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Arctic Sea Ice Extent Threatening to Set Record Low

By Climate Central

The annual maximum sea ice extent in the Arctic Ocean usually occurs in middle to late March. But last year that maximum came in late February, and there are signs the peak may come early again this year, suggesting a shorter winter in a warming Arctic.

Given the planet just had its hottest calendar year on record, followed by one of the Arctic’s hottest winters on record, it’s no surprise that this year’s sea ice maximum is challenging its record low. Remember, this is a different measurement from the one taken in September, when the annual minimum sea ice extent is measured.

The area of ice in February averaged 5.48 million square miles, which is the lowest February extent since the satellite era began in 1979. This is 77,000 square miles — an area about the size of South Dakota — less than the previous February record set in 2005. The phenomenal warmth in the Arctic in February played a role, with air temperatures 11-14°F above the 1981-2010 average over the central Arctic Ocean. In the long term, this puts the rate of February decline in Arctic ice extent at 3 percent per decade since 1979.

The decrease in ice provides new shortcut shipping lanes through the Arctic and poses new national security concerns, as less ice allows easier access to competitive oil and natural gas resources in the Arctic. Decreasing ice also increases the amount of solar energy absorbed by the Arctic Ocean, further enhancing planetary warming.

Read more about the decline in Arctic sea ice here.

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