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It's Now Official: Arctic Sea Ice Sets a New Winter Low

ImaGeo iconImaGeoBy Tom YulsmanMarch 20, 2015 6:29 PM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news In early March, I wrote that Arctic sea ice appeared to be heading toward a new record: the lowest maximum winter extent for Arctic sea ice in the satellite era. Yesterday, the National Snow and Ice Data Center made that new, unsettling record official:

On February 25, 2015, Arctic sea ice extent appeared to have reached its annual maximum extent, marking the beginning of the sea ice melt season. This year’s maximum extent not only occurred early; it is also the lowest in the satellite record. However, a late season surge in ice growth is still possible.

Possible, but very unlikely. The animation above highlights two areas where the extent of sea ice extent was particularly low: the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia’s far northwest (to the left), and the Bering Sea (to the right). The culprit: unusually warm temperatures. Here's the graphic I used back on March 9th to show what was going on in that region:


The extent of Arctic sea ice has been particularly low in the Sea of Okhotsk. In the animation above, the pink indicates areas where NASA's Terra satellite detected sea ice on March 5, 2015. The orange line shows the long-term median extent of the ice in this region. I've removed the overlays in the animation's second frame so you can see what the ice looks like orbit. (Images: NASA Worldview. Animation: Tom Yulsman) Temperatures were also unusually warm in the eastern Arctic — as much as 8 to 10 degrees Celsius (14 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit) above average in the Barents Sea between Svalbard and Franz Josef Land in the first two weeks of March. In Svalbard, an archipelago north of the Norwegian mainland, the abnormal warmth has kept the fjords ice free. The warmth also brought rain instead of snow at times. When then precipitation froze it formed a sheet across the land. This has been very bad news for the reindeer on the island, according to Kim Holmén, the international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, quoted in a story in the Guardian:

"Much of Svalbard is covered with ice on land, which is a fatal state for the reindeer. When the landscape is covered by ice they can’t move around and they can’t eat."

Avery McGaha wrote about this very phenomenon here at ImaGeo back on February 9th. Here's the photo we used:


After heavy rain fell on Svalbard, Norway during the winter of 2011-2012, icing led to high, starvation-induced mortality among reindeer on the archipelago. (Source: Brage B. Hansen/Norwegian University of Science and Technology) As the warmer months unfold in the Arctic, we'll see how sea ice responds. Will it set a new record low in September, which is typically when it is at its minimum extent? Time will tell.

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