Arctic Heat Drives Sea Ice Back Into Record Low Territory At Top of Melt Season

record low sea ice cover March 10

(Record low sea ice cover on March 10, 2014 a time that typically features sea ice maximum. Note that all basins show sea ice area and extent below the, already lower than normal, 1979-2000 base-line. Image source: Climate Change Institute.)

Abnormal, warm southerly winds at the lower and upper levels. More large heat pulses driven by high amplitude Jet Stream waves. Tropical heat launching into the Arctic Stratosphere over the Himalayas. Warm water upwelling from the rapidly heating ocean depths.

All conditions that continue to place the Arctic sea ice under a state of constant siege — winter and summer. All again doing their dangerous work in pushing the now critically weakened ice, once more to record low levels.

Under this state of ongoing assault, regions near Svalbard fell into rapid retreat as floes fractured over warming waters in the Bering Sea and west of Greenland. The result is the lowest measure of winter time sea ice area ever seen in any record for this day since Arctic observation began. Yet one more passing milestone in the vicious and rapid progression of human-caused climate change.

2011 Records Fall

According to reports from NSIDC and Cryosphere Today, Arctic sea ice area dropped to a record low of 12.95 million square kilometers on March 10 of 2014. It is a measure more than 2 million square kilometers, or an area roughly the size of Greenland, smaller than that seen during the late 1970s and breaking the previous record low, set just three years ago, by 150,000 square kilometers. Sea ice extent, meanwhile, had fallen to 14.5 million square kilometers, a measure roughly tied with the previous record low set in 2011 and also about 2 million square kilometers below area values seen during the late 1970s.

It is worth noting that the trend lines for both sea ice extent and area are well below previous trends for record low years 2007 (green below) and 2012 (pink below).

Sea ice area march 10 CT

(March 10 Sea Ice Area showing record low for the day. Image source: Pogoda i Klimat. Data Source: Cryosphere Today.)

Melt Hot Spots: Ocean Zones Near Svalbard and Greenland

With the Aqua Satellite again cresting the Arctic, we can peer down through cloud and ice to see dark, open waters peeking through kilometer-wide cracks or dominating entire ocean zones during a very anemic peak freeze. With recent days bringing average Arctic temperatures in the range of 2.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius above normal and with local spikes in the +20 degrees C above normal range, areas of visible retreat and fragility abound.

These heat spikes combined with strong southerly winds near Svalbard to drive a rapid, far-north, retreat of ice floes on March 9-11 into zones that previously saw open ocean only during summer time. This far northward invasion of dark, open water is the primary culprit of the new record low:

Open Ocean North of Svalbard March 11

(Open ocean north and west of Svalbard on March 11, 2014. It is worth noting that Svalbard is about 600 miles from the North Pole. The Current sea ice edge, during a time when ice extent should be at its maximum, is now just 500 miles from the North Pole. Image source: Lance-Modis.)

A large region of northern Baffin Bay near Northwest Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago also showed extensive melt and open ocean zones during recent days.

Over past decade, this region has shown increasing susceptibility to warm ocean water upwelling near the Nares Strait with winter-time melting of northern extremities in Baffin Bay. But this year’s melt was particularly strong. An event that coincided with sea-bed earthquakes and anomalously high methane levels (1950 ppb+) in the region through mid-to-late February. It is possible that upwelling is both driven by warm water currents now filling up the Baffin deep water zone and by the somewhat energetic out-gassing of sea bed methane through faults and seeps.

It is worth noting that evidence of these seeps is based on satellite observation and very little in the way of comprehensive seabed methane assessment has been completed by the global scientific community, a gap in understanding that may well come back to haunt us as human-caused warming continues to put increased heat pressure on both deep and shallow ocean carbon stores.

Baffin Bay Nares Extensive cracked ice open water

(Fingerprints of warm water upwelling, sea-bed methane release? Extensive open water, cracked ice in North Baffin Bay, Nares Strait region during height of sea ice extent, 2014. Image source: Lance Modis.)

