Yes, it’s a record-breaking winter: Arctic sees lowest January sea ice extent in satellite record

monthly graph

Monthly January ice extent for 1979 to 2011 shows a decline of 3.3% per decade.  [Click to enlarge]

I know, the records broken this winter are supposed to be for cold weather.  But the National Snow and Ice Data Center reports:

January 2011 had the lowest ice extent for the month since the beginning of satellite records.

Why?  Because while it’s been coolish in parts of the United States, it’s been very mild in the Arctic, especially northern Canada:

Hudson Bay did not completely freeze up until mid-January, about a month later than normal according to Canadian Ice Service analyses. The Labrador Sea region is still largely free of ice, except in protected bays along the coast. Normally at this time of year, ice extends several hundred kilometers from the coast all the way to northern Nova Scotia.

I have previously noted that Canada was seeing staggering mildness as the planet’s high-pressure record is “obliterated”:

Temperature anomalies in North America, 12.10-1.11

Surface temperature anomalies for the period 17 December 2010 to 15 January 2011 show impressive warmth across the Canadian Arctic”¦.

The largest anomalies here exceed 21°C (37.8°F) above average, which are very large values to be sustained for an entire month.

In Coral Harbour, at the northwest corner of Hudson Bay

  • After New Year’s Day, the town went 11 days without getting down to its average daily high.
  • On the 6th of the month, the low temperature was -3.7°C (25.3°F). That’s a remarkable 30°C (54°F) above average.

Now imagine how warm it is going to be in the Arctic when during these kinds of heat waves are compounded by several decades of global warming:

NSIDC asks the question:

While the Arctic has been warm, cold and stormy weather has affected much of the Northeast U.S. and Europe. Last winter also paired an anomalously warm Arctic with cold and snowy weather for the eastern U.S. and northern Europe. Is there a connection?

Their answer:

Warm conditions in the Arctic and cold conditions in northern Europe and the U.S. are linked to the strong negative mode of the Arctic oscillation. Cold air is denser than warmer air, so it sits closer to the surface. Around the North Pole, this dense cold air causes a circular wind pattern called the polar vortex , which helps keep cold air trapped near the poles. When sea ice has not formed during autumn and winter, heat from the ocean escapes and warms the atmosphere. This may weaken the polar vortex and allow air to spill out of the Arctic and into mid-latitude regions in some years, bringing potentially cold winter weather to lower latitudes.

Some scientists have speculated that more frequent episodes of a negative Arctic Oscillation, and the stormy winters that result, are linked to the loss of sea ice in the Arctic. Dr. James Overland of NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) recently noted a link between low sea ice and a weak polar vortex in 2005, 2008, and the past two winters, all years with very low September sea ice extent. Earlier work by Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University and colleagues also suggested a relationship between autumn sea ice levels and mid-latitude winter conditions. Judah Cohen, at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, Inc., and his colleagues propose another idea””a potential relationship between early snowfall in northern Siberia, a negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation, and more extreme winters elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere. More research on these ideas may shed light on the connections and have the potential to improve seasonal weather forecasting.

The more important three-dimensional metric of ice volume also continues it’s long-term decline (see Navy’s oceanographer tells Congress, “the volume of ice as of last September has never been lower”¦in the last several thousand years”):

Ice Age 9-10

Researchers often look at ice age as a way to estimate ice thickness. Older ice tends to be thicker than younger, one- or two-year-old ice.

Wikipedia has a nice plot of the long-term Arctic sea ice trend (via PIOMAS):

File:Plot arctic sea ice volume.svg

The Arctic sea ice death spiral lives.

43 Responses to Yes, it’s a record-breaking winter: Arctic sees lowest January sea ice extent in satellite record

  1. Roger B. says:

    About a week ago I saw a comment on another blog that stated that temperatures in Siberia have been declining. Doing an Internet search, I found that there were numerous sites that claimed that Siberia was cooling. Not one to blindly believe what I find on the Internet, I analyzed temperature data for all Siberian sites found on the GISS website that have data since ~1930 and without breaks in the data (many sites don’t have data for the 1990s). Of the 13 sites I found with pretty well complete data, I calculated

    Decade………Ave. Temp. (C)

    Now 2010 was cooler than most recent years in Siberia, with an average temperature for the 13 sites of -3.06 C. Arctic data is chaotic. That’s why I like 10 year average values. While it was generally below average in Siberia in 2010, it was substantially above average over northern North America.

