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State of the Poles – May 2012: Arctic Ice Extent Near Normal; Antarctic Ice Returning To Normal


The state of global polar sea ice area in early May 2012 has convincingly returned to climatologically normal conditions (1979-2009).  Arctic sea ice recovered to near-normal conditions after a late start to the freeze season and a late-season slowdown due to certain atmospheric and oceanographic conditions; Antarctic sea ice has melted only slightly more slowly than is normal during the austral autumn.  Put another way, polar sea ice has recovered from an extensive deficit of -2 million sq. km. area a couple of months ago to a +750,000 sq. km. anomaly today.  That said, sea ice area spent an unprecedented length of time near the -2 million sq. km. deficit in the modern era in 2011.  Generally poor environmental conditions established and maintained this condition, predominantly across the Arctic last year.

Arctic Ice

According to the NSIDC, weather conditions this winter and early spring were slightly less conducive for Arctic sea ice freezing on the Atlantic side of the Arctic while conditions were more conducive than usual for freezing on the Pacific side.  Melting during April was slightly less than normal: 1.07 million sq. km. instead of 1.21 million sq. km.  As such, April′s extent was the near average for the month in the satellite record.  Arctic sea ice extent on in April averaged 14.73 million sq. km.  Barents Sea ice remained below normal, as it did in recent years.  The Bering Sea, which saw ice extent growth due to anomalous northerly winds in previous months, instead witnessed more normal conditions.  Overall, near surface temperatures were warmer than average across the Arctic Ocean.

In terms of longer, climatological trends, Arctic sea ice extent in April has decreased by -2.6% per decade.  This rate is lowest in the winter months than the late summer months.  Note that this rate also uses 1979-2000 as the climatological normal.  There is no reason to expect this rate to change significantly (more or less negative) any time soon.  Additional low ice seasons will continue.  Some years will see less decline than other years (like this past year) – but the multi-decadal trend is clear: negative.  The specific value for any given month during any given year is, of course, influenced by local and temporary weather conditions.  But it has become clearer every year that humans are establishing a new normal in the Arctic with respect to sea ice.  This new normal will continue to have far-reaching implications on the weather in the mid-latitudes, where most people live.

Arctic Pictures and Graphs

The following graphic is a satellite representation of Arctic ice as of March 9, 2012:

Figure 1 – UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Northern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20120309.

Compare this with April 28th’s satellite representation, also centered on the North Pole:

Figure 2 – UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Northern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20120428.

Once Hudson Bay finally froze over around the time of the New Year, ice extent grew toward the Atlantic Ocean.  The sea ice in the Bering Sea, as mentioned above, formed more quickly and to a further southern extent than is normally seen.  What remained missing this winter and early spring is the sea ice north of Scandinavia.  This is the result of anomalously warm waters from the Gulf Stream being drawn further north than is normal.  This is due to the positive AO & NAO indices during this winter.  As a side note, this phenomenon combined with the moderate La Nina in the Pacific Ocean has led to Dec-Apr being an anomalously warm and dry month for most of the U.S. in March and April.

Overall, the health of the remaining ice pack is not healthy, as the following graph of Arctic ice volume from the end of April demonstrates:

Figure 3 – PIOMAS Arctic sea ice volume time series through April 2012.

As the graph shows, volume hit a record minimum earlier in 2011 before returning to the -2 standard deviation envelope.  I understand that most readers don’t have an excellent handle on statistics, but conditions between -1 and -2 standard deviations are rare and conditions outside the -2 standard deviation threshold (see the line below the shaded area on the graph above) are incredibly rare: the chances of 2 of them occurring in 2 subsequent years under normal conditions are very, very remote.  Hence my assessment that “normal” conditions in the Arctic are shifting from what they were in the past few centuries.

Switching back from volume to area, take a look at April’s areal extent time series data:

Figure 4 – NSIDC Arctic sea ice extent time series through mid-May 2012.

This winter allowed the extent to do something it had not done for the most recent handful of winters: a return of ice extent to within the -2 standard deviation envelope.  Indeed, the extent in April briefly matched average conditions before a relatively warm spell melted ice quickly in mid-April.  The reason for this is a shift in wind conditions: speed and direction both changed from late winter through this last month.  Those winds piled sea ice up instead of pushing it apart.  The disadvantage: ice extent decreased, as seen in Figure 4.  The advantage: ice volume grew, as seen in Figure 3.  The effect on this September’s minimum extent will indicate how helpful the early season winds were in building sea ice that doesn’t melt every year back up.