Heightened risk for record low year, total meltdown

The current record low status for end winter sea ice and the approach of El Nino, which tends to add heat to the European and Asian continents, results in an increased risk that new record lows for sea ice area, extent and volume may be reached by end of summer 2014. Both warm air and water flushing in from the continents have been implicated in large sea ice retreats during recent years and a rapid heating of the large land mass over Arctic Europe and Asia, along with a simultaneous warming of Alaska, should El Nino progress, may amplify both continental heat build up and heat transfer through river outflow into the Arctic Ocean Basin.

In addition, high temperature anomalies during late winter to early spring continue to suppress sea ice recovery late season. The result is that more open ocean is now available to absorb energy from the rising sun or to deliver that energy in the form of waves and currents to the greatly diminished ice pack. The one saving grace, if it can be viewed as such, is a minor, though likely temporary rebound in sea ice volume extending from late last year, likely bringing volume values into the range of 3rd or 4th lowest on record for March.

It is also worth considering that sea ice area trends show an ever-increasing possibility of a record melt year with melt rates similar to 2007, 2011 or 2012 enough to bring 2014 to new record lows.


(Sea ice area projections based on past trends. It is worth noting that the melt season has lengthened by nearly a month since 1979, the result being increasing volumes of ice lost from end of freeze to end of melt. Image source: Jim Pettit. Data Source: NSIDC.)

In any case, this combination of conditions generates a high risk of sea ice reaching new record lows in sea ice area, volume and/or extent come end of summer 2014 (60%). This prediction finds its basis in observed records of past melt seasons and in the fact that very few days remain for a potential late-season uptick in sea ice. If record low values hold and a late season rebound does not occur, it is worth considering this simple fact: each time sea ice reached a new record low maximum sea ice area since 2005,  a new record area melt was achieved by end of summer. That said, not achieving a record low maximum is no guarantee of safety, as 2012 so starkly proved.

It is also worth considering that sea ice may be very close to tipping points and once thinned beyond a certain threshold will be unable maintain integrity. In such an event, warm, dark, increasingly mobile ocean waters eventually overwhelm an ice pack fighting for survival. We may well have seen the beginning of such a consequence during 2012 when powerful and energetic storms that would usually result in sea ice retention only served to hasten record losses. A warning that there are fewer and fewer conditions favoring summer ice retention as the Arctic energy balance is ever more forcibly shoved toward melt.

Given these potentials — the high likelihood for record low area at maximum, the ever-lengthening melt season, and the increasing fragility of ice come end-summer — it is worth considering the unexpected worst case: total sea ice loss or near total ice loss (less than 1 million square kilometers area) by end of summer 2014. At this point, given record low area conditions late in the freeze season, we will assess a slight uptick of total ice loss risk over the previous year from 10 to 15 percent — a somewhat increased risk that sea ice values reach near ice free levels during a catastrophic melt this summer (15%).

If an observed start to the melt season begins early and if melt rates rapidly steepen, we will likely reassess both the likelihood of new records at minimum and a potential ice-free end summer state in the face of increased risks. At this point, both measures are low confidence estimates based on trends analysis, observation of current unprecedented Arctic warmth, and continued fragile ice state conditions.


March 11 Arctic sea ice area values showed continued decline into record low territory. March 10 to 11 area losses, according to Cryosphere Today, extended an additional 70,000 square kilometers pushing the value down to 12.88 million square kilometers over the entire Arctic. This level is about 130,000 square kilometers below the previous record low value for today set in 2011 at 13.1 million square kilometers.

Abnormal atmospheric warmth over the regions most affected including north and east of Svalbard, Frans Joseph Land, the Kara Sea, a large region of Russia near Dickson, and in the region of the Nares Strait continued to provide melt pressure driving the most recent record low.



Climate Change Institute

Jim Pettit

Lance Modis

Cryosphere Today

Pogoda i Klimat

Arctic Ice Graphs

Leave a comment


  1. mikkel

     /  March 12, 2014

    Robert, do you believe that hitting zero or near-zero ice will cause an instantaneous step change in weather patterns, or will it just lead to gradual but accelerated continuation of the trend? I don’t have a very good mental picture of what is expected, perhaps because I’ve never seen a report focusing on the issue since it wasn’t expected before 2100 until a few years ago.


