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Arctic Death Spiral: More Bad News about Sea Ice

The sea ice that blankets the Arctic Ocean each winter peaked in early March this year, as usual, and is now in retreat, en route to its annual minimum extent in September. How low it will go is something scientists worry: ice reflects lots of sunlight back into space, and when the darker ocean underneath is exposed, more sunlight is absorbed to add to global warming.

That’s the simple version of the story, but things look even worse when you dig into the details. For one thing, all that open water does re-freeze each winter, but it freezes into a relatively thin layer known as seasonal, or first-year ice. Because it’s so thin, first-year ice tends to melt back quickly the following season, giving the ocean a chance to warm things up even more in what National Snow and Ice Data Center director Mark Serreze has called a “death spiral” that could lead to ice-free Arctic summers by 2030. 

The sun reflects over thin sea ice and a few floating icebergs. Credit: Jefferson Beck/NASA

But it’s worse than that, says a new analysis by scientists at the U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Research Laboratory in Hanover, N.H. “First-year ice is not just thinner, “ said Donald Perovich, lead author of a report in Geophysical Research Letters, in an interview. “We’re also beginning to realize it has other properties.” The most important: new ice is less reflective than old ice, for most of the year, anyway. It absorbs more heat from the Sun, which means it doesn’t just melt faster: it actually speeds up its own melting.

Here’s how it happens, according to Perovich. “Most of the precipitation in the Arctic,” he said, “happens at the end of summer and in the early fall.” When the snow first begins to fall, it builds on the multi-year ice, but disappears onto the patches of open ocean. Those patches eventually freeze, and the snow sticks there as well; it just forms a thinner layer. So for most of the winter, all of the ice, thick and thin, is covered with a brightly reflective blanket. That would be good as far as warming is concerned, except that for most of the winter, the Sun doesn’t rise.

When the Sun finally does rise in spring, it melts the thinner snow first, forming heat-absorbing pools on the surface of the first-year ice. The older ice eventually catches up, forming pools of its own, but since the surface is crumpled, the ponds don’t spread as widely, and they absorb less heat.

In short, the death spiral — where more melting leads to more melting — appears to be even steeper than anyone thought.

That doesn’t mean that there’s less ice literally every year. The lowest levels ever recorded happened in September of 2007; since then, coverage has been bouncing around near, but not quite at, those historic lows, and first-year ice in the winter has been near its historic highs.

“What it means,” Perovich said, “is that with more seasonal ice, the Arctic is more susceptible to an outlier kind of year.” If there’s significantly more heat in a particular year due to natural variations, in other words, there could be a huge loss of ice. It’s kind of like a staircase, Petrovic said. “It bounces around for a while, then there’s a drop to a new normal, then it bounces around.” The point, he said, is that “we now have a type of ice cover that’s even easier to knock over than it was before.”

What that means is that at some point in the not too distant future, an unusually warm summer (even for a globally warming world) could knock the ice in the Arctic ocean down another major step, and take the world closer to the time when all of it vanishes — creating a new heat-trapping region where none existed before, and pushing climate change into an even higher gear.


By John McGeough
on May 16th, 2012

Perhaps you should look at the Arctic Roos data site instead of regurgitating warmist nonesense.
The ice extent is NORMAL for this time of year. This silliness about “Death Spirals” in the face of normal ice extents is much worse than I thought as far as stupidity goes. Instead of regurgitating this crap do some reporting and investigate the claims by looking at the data.

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By Sean McHugh (NSW 2540)
on May 16th, 2012

The Arctic sea ice is higher than it was in 2007 and is not far from normal. The Antarctic sea ice has been increasing for 30 years:

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By Bill Yarber (New Smyrna Beach, FL, 32169)
on May 16th, 2012

2007 hit a multi-decade low because of wind and ocean currents pushing ice, first year and multi year, out of the Arctic Circle and into open water. Arctic ice coverage has rebounded over the past four years because more normal conditions have returned. Dr Mark Serreze was wrong in his 2007 predition that the Arctic could be ice free by 2012. Since Arctic ice extent hit the 1979-2000 average for the first time in a decade, it is probable, under current wind and ocean current conditions, that the 2012 minimum will be the greatest since 2007. Time will tell, but don’t hold your breath for an “Arctic Death Spiral” in the next 50 years. Especially with the Sun in the weakest sun spot cycles in 100 years, after four very strong sun sport cycles during the last half of the 20th century. I’m certainly not frightened by this article, and you and your children shouldn’t be either.


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By Dave N
on May 17th, 2012

“..peaked in early March this year, as usual..”

Your bad news is only bad because you have your facts wrong. Arctic ice peaked in late March, one of the latest peaks on record.

