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An update on the Arctic sea-ice

Filed under: — rasmus @ 26 August 2012

We noted earlier that the Artic sea-ice is approaching a record minimum. The record is now broken, almost a month before the annual sea-ice minima usually is observed, and there is probably more melting in store before it reaches the minimum for 2012 – before the autumn sea-ice starts to form.

The figure shows annual variations in the area of sea-ice extent, and the x-axis marks the time of the year, starting on January 1st and ending on December 31st (for the individual years). The grey curves show the Arctic sea-ice extent in all previous years, and the red curve shows the sea-ice area for 2012.

(The figure is plotted with an R-script that takes the data directly from NSIDC; the R-environment is available from CRAN)

UPDATE on the update The National Snow and Ice Data Center announced today (August 27th, 2012) that the 2007 record has now been broken by their more conservative 5-day running average criterion. They also note that “The six lowest ice extents in the satellite record have occurred in the last six years (2007 to 2012).”

343 Responses to “An update on the Arctic sea-ice”

  1. 1
    Miguelito says:

    Has anybody looked at the dates of the year for the minimum and maximum ice coverage and considered whether they’ve changed too? Presumably, over the time series, the average date of maximum sea-ice coverage would move earlier and the date for minimum sea-ice coverage would move later.

  2. 2

    Do these data have the running 5-day averaging that (I think) NSIDC usually applies in its own communication?

  3. 3
    dbostrom says:

    Mark that the only concrete urgency and most of the news from the Arctic has to do with our pathetic eagerness to go “up” and extract freshly available hydrocarbons so we can literally add gasoline to the fire consuming us.

    How very wise we are. Who needs an Oracle of Delphi speaking in riddles?

  4. 4
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Capital Climate covers divers records and events including Tropical rainfall rate in arctic Alaska.

    The questions of comments 1 & 2 are probably answered at the remarkable Ice Empiricist blog.

  5. 5
    Walt Meier says:

    These are daily values, not the 5-day average, which is not quite at a record yet. Using a 5-day average removes some of the noise due to weather and other effects that cause small errors in the daily values. Thus the 5-day estimate is a more robust measure of sea ice changes. We will make an announcement on our web site when we have passed the current record:

    Walt Meier

    [Response:Walt, thanks for stopping by, and for that clarification.–eric]

    [Response:Thanks indeed Walt. By the way, it is worth noting that while a trailing moving average does average out noise, this can come at a cost when the time series is non-stationary (as this clearly is): the moving average will necessarily dampen the trend near the end point of the series. The stronger the trend, the more this is so, so I think that is a problem here. Application of the same 5 day trailing average to the 2007 series (where the decline was much less steep at this point of the season than it is in the current case) is likely to have led to a less severe dampening of the decline than it is having now, where the decline is still quite steep. I believe that this likely has led to a spurious delay (by a day or two) in declaring the 2007 record beaten. Just my two cents. -mike]

  6. 6
  7. 7
    wili says:

    Let me play devil’s advocate–though the MSM is playing that role quite well by it’s deafening silence on the issue:

    Why should we care? It’s just ice.

    Maybe not a good thing for some polar bears and Inuit, but why should the rest of us take even a moment out of our busy lives to worry about these developments?

  8. 8

    Neven and I try to summarize some of the consequences, insofar as they are known at this point, in a new post at the Arctic Sea Ice blog:

  9. 9

    @Walt (4) Thanks, that’s what I thought. The noise on the red line during the past few weeks doesn’t look too impressive though. Hardly shows at this steep gradient.

  10. 10
    James Staples says:

    Hmmmm…..say, could I interest anyone in a little ‘soon-to-be-oceanfront properties’ in, say, the foothills of the Brooks Range?

  11. 11

    Let’s get real. The big questions now are: “How bad?” and “How soon?”

    This melt should significantly impact climate models. Shouldn’t this melt mean it is time for a recalculation? Where can I see that?

    [Response: Climate models don’t directly ingest observational data like this. However, the CMIP5 models do have updated calculations and many models show trends similar to that seen in these obs. – gavin]

  12. 12
    dennis baker says:

    If you stop a Gyroscope, remove material from top and bottom,
    then redistribute the material evenly about the gimbals, then restart the
    gyroscope it will rotate to achieve a new position of dynamic balance.
    Apparently the planet is susceptible to Newton’s laws of motion as well. With
    similar results expected when the Polar Ice Caps melt.

