends the Arctic ice is melting because of a liberal plot to raise taxes and establish a world government. And the glaciers are melting because they want more research grant money. Or maybe it’s the other way around. It’s really getting hard to follow the frothy incoherent denier claims anymore.

  17. Steve Bloom says:

    Re #15: That encroaching warm water visible on the SST maps is bound to bring some southern species with it.

  18. Peter says:

    It should be an interesting week or more ahead to see how far the ice diminishes. I have seen the September 2007 photos- and the stunning large piece of open ocean- It seems we could be racing to a point of meeting that loss, or a close second. If so the possibility rises that by 2020 most of this ice will be gone in late summer-

  19. Leland Palmer says:

    Apparently, ICESat, the laser satellite that used to measure ice thickness, has failed and has been destroyed by atmospheric re-entry.

    A replacement is scheduled- ICESat-2….due to launch in late 2015.

    It should be up there just in time to record an ice free Arctic in the summer.

    It’s a shame that the NASA GRACE satellites now have little definitive independent confirmation, IMO, and won’t have until late 2015.

  20. Jon says:


    Cryosat-2 is producing data already, though we still have a bit of a wait while the scientific community chews it over, finishes calibrating it, etc. In any case, I don’t think we’ll have to wait until 2015 for good measurements of sea ice thickness. Though checking up on what GRACE tells us about the mass balance of ice on land may be more of a problem, since movements of the earth’s crust under the ice caps are something of a confounding factor. Not that ICESat was any more help with that than Cryosat-2 will be.

  21. FredT34 says:

    Cryosat-2 is designed to live 4 years in orbit, and it takes… 4 years to build and launch an other satellite. Cryosat program was launched when we thought Artic wouldn’t melt before 2100, when the melt was supposed to be slow and to be studied during long years.

    Now the melt has dramatically accelerated, making these data really important on an annual scale, not on a decadal scale. Just imagine that Cryosat-2 dies in 2014, and Arctic goes ice-free in 2015, we’ll have no precise tool up there. I’ve written to ESA’s Cryosat program manager on this topic but got no answer.

    How can we push for Cryosat-3 now?

  22. MapleLeaf says:

    Looks like Cryosat-2 will be commissioned this Autumn sometime.

  23. Anu says:

    MapleLeaf @ 22.

    Cryosat-2 is not fully commissioned yet, but they have been taking data and checking all systems/software.
    Hopefully they can release some measurements from August and early September once they do whatever they have to to tweak the sensors, processing, orbital determination, etc. They should be able to back-apply all fixes and create good thickness data for the final half of this summer’s surprising melt.

    Also, if Cryosat-2 shows that the PIOMAS model is accurate, such as the verification against IceSat data:
    then previous modelling before CryoSat-2 was launched will be even more useful.

    I would like to see color coded *images* of the ice thickness for the entire Arctic sea ice from PIOMAS and CryoSat-2, not just a single “volume anomaly” number for that date. Hopefully some institution can get a website in place serving that kind of data before the 2011 summer melt season… thickness maps, area maps, and daily volume.

  24. MapleLeaf says:

    Thanks Anu @23!

  25. Charles Wilson says:

    Re: PIOMAS
    From the (3) Graphs: I derived these actual Volumes:
    2010 Aug 16 = 4850 km3
    2010 Aug 31 = 4300 km3 = RECORD !
    2009 (text) = 5800 (at Minimum)
    2007 Minimum = 4850 (projected)*
    * Subtracting the usual Sept-Oct gain of 1150 from ICESATs measured 6,000 km3 for Nov 1 2007 ( = Oct1-Nov1 mean ).

    Due to Extra melt in the Central Arctic, poorly modelled by PIOMAS, a third Piomas chart shows their Volume off 1300 higher than ICESAT in 2007(PIOMAS Oct. mean anomaly was 7,300 km3, which checks). The “AS” in PIOMAS means it “assimilates” (adds) actual MEASUREMENT data. This “calibrates” the Concentration Maps Pips 2.0 uses (this is why Steve Goddard got no long-term trend for Pips – – Pips ASSUMES 70% Ice has the “book” thickness for that time of year. But is it 70% of 2 foot ice, or 10-foot thick ice ? ). Before 2007 PIOMAS had great agreement with subs & Laser Sats because there are lots of shore measurements, coastal ships, & buoys near shore, while the rarely sampled Center never melted.

    Then it did. Presumably, this is happenning again.
    Actual volume may be LESS than 4000.

    However, after ICESAT’s failure, Airplanes sampled this hole until May 2010. Due to Cryosat’s unexpected (by the Politicians) Data Secrecy, the flights were stopped too soon. So a few near-pole flights were made recently & OUGHT to be in the next update.

    PS there are 3 thickness map websites. But: see above for their Problem. Pips, Mercator, & Topaz “hice” <<< by FAR the best.
    Mercator: (pick arctic)
    Topaz: (pick "hice")

  26. Anu says:

    You’re welcome.

    Here’s a quick mockup of how some organization might serve up CryoSat-2 thickness data, or the PIOMAS model estimate of that same data:

    This is based on the low resolution, rather antiquated (1980’s models and computation techniques) Navy PIPS 2.0 Arctic sea ice model:
    (the mockup crops real PIPS 2.0 output for 9/11/10)
    The old “Polar Ice Prediction System” model has the remaining Arctic sea ice averaging over 2.0 meters thick, whereas if you run the PIOMAS volume anomaly against IARC-JAXA sea ice area, PIOMAS has the remaining sea ice averaging about 1.04 meter thick – quite a difference. This is especially important for the thickness of the “marginal” ice (purple on the outer edge of the remaining sea ice), which might melt in the next week, or not, based on thickness and ocean temperature.

    The *idea* of daily Arctic sea ice thickness maps is interesting, but PIPS 2.0, besides being “original Macintosh” vintage, also has incentive to err on the side of “too thick” – if a Navy sub ever actually used their maps, rather than their sonar, they could claim “we told you it was too thick” if the submarine was damaged during surfacing.

  27. Leland Palmer says:

    Oh, thanks Jon and everyone. That’s great news about Cryosat-2. :)