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By Otter
on May 17th, 2012

I notice you say ‘peaked in early March.’ Just out of curiosity, could you give us a list of, say, the past 10 spring dates that Arctic ice began melting at? Early March, Early April, Late March?

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By Geof Burbidge (Chelsea, Quebec, Canada)
on May 17th, 2012

I just don’t buy this particular positive feedback story.  First of all, I’d like to see some real data on how sunlight warms seawater.  And secondly some numbers on the percentage of solar insolation that’s actually impinging on the Arctic during the late summer and early fall when the open ice is at its maximum.  Looking at charts of solar heating of the globe, it appears to me that 80 per cent or more of the sun’s energy falls between the two tropics.  So we’re talking about a tiny fraction of the 10 per cent that’s left over for the Arctic.  By September the sun barely gets over the horizon.  I don’t think it’s doing any measurable warming at all, whether open water or ice!

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By john harkness
on May 17th, 2012

Good article. It is my understanding that much of the new ice is also less solid—rather like a slushy than completely solid. I would imagine that such a loose structure would also make it easier to melt.

The one nit-pick I have with the wording is in the ante-penultimate paragraph:

“That doesn’t mean that there’s less ice literally every year. The lowest levels ever recorded happened in September of 2007; since then, coverage has been bouncing around near, but not quite at, those historic lows, and first-year ice in the winter has been near its historic highs.”

The first sentence makes it sound as though your are talking about total ice mass rather than coverage. IIRC, estimates of total ice mass in the Arctic have been falling more steadily than ice coverage. The loss of mass, again iirc, is accelerating at such a rate that projecting the curve forward suggests that there will be no more ice in September as early as 2016. See graphs and discussions of them at neven’s Arctic sea ice blog.

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By Neven (Austria)
on May 17th, 2012

“The lowest levels ever recorded happened in September of 2007; since then, coverage has been bouncing around near, but not quite at, those historic lows, “

That depends on the dataset you look at. Sea ice extent as measured by the University of Bremen broke the 2007 minimum record last year, as was the case for sea ice area as measured by Cryosphere Today.

Mind you, the 2011 melting season equalled 2007 without the perfect storm of the latter, and ended two weeks earlier. A rerun of 2007 weather conditions will smash all the records in all the datasets, due to several factors, one of which is the one Dr Perovich posits, but mostly because the ice is on average even thinner than in 2007. Unless a couple of cold years thicken up the ice considerably, it’s not a question of ‘will there be a new record?’, but ‘when?’.

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By Sami (Denver)
on May 17th, 2012

Arctic Sea Ice peaked at the end of March, not the beginning of March.  In fact, peak ice this year is one of the latest peak ice times on record.  Here’s the raw data so you can see for yourself.  Learn how to do your job.

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By Bill Yarber (New Smyrna Beach, FL, 32168)
on May 18th, 2012

If you want to follow Arctic & Antarctic sea ice coverage, use this link:

If you are proAGW, you won’t have to read any of the comments on the main page. If you are undecided about the debate, I suggest you go to:

For interesting discussions.

With respect to Bremmen’s call that 2011 actually broke the 2007 record, that happened prior to the actual minimum as was such an outlier compared to the other sources that I consider it suspect and not worth mention.

Global warming has happened and may continue to happen, or we may be headed to a 30-50 year period of global cooling. The debate about is about if, or how much man and CO2 really contribute to the observed warming and how much is just natural variability of a very complex climate system.


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By John Hartz (South Carolina)
on May 18th, 2012

Speaking of what’s happening in Antarctica…

A new study examining nearly 40 years of satellite imagery has revealed that the floating ice shelves of a critical portion of West Antarctica are steadily losing their grip on adjacent bay walls, potentially amplifying an already accelerating loss of ice to the sea.

Source: “West Antarctic Ice Shelves Tearing Apart at the Seams,” Skeptical Science, May 7, 2012

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By John Hartz (South Carolina)
on May 18th, 2012

More about what’s happening in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS),,,

Using ice-penetrating radar instruments flown on aircraft, a team of scientists from the U.S. and U.K. have uncovered a previously unknown sub-glacial basin nearly the size of New Jersey beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) near the Weddell Sea. The location, shape and texture of the mile-deep basin suggest that this region of the ice sheet is at a greater risk of collapse than previously thought.

Source: “Scientists Discover New Site of Potential Instability in West Antarctic Ice Sheet,” Universtiy of Texas at Austin, May 10, 2012

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By Albatross
on May 18th, 2012

Wow, there are some very rude and disrespectful comments here by “skeptics”.  I doubt many have even read the paper’s abstract, never mind the paper.  I wonder how many of the poster here who are mocking this is issue (and the authors?) are either sea ice experts or have had a paper published about sea ice?  I’m thinking neither one.