    [Response:Very small effect. – gavin]

  13. 13

    @wili (6) Here’s three reasons:
    1) Positive feedback. Water absorbs more sunlight than ice, so reinforces global warming
    2) Potential strong effects on climate elsewhere, e.g. by changing jetstream patterns
    3) As a canary in the coalmine; sign that we’re messing with climate bigtime
    And for me, the fact that we’ve managed to destroy one of Earth’s big features in a few generations is enough.

  14. 14
    idunno says:

    And if you can find me somebody who still thinks climate change is a hoax, I have a very attractive bridge for sale in Central London.

  15. 15
    Peter says:

    I’m concerned that this will also accelerate clathrate melting and CH4 release into the atmosphere. Any news on that?

  16. 16


    “It’s just ice.”


    Please take the time to follow the link above to Neven’s blog, or this article by him at Skeptical Science, to find out how sadly wrong that statement is.

  17. 17
    Edward Greisch says:

    This calls for writing a Letter to the Editor.

  18. 18
    wili says:

    Thanks, Bob.

    It was a happy serendipity that Kevin himself posted that link right under mine, as if an ‘angel’s advocate’ swept down directly from above to address my devilish pose.

    My point was that “So what?” is the position implicitly and tacitly taken by most of the media, and by implication by most of the population. So if we don’t directly address that position here, people casually walking by will be lost in the technicalities of the science and miss the point of why this concerns so many of us so deeply.

    In short, I see your sigh, and raise you a groan.

  19. 19

    OK the biggest thing can be seen on Neven’s site on the article peeking through the clouds 5. And of course: . Although much slowed, spontaneous melting can still occur until surface temperatures reach -11 C. Of which this number might of changed since Arctic sst’s are on going really warm.

    Back to “Neven’s peeking through the clouds”, is very good, but can be made better if a similar animation can be done pre 1998. What is certain is the AO was not being particularly favorable for a great melt of 2012, neither was it sunny so much, rather rainy in the Arctic. Proving Piomas volume data robust, in short it takes very little clear high pressure weather to do a great extent melt.

    I’d like to thank Walt Meier for his organizations work, there is no dramatization needed, Arctic sea ice is transforming to become winter seasonal only, the larger impacts are huge, but the attention span of media about this is wee small.

    Wili, dont know where you are from, lets put it this way, transform your entire climate in your area, and get the Arctic change equivalency. Wherever you may be, this change is underway. I guess you’ll have to adapt to it.

  20. 20

    @Gavin, wrt to the CMIP5 model runs

    Have any of these results been published? Please, could you provide a reference? I have not been able to find a CMIP5 paper with trends near to those we see at present.

  21. 21
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    > rather rainy in the Arctic.

    You could say that. You could say that. Tropical Rainfall Rate in Arctic Alaska.

  22. 22
    ob says:

    @19 that’s the most recent paper on sea ice trends in the models
    (this way please)

  23. 23
    Jim Larsen says:

    O the perils of extrapolation, but the ice sure looks like its parachute failed to deploy and it’s *splat* time. An October minimum, anybody? A late, amazingly low minimum just before the US elections. Arctic sea ice might just become a big issue. I’m rooting for the lowest possible extent. Go melt go!!!

    “e CMIP5 models do have updated calculations and many models show trends similar to that seen in these obs. – gavin]”

    Cool. How do they tend to evolve? Do they indicate this is just a deviation or a legitimate trend?

    7 Kevin, nice work, but I disagree with ” in a world where energy is rapidly becoming more expensive.”

    The most expensive fossil energy I know of is tar sand oil at $20-25/ barrel. Fossil fuel’s price is constrained not by cost, but by profit and tax, as limited by renewables, which are decreasing in cost. As wind and solar drop to less than current fossil pricing, fossil’s price will drop too. “When renewables are competitive with fossil” is a pipe dream. True competitiveness is based on cost, not price. Of course, including externalities, such as the loss of sea-ice, makes fossil fuels quite expensive at any price.

  24. 24

    OK… calling out for an entrepreneur for a digital display of data.

    It is way past time for an iPad/Smart-Android app or widget… we will need to see ice coverage, drought maps, heat waves, floods, storms and even crop reports. Any climate data that is a few days old. I am tired of visiting 20 or so sites just to see the latest data.

