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Earth's attic is on fire: Arctic sea ice bottoms out at a new record low

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 3:46 PM GMT on September 20, 2012

The extraordinary decline in Arctic sea ice during 2012 is finally over. Sea ice extent bottomed out on September 16, announced scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) on Wednesday. The sea ice extent fell to 3.41 million square kilometers, breaking the previous all-time low set in 2007 by 18%--despite the fact that this year's weather was cloudier and cooler than in 2007. Nearly half (49%) of the icecap was gone during this year's minimum, compared to the average minimum for the years 1979 - 2000. This is an area approximately 43% of the size of the Contiguous United States. And, for the fifth consecutive year--and fifth time in recorded history--ice-free navigation was possible in the Arctic along the coast of Canada (the Northwest Passage), and along the coast of Russia (the Northeast Passage or Northern Sea Route.) "We are now in uncharted territory," said NSIDC Director Mark Serreze. "While we've long known that as the planet warms up, changes would be seen first and be most pronounced in the Arctic, few of us were prepared for how rapidly the changes would actually occur. While lots of people talk about opening of the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic islands and the Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast, twenty years from now from now in August you might be able to take a ship right across the Arctic Ocean."

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice reached its minimum on September 16, 2012, and was at its lowest extent since satellite records began in 1979. Image credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

When was the last time the Arctic was this ice-free?
We can be confident that the Arctic did not see the kind of melting observed in 2012 going back over a century, as we have detailed ice edge records from ships (Walsh and Chapman, 2001). It is very unlikely the Northwest Passage was open between 1497 and 1900, since this spanned a cold period in the northern latitudes known as "The Little Ice Age". Ships periodically attempted the Passage and were foiled during this period. Research by Kinnard et al. (2011) shows that the Arctic ice melt in the past few decades is unprecedented for at least the past 1,450 years. We may have to go back to at least 4,000 B.C. to find the last time so little summer ice was present in the Arctic. Funder and Kjaer (2007) found extensive systems of wave generated beach ridges along the North Greenland coast, which suggested the Arctic Ocean was ice-free in the summer for over 1,000 years between 6,000 - 8,500 years ago, when Earth's orbital variations brought more sunlight to the Arctic in summer than at present. Prior to that, the next likely time was during the last inter-glacial period, 120,000 years ago. Arctic temperatures then were 2 - 3°C higher than present-day temperatures, and sea levels were 4 - 6 meters higher.

Figure 2. Year-averaged and 3-month averaged Northern Hemisphere sea ice extent from Chapman and Walsh (2001), as updated by the University of Illinois Cryosphere Today. I've updated their graph to include 2011 plus the first 9 months of 2012.

Figure 3. Late summer Arctic sea ice extent over the past 1,450 years reconstructed from proxy data by Kinnard et al.'s 2011 paper, Reconstructed changes in Arctic sea ice over the past 1,450 years. The solid pink line is a smoothed 40-year average, and the light pink areas shows a 95% confidence interval.  Note that the modern observational data in this figure extend through 2008, though the extent is not as low as the current annual data due to the 40-year smoothing. More commentary on this graph is available at skepticalscience.com.

When will the Arctic be ice-free in summer?
So, when will Santa's Workshop need to be retrofitted with pontoons to avoid sinking to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean in summer? It's hard to say, since there is a large amount of natural variability in Arctic weather patterns. Day et al. (2012) found that 5 to 31% of the changes in Arctic sea ice could be due to natural causes. However, the sea ice at the summer minimum has been declining at a rate of 12% per decade, far in excess of the worst-case scenario predicted in the 2007 IPCC report. Forecasts of an ice-free Arctic range from 20 - 30 years from now to much sooner. Just this week, Dr. Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University predicted that the Arctic will be ice-free in summer within four years. A study by Stroeve et al. (2012), using the updated models being run for the 2014 IPCC report, found that "a seasonally ice-free Arctic Ocean within the next few decades is a distinct possibility." Of the 21 models considered, 2022 was the earliest date that complete Arctic sea ice occurred in September.

Video 1. A powerful storm wreaked havoc on the Arctic sea ice cover in August 2012. This visualization shows the strength and direction of the winds and their impact on the ice: the red vectors represent the fastest winds, while blue vectors stand for slower winds. According to NSIDC, the storm sped up the loss of the thin ice that appears to have been already on the verge of melting completely.Video credit: NASA.

But Antarctic sea ice is growing!
It's a sure thing that when Arctic sea ice hits new record lows, global warming contrarians will attempt to draw attention away from the Arctic by talking about sea ice around Antarctica. A case in point is an article that appeared in Forbes on Wednesday by James Taylor. Mr. Taylor wrote, "Antarctic sea ice set another record this past week, with the most amount of ice ever recorded on day 256 of the calendar year (September 12 of this leap year)...Amusingly, page after page of Google News results for Antarctic sea ice record show links to news articles breathlessly spreading fear and warning of calamity because Arctic sea ice recently set a 33-year low. Sea ice around one pole is shrinking while sea ice around another pole is growing. This sure sounds like a global warming crisis to me."