It is also disconcerting to read people promulgating misinformation about the multiple mechanisms (1) responsible for the rapid loss of multiyear ice in the Arctic basin (2,3), which include warming and positive feedbacks (2,4).  They also ignore the fact that the Arctic is losing sea ice much faster than the Antarctic is (5). 

The physics behind the positive feedbacks are well understood (6) and have been borne out by observations (7, paper discussed in the main post).

With the marked loss of thick multiyear sea ice, ice the the Arctic sea ice is becoming increasingly susceptible to abnormal circulation patterns and positive feedbacks.

(1) Stroeve, J. C., Serreze, M. C., Holland, M.M., Kay, J. E., Meier, W., and A. P. Barrett (2011), The Arctic’s rapidly shrinking sea ice cover: A research synthesis, Climatic Change, doi: 10.1007/s10584-011-0101-1
(2) Maslanik, J. A., C. Fowler, J. Stroeve, S. Drobot, J. Zwally, D. Yi, and W. Emery (2007), A younger, thinner Arctic ice cover: Increased potential for rapid, extensive sea-ice loss, Geophys. Res. Lett., 34, L24501, doi:10.1029/2007GL032043.
(3)Nghiem, S. V., I. G. Rigor, D. K. Perovich, P. Clemente-Colón, J. W. Weatherly, and G. Neumann (2007), Rapid reduction of Arctic perennial sea ice, Geophys. Res. Lett., 34, L19504, doi:10.1029/2007GL031138.
(4) Wang, J., J. Zhang, E. Watanabe, M. Ikeda, K. Mizobata, J. E. Walsh, X. Bai, and B. Wu (2009), Is the Dipole Anomaly a major driver to record lows in Arctic summer sea ice extent?, Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L05706, doi:10.1029/2008GL036706.
(5) (data from NSIDC)
(6)Perovich, D. K., S. V. Nghiem, T. Markus, and A. Schweiger (2007), Seasonal evolution and interannual variability of the local solar energy absorbed by the Arctic sea ice”“ocean system, J. Geophys. Res., 112, C03005, doi:10.1029/2006JC003558.
(7) Flanner, M.G., Shell, K.M., Barlage, M., Perovich, D.K., and Tschudi, M.A. (2011, January 16). Radiative forcing and albedo feedback from the Northern Hemisphere cryosphere between 1979 and 2008. Nature Geoscience.

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By Rob Honeycutt (CA)
on May 18th, 2012

Dave N said… “Your bad news is only bad because you have your facts wrong. Arctic ice peaked in late March, one of the latest peaks on record.”

And do you have any concept of why or what the relevance of that might be?  First, the date of the peak has little bearing on anything at all.  It has far more to do with wind and weather patterns during March.  The entire issue has to do with sea ice minimum because that is contributes to a feedback effect.  Lots of sunlight and low ice means more warming of the planet.

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By Robert
on May 18th, 2012

“If you are proAGW, you won’t have to read any of the comments on the main page. If you are undecided about the debate, I suggest you go to:”

ahh yes WUWT… personally I think NASA and NSIDC are better places to consult since they hire glaciologists and sea ice experts.

Why not ask Dave Barber?

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By barnacle bill (Kennett Square)
on May 19th, 2012

Ha - i love it when the Flat Earthers attack any science that would lend validity to climate change.  As usual, they do not reference any scientific papers or experts. Just just show the deniers website - and hurl insults.
I wonder if some day they will actually apologize for being wrong and so petulant about their belief system.

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By John Farmer (Nashville, TN 37214)
on May 23rd, 2012

The point is that with less multiyear ice, it is easier for a warm spell to melt it.  Going into Winter with a lot of open ocean you will still get widespread ice cover due to the lack of sunlight and due to cold.  Even with warmer Winter it will be plenty cold to freeze lots of ice.  It will be thin single year ice.  It will be more likely to thaw in the Summer.  It is hard to miss the facts on multiyear ice.  It is common sense how fragile single year ice will be. No one is in a panic about the Artic being ice free year around for a long time.  Seems very reasonable to see a whole lot less ice in the Summer. The dark open waters will absorb heat and warm the air therefore less Summer ice.  You don’t have to believe in global warming to see this.  Why do some of you want to argue so hard against some physical facts.  You can believe this and still believe humans have nothing to do with it.  People get SO emotional about an issue they can’t see plain facts.  Anyway, if we don’t believe in global warming and are wrong, we will have hell to pay.  Kind of like believing in God.  If you don’t believe and you are wrong, not so good. If you are right, then lights out.  If you believe and you are right, great.  If you believe and you are wrong, lights out, probably lived a better life, probably kinder to your neighbor.

