“Dramatic Thinning” — Arctic Sea Ice Enters Record Low Territory as Northern Polar Region Heats Up

The Arctic sea ice is melting. It is melting far more rapidly than ever expected.

This loss is measured in the form of square kilometers melted, in the form of ice thinned, in the form of new, blue water visible. Yet it is a loss beyond mere numbers and measures. A loss that has a profound impact to the Earth and its climate systems.

Weather patterns, the rate of warming in the Arctic, the rate of tundra melt, seabed warming, and carbon store release. The rate of glacial loss in Greenland. All are impacted by sea ice loss and related ocean warming.

And today, we mark another new record low. The most recent in a long series, with likely many more thinning ice days to come.

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Earlier this week there were indications that Arctic sea ice extent may begin exploring new record low values in the Wednesday through Friday timeframe. And the March 4 measure finds NSIDC values sliding below previous records for the date set just 8 years ago.

Ever since Monday, extent values have been falling by an average rate of 10,000 square kilometers each day. A steady progression of warm air fronts through the Barents coupled with well above average temperatures in the Bering and near Alaska region have generated heat pressure along the ice edge and well into the Central Arctic.

As of today, we have extreme temperature departures in the range of +20 degrees Celsius above average in the Barents northward through to the polar zone. From the Bering through Alaska and into the Southern Beaufort near the Mackenzie Delta departures are in the range of +5 to +20 C above average.

global surface temperature anomaly March 5

(Polar amplification seen ramping up today in the GFS model analysis provided by Climate Reanalyzer. Exceptional warming of +20 above average occurred in vulnerable sea ice edge regions as extent values dropped to new record lows. Image source: The University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer)

These two hot spots, together with another warm pool over Greenland have shoved the Arctic, as a whole, into the +2 C range. A rather high departure that is only forecast to worsen in the GFS model summary over the coming days.

The added warmth, wind, and waves in these ice edge regions drove these extent losses and now, as of Wednesday, values had fallen to 14,383,000 square kilometers. By comparison the previous record low for the day in 2006 was 14,411,000 square kilometers, so the new record is 28,000 square kilometers lower. An area approximately the size of the State of Maryland. 2011 now comes in as third lowest for the day at 14,451,000 square kilometers or 68,000 square kilometers above the 2015 value.

Go back 30 years and the contrast is even more stunning with 1979 extent values for March 4 at 16,514,000 square kilometers. This places the new record fully 2,131,000 square kilometers lower than sea ice extent measures for the same date 36 years ago. A total loss of ice coverage roughly equal to Greenland (2,166,000 square kilometers).


(Sea ice extent for March 5 of 2015 [bottom blue line] drops to record low levels in the NSIDC measure. The other record low years for the date — 2006 [pink] and 2011 [orange] — are provided for reference along with 1979 [top blue line]. Image source: National Snow and Ice Data Center.)

But given the current time of year, a period where ice at low levels has tended to rebound, and given the fact that we are facing growing warmth in key ice edge regions, there is risk that record losses will continue to mount over the coming days.

GFS forecast models show warm fronts continuing to advance along a very strong south to north wind pattern stretching across most of the Atlantic. A wind pattern that today pulls tropical air off the underbelly of a high pressure system just north of Jamaica, funnels this warm air north and eastward over the currents of the Gulf Stream, dumps the flow into a raging low pressure (at 950 mb) just south of Greenland which then shoves the flow into a gale raging north of Scandinavia and south of Svalbard. A strong warm frontal boundary following in the wake of the most recent warm air invasion that, yesterday, swept past the pole.

It’s a meridional pattern stretching from 20 North Latitude in the Tropical Atlantic all the way to 90 North Latitude at the pole. One that features a contiguous frontal boundary stretching from Yucatan Mexico to halfway between Svalbard and Iceland along a daisy chain of lows south and east of Greenland. A flow that is complicit in both melt along the borders of the Barents and ice thinning in the Kara and on past the 80 North Latitude line in the Arctic Ocean.


(Amazingly vast frontal system and meridional pattern stretching from the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, across the North Atlantic and on into the Arctic. Reference point at 55.6 N and 34.6 W shows storm force winds proceeding almost due south to north. Screen capture in real time at 2:51 PM EST March 5, 2015. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data  Source: Global Forecast System Model.)

