Arctic Melting — 2016

According to this graph on the US National Snow and Ice Data Center’s website, there were 14.2 million square kilometers of Arctic sea ice on 24 February 2016. On an average year over the last three decades, it would take until about 29 April for there to be this little Arctic sea ice.

Since about 10 February, the extent of Arctic sea ice has been noticeably below any of the last 30 years. The Arctic has experienced record-breaking temperatures of about 4° C higher than the 1951–1980 average.

The dashed line is 2012, one of the years with the least Arctic sea ice on record. We may be ready to break that record.

Peter Gleick, a MacArthur ‘genius grant’ winner who founded the Pacific Institute, recently posted this sea ice graph on Twitter, saying:

What is happening in the Arctic now is unprecedented and possibly catastrophic.

In emails to The Independent, he explained:

The current trend is below any previous year. What is alarming is how far below any previous ice extent the current data are [and] how early it is for there to be this little ice. It is certainly possible that the ice extent will track back up if cold enough weather returns, for long enough. It is just very unlikely.

The evidence is very clear that rapid and unprecedented changes are happening in the Arctic. What is much less clear is the complex consequences. We are, effectively, conducting a global experiment on the only planet we have. The interconnections with weather patterns, sea-level, and more are real.

And while there remains uncertainty about the ultimate consequences, there is a good and growing body of research that is pretty scary, and pretty much no evidence that the possible impacts will be good, unless you are a global shipping company hoping to save some money by opening up routes in the Arctic or an oil/gas company hoping to find new cheap fossil fuels.

Here is another chart, from Neven’s Arctic Sea Ice blog:

It shows global sea ice area for Februaries of various years, from 2006 to 2016.

As Neven points out in another article,

Remember, as I said, this measure doesn’t tell us all that much about the health of either Arctic or Antarctic regions, if only because the seasons move in opposite directions (nevertheless, the global sea ice trend is down). It’s just an interesting statistical factoid.

However, climate risk deniers often use the global sea ice metric as an argument that nothing is wrong and AGW is a hoax. In other words, the recent growth in Antarctic sea ice offsets the loss of Arctic sea ice (it doesn’t), even though the poles are literally worlds apart and are pretty much incomparable (except for the sea ice bit).

For more

This post is an update of a previous one which reported very warm temperatures in the Arctic in early January:

Arctic melting—2015, 6 January 2016.

7 Responses to Arctic Melting — 2016

  1. davetweed says:

    There’s another potential factor in addition to the basic temperature. While the estimates from satellites are for the area of ice coverage, in reality it’s a volume of ice. Several experts have said that in previous warm years areas with substantial “depths” of ice melted away before the area refroze with “thinner” ice. So while superficially in previous years the area of ice seemed to “rebound” after the melting season, it’s been reconstituted as thinner ice which requires much less energy to melt away again.

    • John Baez says:

      PIOMAS estimates the Arctic sea ice volume using a satellite that carefully measures variations in the Earth’s gravitational pull. The 31 January 2016 volume figures are not particularly terrible compared to recent years. But the general trend is down, down, down, so your point may still be correct:

      It will be interesting to see what happens in February. (The graph above, from the PIOMAS website, may keep updating itself.)

  2. Patrice Ayme says:

    This means that the Arctic is going to get ever warmer. Then the current bathing glacial thresholds gnaw at said threshold. If the threshold fail, the warm water sink past the threshold, and can quickly dislocate a glacier which previously rested on the ground, well below sea level. This has happened to one of two main outlet glaciers of north-east Greenland (see Science, December 2015).

    But Greenland has only that much ice resting below sea level. Antarctica has huge amounts of that, and when it breaks up, within a decade or so, the “surprise” will be immense.

    I have a number of essays on the subject on my site, detailing various aspects of that problem.

  3. Patrice Ayme says:

    The WAIS, Wilkes Basin and Aurora Basin could start failing within a decade:
    https://patriceayme.wordpress.com/2016/02/23/biblical-flood-starting-anew/

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