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By John Farmer (nashville, tn 37214)
on May 23rd, 2012

Agree with the comment about less ice is really about volume, not extent.  Less volume reflects loss of multiyear ice. 

Example:  looking straight down on a piece of 8 1/2 X 11 inch paper, you can’t say there is more or less paper if you can’t see if it is one sheet you are looking at or a stack of 10.  The stack of 10 has more paper than the stack of one; for those of you who don’t get it.

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By eddiequest (Phoenix, AZ 85032)
on May 25th, 2012

After a few years of reading almost everything there is on this subject (as well as all the usual rightwinger commentary), I would have to say I am VERY glad that the dummies will die right along with the rest of us.

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By Guy Dauncey (Victoria, BC, Canada)
on May 25th, 2012

The emotional and irrational response from the climate deniers is intriguing. Why should they be so concerned to demonstrate that the science is wrong? What it is that goes on inside their brains, that gets them so hot and bothered about the particular week in March when the Arctic ice peaked?

I think it’s to do with a mental need “to be right”. We see it so often it in our daily lives ”“ the people who hang onto their beliefs however far they are from being correct. We see it in our marriages ”“ when we make a mistake and try to deny it or blame it on someone else, rather than admit we were wrong.

Maybe there’s an evolutionary advantage to the confidence that comes from believing we are right. Maybe it helped us to defend the tribe. To believe that you were right, and that God was on your side ”“ that’s a hugely important survival benefit that must have helped to pass on the genes that shaped the brain to think that way.

Why does climate denial affect mostly older white men? That may be evolutionary and genetic in origin too The older men in a patriarchy are supposed to be the elders and the tribal leaders, and as such they must be right, or they would lose respect and be driven out by some pushy youngster. It’s all about control.

On some things, we don’t mind not knowing. What’s the going price for ladies underwear? Most men are happy to say, “I don’t know”. But once an older dominant male forms an opinion, that opinion must be held onto or you risk dethronement and shame, and life is over. Among our primate ancestors, the defeated alpha male had to wander off into the wilderness, alone and unloved.

Why is the archetypal climate denier usually an older, well-educated white male? It fits the pattern of tribal leadership. You believe you are important and entitled to leadership, and as such, whatever you say or believe must be right. To admit error is to risk dethronement.

If this is so, what can it tell us about the best way to overcome such deluded self-importance? Historically, when a tribal leader who became rigid and opinionated faced a challenge from his people he had to defend his power with brute force, as Gadaffi did in Libya and Assad is currently doing in Syria. They had to be physically defeated and dethroned.

Maybe, when an older alpha male sticks to irrational ideas so stubbornly and aggressively he is unconsciously afraid that if he admits he is wrong his life will be worthless ”“like the evicted tribal leader. Maybe he has a weak inner sense of personal value, and does not believe that he will still be loved and respected if he admits he as wrong. When a man ties his personal identity to his mind, the need to be right becomes awfully important.  If you are not right, who are you? Are there many Buddhist climate deniers in the world? I doubt it, for a Buddhist’s self-esteem is rarely tied to something so ephemeral such as being right.

Let me approach this from another angle.

Why is the typical climate denier emotionally hostile to government, actively resenting what is believed to be government interference? This would fit with the theory that he has adopted a psychological framing in which he sees himself as a tribal leader, and as such, nobody should be telling him what to do. To have the government tell you what you can or cannot do irks you in the extreme, just as it does a two-year-old. The instinct to have our own way is strong and ancient ”“ we all had it before we lost the battles of the tantrum wars.

Maybe ”“ and it’s total conjecture ”“ maybe the libertarians and climate deniers actually won their own personal tantrum wars and were never truly dethroned as two-year-olds, resulting in an elevated and delusional sense of self-importance.

Maybe the selective pressures of evolution gave us genetic survivors a latent leadership potential and an instinct to control and protect the tribe, overriding the lesser matter of whether we are right or wrong on any particular matter. It is belief in the leader that matters, because that draws forth an incredible willingness to defend the tribe. From that perspective, it is a noble, heroic role. Maybe it only surfaces among those who feel they merit the role because they are older, male, well-educated and white, reflecting the cultural dominance of such people. Why are many other older, white, well-educated males not climate deniers? I have no theory that would explain why this particular mental pattern should affect some older males, but not others.

