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Record Low Maximum for Arctic Sea Ice

By Climate Central

The spring and summer melt season is officially on for Arctic sea ice, and it’s not off to a good start. The 2015 melt season will start with a record low maximum ice extent.

According to scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, sea ice extent was 425,000 square miles below the 1981-2010 average. That's the equivalent of 1.6 times the size of Texas (the largest state in the Lower 48) or 411 Rhode Islands (the smallest state). No matter how you measure it, it represents a huge missing chunk of ice.

The Arctic has seen its sea ice dwindle across all seasons. According to the most recent Arctic Report Card, winter has been losing sea ice at a rate of 2.6 percent per decade, while the summer extent has decreased at an even greater rate of 13.3 percent per decade. Higher air and water temperatures in the Arctic — the fastest warming region in the world — are two of the main culprits spurring the decline.

As it decreases, the lack of Arctic sea ice could reshape the economy of the region, opening previously inaccessible areas for oil and gas extraction and shipping. However, it would also pose a major national security concern in addition to altering local ways of life. Sea ice also provides crucial coastal protection in the Arctic, hunting grounds for local tribes, and habitats for creatures from polar bears to seals.

Old Ice Fades

In addition to disappearing sea ice, the ice that does remain is also getting younger and thinner. Younger ice tends to be thinner and more brittle, making it easier to break up each melt season. That is contributing to the quickness in overall sea ice decline. 

Last year, old ice accounted for 10 percent of the overall ice pack. In 1987, the first year data is available for, it comprised 26 percent of all sea ice. 

Paradoxically, Antarctic sea ice hit a record maximum last year. But the drop in Arctic sea ice is greater than the corresponding gain in sea ice around Antarctica. As a result, the amount of global sea ice continues a net downward trend. Similarly, land ice in Antarctica continues a long-term downward trend.

This year's record low maximum for winter sea ice in the Arctic doesn't guarantee another record low minimum when summer rolls around in August. But it is cause for concern and provides a clear sign of how the planet is changing as the Earth warms.

“The fact that we're starting the melt season with low — maybe record low — winter extent cannot be good,” Jennifer Francis, a Rutgers University Arctic researcher, said in an email right before the records came in.