    Roger Blanchard
    Sault Ste. Marie, MI

  2. Esop says:

    Arctic sea ice will most likely disappear completely during September sometime before 2020.
    I wonder how the deniers will spin that event, in particular how the total disappearance of Arctic sea ice rhymes with their proposed catastrophic Global Cooling.

  3. Prokaryotes says:

    Cold winter in a world of warming?

    Last June, during the International Polar Year conference, James Overland suggested that there are more cold and snowy winters to come. He argued that the exceptionally cold snowy 2009-2010 winter in Europe had a connection with the loss of sea-ice in the Arctic. The cold winters were associated with a persistent ‘blocking event’, bringing in cold air over Europe from the north and the east.

  4. Colorado Bob says:

    Billy Payne, a forecaster with MeteoGroup, the weather forecasting arm of the Press Association, said: “The worst bits so far have been across the more exposed western parts. This afternoon and into tonight western and northern parts have seen 70-80mph gusts and locally above 90mph.

    “Mainland Scotland has seen 60-70mph gusts and in places 80mph along the northern coasts.

    “There is also heavy rain spreading in.

    “Tomorrow it will be not quite as windy but still very wet with more heavy rain to come.”

  5. Colorado Bob says:

    LONDON, Feb 3 (Reuters) – Australia’s floods could cause total economic losses of up to $20.2 billion, making them the costliest natural disaster in the country’s history, reinsurance broker Aon Benfield said on Thursday.

  6. Scrooge says:

    So if I read this correctly. With the arctic warming faster than the mid latitudes the gradient weakens and dumps the cold air into the mid latitudes. So as long as we continue to warm the frequency of cold winter outbreaks may increase in the mid latitudes as the earth continues to seek equilibrium.

  7. 350 Now says:

    Great article by Bill McKibben on today’s Huff Post
    A Revolution in our atmosphere, from burning too many fossil fuels at

  8. Peter M says:

    Ice free late summer- 2011, 2012, before 2020.

    [JR: No, that would be hard. Plus there’s lots of lingering ice that’s hard to get rid of.]

  9. Prokaryotes says:

    In a more recent press-release, Vladimir Petoukhov and Vladimir Semenov, argue that Global Warming could cool down winter temperatures over Europe, and a reduced sea-ice extent could increase the chance of getting cold winters. Also they propose that cold winters are associated with the atmospheric circulation (see schematic below), and their press-release was based on a paper in Journal of Geophysical Research (JGR), which may seem to have a serendipitous timing with the cold spell over Europe during the last weeks. However, the original manuscript was submitted in november 2009 (before the statement made by James Overland) and accepted in May 2010. One could regard the paper more as a ‘prediction’ rather than an ‘explanation’.

  10. Prokaryotes says:

    Ah sorry for repeating some of the content from this article, i’m working atm :)

    Bottomline as i understand it,
    Less Arctic Sea Ice = More Cold Arctic/Polar Air Intrusion

  11. Tim says:


    I think you should consider adapting your bet with Bastardi into something much broader that might have a chance to really grow into an interesting way to challenge deniers. Set up a betting pool in which adherents on either side of a bet can contribute (on a first-come, first-served basis for both sides – no one is “in” until enough betters on the other side have joined to match the pledged funds on the opposite side. The bet should be simple and dramatic. I suggest the following:

    I the undersigned wager ($ xxx, US) that by October 15, 2030 (2025 perhaps?) a seagoing vessel with a wooden hull and a length of 100 ft. or less will (or will not) successfully navigate to the geographic North Pole without assistance of any ice breaking vessel of any kind.

    You can work out better wording or other details (I’m not a sailor), but you get the idea. I’d love to get such a challenge up and running before Senator Inhofe or his fellow morons get a chance to conduct their climate scientist witch hunts. I’d love to see every scientist Inhofe questions throw the challenge in his face: ‘Senator, I’ve pledged $10000 of my own money to the Arctic Ice melting challenge. I’d love to see you match my challenge. C’mon Senator, are ready to put your money where your mouth is?’ I’d love to see Google ads for years challenging deniers to take the bet, along with warnings that they should investigate the issue carefully before committing their funds accompanied by links to your blog and to Skeptical Science.