    This old method of waiting months and years for academic publishing cycles is not cutting it. Policy is poisoned by reliance on 2007 models. A simple climate change app doesn’t need IPCC sanctioning… just recent data. An app that is well-formed would let the user decide what data to input into a model to be displayed.

    The goal is not academic support, the goal is to inform the public on the latest information.

    An app could be from synthesized, modernized and combined climate models as a foundation – and would appear as the user wants to display it — on a smart phone, device or web page.

    It is about time for this, isn’t it?

  25. 25

    Thank you, ob at 21.

    Stroeve et al.’s paper:

    “Results from the CMIP5 models do not appear to have appreciably reduced uncertainty as to when a seasonally ice-free Arctic Ocean will be realized.”

    Has anyone seen anything better in the literature?

  26. 26

    @Pete Dunkelberg (#20): The Alaskan heavy rain has continued into the past week. The 2.04″ at Nome is 275% of normal, and the season to date is running almost 200% of normal.

  27. 27
    john byatt says:

    wili “My point was that “So what?” is the position implicitly and tacitly taken by most of the media, and by implication by most of the population. So if we don’t directly address that position here, people casually walking by will be lost in the technicalities of the science and miss the point of why this concerns so many of us so deeply”

    You are driving along and your OIL warning light comes on,

    “So what?”

  28. 28
    wili says:

    Wayne and John Byatt, thanks for the perspectives. For anyone unfamiliar with the term:

    “In common parlance, a devil’s advocate is someone who, given a certain argument, takes a position he or she does not necessarily agree with, for the sake of argument. In taking such position, the individual taking on the devil’s advocate role seeks to engage others…”

    So thanks for engaging, but don’t assume the stated position was mine.

    Meanwhile, here’s a list of possible effects compiled by “nothing-new-under-the-sun” in a comment on neven’s site.

    “1. Arctic ecosystem change/habitat loss
    2. Arctic (human) communities culture/infrastructure loss
    3. Albedo change to global energy budget
    4. Permafrost melt acceleration
    5. Methane clathrates destabilisation
    6. Greenland ice sheet melt acceleration
    7. Geo-political tensions over Arctic resources
    8. Exploitation of Arctic fossil hydrocarbon resources feedback
    9. Complex effects on NH wind/weather patterns via polar jetstream effects.

    10. I considered a tenth, namely, a further disruption to the global energy budget from the freeing of the latent heat energy that previously was being used to accomplish the phase transition of ice -> water, though my back of the envelope calculations suggest that this is a much smaller issue than albedo change (I’d love to see some reputable work on this topic as I’m far from any kind of expert).

    Now that I think about it a little more, I can think of a further seven issues that neither Neven&Kevin nor I mentioned. Some of these I’m very tentative about (esp ##15&16).

    11. The release of persistent toxins and heavy metals that had become trapped in the ice.

    12. The opening up of Arctic shipping routes which (a) reduces fuel needs of global shipping by cutting distances (negative feedback) but (b) brings more diesel fuel into the Arctic region, leaving black soot on glaciers (positive feedback). Not sure which is the larger effect.

    13. Reconnection of marine ecosystems previously separated by ice with unpredictable ecosystem changes from invasive species. This is already occurring.

    14. Opening up of Arctic fishing grounds to greater exploitation (and noise pollution).

    15. Potential effects on thermohaline circulation. I haven’t seen any work on this related to seasonal sea ice loss, so I have no idea whether it is significant.

    16. Potential effects on ocean acidification by increasing surface area for atmosphere-ocean gas exchange. Would this make any difference to ocean capacity to act as CO2 sink or rate of acidification? Maybe this is irrelevant. I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere and is just an idea that came to me.

    17 . Highly visual and difficult to dispute sign of climate change, representing a potential tipping point in public awareness and concern. If we are waiting for that, however, before we make any serious efforts to slash emissions (esp if it doesn’t occur until 2030 or later), we’ll already have so much warming committed that we’ll pretty much be toast. At best, therefore, this point might consolidate public support for massive rapid emissions reductions already underway. But of course, by here, we’ve moved out of the geophysical and into the political systems, and so I’ll note the above comments and cease before travelling any further…”

  29. 29

    re: 27

    My first thought about consequences that we can perceive was that there will be an increase in out-of-season cold winds breaking out of the Arctic. If the outbreaks are severe enough, they will produce late Spring killing frosts. A few years ago, we had 4 days in April with dry, high winds and temps in the 20s. Push that forward a couple of weeks and it isn’t the loss of ornamental trees that we experienced: it would be a loss of the first agricultural planting for the year.