This analysis is highly misleading, as it ignores the fact that Antarctica has actually been warming in recent years. In fact, the oceans surrounding Antarctica have warmed faster than the global trend, and there has been accelerated melting of ocean-terminating Antarctic glaciers in recent years as a result of warmer waters eating away the glaciers. There is great concern among scientists about the stability of two glaciers in West Antarctica (the Pine Island and Thwaites Glaciers) due the increase in ocean temperatures. These glaciers may suffer rapid retreats that will contribute significantly to global sea level rise.

Despite the warming going on in Antarctica, there has been a modest long-term increase in Antarctic sea ice in recent decades. So, how can more sea ice form on warmer ocean waters? As explained in an excellent article at skepticalscience.com, the reasons are complex. One reason is that the Southern Ocean consists of a layer of cold water near the surface and a layer of warmer water below. Water from the warmer layer rises up to the surface, melting sea ice. However, as air temperatures warm, the amount of rain and snowfall also increases. This freshens the surface waters, leading to a surface layer less dense than the saltier, warmer water below. The layers become more stratified and mix less. Less heat is transported upwards from the deeper, warmer layer. Hence less sea ice is melted (Zhang 2007). As the planet continues to warm, climate models predict that the growth in Antarctic sea ice will reverse, as the waters become too warm to support so much sea ice.

Figure 4. Surface air temperature over the ice-covered areas of the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica (top), and sea ice extent, observed by satellite (bottom). Image credit: (Zhang 2007).

Commentary: Earth's attic is on fire
To me, seeing the record Arctic sea ice loss of 2012 is like discovering a growing fire burning in Earth's attic. It is an emergency that requires immediate urgent attention. If you remove an area of sea ice 43% the size of the Contiguous U.S. from the ocean, it is guaranteed to have a significant impact on weather and climate. The extra heat and moisture added to the atmosphere as a result of all that open water over the pole may already be altering jet stream patterns in fall and winter, bringing an increase in extreme weather events. This year's record sea ice loss also contributed to an unprecedented melting event in Greenland. Continued sea ice loss will further increase melting from Greenland, contributing to sea level rise and storm surge damages. Global warming doubters tell us to pay attention to Earth's basement--the Antarctic--pointing out (incorrectly) that there is no fire burning there. But shouldn't we be paying attention to the steadily growing fire in our attic? The house all of humanity lives on is on fire. The fire is certain to spread, since we've ignored it for too long. It is capable of becoming a raging fire that will burn down our house, crippling civilization, unless we take swift and urgent action to combat it.

Funder, S. and K.H. Kjaer, 2007, "A sea-ice free Arctic Ocean?", Geophys. Res. Abstr. 9 (2007), p. 07815.

Kinnard et al., 2011, "Reconstructed changes in Arctic sea ice over the past 1,450 years".

Walsh, J.E and W.L.Chapman, 2001, "Twentieth-century sea ice variations from observational data", Annals of Glaciology, 33, Number 1, January 2001, pp. 444-448.

Related info
Half of the polar ice cap is missing: Arctic sea ice hits a new record low. September 6, 2012 blog post
Wunderground's Sea Ice page

Jeff Masters and Angela Fritz

Sea Ice 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.

Reader Comments

Quoting Skyepony:
Anybody know off hand what time fall equinox occurs today?
As Roy Orbison said....It's Over
JeffMasters has created a new entry.
Quoting sheople:

The Documentary "Gasland" by Josh Fox

in regards to fracking

Quoting Objectivist:

As an additional data point, here's a direct account...

How is it possible to generalize about the extent/volume of Arctic ocean ice from a few spot measurements? The Arctic Ocean is just that - an ocean, with all the fluid dynamics that entails. Sure there's going to be variable ice thickness and polynyas year-round. So what? You haven't made any point except that you're familiar with at least one type of sea-life: red herrings.

Quoting Objectivist:
They also point out that there are concrete benefits of increased CO2, which are never mentioned by the alarmists. There are quite a few prominent scientists in this group.

No. On both counts. Scientists have discussed changes due to CO2 other than temperature/climate. Some types of plants are CO2-limited, meaning that increases in CO2 will allow them to be more productive. This is not true for most ecosystems, and for those that will benefit, the benefits are expected to be temporary as changing climate regimes take over with time.
Quoting Objectivist:
Third, there are the realists, who think that regardless of what the ground truth is, the correct response is something other than a low-intensity "green" future in which the United States in particular is crippled relative to other countries.