This fire hose of warm air pouring up from the Atlantic will intensify over coming days as it fills the bowl of the Barents with heat, which GFS is predicting will balloon northward over the pole. By Sunday the temperature departures are predicted to peak in an extreme +4 C for the entire Arctic.

Most of the heat fueling this departure will come from the warm air invasion over the Atlantic Ocean zone. A secondary, but also very intense temperature departure is predicted to emerge along the Jet Stream ridge pattern stretching to the Mackenzie Delta region. There temperatures will also show isolated spikes in the +20 C above the 1979-2000 average range.

For the sea ice, such departures are very bad timing — hitting vulnerable regions hard just prior to traditional melt season start and possibly developing a rather low launching pad for the 2015 melt season. As such, there is high risk for continuing and expanding record lows for sea ice extent over at least the next five days.

Arctic heat spike

(Global Forecast System Model surface temperature anomaly forecast for Sunday, March 8 shows polar amplification ramping up to an extraordinary +3.99 C for the entire Arctic. Note the extreme positive temperature departures in a very large zone north of the Barents and in the Central Arctic Basin as well as the somewhat smaller but still extreme area of much warmer than normal temperatures over the Mackenzie Delta region. Image source: The University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer.)

New Record Lows Amidst Dramatic Thinning

The most recent record lows and threat of these low measures deepening come amidst new scientific reports finding an ominous and extreme thinning of sea ice in the Central Arctic Ocean near the pole. The study found that between 1975 and 2012 Central Arctic Sea Ice thinned from 11.7 feet to 4.1 feet.

Such thinning represents a loss of fully 65 percent of the sea ice volume for the Central Arctic Ocean over this period. But yearly average sea ice thinning paled in comparison to losses seen during September. For that month, sea ice thickness plunged from 9.8 feet to merely 1.4 feet — a stunning drop of 85% over the 37 years of measurements.

Study Author Ron Lindsay of the Applied Physics Lab at UW notes:

“The ice is thinning dramatically. We knew the ice was thinning, but we now have additional confirmation on how fast, and we can see that it’s not slowing down.”

Axel Schweiger, a polar scientist and contributor to the UW study added:

At least for the central Arctic basin, even our most drastic thinning estimate was slower than measured by these observations.”

A 1.4 foot average sea ice thickness for September is very thin. Tissue paper thin when it comes to sea ice. And the 4.1 foot yearly average isn’t much better. A fragile skein vulnerable to the continued assault of elemental heat we keep driving into the Arctic. Given this major loss, noted fragility, and ongoing exploration of record low values, risks for blue ocean events in this region are on the rise.

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UPDATE: On March 5, 2015 new record extent lows deepened in the NSIDC measure. By that date extent measures had fallen another 25,000 square kilometers to 14,358,000. The drop deepens losses and widens the gap between 2006 (second lowest on record) and 2015 to 74,000 square kilometers — or an area roughly the size of South Carolina.

Conditions — major heat build up along the ice edge zones, especially in the Barents region — continue to favor suppressed and reduced sea ice levels over the coming days. Updates on this evolving sensitive situation near the start of melt season will continue.


National Snow and Ice Data Center

The University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer

Global Forecast System Model

Earth Nullschool

Arctic Sea Ice Thinning Dramatically

Arctic Sea Ice Flirts with New Record Lows

Hat Tips:

Scientific Hat tip to Ron Lindsay and Axel Schweiger

Scientific Hat tip to the UW applied Physics research team

The Arctic Sea Ice Blog

Kevin Jones

Colorado Bob


Where Insolation is King: ‘Blue Ice’ Melt Forming In Northwest Passage


(Image source: Lance Modis)

It’s been rather warm in the Canadian Arctic over the past few days. This day, especially, revealed particularly high temperatures. From the bottom edge of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago southward, 20 degree + Celsius temperatures ran through a wide region on the west side of Hudson Bay.

These high temperatures are having their impact. Hudson Bay itself is riddled with holes and rapidly thinning. Meanwhile, a section of the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Archipelago is turning a characteristic blue color.

Looking down from our satellite perch, this pale shade appears to grace the ice with a flattering color. But closer in we notice that this particular peal is a result of a multiplication of melt ponds on the ice surface. The ponds refract the light, turning them a mesmerizing shade of blue. And as these lakes increase in number to dot the ice, from far away the it appears to take on their color.

This particularly brilliant display comes with an ominous note. Thin ice, vulnerable to accumulated energy from the sun (insolation) tends to melt much faster. And so it is melting faster, about three weeks to a month ahead of schedule in this particular region. Together, warm air plus insolation may be spelling out an early end to winter’s ice here.