    My first impression anyway.

  30. 30
    john byatt says:

    # 24 Agree Richard, I get IPCC AR4 thrown in my face all the time as being the current state of the science.

  31. 31
    Unsettled Scientist says:

    > It is way past time for an iPad/Smart-Android app or widget we will need to see ice coverage, drought maps, heat waves, floods, storms and even crop reports

    Sure, that’s where they are many apps out there. Google is your friend, they don’t just find & install themselves.

    Here’s one “top 10” listing, I’m sure if you spend a minute or two you can find some that you like, it didn’t take me long to find these.

    These cover at least some of your exact desires like Arctic Watch and Drought Monitor. Also, have you tried using the browser on your phone? Many sites, Real Climate included, have mobile friendly themes. I read RC on my phone frequently, even posted a couple times using it but typing truly sucks on phones.

  32. 32
  33. 33
    George says:

    Any thoughts on the relationship between the melting ice and the drought in the United States? Not that there is a direct link. I’m more interested in trends.

    [Response: No direct link – though of course both are influenced by rising temperatures occurring as a function of increasing greenhouse gases. – gavin]

  34. 34
    john byatt says:

    #28 wili, It obviously was not your position, You seemed to be asking what it could mean for the man in the street,

    Tell him that the temperature (Arctic) and oil (Greenland) lights just came on while your were driving his car.

    what does it mean? well it means that first you must stop the car.

    It may be just a wiring problem the car may continue on, Do you want to take the chance of “so what”

  35. 35
    Pekka Kostamo says:

    Wili: Thanks for a good list.

    18. Increased evaporation (more water vapor in the atmosphere) due to higher sea surface temperature. Even assuming that the summer ice surface used to be wet, 0 degC and low salinity which it was not always.

    19. Changed Arctic Ocean current patterns due to stronger wind drag over open water.

    20. Less stratification of waters from different origins due to more mixing near the surface (wind effects).

    21. Enchaced sea-to-atmosphere energy flow as the insulation formed by ice (and snow on it) diminishes.

    22. More first year ice containing more salt than old ice. Different ice properties.

    My favourite graph is still

    It shows clearly the steady decline, but also that a distict process mode change happened in 2007. Excessive summer melt has now repeated 6 times.

  36. 36
    Scott says:

    Hi everyone,

    I downloaded the daily data set from 1978-2012, and noticed the annual maximums appear to vary less than the annual minimums. There’s still a downward trend but not as noticeable.

    If true, does it mean the Arctic has remarkable recovery capabilities?

    Or, is it related to ice thickness?

    For example, if all the ice melted in the summer, new ice could form over a large area, yet be quite thin. Conversely, if the ice were quite thick the maximum area may not reflect new ice formation on top of existing ice. So maybe the maximum area is a bit more stable? …well, at least until it gets too warm year round for ice to form at all :(

    I didn’t have time to calculate the variance but here are the highs and lows for each category from 1978 to the present:

    Annual Minimum Daily Extent*:
    – Highest is 7.52 on Sept. 5, 1980
    – Lowest is 3.97 on Aug. 25, 2012
    – Difference: 3.55

    Annual Maximum Daily Extent*:
    – Highest is 16.56 on Mar. 1, 1979
    – Lowest is 14.69 on Mar. 7, 2011 (and this March it was 15.29)
    – Difference: 1.87

    * Area in 10^6 km^2

    Sorry if this is basic climatology knowledge, I’m far from an expert.


  37. 37

    [Sorry, wili. I misread the context/tone of your post. Apologies. Still, at least it was an opportunity to post the link.]

  38. 38
    Toby Thaler says:

    24, 30, et al.: I’ve been using a movie of diminishing ‘old’ sea ice from as an educational tool. I don’t think a single site for AGW impact info is as important as having more sites like climatewatch, and having them link to each other.

    It’s not just this record breaking year for Arctic ice that is being ignored in the MSM in the U.S. Southern Europe is in the grip of a heat wave complete with numerous fires (e.g., but you wouldn’t know it from the Washington Post, New York Times, or Wall Street Journal.

    28: Effect # 17 (“tipping point in public awareness and concern”) will not occur in the U.S. if there is no comprehensive reporting of what’s going on.