Occasionally, I also like to include a supplemental time series graph that the NSIDC report contains.  Here is this month’s supplemental graph:

Figure 5 – NSIDC Arctic sea ice extent time series through April 2012.

This graph contains all of the same data as the previous graph and adds the time series lines from the previous 5 winters.  As you can see, extent varies during the same month from year to year.  The recent decline in extent, caused by a change in wind direction and speed, has reduced Arctic ice extent back to ~14 million sq. km., which is near normal for late April.  The past three winters also saw similar magnitude reductions near the end of April, though the starting and ending values were obviously different.  Despite these differences in subsequent years, the minimum ice extent values were quite similar: at or near the record low set in 2007.  Will fall 2012 be any different or will the surge in ice growth on the Pacific side of the Arctic help to stave off the worst effects seen in the past five years?

Antarctic Pictures and Graphs

Here is a satellite representation of Antarctic sea ice conditions from March 9th:


Figure 6 – UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Southern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20120309.

Compare that graphic with the same view from April 28th:

Figure 7 – UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Southern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20120428.

Ice gain is easily visible around the continent, especially east of the Antarctic Peninsula.  Conditions of Antarctic sea ice remain strong this year.  As a reminder, this is largely and somewhat confusingly due to the ozone depletion that took place over the southern continent.  This depletion has caused a colder southern polar stratosphere than it otherwise would be, reinforcing the polar vortex over the Antarctic Circle.  That vortex has helped keep cold, stormy weather in place over Antarctica that might not otherwise would have occurred to the same extent and intensity.  As the “ozone hole” continues to recover during this century, the effects of global warming will become more clear in this region.  For now, we should perhaps consider the lack of global warming signal due to lack of ozone as relatively fortunate.

Here is the Antarctic sea ice extent time series from mid-May:

Figure 8 – NSIDC Antarctic sea ice extent time series through mid-May 2012.

Antarctic sea ice extent has remained above average to some extent for months now, which is good news.  The difference in conditions from the first part of 2011 to the similar time period in 2012 is obvious: NSIDC measured last year’s extent near the bottom of the standard deviation envelope while this year’s extent is much healthier.


Here are my State of the Poles posts from March and  January.

You can find NSIDC’s May report here.


7 thoughts on “State of the Poles – May 2012: Arctic Ice Extent Near Normal; Antarctic Ice Returning To Normal

  1. Excellent stuff. Call me stupid if you must but, I had not made the intellectual link between the hole in the ozone layer and lack of global warming signal. Next time some “sceptic” tells me global warming is not happening – and cites the Antarctic as evidence – I will know what to say.

    • I most certainly will not call you stupid. 🙂
      The link between the ozone hole and a cooler Antarctic isn’t an obvious one – I had to look into it a bit before I believed it. I consider it to be a non-intuitive fact that more people should know. Spread it far and wide!

      There were recent journal papers discussing warmer sea water melting sea-based Antarctic glaciers from below (instead of warm temperatures melting them from above). As they melt, the land-based glaciers slide more quickly toward the ocean and then melt themselves – which leads to sea level rise.

      • Yes i had heard that about melting from underneath. Radar is able to measure sea ice thickness; which is the best indicator of health.

        Thanks again for alerting me to the link between ozone hole and antipodean polar atmospheric stability!

  2. Pingback: State of the Poles – June 2012: Arctic Ice Extent Below Normal; Antarctic Ice Near Climatological Normal « Weatherdem’s Weblog

  3. Pingback: State of the Poles – July 2012: Arctic Ice Extent Near Record Low Again; Antarctic Ice Near Climatological Normal « Weatherdem’s Weblog

  4. Pingback: State of Polar Sea Ice – April 2013: Arctic Sea Ice Decline and Antarctic Sea Ice Gain | Weatherdem's Weblog

  5. Pingback: State of Polar Sea Ice – May 2013: Arctic Sea Ice Decline and Antarctic Sea Ice Gain | Weatherdem's Weblog

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