Antarctic Sea Ice

Unlike the Arctic—an ocean basin surrounded by land—the Antarctic is a large continent surrounded by an ocean. Because of this geography, sea ice has more room to expand in the winter. But that ice also stretches into warmer latitudes, leading to more melting in summer. Antarctic sea ice peaks in September (the end of Southern Hemisphere winter) and retreats to a minimum in February.

These image pairs show Antarctic sea ice extent at the September maximum (left) and the following February minimum (right) from September 1999 to February 2016. Land is dark gray, and ice shelves—thick slabs of glacial ice grounded along the coast—are light gray. The yellow outline shows the median sea ice extent in September and February from 1979 to 2000. Extent is the total area in which the ice concentration is at least 15 percent. The median is the middle value; that is, half of the extents were larger than the line, and half were smaller.

Since the start of regular satellite observations in 1979, total Antarctic sea ice has increased by about 1 percent per decade. Whether the increase is a sign of meaningful change is uncertain because ice extents vary considerably from year to year around Antarctica. For three consecutive Septembers from 2012 to 2014, satellites observed new record highs for winter sea ice extent. These highs occurred while the Arctic was seeing record lows.

Within Antarctic sea ice, there is great variation from place to place around the continent. The Ross Sea sector has had a significant positive trend, while sea ice extent has decreased in the Bellingshausen and Amundsen Seas. In short, Antarctic sea ice shows a small positive trend, but large-scale variations make the trend very noisy.

This time series above is made from a combination of observations from the Special Sensor Microwave/Imagers (SSM/Is) flown on a series of Defense Meteorological Satellite Program missions. The sensors measure microwave energy radiated from the Earth’s surface (sea ice and open water emit microwaves differently), which can be used to map sea ice concentrations.