Chris Reynolds over at Dosbat and Neven over at the Arctic Ice Blog have been warning of the sea ice’s special vulnerability to insolation this year. This vulnerability is primarily due to the fact that most of the Arctic Ocean and related waterways are covered only by a thin layer of about two meters of ice. Very few regions remain where thick ice dominates. And two meter ice may well not survive the assault of the summer sun.

In the Central Arctic, where much of the remaining thick ice resides, the area is plagued by a powerfully churning storm. This persistent monstrosity is little more than a giant engine of heat exchange. It pulls air in from the surrounding atmosphere, it feeds on heat and moisture, it flings out winds, and it even turns and churns the icy ocean beneath. Such a storm, so long ongoing, poses its own threats to the Arctic’s more vulnerable ice.

But where the air is still, where there is ambient heat, and where the clouds open wide and allow the sun’s rays to plunge down upon the ice surface, insolation is king. And that force, a direct force of sunlight, appears to be spelling an early end to this so seemingly lovely stretch of pale, blue ice.



Arctic Ice Blog


The Big Thin Begins: Week-Long Cyclone Chews Away Fragile Arctic Sea Ice


(Image Source: CICE)

A moderate-strength cyclone that emerged about six days ago and is expected to last at least until Monday is slowly chewing away a large area of Arctic sea ice near the North Pole. Cyclonic action generated by the storm is now resulting in an unprecedented thinning of central Arctic sea ice. It is important to note that should this ice thinning continue, it could have major impacts on end summer sea ice this year.

The low that is causing the trouble moved out of the region of the Beaufort Sea, skirted East Siberia and had transitioned into the central Arctic Ocean by about May 24th. Since then, it has persisted, remaining nearly stationary with a slow drift back toward the Beaufort. Forecast maps show the low remaining in this region until at least Monday before it weakens and moves toward the Mackenzie Delta. Strangely, long-rage forecasts show it re-strengthening even as it returns to the central Arctic.

Arctic cyclone

(Image source: DMI)

Minimum central pressure continues to hover around 990 millibars. This moderate strength compares to the much stronger Great Arctic Cyclone of 2012 which bottomed out around 960 millibars. However, the storm is quite strong for this time of year, when Arctic cyclones tend to be rare and weak, containing enough energy to generate winds that erode sea ice.

This erosion takes place via a pumping process by which the ice is pushed against the ocean surface by the cyclonic wind field. This motion, in turn, stirs up the underlying waters creating a warm, upwelling current. Since the forces occur over broad regions, powerful surface forces allow the upwelling to dredge deep, causing mixing between surface and lower layers. Tendrils and micro-currents of warmer water thus rise to contact the ice. This action can melt the sea ice from below, breaking it into smaller chunks, opening polynas, and riddling the ice with leads. If the storm grows strong enough, large wave action can devour whole sections of ice. But, in this case, the storm does not appear to be powerful enough to generate this kind of wave action.

Since 2012, we have already seen two major upwelling events. One, already mentioned, was the Great Arctic Cyclone of 2012. The second, involved strong off-shore winds during February and March which pushed ice away from shore and, in the region of Barrow Alaska, resulted in near-shore upwelling that temporarily melted ice even as it was pushed out to sea. The combined result was open water during winter.

We can see the storm’s current and projected impacts on the CICE model run posted at the top. CICE is projecting the development of a large area of thin and fractured ice near the North Pole in the storm’s wake even as a region of thick ice north of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago erodes. These projections show average thickness in a wide region falling from about two meters to less than one meter.

That’s very thin ice for North Pole regional waters.

Already, some impacts from the storm are visible in Lance-Modis shots of the region.


(Image source: Lance-Modis)

In the above shot, we can see the center of our moderate-strength cyclone near the middle-left portion of the image. To the right of the storm center, we can see down through the clouds to areas where the ice has fractured, revealing the dark blue waters beneath. Below the storm center and near the lower left-hand corner of the image is the North Pole. So what we are seeing is a broad area of leads and fractured ice with gaps measuring up to about 5 km wide within 200 miles of the North Pole. This kind of development is not at all usual for late May, much less late August.

CICE model runs show ice in this region continuing to thin, fracture and weaken as the storm passes.

