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State of Polar Sea Ice – March 2013: Annual Arctic Maximum and Antarctic Minimum Reached


For the second time in only six years, and the third time in ten years, global polar sea ice area in February and March 2013 mimicked climatological normal conditions (1979-2009).  This follows January’s improvement from September 2012’s significant negative deviation from normal conditions.  While Antarctic sea ice loss occurred slower than the climatological normal rate, Arctic sea ice gain was more rapid than normal during February.  Polar sea ice recovered from an extensive deficit of 2.5 million sq. km. area late last year to a 0.5 million sq. km. surplus within the last week.

Arctic Sea Ice

According to the NSIDC, weather conditions once again caused less freezing to occur on the Atlantic side of the Arctic Ocean and more freezing on the Pacific side than normal this winter.  Similar conditions occurred during the past six boreal winters.  Sea ice creation during February measured 766,000 sq. km.  Despite this rather rapid growth (38% higher than normal), February′s extent remained well below average for the month.  Instead of measuring near 15.64 million sq. km., February 2013′s average extent was only 14.66 million sq. km., a 980,000 sq. km. difference!  The Arctic likely reached its maximum annual extent about 10 days ago.  In terms of annual maximum values, 2013’s 15.13 million sq. km. was 733,000 lower than normal.February’s relatively high rate of ice formation for February related to the lack of existing sea ice at the beginning of the month.  Without ice already in the Ocean, new ice formed as winter continued.

Barents Sea (Atlantic side) ice finally edged toward its climatological normal value during the month after remaining low this winter, as it did in the past 10 winters.  Kara Sea (Atlantic side) ice recovered from low extent the past couple of months, which is different from February 2012’s conditions.  The Bering Sea (Pacific side), which saw ice extent growth due to anomalous northerly winds in 2011-2012, saw similar conditions in December 2012 through February 2013.  This caused anomalously high ice extent in the Bering Sea again this winter.  As it did previously this winter, a negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation allowed cold Arctic air to move far southward and brought warmer than normal air to move north over parts of the Arctic.  The AO’s tendency toward its negative phase in recent winters is related to the lack of sea ice over the Arctic Ocean in September each fall.

In terms of climatological trends, Arctic sea ice extent in February has decreased by 2.9% per decade, the lowest of any calendar month.  This rate is closest to zero in the late winter/early spring months and furthest from zero in late summer/early fall months.  Note that this rate also uses 1979-2000 as the climatological normal.  There is no reason to expect this rate to change significantly (much more or less negative) any time soon, but increasingly negative rates are likely in the foreseeable future.  Additional low ice seasons will continue.  Some years will see less decline than other years (e.g., 2011) – 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 have established a new climatological 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 February 11, 2013:

 photo Arctic_sea_ice_20130211_zps0a8dd08b.png

Figure 1UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Northern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20130211.

Here is the similar image from March 24, 2013:

 photo Arctic_sea_ice_20130325_zpsc64e9758.png

Figure 2UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Northern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20130324.

As is normal for this time of year, there is not a large difference between these two graphics.  Any differences are primarily due to storm systems’ presence that push ice around, or the lack thereof.  The lack of sea ice in the Barents Sea (north of Europe) is problematic because wind and ocean currents typically pile sea ice up on the Atlantic side of the Arctic.  Sea ice presence in the Bering Sea (between Alaska and Russia) does not alleviate this problem because currents take ice from that area and transport it into the Arctic and then out into the Atlantic.  The sea ice on the Atlantic side would be among the first that currents transport and then melt during the spring.  With sea ice missing on the Atlantic side, currents will more easily transport Arctic sea ice to southern latitudes where it melts.

Many people questioned the overall health of the Arctic ice pack earlier this month when images (like the one below) and video documented extensive cracks in the ice in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.  A fellow blogger (and new author!) emailed me about this phenomenon and I wrote that I would blog my thoughts on the topic.  As Andrew Freedman wrote, “According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colo., this fracturing event appears to be related to a storm that passed over the North Pole on Feb. 8, 2013, creating strong off-shore ice motion. The event is unusual but not unheard of, as similar patterns were seen in early 2011 and 2008. However, the NSIDC said the fracturing this time is more extensive.”  The worry is the extent and size of the cracks and leads as well as the early calendar date at which they are all appearing – up to weeks before normal.

I found this article on the topic and agree with Greg Laden, the author.  The cracks and leads  might be a big deal or they might not.  We will have to wait until the minimum sea ice extent occurs in September before we issue judgment.  The scientifically sound course of action would be to wait until early cracks appeared in multiple seasons and then see what the range of response later in the year is.  For all we know, the cracks could allow for even more ice to form in March than normal and delay the onset of melting.  It strikes me as scientifically unsound and even irresponsible to conjecture about the existence and effect of processes, which we do not understand well.  If scientists crow about upcoming devastating Arctic sea ice loss this year and reality doesn’t conform to their wishes, how much credibility with the public do they engender?  I think observers should stay patient and discuss the phenomena and effects we do understand – there is plenty of material with which to work!

 photo Arctic-sea-ice-sat-pic-20130312_zpsd8fe90e9.jpg

Figure 3 – NOAA AVHRR infrared picture of Arctic sea ice on 20130312.

