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Arctic sea ice melting season begins

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 3:24 AM GMT on April 06, 2008

The annual Arctic melting season has begun. We've just passed the Spring Equinox, so the North Pole is now in 24-hour daylight. Will the melting of Arctic sea ice this year surpass last year's record? Well, we have a greater areal extent of ice over the Arctic this month compared to April of last year, thanks to some cool Arctic temperatures this winter. In particular, the ice in the Bering Straight between Alaska and Russia extends quite a bit further south than in 2007. This extra ice will likely delay the melting season a bit this year, giving some hope that we won't surpass last year's record melt. However, if weather similar to last summer occurs--unusually clear skies and high pressure over the Arctic--this extra ice will not help much, because it is all thin, first-year ice. It is the thick, 2-9 year old ice that is most able to resist summer melting, and the amount of old multi-year ice is only about half of what it was in 2007. This is apparent from images taken by the QuikSCAT satellite, which carries the SeaWinds scatterometer. This instrument emits a pulse of microwave energy that bounces off the ice and returns to the satellite. Old, multi-year ice is thicker, and reflects a different amount of microwave energy back to the satellite than thin ice, resulting in a whiter image. Thin, first-year ice appears a darker grey. It is apparent from Figure 1 that we have only about half of the old, multi-year ice that we had last year. In fact, thin first-year ice extends past the North Pole, raising the distinct possibility that this year's melt will allow one to sail a ship all the way to the North Pole in September, for the first time since humans began testing Arctic waters with ships in 1497. In addition, a large region of the old ice north of Alaska is highly fractured, making it vulnerable to melting.

Figure 1. QuikSCAT images of the Arctic from April 4, 2007 and April 4, 2008. The boundary of old, multi-year ice is marked in yellow, and 2008 has about half the old ice of 2007. Image credit: NOAA/NESDIS/ORA.

How did we lose so much old ice in the past year?
Part of the lost old ice melted during the record-breaking melt season of 2007, which was fueled both by global warming and a natural (but unusual) sunny summer. Another big chunk of old ice was lost due to natural wind patterns between September 2007 and March 2008. An animation of the sea ice available from Environment Canada's sea ice page (click on "Updated QuikScat animation") reveals that strong winds pushed large amounts of old ice out of the Arctic southward along the east coast of Greenland. So, we can't blame the melting of the Arctic sea ice entirely on global warming--natural weather patterns also played a significant role.

The forecast
It's impossible to guess what the dominant Arctic weather pattern will be this summer, and what level of melting we will get. With the loss of so much old ice over the past year, though, even an average summer has the potential to melt much more ice this summer compared to last summer--all the way to the North Pole. There's also a good chance that we'll see the fabled Northwest Passage open up again, since most of the ice along the Passage is young, first-year ice. We'll just have to wait and see how the summer unfolds.

Jeff Masters

Climate Change

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.