    • Doesn’t Greenland start becoming more critical then in terms of a cold effect?


    • I think it shoves the center of cold air over Greenland and to greater and greater degrees disrupts northern hemisphere winter. With less and less of an ice cap, the Arctic Ocean radiates more heat. The continents, for a time will remain a haven for diminishing cold as the melting ice sheets if Greenland enhance instability. The era of the really nasty storms begins and intensifies.

      My opinion is that once we get into consistently ice free summers, the weather gets extraordinarily bad. Well worse than what we see now. So rapid intensification with rapid ice loss.


      • I agree we should expect to see rapid intensification in extreme weather, but I don’t see any basis to expect a step change at this point per se (although as always the earth system could deliver “surprises” for us) – and I think everyone who is setting the first ice free summer as their benchmark for dramatic change is going to be wrong footed. The process is only just getting started in the Arctic and total ice loss during the summer melt season is still quite early days in terms of the changes we should expect. It doesn’t even represent the most abrupt period of the change in my opinion.

        The fastest rates of change will come as the ice free season extends out into the summer when maximum solar energy is available for absorption into the newly darkened region. Most likely (and I don’t think one can guarantee anything) the first ice free period will occur towards the end of the melt season as insolation is starting to diminish for the year. The further back into the melt season the ice can disappear the more energy can be absorbed from the sun and the more much be lost back to the atmosphere and space for refreeze to occur in the winter (this currently being the main driver of the weather changes if I understand the Francis research correctly).

        Therefore I would argue that the reaching of the first ice free period in the Arctic during the summer melt season – while a milestone and convenient marker in the process – represents little more than perhaps the end of the beginning. When we reach that point the real changes have still yet to come – the middle and most abrupt (and I suspect damaging to our species) period is likely the fireworks as far as we are concerned (following by a gradual decreased in the rate of change as equilibrium is approached).

        Of course there is the question of Heinrich events and the like to complicate things – and also shutdown in thermohaline circulation (though so far Arctic amplification has outweighed the slowing of this, and if it stops it will spike warming in the equatorial regions as the heat must be accounted for). I’m still not entirely convinced of the potential for catastrophic ice loss from Greenland causing Heinrich type events as my understanding is the topography of Greenland should contain the ice better than the Laurentide ice sheet. I imagine we will see a significant increase in the loss rate of Greenland ice and of course shifting of the weather systems in connection with the new diminished cold region (and one suspects increased evaporation from the newly open Arctic ocean – will this add another layer of local warming feedback?)

        If memory serves PIOMAS extrapolation suggests that within a few years of seasonal ice loss having occurred for the first time we can expect several ice free months in the melt season. If that is valid – that is rather significant – as it will approximately triple the energy balance difference due to albedo from current levels (at the very least, I’m basing this on an older paper now – and there is a newer one that seemed to consider the Arctic more significant in this respect than previously thought).

        Tentatively, I would guess the process might be about half way through by that time and the rate of change will start to decrease (as we approach 2020).

        Purely uninformed speculation on my part though.


        • I don’t know if the trend will fit that exponential curve. Probably not likely. But probably not linear either. Remember, exponential brought us to ice free by 2012 in the volume chart after the 2007 melt.

          In any case, you need about 20 C of Arctic warming during winter time to melt all the ice all year round. If we go back to 1880 values — not values from the 1979 to 2000 mean — we probably have 6.5 C above average winter time values for this year. This overlays variability and a 3+ C average warming of the Arctic over an entire year.

          Given this back of the napkin, at about 2.5 C worth of average global warming, we get the possibility for ice free or near ice free winters. Under BAU, we hit this level of warming sometime mid to late century (2040 to 2080 depending on feedback).

          As for weather, maybe a climate dice approach?

