Arctic sea ice appears to have reached its seasonal minimum extent for 2016 on September 10. A relatively rapid loss of sea ice in the first ten days of September has pushed the ice extent to a statistical tie with 2007 for the second lowest in the satellite record. September’s low extent followed a summer characterized by conditions generally unfavorable for sea ice loss.
Please note that this is a preliminary announcement. Changing winds or late-season melt could still reduce the Arctic ice extent, as happened in 2005 and 2010. NSIDC scientists will release a full analysis of the Arctic melt season, and discuss the Antarctic winter sea ice growth, in early October.
Overview of conditions
On September 10, Arctic sea ice extent stood at 4.14 million square kilometers (1.60 million square miles). This appears to have been the lowest extent of the year and is tied with 2007 as the second lowest extent on record. This year’s minimum extent is 750,000 square kilometers (290,000 square miles) above the record low set in 2012 and is well below the two standard deviation range for the 37-year satellite record. Satellite data show extensive areas of open water in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, and in the Laptev and East Siberian seas.
During the first ten days of September, the Arctic lost ice at a faster than average rate. Ice extent lost 34,100 square kilometers (13,200 square miles) per day compared to the 1981 to 2010 long-term average of 21,000 square kilometers (8,100 square miles) per day. The early September rate of decline also greatly exceeded the rate observed for the same period in 2012 (19,000 square kilometers, or 7,340 square miles, per day). Recent ice loss has been most pronounced in the Chukchi Sea. This may relate to the impact of two strong cyclones that passed through the region during August.
Satellite passive microwave data and images from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) suggest that the southern Northwest Passage routes are still open. While the passive microwave data show that the Northern Sea route is open, MODIS data reveal a narrow band of scattered sea ice blocking the passage near the Taymyr Peninsula.
Conditions in context
Weather in early September was warm along the Siberian coast (up to 9 degrees Celsius or 16 degrees Fahrenheit above average), with high pressure over the same region and strong winds across the central Arctic. However, as discussed in previous posts, weather over the Arctic Ocean this past summer has been generally stormy, cool, and cloudy—conditions that previous studies have shown to generally limit the rate of summer ice loss. That September ice extent nevertheless fell to second lowest in the satellite record is hence surprising. Averaged for July through August, air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (about 2,500 feet above sea level) were 0.5 to 2 degrees Celsius (1 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit) below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average over much of the central Arctic Ocean, and near average to slightly higher than average near the North American and easternmost Siberian coasts. Reflecting the stormy conditions, sea level pressures were much lower than average in the central Arctic during these months.
Why did extent fall to a tie for second lowest with 2007? The 2016 Arctic melt season started with arecord low maximum extent in March, and sea ice was measured at record low monthly extents well into June. Computer models of ice thickness, and maps of sea ice age both indicated a much thinner ice pack at the end of winter. Statistically, there is little relationship between May and September sea ice extents after removing the long-term trend, indicating the strong role of summer weather patterns in controlling sea ice loss. However, the initial ice thickness may play a significant role. As noted in our mid-August post, the upper ocean was quite warm this summer and ocean-driven melting is important during late summer. The science community will be examining these issues in more detail in coming months.