The following graph of Arctic ice volume from the end of February demonstrates:

 photo SeaIceVolumeAnomaly_20130228_zps1777b889.png

Figure 4PIOMAS Arctic sea ice volume time series through February 2013.

As the graph shows, volume (length*width*height) hit another record minimum in June 2012.  Moreover, the volume remains far from normal since it just returned to the -2 standard deviation envelope (light gray).  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 3 of them occurring in 3 subsequent years under normal conditions are extraordinarily low (you have a better chance of winning the Powerball than this).  Hence my assessment that “normal” conditions in the Arctic are shifting from what they were in the past few centuries; a new normal is developing.  Note further that the ice volume anomaly returned to near the -1 standard deviation envelope in early 2011, early 2012, and now early 2013.  In each of the previous two years, volume fell rapidly outside of the -2 standard deviation area with the return of summer.  That means that natural conditions are not the likely cause; rather, another cause is much more likely to be responsible for this behavior: human influence.

Arctic Sea Ice Extent

Take a look at February’s areal extent time series data:

 photo N_stddev_timeseries_20130325_zps9c8c87bc.png

Figure 5NSIDC Arctic sea ice extent time series through late March 2013 compared with last five years’ data and climatological norm (dark gray line) and standard deviation envelope (light gray).

As you can see, this year’s extent (light blue cuve) grew more rapidly in December than February.  This graph also shows that this year’s extent remained at historically low levels through the winter, well below average values (thick gray curve), just as it did in the previous five winters, which are also shown on this graph.  In this month’s version, NSIDC also plotted the previous four years’ data (2008 through 2012).  You can also see what happened to conditions during late March and early April last spring (dark green curve).  A late season freeze surge occurred, which delayed the date of maximum extent by a number of weeks.  Last year’s surge has no bearing on what might happen over the next couple of weeks this year.  Weather conditions and some low-frequency climate oscillations (AO) are different this year and have more bearing on ice conditions than last year’s date of maximum extent.

Antarctic Pictures and Graphs

Here is a satellite representation of Antarctic sea ice conditions from February 11, 2013:

 photo Antarctic_sea_ice_20130211_zps2eff7662.png

Figure 6UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Southern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20130211.

And here is the corresponding graphic from March 24, 2013:

 photo Antarctic_sea_ice_20130325_zpsbb795acd.png

Figure 7UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Southern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20130324.

Ice growth is easily visible around the continent.  There is more Antarctic sea ice today than there normally is on this date in the year.  The reason for this is the extra ice in the Weddell Sea (east of the Antarctic Peninsula that juts up toward South America).  This ice exists this austral summer due to an anomalous atmospheric circulation pattern: persistent high pressure west of the Weddell sea pushed sea ice north.  The same winds that pushed the sea ice north also moved cold Antarctic air over the Sea, which has kept ice melt rate well below normal.  A similar mechanism helped sea ice form in the Bering Sea so far this winter.  Where did the anomalous winds come from?  We can again point to a climatic relationship.

The difference between the noticeable and significant long-term Arctic ice loss and relative lack of Antarctic ice loss is largely and somewhat confusingly due to the ozone depletion that took place over the southern continent in the 20th century.  This depletion has caused a colder southern polar stratosphere than it otherwise would be, reinforcing the polar vortex over the Antarctic Circle.  This is almost exactly the opposite dynamical condition than exists over the Arctic with the negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation.  The southern polar vortex has helped keep cold, stormy weather in place over Antarctica that might not otherwise would have occurred to the same extent and intensity. The vortex and associated anomalous high pressure centers kept ice and cold air over places such as the Weddell Sea this year.

As the “ozone hole” continues to recover during this century, the effects of global warming will become more clear in this region, especially if ocean warming continues to melt sea-based Antarctic ice from below (subs. req’d).  The strong Antarctic polar vortex will likely weaken back to a more normal state and anomalous high pressure centers that keep ice flowing into the ocean will not form as often.  For now, we should perhaps consider the lack of global warming signal due to lack of ozone as relatively fortunate.  In the next few decades, we will have more than enough to contend with from Greenland ice sheet melt.  Were we to face a melting West Antarctic Ice Sheet at the same time, we would have to allocate many more resources.  Of course, in a few decades, we’re likely to face just such a situation.

Finally, here is the Antarctic sea ice extent time series through mid-March:

 photo S_stddev_timeseries_20130325_zpsf34ff5a5.png

Figure 8NSIDC Antarctic sea ice extent time series through late March 2013.


