Polar News

Arctic Sea Ice Hits Record Low for Third Straight Year

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), Arctic sea ice appears to have reached its annual maximum extent on 7 March 2017. This is the lowest maximum in the 38-year satellite record. NSIDC will post a detailed analysis of the 2016 to 2017 winter sea ice conditions in their regular monthly post in early April.

On March 7, 2017, Arctic sea ice likely reached its maximum extent for the year, at 14.42 million square kilometers (5.57 million square miles), the lowest in the 38-year satellite record. This year’s maximum extent is 1.22 million square kilometers (471,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average maximum of 15.64 million square kilometers (6.04 million square miles) and 97,000 square kilometers (37,000 square miles) below the previous lowest maximum that occurred on February 25, 2015. This year’s maximum is 100,000 square kilometers (39,000 square miles) below the 2016 maximum, which is now third lowest. (In 2016, NSIDC reported that year’s maximum as the lowest and 2015 the second lowest. An update to the Sea Ice Index last summer has changed those numbers slightly.)

NSIDCembeddedArctic sea ice extent for March 7, 2017 was 14.42 million square kilometers (5.57 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that day. Image credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Conditions in Context

It was a very warm autumn and winter. Air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (about 2,500 feet above sea level) over the five months spanning October 2016 through February 2017 were more than 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over the entire Arctic Ocean, and greater than 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over large parts of the northern Chukchi and Barents Seas. These overall warm conditions were punctuated by a series of extreme heat waves over the Arctic Ocean.

Data from the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 satellite indicate that this winter’s ice cover is slightly thinner compared to the past four years. An ice-ocean model at the University of Washington that incorporates observed weather conditions suggests the volume of ice in the Arctic is unusually low for this time of year.

The Antarctic Minimum

In the Southern Hemisphere, sea ice likely reached its minimum extent for the year on March 3, at 2.11 million square kilometers (815,000 square miles). This year’s minimum extent was the lowest in the satellite record, continuing a period of satellite-era record low daily extents that began in early November. However, the Antarctic system has been highly variable. As recently as 2015, Antarctic sea ice set record high daily extents, and in September 2014 reached a record high winter maximum.

The Antarctic minimum extent is 740,000 square kilometers (286,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average minimum of 2.85 million square kilometers (1.10 million square miles) and 184,000 square kilometers (71,000 square miles) below the previous lowest minimum that occurred on February 27, 1997.

Antarctic air temperatures during the autumn and winter were above average, but less so than in the Arctic. Air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (about 2,500 feet above sea level) near the sea ice edge have been about 1 to 2.5 degrees Celsius (2 to 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1981 to 2010 average.

Final Analysis Pending

At the beginning of April, NSIDC scientists will release a full analysis of winter conditions, along with monthly data for March. For more information about the maximum extent and what it means, see the Arctic sea ice maximum.

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