  12. paulm says:

    re 5 bob, Insurance industry is going to be struggling to survive by around 2015.

    “Analysts have previously estimated that insurers will have to pay out about $6 billion in claims as a result of Australia’s floods, with Cyclone Yasi, which struck the country’s north-east coast on Wednesday, generating another $3.5 billion. [ID:nN18158098] [ID:nLDE7121NR]

    Munich Re (MUVGn.DE), the world’s top reinsurer, on Thursday unveiled a drop in its annual profit because of high natural disaster costs, including 270 million euros ($372 million) related to Australian flood damage incurred in the final quarter of 2010.”

  13. paulm says:

    No mention of weather related issues here, but the overall picture is grim for them….especially when you figure in the current vague link of climate warming to increase in volcanic and earthquake incidences previously and which seems to be starting to show up now….permafrost melt in the north is going to also add to big structural damage although they probably are not covered in the fine print.

    Lloyd’s profits cut by 53% amid insurance claims from natural disasters

    “In the absence of a significant reallocation of capital, rates will continue to suffer because there is a lot of downward pressure,” adding that a $50bn and $80bn depletion of the global insurance industry’s combined cash reserves was needed to ease the pressure.

  14. Lou Grinzo says:

    I had a run-in with a self-styled comedian who had to ask, “what happened to global warming???” within my range of hearing. My response: Warmer air means more water in the air. It falls out as either rain or snow. Have we warmed up enough that it won’t get below freezing in the northern US? No? That means more snow for everyone.

    As I keep saying, the basics of climate change really are third grade science. Sure, the fine details are insanely tough to figure out and model, but the broad strokes are something we all should have learned long before we discovered the opposite sex.

    It amazes me to no end that so many people either believe or claim to believe the deniers’ fairy tales about such basic science….

  15. Richard Brenne says:

    350 Now (#7) – Thanks for the link to Bill’s great essay. It is superlative, as always. With his title about “Revolution” he might have mentioned the connection between climate change and higher food prices that is part of what’s fueling the Tunisian and then Egyptian demonstrations.. Also he mentions the 19 national heat records set in 2010, but might point out during that time no national cold records were set. Also I’m not sure that John Boehner “thinks”.

    Joe, maybe you want to re-post Bill’s essay with his permission. It says much of what you and others have been saying, but new expert summaries are always helpful, especially from Bill.

    When communicating how loss of Arctic sea ice can affect lower latitude weather, a simple way to get the public to understand what’s happening is this: “Just as global warming has left the Great Lakes unfrozen for far longer periods than in the past, opening the floodgates to the possibility of more lake effect snows, a more complex process of much more open water relative to ice in the entire Arctic region opens the floodgates for the kind of cold and snow much of North America and Europe has been having at various times, alternating with greater warmth (last spring and summer in the U.S., the last month in Europe) than usual as well.”

  16. paulm says:

    Just to mention also that these oil extraction projects are becoming more risky due to the fact that we are going after more marginal reserves. So the projects themselves are more expensive and are more likely to fail due to complexity and on top of that the fact that there will be more extrem weather events affecting them.

  17. catman306 says:

    Wouldn’t a weakened Polar Vortex potentially cause early frosts to agricultural regions? This might be still another category of extreme event that might diminish agricultural output in some areas. How much crop lost would be suffered before this would be considered an extreme event?

    There’s plenty more to this climate changed weather than just floods and droughts, but they’re more than enough by themselves.

  18. paulm says:

    re 14 lou, someone coined the term on here recently of Avoiders. And this, I find, is very accurate.

    These are the ‘silent’ majority who would rather the whole issue just disappear so that they can get on with their inconvenient habit of emitting GHGs and living a warm and rosy life.

  19. Colorado Bob says:

    Rain In Spain Is On The Decline

    A study led by the University of Zaragoza (UNIZAR) has studied precipitation trends in Spain’s 10 hydrological basins over the 1946 to 2005 period. The results show that precipitation has declined overall between the months of March and June, reducing the length of the rainy season. The rains are heavier in October in the north west of the country.

  20. Colorado Bob says:

    “In other words, it seems that the wet season has become shorter”, explains Gonzalez-Hidalgo.

  21. Colorado Bob says:

    Monsoons that brought flooding to Pakistan last July could have been predicted days in advance if data from computer models had been processed, researchers say.