The "realists?" The realists are scientists... those who have understood the properties of greenhouse gases for decades and decades. Those that have studied tirelessly to understand consequences of radically altering the composition of said gases in the atmosphere due to accelerating a natural cycle orders of magnitude beyond it's natural speed. Those who have continued to publish, study, and fight back against varying degrees of ignorance, dishonest, and outright vindictive manipulation. There are ways to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions without "crippling" the United States. This isn't a secret, it isn't something decades down the road.
Quoting Objectivist:
The concrete predictions of "climate science" have been all over the map and mostly wrong.

Which ones?
Quoting Objectivist:
As another poster pointed out, the US has reduced its carbon emissions considerably.

Which is not as clear cut as it sounds... massive world recessions have consequences. Massive reductions in automobile/airline transit have consequences. Many are temporary, and should be realized as such... perhaps even used as an opportunity to come back with higher efficiency standards and cleaner sources when the demand returns.
Quoting Objectivist:
If you're intellectually honest, you should also admit that the AGW crowd should wholeheartedly embrace nuclear power.

Of course each source of energy needs to be evaluated by its pros, cons, and cost benefit. It's not some instant amazing solution to everything as you suggest. Costs have increased dramatically due to many factors, a large one being the increasing requirements for safety and plans for storage of dangerous waste. And of course this is a completely separate than the science of global warming.
Quoting Objectivist:
One hopeful point is that we likely have a lot longer to mitigate the problem than the breathless "the ice cap is melting!" crowd would have us believe. That's because the Sun is in the beginning stages of a Grand Minimum. The Dalton and Maunder minima were both associated with sharp downturns in temperature.

1) No evidence suggests that solar energy has been reduced - or is about to be reduced - to levels estimated during these minima.
2) The radiative forcing of accumulating greenhouse gases would completely mitigate this reduced solar forcing within a decade at most.
Quoting Objectivist:

The Grand Minimum will likely last 25-50 years, and possibly longer.

According to what source?
Quoting Objectivist:
There is also the issue of the various climactic ocean oscillations, and how they've related to this current Arctic melt.

Ocean oscillations are manifestations of how heat in the climate system is moved around and evened out. Ocean oscillations cannot create nor destroy heat.
Quoting Objectivist:
However, a scientific theory that can't make specific predictions beforehand simply doesn't pass muster.

Which applies to climate science how? Climate scientists have made predictions, most of which have come true, and those that have not are almost always in the worse-than-predicted direction. Each decade has been warmer than the last. Arctic ice volume continues to set records. Land ice melt continues to accelerate. Oceans are becoming more acidic while trying to absorb the CO2.

Thanks for the gish gallop.
Is any one else disgusted by the misleading nature of this? Sadly, that's a common theme in climate change discussions.

We need to STOP acting like it's a fact that humans are responsible for climate change. We need to STOP acting like humans are the most likely cause of climate change. The facts do not support this. There is NO evidence that humans are the primary cause of climate change. Why do alarmists continue to ignore this fact?

And we need to STOP using buzzwords like "record." "Record heat" or "record warming" or "record" melting. We are talking about a planet that's been around for billions of years and our records reliably go back about 50 years. It's like watching the temperature for the last two hours on December 31st and declaring the lowest temperature in that time as a record low for the year.

Yes, the Arctic Ocean is melting. It opened during the summer. Read the article closely. We are only reasonably confident that the last time the Arctic was completely ice free was as far back as 6,000 years ago - during a time when the Arctic was COMPLETELY ice free EVERY YEAR for a THOUSAND YEARS!!! What happened this summer was nothing new. It was not uncommon. It was just a change from the very, very recent history of the Earth. In fact, what happened this year was NORMAL. For the overwhelmingly vast majority of the history of the Earth, no ice was the norm. It is extremely unusual for the Earth to have year round ice, in the grand scheme of things. To act like what's happening now is unprecedented, and therefor must be the fault of humans, is disgusting.

Please, PLEASE stop doing this! There are a lot of people making an honest effort to protect the planet, and lies like this only set them back.
Quoting StopThePropoganda:
Is any one else disgusted by the misleading nature of this?

Yes, it is disgusting how misleading and incorrect you were with your post. Also intriguing.... only a member since Sept 2012? Long time lurker, first time poster, but only to try and make your nonsense post the last in the thread, of course.
Thanks for your courage in addressing the skeptics. While I was only peripherally associated with climate as a scientist, I did have direct contact with tree ring research. (I published a couple of dendrochronology/dendrochemistry papers in the early '90's).
It is amazing to me that critics seem to think climatologists who began predicting the effects on climate of increased CO2 somehow think they were betting on advancing their career by calling attention to the issue. The 'accuracy' of the predictions of behavior of complex systems which show dramatic time series fluctuation overlaying the trend seems incredible.
Again thanks for your courage in replying to the mostly insulting ad hominem attacks with great patience. And providing so much good science for the rest of us in the public sphere