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'Really Crazy': Warm Arctic Ocean, Weather Halt Formation of Sea Ice During October

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Sea ice growing slowly in a warming Arctic ...

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate scientist Jessica Blunden last week reported that Arctic sea ice grew very slowly in October through the first part of this month.

“During October, the ice growth almost slowed completely,” Blunden said, “and this was due to really high temperatures in parts of the western Arctic seas.”

Senior Research Scientist Mark Serreze puts it more bluntly.

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Credit NSIDC
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Arctic sea ice extent for October 2016 was 2.5 million square miles (6.4 million square kilometers), much less than the median extent based on measurements from 1981 to 2010 (orange-colored line). The black cross shows the geographic North Pole.

“Things are really crazy up over the Arctic Ocean right now,” said Serreze, who directs the Colorado-based National Snow and Ice Data Center.

“November is a month where we would be seeing very, very rapid ice growth in the Arctic – the sun has set, the atmosphere is really cooling down …”

But that’s not happening this year, Serreze says.

“What we’ve seen is this sudden slowing of ice growth,” he said, “and there was even a few days where it wasn’t growing at all – even decreasing, slightly.”

The Snow and Ice Data Center says the extent of sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean last month grew only about a third as much as it usually does in early October, based on the average rate of growth from 1980 to 2010.

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Credit National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
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Temperatures over the Arctic during October were well above the 20th century average.

“I don’t know if that’s completely unprecedented,” he said. “But I’ve certainly never seen it before. And it’s certainly highly unusual.”

By month’s end, Arctic sea-ice extent was the lowest on record for that date. Serreze says the obvious reason sea ice is growing so slowly is conditions aren’t conducive for its formation.

“It’s because the Arctic is so darn warm right now,” he said.

Serreze says both sea-surface and air temperatures in the Arctic were well above average throughout October. He says that’s partly due to an atmospheric flow that brought warm air into the region from the south for much of the month.

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Credit NOAA
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Left, the amount of sea-ice cover around the northern hemisphere during October from 1979 to 2016 began to fall around 2000. Right, less Arctic sea formed last month than in any previous October since satellite monitoring began in 1979 – even less than October 2012, the year that holds the record for the lowest sea-ice extent since 1979.

Serreze says the persistently warm sea-surface temperatures are likely to continue slowing the formation of sea ice through November.

“The ocean seems to have a hard time right now of getting rid of all the heat that it’s gotten,” he said. “And until the ocean gets rid of that heat, we’re going to continue to have this slow ice growth.”

Serreze says the warmth also will continue to degrade the oldest and thickest sea ice, which accounted for about 20 percent of Arctic sea-ice cover in the 1980s. Experts now say old ice accounts for only about 3 percent of that sea-ice cover.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.