  39. 39
    Chris Colose says:

    Can anyone explain these two seemingly different visualization of Arctic sea ice extent on 8/25/12 (hopefully the links aren’t out of date)

    NOAA and NSIDC

  40. 40

    #24 richard pauli

    I’ve put together a decent set of updating charts on the OSS site.

    Global Climate Monitor with sections focused on

    – Arctic
    – Antarctica
    – Atmosphere
    – Greenhouse Gases
    – Oceanic Climate
    – Temperature
    – Solar
    – Storms & Trends
    – Land

    Most update daily, some are monthly, some update hourly, 15 minutes, 5 minutes and 60 seconds.

  41. 41


    ‘We can expect to see an ice-free Arctic at about the middle of this century.’ said yesterady prof. Will Steffen, executive director of the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute.

    This is not Konrad Steffen, who I think would disagree with such estimate.

    I think 2020 +/- 5 years is a more reasonable estimate…


  42. 42
    Lennart van der Linde says:

    Thanks to Tenney for pointing to:

    From the abstract:
    “Previous research revealed that the observed downward trend in September ice extent exceeded simulated trends from most models participating in the World Climate Research Programme Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 3 (CMIP3). We show here that as a group, simulated trends from the models contributing to CMIP5 are more consistent with observations over the satellite era (1979–2011). Trends from most ensemble members and models nevertheless remain smaller than the observed value.”

    So most models still underestimate the speed of the actual decline in Arctic sea ice?

  43. 43
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Scott @ 36: “I downloaded the daily data set from 1978-2012, and noticed the annual maximums appear to vary less than the annual minimums. There’s still a downward trend but not as noticeable.”

    The winter maximum is rather hampered by land isn’t it? Try comparing the maximum extent to the areas where it has a chance to grow.

  44. 44
    Lawrence Coleman says:

    27 John Byatt. I think it’s more like you’re driving along and suddenly your front tyres explode and you are veering wildly from side to side of the road …”So what” (taking a geological time scale here).

  45. 45
    tamino says:

    Re: #36 (Scott)

    At least some of the effect is due to geometry and the placement of land masses in the northern hemisphere. See this:

  46. 46
    Paul S says:

    Chris Colose,

    NOAA/NIC/IMS is also the source of NSIDC’s MASIE product. There’s some text about the difference between MASIE and their Sea Ice Index product in the documentation. There’s also a page documenting the IMS analysis itself.

  47. 47
    Geoff Beacon says:

    Gavin’s comment @33

    Any thoughts on the relationship between the melting ice and the drought in the United States? Not that there is a direct link. I’m more interested in trends.

    [Response: No direct link – though of course both are influenced by rising temperatures occurring as a function of increasing greenhouse gases. – gavin]

    Doesn’t Jennifer Francis say different. See Does Arctic Amplification Fuel Extreme Weather in Mid-Latitudes?

  48. 48
    wili says:

    Thanks again john, bob (no apology needed), and especially pekka for your engagement and contributions.

    Chris, it is my impression from noodling around obsessively at neven’s and other arctic sites that different organizations have different thresholds for what they consider ice covered water. I don’t have the stats for those sites, but consider how different a map that considers areas with 15% coverage to be included in extent versus 30% or more. My impression is also that extent maps function especially to help navigators know where they can safely go with their ships. Different ships would have different tolerances for different concentrations of ice, I imagine. So it is probably useful to have a variety of measures out there.

    Somewhere on the sites there should be a place where each site explains its criteria for extent determination. I just don’t have time to do that search right now. Hope this helps. (But don’t take my word for it.)

  49. 49
    wili says:

    By the way, CT SIA set a new record today: 2.64316 million k^2

    A lot of bumping up and down for ice area now, even as ice extent falls. Presumably a lot of compaction going on. And freezing in some areas, thaw and transport out in others.

  50. 50
    Allen W. says:

    It just occurred to me that if the source of the Alaska rain is indeed the arctic the surface salinity has to be climbing as a result. What I mean to say is the Arctic Ocean salinity on the surface is usually lower than other sea area’s because of meltwater and river influx freshening. If mass quantities of fresh surface water are departing as cloud masses and raining out to south of the continental divide in Alaska that rain will make its way to the Pacific instead of back into the Arctic. This will have at least two effects, the Arctic will be more saline and harder to freeze in winter, and the mass lost will be replaced by currents flowing into the basin mostly from the Atlantic.