As the storm moves away, it is expected to pull warm air in behind it, which could further weaken the ice. ECMWF weather forecasts show this warm air influx occurring by about June 4:


(Image source: ECMWF)

In the above image, we see 5 degree C temperatures plunging directly into the heart of the Arctic. A powerful late spring event should it emerge.

In the past, storms of this kind have had very little impact on sea ice. However, this year the ice is very thin and spread out. Most ice in the Arctic is showing a thickness of two meters or less. Records of past melt seasons show that two meter or thinner ice is unlikely to survive the melt season.

Furthermore, packs of much warmer air are drawn closer to the Arctic center by a wavy pattern in the jet stream. The result is that large north-south swoops draw warmer air up from the south even as they push Arctic air into more southerly regions. Europe, in particular, suffered due to this mangling of the jet stream. Ironically, a growing body of scientific evidence shows that these very changes in the jet stream are a result of loss of sea ice. So it appears that loss of sea ice is resulting in a snow-balling of forces that contribute to its ultimate demise.

The ultimate result is an Arctic-wide ice thinning impacting even the most central and protected areas. Even in this region of the central Arctic, where ice is usually much thicker, large regions of 2 meter or thinner ice dominate. You have to venture closer to Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago to find areas of ice thicker than 2 meters. However, as the recent evacuation of a Russian Arctic Expedition in that region shows, even the thickest ice is far more fragile than before.

The result of all this thin and broken ice is that it is much more vulnerable to surface conditions. A storm moving over thin and broken ice is much more likely to churn it up, breaking it and mixing it with the warmer waters underneath. Last year, we saw this process in action during the powerful Great Arctic Cyclone which emerged in August, churning up a large area of the Beaufort Sea, then drawing warm air in behind it, resulting in major sea ice losses.

At times when ice was thicker, moderate or powerful storms would not pose a threat for enhanced melt. But since 1979, the Arctic has suffered an 80% loss of sea ice volume.

This year, sea ice volume is currently at record low levels. Yet the ice pack is very spread out, boasting an area near 2002 values. This combination of wide coverage and low volume leaves the ice very, very thin and fragile. So now, even moderate cyclones like the one hovering near the North Pole can chew away at the ice.

If the CICE projections bear out, we’ll see the central ice pack greatly weakened in the wake of this storm just as solar radiance and warm air build into mid-June. At this point, such injuries to the ice make it more likely that rapid and catastrophic decline in coverage will begin to dramatically ramp up over the next few weeks.

As Neven over at the Arctic Ice Blog notes:

I feel the Arctic sea ice pack could soon go POP under the right conditions.

Let’s see:

  1. Thin, spread-out ice pack.
  2. Persistent storm chewing away the central ice.
  3. Large cracks and areas of open water riddling most of the ice pack.
  4. Large polynas forming behind the ice edge.
  5. Upwelling events eroding the bottom ice.
  6. Loss of Arctic expeditions in the region of the ‘thickest’ ice.
  7. June heat and constant, direct sunlight approaches.

Looks to me like a lot of the ‘right’ conditions are present.

In short, don’t let the high extent and area numbers fool you. The thin, spread out state of the ice leaves it more vulnerable, not less so. The sea ice is weaker and less resilient than it ever was. Only a cold summer and conditions favorable for ice retention are likely to prevent a record melt in either area, volume or extent. On the other hand, very bad conditions could result in near-total melt (under 1 million square kilometers end season area).


Long-range weather models show the cyclone sweeping down toward the Mackenzie Delta, drifting back toward the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and finally returning to the Central Arctic by mid-June. Such a prolonged storm event would likely have a continuous weakening affect on the ice. Lower temperatures in the storm’s region would be more than countered by active wave energy and tapping of warmer, deeper waters which will have a tendency to erode the ice from beneath. Furthermore, warmer air is shown to follow in the wake of this storm, which may enhance melt through regions of already weakened ice.

In any case, this is a situation that bears close watching. A month-long, or more, storm harrying the Arctic could have quite an impact.

ECMWF weather model forecast for June 9th:

Cyclone june 9

(Image source: ECMWF)





The Arctic Ice Blog

PIOMAS November Update Shows Sea Ice Thinner Than Ever: Volume More Than 1000 Cubic Kilometers Below 2011

The November update of the Polar Science Center’s PIOMAS sea ice volume tracker shows Arctic sea ice volume remaining in record low territory for the month of October. By month’s end, sea ice volume was still about 1096 cubic kilometers below the previous record low set in 2011.

