The New Arctic Abnormal: Record Low Sea Ice Volume, Area and Extent*

AFP:  The area covered by Arctic sea ice reached its lowest point this week since the start of satellite observations in 1972, German researchers announced on Saturday….

“This is a new historic minimum,” said Georg Heygster, head of the Physical Analysis of Remote Sensing Images unit at the University of Bremen….

The Arctic death spiral continues.  We are reaching the climax of the Arctic sea ice melt season.  I asked Neven of the must-read Arctic Sea Ice Blog to set the scene for the finale (with some cool animations):

— by Neven of Arctic Sea Ice Blog

The incredible has happened. In the past week the 2011 melting season has started to surpass record year 2007. First, the good people from the Polar Science Center informed us of the fact that their PIOMAS model is showing a new sea ice volume record (as discussed here on Climate Progress).  A day later a new all-time low on the Cryosphere Today sea ice area graph was reached. And two days after that the same thing happened on the University of Bremen sea ice extent chart.  See figure above.

In a sense this isn’t so incredible, as we have been well aware that this could happen from the start of the melting season. The winter maximum and of course sea ice volume were both relatively low. But what does make it incredible, is the way that freak melting season 2007 has been equaled and even surpassed in some data sets.

Four years ago, weather conditions that on average occur every 20 years or so, brought huge amounts of heat into the Arctic via air and water, flushed large amounts of ice through Fram and Nares Strait and – to top if off – compacted the ice pack so hard at the end of the melting season that the minimum extent was finally reached in the last week of September.

Up until mid-July this year’s melting season resembled that of 2007, but after that things fell apart on the atmospheric front. The heat had been brought in alright, but the flushing through Nares (which opened late) and Fram was slow, and in these last weeks of the season there isn’t much compaction to speak of, as the winds are too fickle to stay in place for a prolonged period.

Despite all this 2011 is right down there battling it out with 2007 on almost every graph. This is a sure sign that the ice is very weak and thin in large parts of the ice pack, which means that perfect weather conditions conducive to melting and compacting are no longer necessary to break records. The ice will melt out in place, regardless of what the weather does. That doesn’t bode well for years to come.

On the image below (courtesy of NSIDC) we see some of the special features of the ice pack in this melting season.

Both the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route have opened up. As this has happened almost every year since 2007, it has become one of those new normals, but I thought I’d mention it anyway (yes, I’m being sarcastic). Shipping companies have begun sending Suezmax-class tankers through the Northern Sea Route.

More interesting is the fact that more than half of of the ice in the channels between the Queen Elizabeth Islands (that part of the Canadian Archipelago between the Northwest Passage and the Arctic Ocean) has melted out completely. This used to be the place where the thickest and oldest sea ice of the Arctic would gather, pressed together by the winds. Not anymore. Last year we saw how ice floes from the Arctic Ocean flowed between the islands when the buttresses disappeared, into warmer southerly waters. This year the winds have been blowing in the wrong direction and so the ice in those channels has simply vanished and not been replaced. There will be thinner first year ice there, meaning it will melt out earlier next year.

This melting season is about to end. We have to wait and see if new minimums will be reached on the two popular extent graphs from IJIS and NSIDC. With the current weather forecast I’d say the odds are against that happening, but this only underscores the new abnormal in the Arctic: despite adverse weather conditions this melting season is on a par with the 2007 freak melting season. If these general circumstances persist, the Arctic will be very close to becoming ice free by the end of summer before 2020. Sooner, if we get a melting season with the same weather conditions as 2007.

No one knows what this will do to Northern Hemisphere weather patterns in the short run, and what happens with the permafrost and methane clathrates in the medium to long run. I don’t find that a particularly comforting thought.

— Neven

*  The asterisk is for the fact that the record low sea ice extent is  currently only in the Bremen record.  And yes,  satellite observations of  Arctic sea ice actually do date back to 1972.

19 Responses to The New Arctic Abnormal: Record Low Sea Ice Volume, Area and Extent*

  1. Paul magnus says:

    So have the weather patterns been affected already by the setting in the arctic? If so, then many weather events will have directly been as a result of GW. We just need to figure out which ones….

    Same might be happening due to other characteristics like hotter nights and changing precipitaion patterns due to GW having a direct feedback on the weather. They will also be directly caused by GW.

  2. prokaryotes says:

    A comment from i came across yesterday night when digging around.

    Patrick, much as we might gasp at the implications, a seasonally sea-ice free Arctic Ocean is NOT a stable climate regime. Numerical Modeling and Paleoclimate Studies indicate that there are two stable regimes for the Arctic Ocean in a warming Climate: perpetually ice-covered, and perpetually ice-free.

    These modelling result were published by Eisenman and Wettlaufer (2008) “Nonlinear threshold behavior during the loss of Arctic sea ice”. The paper (and it’s SI Appendix), is freely available from the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Figure 3 Bifurcation diagram for the full nonlinear model

    The description of “Fig. 3″ says in part:
    “Under a moderate warming (ΔF0 = 15 Wm−2), modeled sea-ice thickness varies seasonally between 0.9 and 2.2 m. Further warming (ΔF0 = 20 Wm−2) causes the September ice cover to disappear, and the system undergoes a smooth transition to seasonally ice-free conditions. When the model is further warmed (ΔF0 = 23 Wm−2), a saddle-node bifurcation occurs, and the wintertime sea ice cover abruptly disappears in an irreversible process.”

    Above, “ΔF0 = 15 Wm−2″ should be read as “Change in Climate Forcings relative to Time Zero” in Units of Watts per square meter. This means that after the first Sea ice free September, Climate forcings need to increase by only 3 watts per square meter until the Arctic Sea Ice disappears permanently, and irreversibly. Methane Clathrates alone have the potential to increase Climate forcing by 5 W/m^2, in addition to our continued release of C02.