    Five days before the rains began, computer models at a European weather-forecasting center were giving indications downpours were imminent, an American Geophysical Union release said Monday.

  22. Dickensian American says:

    @Colorado Bob & Spain:

    The articles I’ve seen over the last decade have consistently described a drying of the Iberian peninsula. Amongst my many “premonitions” of what our more extreme future may look like: the horror of the Sahara essentially jumping the coastal Mediterranean as the Spanish interior goes from merely dry to full on desert.

    Seeing what’s happening to the interior of China, I wouldn’t doubt if Spain worsens in the coming decades. :(

  23. Colorado Bob says:

    Instead, Mann said, climate change is like a pair of loaded dice. If you erase the 5 on one side of a die and replace it with a 6, you’ll roll twice as many 6s. There’s no way of knowing which of those 6s you would have rolled without loading the die, just as there’s no way of knowing which hurricane would have fizzled without climate change.

    In the long term, though, the global warming trend becomes clear.

    “Climate change is an intrinsic part now of every roll of the die,” Mann said. “We’ve stacked the odds.”

  24. Colorado Bob says:

    Four dead, more than 30,000 displaced in floods in Sri Lanka

    The worst-affected districts were Trincomalee, 240 kilometres north-east of Colombo, and the Polonnaruwa district, 180 kilometres north-east of Colombo. Both districts were badly affected by flooding that began January 8 and lasted 10 days.

    “The rains have been continuing since Tuesday, and the damage is likely to be high again,” a spokesman for the centre said.,displaced-floods-sri-lanka.html

  25. Colorado Bob says:

    Manila – Philippine President Benigno Aquino III ordered Thursday a moratorium on the cutting down of trees in the country’s fast dwindling forests.

    Under Executive Order 23, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources was prohibited from issuing and renewing logging contracts throughout the country.,halt-logging-philippine-forests.html

  26. Heraclitus says:

    Amazonian drought could be pushing forests to a tipping point according to a Guardian article. Billions of trees died in the 2010 drought. It would be unimaginable if the Amazon forest collapsed.

  27. G waller says:

    “Staggering mildness.” What a strange term. Thank you for reposting this article because I have been thinking about it a lot since it was first posted. Of all the climate calamities that have occurred recently, this one was hit me in the gut the hardest. While not having the immediate human impact of the Pakistani floods, Russian fires or Australian floods (my top 3 of 2010) it rattles my soul so because it speaks to the future, of where we’re headed. 37 DEGREES ABOVE NORMAL FOR A MONTH! That is absolutely terrifying. What is the ice coverage going to look like in September 2011 with this kind of freakish warmth?…. I’m feeling like the climate crack has occurred.

  28. Byron Smith says:

    Wow – that final graph is jaw-dropping. We’re almost at the point where winter maximum Arctic sea ice volume is lower than the summer minimum volume from 1980.

  29. Michael says:

    Also, parts of western Canada are 20°C warmer than parts of the U.S. – 30 degrees latitude further south, with a 40°C difference in anomalies.

  30. Byron Smith says:

    Another thought on the final graph:

    I hadn’t seen a PIOMASS volume graph except as anomaly, which is startling enough. But eyeballing this image (which I realise has just been put together by some random Wikipedia contributor based on PIOMASS data and may not be reliable), it looks like 2010 minimum is at about 4,500 km3, while 1980 minimum was about 18,000 km3. In other words, according to this graph, summer sea ice volume has dropped about 75% in 30 years.

    [JR: That is correct.]

  31. Barry says:

    paulm (#12): “Insurance industry is going to be struggling to survive by around 2015”

    I think they will be fine. They will just stop writing policies for things that climate change hammers away at. They have already done this along much of the USA gulf coast and east coast. Good luck getting insurance on your home there.

    The insurance companies basically pulled out of Florida home owner policy market awhile ago because their risk database demanded prices higher than the people were willing to pay. So now the people of Florida hatched a brilliant plan…have the state insure everyone at below risk pricing. We all know how that is going to turn out. The first big fossil fuelled extreme weather hammering will not only be brutal for residents but will bankrupt the state.

    Insurers have the best data…watch what they do to get a statisticians view of what humans are going to have to abandoned first.

  32. Barry says:

    Byron Smith (#30) that is an excellent observation about current max soon to be less than 80’s min.