Given the lack of climate policy development to date, Arctic conditions will likely continue to deteriorate for the foreseeable future.  The Arctic Ocean will soak up additional energy (heat) from the Sun due to lack of reflective sea ice.  Additional energy in the climate system creates cascading and nonlinear effects throughout the system.  For instance, excess energy pushes the Arctic Oscillation to a more negative phase, which allows anomalously cold air to pour south over Northern Hemisphere land masses while warm air moves over the Arctic during the winter.  This in turn impacts weather patterns throughout the year across the mid-latitudes.

More worrisome for long-term concerns is the heat that impacts land-based ice.  As glaciers and ice sheets melt, sea-level rise occurs.  Beyond the increasing rate of sea-level rise due to thermal expansion (excess energy, see above), storms have more water to push onshore as they move along coastlines.  We can continue to react to these developments as we’ve mostly done so far and allocate billions of dollars in relief funds because of all the human infrastructure lining our coasts.  Or we can be proactive, minimize future global effects, and reduce societal costs.  The choice remains ours.


Here are my State of Polar Sea Ice posts from February and January 2013. For further comparison, here is my State of Polar Sea Ice post from March 2012.


I meant to include the following two graphs in this post because of the historical nature they represent.

 photo Arctice_sea_ice_area_20120918_2_zps7e4bc6a2.png

Figure 9 – Time series of Arctic sea ice area from UIUC from 1979 to Sep. 18, 2012.

 photo Arctic_sea_ice_area_20130326_zps5d70869e.png

Figure 10 – Time series of Arctic sea ice area from UIUC from 1979 to Mar. 25, 2013.

The difference between these two graphics is obvious since they were taken near the time of minimum area (2012) and maximum area (2013).  In terms of magnitude, the freeze season of 2012-2013 produced the highest amount of frozen ice area in the modern record (11.168 million sq. km.).  The value of ice area last September was the lowest on record and the value of ice area earlier this month was the highest in four years.  March’s area value occurred because of the factors I discussed above that boil down to this: the relative lack of thick ice in recent winters permitted rapid ice growth, albeit thin ice that melts quickly the following year.  In addition to new record low area values in the future, significant oscillations from minimum to maximum and back again are likely to occur in the future as well.  This does not contradict climate change; it is a manifestation of climate change.  I hope write more about this topic soon, but countries are reconstructing international policy (military and economic) as a result of the changes seen in the Arctic.  Those policy shifts will have societal repercussions, which I venture say few people realize today.


6 thoughts on “State of Polar Sea Ice – March 2013: Annual Arctic Maximum and Antarctic Minimum Reached

  1. Thanks for all your efforts to make this intelligible to the average non-cryospherologist(?)… With regard to the Arctic, I note the three sequential years with minimum ice volume more than 2 below what might have been expected due to the long-term declining trend. Presumably, the fact that areal extent does not show the same pattern confirms that ice is now thinner than it ought to be? If so, although I also note your criticism of those who have predicted and ice free Arctic this summer, I think the clear abnormality of current conditions should concern everybody.

  2. Yes, the volume vs. extent observation is one I’ve made also. The lack of ice volume is, to my knowledge, the primary driver behind the rapid melt seasons of the past decade. As the volume graph makes clear, future melt seasons are more likely to match 2007’s and 2012’s rather than say 1980’s. Note that the volume graph is a product of a model – volume measurements are obviously difficult to make in situ.
    As to my statement that an ice-free Arctic is not likely to occur this year, I should provide additional context behind my conclusion. I have heard observers state an ice-free Arctic could happen each of the last three years. Thankfully, and this speaks more to the resiliency of the sea ice than the lack of skill of those predictions, the Arctic still had ice at the end of each of those summers. I’m certainly not saying conditions are improving or staying static; rather the predictions of dire events occurring need to be made with caution. I hope I remain at the long end of viable ice-free dates when I state I don’t think an ice-free Arctic will occur for 5 to 10 years, although I fear we’re closer to 5 than 10. For the sake of the Arctic and the globe, I do hope I’m correct and Paul Beckwith, as a for instance, is incorrect insofar as this prediction is concerned. That said, I don’t want to focus on who is correct and who isn’t. I completely agree that everybody should be aware and justifiably concerned with these developments – that’s the primary reason I write these Polar Sea Ice posts. I would rather more people understood the state of the poles, regardless of who predicted what when.
    Thanks again for your engagement on this and other topics!

    • Very much agree with your penultimate paragraph. As for the one-liner at the end, thanks for regularly summarising NSIDC and NOAA output in such a user-friendly format! 😉

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

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

  5. Pingback: State of Polar Sea Ice – March 2014: Arctic Sea Ice Maximum and Antarctic Sea Minimum | Weatherdem's Weblog

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