Even accounting for the accelerating pace of Arctic climate change, sea ice loss in the Far North is running well ahead of schedule. This may signal a near record or record low sea ice extent to come in September.
Fractures in the ice cover are evident north of Greenland, which Mark Serreze, the director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, told Mashable are “quite unusual” for this time of year.
“To me, it suggests a thinner, weaker ice cover,” Serreze said.
In general, the Arctic has warmed at about twice the rate of the rest of the world, due largely to feedbacks between melting sea ice and the ability of newly-open ocean waters to absorb more heat, and then melt more ice.
During this winter, and now continuing into spring, prevailing weather patterns have brought temperature anomalies as high and occasionally higher than 30 degrees Fahrenheit above average at times in the Arctic, with repeated waves of extreme warmth flooding into the Arctic Ocean from all directions.
Computer models show such patterns continuing for the next 10 days, as shown in the animation below. (The orange colors indicate milder than average temperatures):
The latest provisional data from the NSIDC, which tracks Arctic and Antarctic sea ice, shows that the Arctic sea ice melt season is running as much as one month earlier than average.
This increases the odds that there will be a record low sea ice minimum in September, unless weather patterns change significantly.
So far, the ice is melting at a far faster pace compared to the record sea ice minimum that occurred in 2012.
Ted Scambos, a senior research scientist at NSIDC, said the fracturing is “a sign of much thinner ice in the region that is typically the thickest and most durable.”
He said the early melt on the ice surface “is in my view the final nail in the coffin for this year it will be a very low minimum almost certainly, and may or may not set a record,” he told Mashable in an email.
Since the NSIDC is now getting sea ice data from a different Defense Department satellite (known as DMSP F-18) than it had been previously, due to an equipment malfunction, the organization cautions that the ice extent data may be somewhat off the mark.
“Initial evaluation of the uncalibrated F-18 data indicates reasonable agreement with F-17, but the data should be considered provisional and quantitative comparisons with other data should not be done at this time,” the NSIDC cautions on its website.
However, the “reasonable agreement” so far between the two sensors makes general conclusions possible at this point, without going into specific numbers that may be revised in the near future.
Arctic sea ice set a record low seasonal maximum in March, and a relentless series of weather systems have pumped unusually mild air into the Arctic as well as milder than average ocean waters.
Forecasts for the next two weeks show that these mild infusions of air and water will continue to occur.
“The warmth of this past winter appears to have continued, and the sea ice is feeling it,” Serreze said in an email. “The very warm conditions right now in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas appear to be related to a low pressure system just off the coast of the East Siberian Sea, acting in concert with high pressure to the east to bring very warm air into the region.”
Many studies have shown that the Arctic may be seasonally ice free within the next few decades, opening up the region to increased shipping and tourism traffic as well as oil and gas development.