Volume recovery during the seasonal re-freeze was lower than in 2011. During that year, sea ice volume in fall and winter rebounded to levels near those of the previous year. This year, however, the gap between 2011 and 2012 is much greater.

A number of factors kept Arctic re-freeze lower than in previous years. Sea ice has been pushed so far back that it simply takes longer and longer to recover. Warm water ocean currents are traveling further north, transporting more warm water into the Arctic environment later and later in the year. Atmospheric circulation has also changed. Large blocking patterns dredge warm air up from the south and deposit it in the Arctic. These same blocking patterns dump cold air, which once tended to concentrate in the Arctic, into temperate regions. The result of all this ocean and atmospheric mixing is that the Arctic is much warmer than usual and sea ice recovery mostly lags.

In his Arctic Sea Ice Blog, sea ice blogger Neven has also pointed out that it is likely sea ice is also thinner now than ever before. His rough graph combines PIOMAS volume and NSIDC sea ice area data to provide an estimate for average thickness. This month’s graph shows average ice thickness of less than 1 meter over the entire Arctic lasting through November 5th.

Neven’s previous rough estimates had shown average sea ice thickness did not pass below the one meter threshold at any time since records have been established. This year, average sea ice thickness dropped below 1 meter on October 21rst and has remained at that record low level through to November 5th.

Increasing scientific evidence and consensus points toward massively reduced sea ice area and volume resulting in chaotic and damaging weather patterns. Meteorologists and researchers from climate and weather disciplines have attributed Superstorm Sandy’s size, intensity, and path, to influences that have been made worse and worse by human caused climate change. Furthermore, powerful blocking patterns that result from the deterioration of sea ice have been implicated in wide ranging weather extremes including the current historic drought, powerful heat waves in Europe, Russia, and the US, and extreme rain and storm events across the globe.

In addition, receding sea ice kicks off a number of powerful global warming feedbacks that are likely to amplify human-caused climate change, heating the Earth at a faster rate. Loss of insulating sea ice also puts Greenland and West Antarctica at increasingly severe risk of increased melt. The result, in these cases, is much more rapid sea level rise on top of increasingly powerful storms. We are experiencing only the first outliers of these impacts now. So rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions can help to prevent the worst of a large pack of climate troubles now forming.





Arctic Sea Ice in Rapid Decline, May Break 2007 Record Low by Summer’s End

Analysis of Arctic sea ice monitors shows rapid melt in the Beaufort, Chukchi, and East Siberian seas is currently underway. Since the beginning of summer, this large area of sea ice has shown significant thinning. Over the past week, this thin ice reached a tipping point and is now melting.


You can view this area in the above image by looking northeast of Eastern Siberia and northwest of Alaska. The image is provided by the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) and shows very thin ice undergoing collapse in this vulnerable area. Throughout the region, sea ice is becoming very thin, spreading out, and splitting into large holes the size of islands. During the record melt of 2007, this area also experienced unprecedented rapid melt.


The above infrared image, provided by the Polar Research Group at the University of Illinois, shows holes opening up in the ice in this region as well as an increased number of melt ponds forming on the surface. According to the image, ice concentration throughout much of the region is at 50% or less.

What’s important to recognize is the fact that if this region continues its rapid collapse, world sea ice area and extent will likely come in at or below the record figures set in 2007, continuing a trend of catastrophic ice loss for the Arctic Ocean.

Current tracking shows both sea ice extent and area currently below 2007 figures for this date:


The National Snow and Ice Data Center tracks sea ice extent which measures the breadth of sea ice coverage by including all regions behind the sea ice’s edge. The extent measure doesn’t include holes that open up behind the ice, however. In the current measure, we can see that 2012 sea ice extent is tracking slightly lower than the record low extent set in 2007. More dramatic, however, is the current measurement for sea ice area:


If you click through the link, you’ll notice the 2012 area line is, as of this writing, about 350,000 square kilometers below the previous record low. Sea ice area measures both the edge of the ice as well as the holes that are measurable in the satellite picture.

As with the images, what the trend lines show is that end of summer 2012 could reach or exceed the record lows for sea ice area and extent set in 2007. There is potential, however, that any new record low could be substantially below the 2007 record due to the fact that sea ice throughout the Arctic is very thin and, therefore, vulnerable to melt during periods of warm weather.

For a refresher, let’s take a look at end of summer sea ice from 2007:





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