    I’m sure glad i’m not one of the professional out-on-a-melting-limb deniers. Can you imagine trying to spin such a dramatic change to the earth to somehow make it seem normal and not a problem to people?

  33. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    So can winter sea ice see out the century? Or will it be a sometimes event? Looking at the PIOMAS figures winter sea ice will be a never event by centuries end.

  34. Michael says:

    Byron Smith (32) – the PIOMAS site says this about the 2010 minimum (“maximum” refers to the 1979 minimum being the highest in the record):

    Monthly average Arctic Ice Volume for Sept 2010 was 4,000 km^3, the lowest over the 1979-2010 period, 78% below the 1979 maximum and 9,400 km^3 or 70% below its mean for the 1979-2009 period.

    The anomaly has recovered somewhat (graph in link) but is still lower than last winter, so this winter looks like it may set a new record low maximum volume.

  35. Artful Dodger says:

    Tim #11: The North Pole is already accessible to small wooden ships. Perhaps you’re getting a false impression of the Summer sea ice at the North Pole, which is easy to do if you only watch Sea Ice Extent charts. These show ocean as ice-covered where sea ice concentration exceeds 15%.

    A better view of ice conditions at the North Pole is provided by NASA’s MODIS instrument. Nevin’s Arctic Sea ice blog shows about 28% open water at the North Pole in Sep 2010:

    Any ice-hardened wooden vessel would now have easy access to the North Pole. Recall that Nansen’s Fram expedition reached 85°57’N in Jan 1895 just by drifting with the sea ice, even though Fram was no Icebreaker!

    Only the ocean North of Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago still has near 100% sea ice concentration by end of Summer. However these areas are not crucial for trans-Arctic shipping.

    The North Pole is open for shipping annually now:
    cf. Professor David Barber (2009) and the International Flaw Lead Study.

  36. George D says:

    Researchers often look at ice age as a way to estimate ice thickness. Older ice tends to be thicker than younger, one- or two-year-old ice.

    Ice-ages newer than ever before! Isn’t that what the deniers were claiming all along ;)?

  37. Tim says:

    @37 Artful Dodger- Thanks for your post. I guess I knew how quickly ships drift across the ice, but I had the impression that they were more less “packed in ice” and unable to really “navigate” – a point that is still unclear to me. In any case, my hope for something simple and dramatic was connected with my view that unless the public sees something as clearly unambiguous as completely open water at the North Pole, the deniers will continue to influence so many people who simply want to believe them. Your point probably means that even if the North Pole ice free, the denial would continue…sigh.

  38. iceman says:

    I side with Esop’s prediction @2 (more radical than it might have sounded a few years ago), though not with Peter M’s @8 (a little too radical).

    Further to Byron @32 and Michael @36: An early indicator for the 2011 melt season will be how soon the Fram Strait opens up. This is where much of the thicker multi-year ice exits the Arctic and melts. Take a look at ‘s Dr. Walt Meier’s Figure 2. Animation from 2010 at
    So far this year the Fram Strait is more iced over than it was in 2007. But this comparison could reverse in the next few weeks as the warm tendrils of the North Atlantic Current push past Svalbard. That would have a major impact on sea ice volume, which is recovering rapidly from its extreme low in 2010.

  39. Michael T. says:

    Icelights: Your Burning Questions About Ice & Climate

    “Last week, a reader of Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis asked what we know about Arctic sea ice extent before the satellite records began in 1979. Those records show that Arctic sea ice has been declining at an increasing pace since 1979—enough data to see a strong signal of climate change. But scientists also want to know what sea ice was like before satellites were there to observe it. Mark Serreze, NSIDC director and research scientist, said, “The better we understand how the climate system behaved in the past, the better we can understand and place into context what is happening today.” What do we know about sea ice conditions before 1979, and how do we know that?”

  40. Raindog says:

    There is an apparent 5-year cyclicity to the sea ice extent data. If you start at the current low and count back 5 years you find yourself at another low. Count back 5 more years and you are at a sort of low and then 5 years before that and you are at another low and then 5 years before that another low. Then it goes 6 years and 4 years. Any thoughts on what might drive that? Is it just chance?

  41. Joel Gottlieb says:

    would someone kindly translate (numerate) the arctic sea ice data into annual rate of decrease, doubling times, and projected disappearance of arctic sea ice at the the current (1978-2011) rates