    Recent Paleoclimate studies show the Arctic had a perennially sea ice free ocean, an mean annual temperature over 12C, and fossilized Crocodile skeletons found on Baffin Island, the place where many current Commenters speculate will be the last stand for Arctic Sea Ice.

    Notice the discussion is particular about arctic modeling and forcings.

  3. Peter Mizla says:

    This should be of no surprise.

    Even though weather conditions in the arctic this year have been far less favorable then in 2007, we have still broken the record of 4 years ago.

    I guess those wishing for recovery in area, extent & volume are having sweaty palms.

    The process is happening far faster then the IPCC ever anticipated- it should be very interesting to see what they say in their next report.

  4. George Ennis says:

    Peter, I have come to expect that those denying the reality of climate change will not be dissuaded from changing their views based on evidence including such things as the failure of Arctic Sea Ice to recover by way of any meaningful measures.

    With respect to the next IPCC report, yes it will be interesting to see how they incorporate more of the findings regarding the retreat of Arctic Sea ice and other feedbacks into climate change. However, again I do not expect it will persuade governments to alter the trajectory or velocity of their policies or lack thereof to deal with AGW. Most governments already have access to the necessary information to make informed decisions based on science if they so choose. The IPCC reports are by definition and the process involved in their preparation almost always lagging the most current scientific findings .

    What has been stunning to me is the cone of silence that has descended over American politics with respect to discussing climate change either in Washington or with the American people. If anything Washington is acting to filter out the message from scientists such that what the American people hear is “don’t worry, be happy”.

  5. Will Fox says:


    “We are reach the climax of the Arctic sea ice melt season.”

    should read… “We are reaching the climax of the Arctic sea ice melt season.”

  6. Lou Grinzo says:

    Peter: That difference between conditions in 2007 and this year is indeed very telling and very troubling. We seem to be on the brink of the long-term trend (climate) largely overcoming the short-term fluctuations (weather). Given how much noise weather adds to the climate signal, this turn of events should be getting much more attention than it is.

  7. KarlB says:

    It will be interesting to see what the freeze up will be like, looking at the shape of the sea ice this year.

  8. Neven says:

    So have the weather patterns been affected already by the setting in the arctic?

    Paul, it’s too early to tell. But before things can freeze up again in the Arctic, the water has to release a lot of heat to make the upper layer cold enough to freeze (-1.8 deg. C for salt water). The larger the expanse of water is, the more heat and moisture will be released.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if this has an effect on weather patterns (precipitation caused be the ‘ocean snow effect (similar to the lake snow effect). But no one knows for sure. We’ve had two freak winters over much of the Northern Hemisphere. Let’s see what happens this year.

  9. Colorado Bob says:

    He said the rains in Sindh are the highest ever recorded monsoon rains during the four weeks period. Before the start of these rains in the second week of August, Sindh was under severe drought conditions and it had not received any rainfall for the last 12 months.

    The last severe rainfall flooding in Sindh occurred in July 2003, he said and added, but this time the devastating rains of 1150 mm in Mithi, Mirpurkhas 676 mm, Diplo 779 mm, Chachro 735 mm, N. Parker 792 mm, Nawabshah 547 mm, Badin 512 mm, Chhor 456 mm, Padidan 381 mm Hyderabad 249 mm etc during the four weeks period have created unprecedented flood situation in Sindh.

  10. Colorado Bob says:

    TORRENTIAL rains that caused record flooding in southern Brazil have reportedly killed three people and forced more than 63,000 residents to evacuate their homes.

    Three days of continuous downpours have had a severe impact in southern Santa Catarina state, with authorities declaring 32 cities in a state of emergency, and two – Brusque and Rio do Sul in a state of public calamity.

    The water levels were in marked contrast to the severe drought and forest fires in central-west regions of the South American country.

    Much of Brasilia was experiencing heavy smoke levels due to wildfires sparked by high temperatures and unusually long spells without rain – at this point around three months around the federal capital.

    “We have not had such a low level of humidity (in Brasilia) since 1960,” a regional Civil Defence official told AFP.

    Over the past 24 hours alone “there have been 50 fires, and we have 500 firefighters working,” Major Mauro Sergio of the Brasilia firefighters said.

    Smoke was so heavy over parts of the capital that some schools were forced to close early.

    “I’ve been living in Brasilia for 40 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” long-time resident Edson Barroso said.

  11. John Mason says:

    Neven, thanks for this. I take a great interest in how low sea-ice extent may affect synoptic patterns in late Autumn-early Winter – especially after late 2010’s spectacular, when, instead of going round as usual, the air took a sortcut straight over the Pole and down to the UK.

    explores what happened here last December – I know some of you have read it before, but I’ll repost it as it was most unusual. In late November 2010, one morning saw a record low temperature for the month here in Mid Wales: at precisely the same time Kangerlussuaq – INSIDE the Arctic circle – was 27C warmer!

    Cheers – John

  12. Neven, I regularly read your sea ice blog and find it very informative and useful. Thanks for taking the time and effort to keep the non-specialist public, like myself, in the know. You sure can’t get this kind critical information from the regular media. Hats off to science bloggers.

  13. Spike says:

    I wonder why this expedition was put together at short notice? Is there evidence of rapidly increasing methane levels in the Arctic at present?

  14. Colorado Bob says:

    Spike – Good catch.

  15. Thanks, Neven! Really great work!!!

  16. EDpeak says:

    Maybe dumb question, maybe I didn’t read carefully enough but: while the difference between area and volume is clear, what’s the difference between “area” and “extent”?

  17. EDpeak says:

    Found a typo, “actually due date back to 1972.” should say “actually DO date back to 1972.”