An icy retreat

Guest Commentary by Dirk Notz, MPI Hamburg

It’s almost routine by now: Every summer, many of those interested in climate change check again and again the latest data on sea-ice evolution in the Arctic. Such data are for example available on a daily basis from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center. And again and again in early summer the question arises whether the most recent trend in sea-ice extent might lead to a new record minimum, with a sea-ice cover that will be smaller than that in the record summer of 2007.

However, before looking at the possible future evolution of Arctic sea ice in more detail, it might be a good idea to briefly re-capitulate some events of the previous winter, because some of those are quite relevant for the current state of the sea-ice cover. The winter 2009/2010 will be remembered by many people in Europe (and not only there) as particularly cold, with lots of snow and ice. Not least because of the sustained cold, some began to wonder if global warming indeed was real.

Such questioning of global warming based on a regional cold period of course neglects the crucial difference between weather and climate, with the former being the only thing that we as individuals will ever be able to experience first hand. A single regional cold spell has not a lot to do with climate – let alone with global climate. This becomes quite obvious if one instead considers the mean temperature of the entire globe during the last 12 months: this period was, according to the GISS data, the warmest 12-month period since the beginning of the records 130 years ago. Regarding sea ice, it was particularly important that temperatures in parts of the Arctic were well above average for most of the winter. This was directly experienced by some members of our working group during a field experiment at the West Coast of Greenland.

Fig. 1: Temperature anomaly at 1000 hPa during the first half of January 2010 with respect to the period 1968-1996. Warm anomalies in the Arctic and cold anomalies in Northern Europe and parts of North America are clearly visible.

The initial plan of this field experiment was to study the growth and decay of sea ice in great detail throughout an entire winter. In particular, we wanted to focus on the evolution of very young sea ice that had just formed from open water. Therefore, we wanted to start our measurements just before initial ice formation, which usually takes place in mid-November, at least according to past experience of the local Greenlandic population. Hence, we traveled to our measuring site close to the Greenlandic settlement of Upernavik in early November to put out our measuring buoys. We were hoping that ice formation would start shortly after we had put out the instruments such that they were protected from storms and waves. However, with temperatures that were often more than 10°C above the long-term mean, sea ice was nowhere to be seen. Even in January, there were days on end with above 0°C temperature and heavy rain fall. Finally, in February a stable ice cover formed, which of course remained relatively thin and which hence had melted completely by mid May.

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