Climate Change Indicator: Arctic Sea Ice

There are a number of key indicators, beyond our rising global temperature, that show Earth’s climate is changing. One of these is Arctic sea ice.

Measured via satellite since the late 1970’s, the extent and thickness of sea ice tend to vary from year to year but both have been in an overall decline for decades. According to NASA, the melt season in the Arctic has increased by 37 days since 1979.

Sea ice extent, the area of ocean with at least 15% sea ice, has a strong seasonal cycle. It typically peaks in March as winter ends and then declines during the summer, reaching a minimum in September. In March 2017, it hit a record low maximum for the third year in a row. The record minimum occurred in September 2012.

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the average age of Arctic sea ice is also changing. Thick multi-year ice – the ice that lasts through at least one melt season – has decreased 11% per decade since the satellite era began. That means there is more first-year ice, which tends to be thin and brittle. This is troublesome because it is more vulnerable to warming temperatures and wave action.

Sea ice is frozen ocean water. It forms, grows, and melts in the ocean. In contrast to land ice (glaciers), it does not contribute to sea level rise. However, as it melts it creates a global warming feedback loop. Ice is lighter in color and reflects more sunlight than dark ocean water. So, as more ocean water is exposed, more of the sun’s energy is absorbed. This drives temperatures up even further and causes more ice to melt.

The Arctic is now warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet – a phenomenon known as “Arctic amplification.”  At this rate, scientists expect the region to be ice-free in summer by the 2030s.

Credit: NSIDC