Arctic sea-ice cover sets new record low for January, ‘because it’s just been so darn warm'

Feb 10, 2017

Arctic sea-ice cover sets another record low …


Extraordinarily warm Arctic air continues to hinder the formation of sea ice around the circumpolar north. And that’s led the National Snow and Ice Data Center to declare yet another record – this one reflecting the sparse Arctic sea ice cover for the month of January.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center says the January sea-ice extent remained well below average within the Kara, Barents, and Bering seas.
Credit NSIDC

“If you look at where sea-ice extent is right now, we’re at a record low, compared to the remainder of the satellite record that goes back to 1979,” says Mark Serreze, a senior research scientist with the Colorado-based Snow and Ice Data Center.

The center announced the new record Wednesday, and reported Arctic sea ice extent last month averaged just over 5 million square miles. That’s about 100,000 square miles less than January 2016, the previous lowest sea-ice extent for the month. And it’s about a half-million square miles less than the January average of the past 38 years, since satellite monitoring began.

“We’re still trying to figure out what is happening here,” he said. “But this is really why the sea ice is so low there in part because it’s just been so darn warm in the Arctic this winter.”

Serreze says the lack of sea ice is especially pronounced on the Atlantic side of the Arctic, where a persistent weather pattern has drawn warm air, usually in the form of a storm, northward.

Monthly January ice extent for 1979 to 2017 shows a decline of about 3.2 percent per decade.
Credit NSIDC

“The question is, why is that happening?” he said. “Now, it could just be the natural variability in climate that we see all the time. But the growing suspicion out here is that the loss of sea ice itself is driving this.”

That’s the sort of feedback loop that climate scientists have been predicting for some years now, a self-perpetuating cycle that’s set in motion by warming that, in turn, contributes to more warming.

“So it’s a bit of a chicken-egg thing: we have less ice because it’s warm, but it’s really warm, so we have less ice.”

Serreze says above-average sea-surface temperatures also played a role in last month’s paltry sea-ice formation. But he says mostly, it’s warm air – like the blast that’s forecast to push temperatures around the North Pole this weekend up to around the melting point.