Arctic Sea Ice

Most Arctic sea ice occupies an ocean basin largely enclosed by land. Because there is no landmass at the North Pole, sea ice extends all the way to the pole, making the ice subject to the most extreme oscillations between wintertime darkness and summertime sunlight. Likewise, because the ocean basin is surrounded by land, ice has less freedom of movement to drift into lower latitudes and melt. Sea ice also forms in areas south of the Arctic Ocean in winter, including the Sea of Okhotsk, the Bering Sea, Baffin Bay, Hudson Bay, the Greenland Sea, and the Labrador Sea.

Satellite image of sea ice streaming through the Bering Strait on May 7, 2000.

The Bering Strait is one of the few outlets through which sea ice exits the Arctic Ocean. (NASA MODIS image by Jesse Allen.)

Arctic sea ice reaches its maximum extent each March and its minimum extent each September. This ice has historically ranged from roughly 16 million square kilometers (about 6 million square miles) each March to roughly 7 million square kilometers (about 2.7 million square miles) each September.

Maps of minimum and maximum sea ice extent for the Arctic.

The minimum Arctic sea ice extent occurs in September. The maximum is in late February or early March. In these maps, dark blue represents open water, and increasingly paler blues indicate higher concentrations of sea ice. Extents historically ranged from 16 million square kilometers to 7 million square kilometers, but 2007 and 2008 were much lower—near 4.5 million square kilometers. (NASA maps by Jesse Allen, based on AMSR-E data from NSIDC.)

Natural Variability

On time scales of years to decades, the dominant cause of atmospheric variability in the northern polar region is the Arctic Oscillation (AO). (There is still debate among scientists whether the North Atlantic Oscillation and the Arctic Oscillation are the same phenomenon or different but related patterns.) The Arctic Oscillation is an atmospheric seesaw in which atmospheric mass shifts between the polar regions and the mid-latitudes. The shifting can intensify, weaken, or shift the location of semi-permanent low and high-pressure systems. These changes influence the strength of the prevailing westerly winds and the track that storms tend to follow.

During the “positive” phase of the Arctic Oscillation, winds intensify, which increases the size of leads in the ice pack. The thin, young ice that forms in these leads is more likely to melt in the summer. The strong winds also tend to flush ice out of the Arctic through the Fram Strait. During “negative” phases of the oscillation, winds are weaker. Multiyear ice is less likely to be swept out of the Arctic basin and into the warmer waters of the Atlantic. The Arctic Oscillation was in a strong positive phase between 1989 and 1995, but since the late 1990s, it has been in a neutral state.

Current Status and Trends

In September 2008, Arctic sea ice dropped to its second-lowest extent since satellite records began in 1979: 4.67 million square kilometers (1.8 million square miles). Between 1979 and 2006, the annual average decline was 45,100 square kilometers per year, which is about 3.7 percent per decade. But the September minimum ice extent dropped by an average of nearly 57,000 square kilometers per year, which is just over 7.5 percent per decade. In every geographic area, in every month, and every season, current ice extent is lower today than it was during the 1980s and 1990s.

Graph of September average Arctic sea ice extent.
The satellite record shows a clear decrease of average September sea ice extent in the Arctic. Since 1979, sea ice has decreased more than 7.5 percent per decade. (NASA graph by Robert Simmon, based on data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.)

Natural variability and rising temperatures linked to global warming both appear to have played a role in this decline. The Arctic Oscillation’s strongly positive mode through the mid-1990s flushed thicker, older ice out of the Arctic, replacing multiyear ice with first-year ice that is more prone to melting. After the mid-1990s, the AO assumed a more neutral phase, but sea ice failed to recover. Instead, a pattern of steep Arctic sea ice decline began in 2002. The AO likely triggered a phase of accelerated melt that continued into the next decade thanks to unusually warm Arctic air temperatures.

Year Average Minimum Extent (million square kilometers) Compared to 1979-2000 Average (million square kilometers) Compared to 1979-2000 Average (percent)
2002 5.96 -1.08 -15.3
2003 6.15 -0.89 -12.6
2004 6.04 -1.00 -14.2
2005 5.57 -1.47 -20.9
2006 5.89 -1.15 -16.3
2007 4.28 -2.76 -39.2
2008 4.67 -2.37 -33.6
Arctic ice extent has dropped steeply since 2002. In 2007, summer ice extent was almost 40 percent below the 1979-2000 average. Table based on data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The sea ice minimum was especially dramatic in 2007, when Arctic sea ice extent broke all previous records by mid-August, more than a month before the end of melt season. Both the southern and northern routes through the Northwest Passage opened in mid-September. Ice also became particularly prone to melting in the Beaufort Gyre that summer. The Beaufort Gyre is a clockwise-moving ocean and ice circulation pattern in the Beaufort Sea, and starting in the late 1990s, ice began to melt in the southernmost stretch of the gyre. In the summer of 2007, sea ice retreat was especially pronounced in the region encompassing the Beaufort, Chukchi, East Siberian, Laptev, and Kara Seas.

Graph comparing average daily Arctic sea ice extent from 1979-2000 to the daily extent in 2007 and 2008.

Arctic sea ice cover peaks each year in March, and melts until the minimum is reached in September. In 2007 (red line) and 2008 (gray line), Arctic ice reached the lowest extents ever recorded, well below the historical average (blue line). Light blue regions show the range of natural variability, without the effects of global warming. (NASA graph by Robert Simmon, based on data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.)

Many global climate models predict that the Arctic will be ice free for at least part of the year before the end of the century. Some models predict an ice-free Arctic by mid-century, and some even sooner. Depending on how much Arctic sea ice continues to melt, the ice could become extremely vulnerable to natural variability. In the future, the ice might respond even more dramatically than it has in the past to natural cycles such as the Arctic Oscillation.

Impacts of Arctic Sea Ice Loss

Projected effects of declining sea ice include loss of habitat for seals and polar bears, as well as movement of polar bears onto land where bear-human encounters may increase. Indigenous peoples in the Arctic who rely on Arctic animals for food have already described changes in the health and numbers of polar bears.

As sea ice retreats from coastlines, wind-driven waves—combined with permafrost thaw—can lead to rapid coastal erosion. Alaskan and Siberian coastlines have already experienced coastal erosion.

Photograph of coastal erosion on the Arctic Sea.

Loss of sea ice exposes shorelines to the full force of wind and waves during fierce Arctic storms, resulting in rapid erosion. This cabin fell into the Beaufort Sea, (along Alaska’s Arctic coast) a region where some coastlines retreated more than 24 meters (80 feet) in 2007. (Photograph courtesy Benjamin Jones, USGS.)

Other potential impacts of Arctic sea ice loss include changed weather patterns: less precipitation in the American West, a weaker storm track that has shifted south over the Atlantic, or (according to one simulation) an intensified storm track.

Some researchers have hypothesized that melting sea ice could interfere with ocean circulation. In the Arctic, ocean circulation is driven by the sinking of dense, salty water. A cap of freshwater resulting from rapid, extensive sea ice melt could interfere with ocean circulation at high latitudes. Although a study published in 2005 suggested that the Atlantic meridional (north-south) overturning circulation had slowed by about 30 percent between 1957 and 2004, that conclusion was not based on comprehensive measurements. Subsequent modeling analyses indicated that the freshwater from melting sea ice was not likely to affect ocean circulation for decades.

Sea Ice

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