So what is our solution? When I look at the historical record, I see no evidence of any successful course of action apart from defeat and eviction from the tribe. Tribal leaders only retire gracefully when they are deemed to be right and held in high esteem, whereas the current climate denial leaders are both wrong and held in low esteem. This tells me there is no solution apart from defeat, leading to withdrawal, as may currently be happening to the Heartland Institute.

Such defeat will never result from argument or debate, however, because it’s not about the facts of global warming. It’s about something much deeper ”“ it’s about their right to act out the role of tribal leader.

Defeat must therefore occur in other ways, such as being exposed for being fraudulent or totally stupid, or by being shamed in front of your funders, which has been the fate of the Heartland Institute. By this reckoning, Peter Gleich’s actions to expose the Heartland Institute’s funding secrets make him a hero of the first order.

Debate and argument is constantly needed, because without it the climate denier’s belief that he is right will continue unchallenged. This chain of thought tells me that when debating a climate denier we must remember that the debate is not about the climate science, but about the self-importance of a would-be tribal leader.

So how can this best be undermined? Maybe by attacking the weak underbelly of the climate denial movement, which is its funding sources, and its total dependence on money from the big fossil fuel companies for whom the climate deniers are mere puppets, and not people with the integrity or values that a true tribal leader should possess.

The true tribal leaders are listening to what the climate scientists are saying and doing everything they can to forestall the coming disaster, by turning the world onto a new path, away from our use of fossil fuels, deforestation and destructive methods of farming. Their self-esteem goes deeper than whether they are right or not.


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By Farmer (Sunnyville, FL)
on July 13th, 2012

Some of you miss the point, it is not all about ice extent but about the volume of ice. If you took geometry you’d know what volume is, 3 dimensional.  The ice is getting thinner each year no matter what the extent is.  At some point in time the multiyear ice is gone, so what remains each year is what freezes that winter.  So quite likely it can all melt in the Summer.  Then, in the winter because it is still very cold without the Sun, there can be extensive freezing and will be for years to come.  This gives the illusion to those without any commonsense that there is the same amount of ice.  Could it be some are so close minded that even common sense physics of nature is not believed.  You don’t have to believe man is doing this, but somehow it seems believable that 7 billion people and counting can overwhelm nature a bit.

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By Chris Young (02138-2379)
on February 21st, 2013

Excellent advice from Guy Dauncey, about authoritiarian stance of most deniers of global warming.

One scientific authority with a critical piece of evidence: The Royal Society (Publishers of Newton, Faraday, Darwin, etc.). They had a special issue dealing with the close parallels to the last time on earth CO2 levels were as high as they are now (2.2 mil yrs ago) and the consequent feedback loops giveing rise to 80 foot sea-level fluctuations.

Introduction. Pliocene climate, processes and problems

Climate predictions produced by numerical climate models, often referred to as general circulation models (GCMs), suggest that by the end of the twenty-first century global mean annual surface air temperatures will increase by 1.1–6.4°C. Trace gas records from ice cores indicate that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are already higher than at any time during the last 650 000 years. In the next 50 years, atmospheric CO2 concentrations are expected to reach a level not encountered since an epoch of time known as the Pliocene. Uniformitarianism is a key principle of geological science, but can the past also be a guide to the future? To what extent does an examination of the Pliocene geological record enable us to successfully understand and interpret this guide? How reliable are the ‘retrodictions’ of Pliocene climates produced by GCMs and what does this tell us about the accuracy of model predictions for the future? These questions provide the scientific rationale for this Theme Issue.

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By RealOldOne2
on March 26th, 2013

2nd attempt to post:
Since it appears that my previous comment providing a direct evidence from a skeptic answering Dauncey’s speculations did not make it through the censors, I’ll try a shorter one.
The basis of Dauncey’s ridiculous speculations is the question: ” Why should they be so concerned to demonstrate that the science is wrong?”
The answer is because:
1) the wrong science is driving misguided energy policies & regulations that are causing the death of thousands of people. (—experts-say-final-toll-horrendous.html)
2) The wrong science is causing the UK to shut down coal & oil fired power plants (Fawley, Didcot, etc) solely because of EU regulations. This leads to electricity shortages & higher prices which the poor & elderly cannot afford so they freeze to death.
3) The wrong science drives unnecessarily high energy prices because of carbon taxes which do nothing to change the climate and green energy taxes which subsidize expensive and unreliable wind and solar energy.
4) The wrong science predicted little or no snow which caused poor/no preparation for the colder & snowier recent winters experienced in the UK, which caused more road accidents/deaths.
Instead of worrying about some hypothetical future “Arctic death spiral” based on wrong science, we should be worrying about the deaths of thousands of people that is actually happening right now, in large part due the the wrong science of the global warming doomsayers.

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