          1 = relatively stable climate (1880s through 1980s).
          2 = destabilization begins (1980s through 2007)
          3 = moderate weather anomaly begins (2007 to now)
          4 = strong weather anomaly begins (seasonally ice free Arctic)
          5 = extreme climate (Storms of My Grandchildren)
          6 = hothouse climate (once most of the ice is gone)


      • islandraider

         /  March 12, 2014

        It takes a tremendous amount of energy to melt ice. When the ice is gone, that energy is “free” to do other things. You won’t like the ‘other things’…
        To melt 1 gram of ice requires 80 calories of energy.
        Apply that same 80 calories to 1 gram of water, and you heat that water 80 degrees Celsius.
        I would agree that as the ice area/extent is reduced, and as the ice-free summer months start to occur and then increase in duration, there will be a lot more heat going into the ocean. That heat will express itself more & more. This would suggest a stepwise transition, but we don’t really know what tipping points may push us over various cliffs.


        • The cold locked in glaciers, when released, creates a negative feedback that, for a time, puts a break on rapid warming. This also induces severe weather instability.


          Click to access 20121226_GreenlandIceSheetUpdate.pdf

          Note the model runs given a certain pace of sea level rise/freshwater and iceberg outflows from Greenland.

          For my part, I believe Hansen to be correct in this respect.

          So, in layman’s terms, the heat eventually wins out but the ice sheets put up one hell of a fight as they go down.


  2. Also, you can’t spell.


    • Thanks for defending me from the hater/troll, Miep ;). The stuff is gone now. Note how the trend has shifted more to direct/personal attack and ad hominem.


  3. Cahonnes, that’s a new one. lmao.

    How about you take your creepy encrazed bigotry elsewhere, Ken Idiot?


  4. Andy

     /  March 12, 2014

    I’ve been watching that graph over the winter, paying close attention to prior years. One item I’ve watched it that 2012 spike before the seasonal melt. It is likely thinner ice, but shows a “cold” spike, followed by the record low extent.

    With the current freeze season being so mild, I don’t see much opportunity for a similar clod spike, putting the melt season at a lower extent start.

    Another item I’ve been considering on this is what I would call the “net temperature balance” ( I bet there is a real term for this, I just don’t know it). With the elevated temperatures through the winter, less energy will be required to bring land / sea temperatures up this melt season. The lack of cold will reduce penetration into the permafrost and may have created thinner ice, as well as reduced loading of low energy (lower heat transfer) into the water / sea.

    As an aside on this, perusing various new sources to gather info it appears that Alaska has seen lots of rain this winter (January especially), lower snow pack. For example the dog sled race is one of those things that gives you a cross section of the snow load across ~1000 miles. It does not look good for the summer fire season.

    Also, that huge pile of slush under the surface in lower Greenland just needs a bit of an opportunity to convert to water. Think of your yard in the spring, as melt water / slush forms during the day, then the surface freezes at night. At some point it simply collapses. Could this be such an event on an epic scale?


    • Both 2012 and 2013 had end winter cold snaps. This brought the ice total up before melt season. We have some room for such a snap now. But it would have to be quick and powerful. Not seeing that in the GFS model. The high heat anomaly does come down a bit. But not enough and it still stays warmer than normal. Some of the heat shifts out onto the continents and you’d tend to expect this as both spring/summer and melt progresses.

      Alaska might cool down a bit through March. But the heat transfer grows strong again with the recession of the Jet Stream and a likely strengthening El Nino trend into summer.

      Also, watch Arctic Europe and Asia (in the region near Archangel). With El Nino and very far north Sea Ice recession in this region heat there may be quite extraordinary.

      Greenland melt balance…

      With a strong summer sea ice recession, it is likely that melt rates will jump and that the positive melt flow anomaly in Greenland will fight, for a time, the building heat in the Arctic. I do think Greenland melt can set off a major outflow of ice bergs and a Heinrich type event. The land mass is sunken and there are hundreds of channels leading deep into the glacial mass. Mountains do not so much interrupt the flow of glaciers to the sea as they focus it. So outflows through what weaknesses do exist in ‘fortress Greenland’ could be very strong indeed.

      My opinion is that certain years will be very extreme and that melt deviations from a base line will be rather enormous with some years showing very high spikes and others showing large recessions as the overall trend moves upward.

      The very dangerous event is parking a warm rainstorm for days or weeks over large sections of the ice sheet. That could result in a radical tipping of the balance.


    • One of the things that is killing me as I look at this is the fact that we have polar vortex re-establishment (positive AO) and Arctic heat anomalies are still in the high range. There are just too many heat sources right now.


  5. Mark Archambault

     /  March 12, 2014


    Very informative article, and thanks for this definition: “…it is worth considering the unexpected worst case: total sea ice loss or near total ice loss (less than 1 million square kilometers area) by end of summer 2014.” So anything less than 1 million is basically a near total loss.

    Since El Nino, if it does arise later this year, will likely persist throughout 2015 (?), if near total loss of summer sea ice doesn’t occur this year, is it safe to expect it to occur by September 2015?


    • My view is that it is not ‘safe to expect.’ At this point, 15% is low probability. We’d have to see a number of factors line up for almost ice free, near total, or total loss in 2014 or 2015.

      Though I did say less that 1 million square kilometers, many are saying that less than 1.5 million square kilometers is ‘almost ice free.’ So I guess we should consider these values as ‘almost ice free’ (less than 1.5 million square kilometers) and near total loss (less than 1 million square kilometers).

      The factors that would increase risk include:

      1. Rapid spring melt.
      2. Formation of heat, high amplitude Jet Stream wave over Europe and Asia and funneling into the Arctic.
      3. Late season weakness of sea ice, high ocean heat content, strong late season storms, or warm storms.

      These and other conditions would increase risk. That said, there are a diminishing number of conditions that reduce risk.

      A better breakdown

      New end season record broken: 60%
      Less than 1.5 million square kilometers: 20%
      Less than 1 million square kilometers: 15%

      (for 2014)

      Under trends analysis, the chances for near total loss and almost ice free conditions jump a bit for 2015. But I’d rather see how 2014 progresses before we start making more exact prognostications for that year. In general, the range will probably be between 20 to 30 percent. Not high, but growing more significant.


      • Mark Archambault

         /  March 12, 2014

        Thanks for that clarification, Robert.


      • Hope it is helpful. In my opinion, exact assertions aren’t quite as useful as exploration of potential risks given an uncertain and increasingly unstable situation.

        First, at this point considering the unprecedented nature of what we are witnessing, it is very foolish to make exact assertions. My approach, therefore, is to try to define some of the boundaries of the current context to enhance understanding.

        This is particularly worthwhile, in my view, with cutting edge science issues — like sea ice loss and methane release. In general terms the asserted boundaries tend to be ‘no ice free summers until much later’ and ‘ice fee summers tomorrow.’ Clearly the truth is somewhere between the two with the ‘ice free summers tomorrow’ camp closer to being correct thus far.

        With methane release we have a similar paradigm with ‘no large methane release for hundreds of years’ and ‘very large methane release tomorrow’ setting an extraordinarily wide and extreme range of assertions. In my view, the answer is likely between these two extremes and is much more murky due to a general lack of research, observation and modeling sufficient to nail the problem down. Again, with this issue, risk and trends analysis is helpful for developing potential boundaries.

        In any case, if you get a 100% assertion from me, the boundary focus/understanding will have become very clear.


  6. Spike

     /  March 12, 2014

    I was interested to see NASA’s Greenland study showing increased ice loss due to surface melt. Ice sliding into the sea has been relegated to a clear second place.

    “84% of the increase in mass loss after 2009 was due to increased surface runoff.”;jsessionid=27D4319EFC83547E158412BD18F0624F.f01t03?systemMessage=Wiley+Online+Library+will+be+disrupted+Saturday%2C+15+March+from+10%3A00-12%3A00+GMT+%2806%3A00-08%3A00+EDT%29+for+essential+maintenance


  7. Andy

     /  March 12, 2014

    No snow pack in Lebanon,a region that is already water stressed. This may bode poorly for agriculture in the area, as well as increase already simmering tensions on water rights along the Hasbani River.

    No Snow:

    2012 Issue May Reignite:


    • And the resource war grind continues… No more snow pack. A refrain that will, unfortunately, become more and more familiar as time goes by.


  1. Arctic Heat Drives Sea Ice Back Into Record Low Territory At Top of Melt Season | GarryRogers Nature Conservation

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