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Arctic Has Lost Enough Ice to Cover Canada and Texas

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The official end of the Arctic Ocean melt season could come any time now, but the sea ice that covers the North Polar region has already smashed the previous record low for end-of-summer ice area set in 2007.

Credit: Alfred Wegener Institute

Back then, a combination of warm temperatures and ice-dispersing winds left just 1.61 million square miles of ice cover — but that meltback was surpassed in late August this year, and by now, the ice extent has dropped by more than 35 percent below the 2007 record, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Since March, according to one calculation, the amount of ice that has disappeared is equal to the areas of Texas and Canada, combined.

This unprecedented melting (unprecedented since we’ve been able to monitor the ice with high accuracy using satellites, anyway, which first became possible in 1979) is extremely worrisome for several of reasons. For one, as Climate Central reported on August 27, sea ice is a powerful reflector that bounces a lot of sunlight back into space rather than letting it warm the Earth.

When that ice melts, it exposes the darker ground or water underneath, turning the region into an energy absorber rather than a reflector. Sea ice is especially vulnerable to melting, and over the past 30 years or so there’s been a downward trend in sea ice coverage in summer. The result is a feedback loop that accelerates global warming, with melting ice leading to more warming of the water below leading to more melting.

For another, a warming Arctic threatens to release carbon dioxide from melting permafrost and methane both from permafrost and from under the seafloor, each of which could accelerate warming as well.

A warming Arctic is also a tempting place to look for energy and mineral resources, and for new shipping routes. Royal Dutch Shell has just begun drilling an exploratory well in the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska, and a Chinese icebreaker is slicing its way through the increasingly thin and brittle ice surrounding the North Pole.

Environmentalists fear that shipping, mining and drilling will expose this formerly inaccessible corner of the world to pollution, oil spills and other ecological disasters.


U. of Washington animation of sea ice volume readings from a computer model.

Finally, a warmer Arctic could throw a monkey wrench into existing weather patterns in other parts of the world, bringing colder winters and more snowfall to the U.S. and Europe, for example.

Arctic experts are quick to acknowledge that the ice rebounded temporarily from its 2007 record low (although that rebound may have been somewhat misleading, since much of the ice that came back was relatively thin, and thus more prone to rapid melting than the thick, multi-year ice that forms over many seasons).

The ice could rebound again — for a while. Over the long term, however, it’s clear that the Arctic could be largely ice-free in late summer within a few decades, and maybe much sooner than that.

That’s true if we’ve already reached an ice minimum for a year. It’ll be even clearer if the ice plummets still more before the winter re-freeze begins.

An earlier version of this story asserted that the area of ice that has melted since March is equal to the areas of Canada and Alaska combined. In fact, the total melt area is equal to that of Canada and Texas combined. Thanks to our readers for pointing out the error.

Related coverage
Arctic Sea Ice Sets Record Low, and It's Not Over Yet
As Sea Ice Fades, the Arctic Becomes A Nautical Highway
Arctic Paradox: Warming Arctic May Mean Colder Winters for Some
Scientists Defending Against the Methane Bomb

Comments

By mark (la 90210)
on September 11th, 2012

Has any of the evironmentalists studying Nasa’s data ever even been to the north?  The sun rarely gets high in these areas, even on days of 24hr daylight.  Open water is the greatest natural absorber of the suns energy when the sun is high(equator), but at a low angle such as in the arctic, open water is like a mirror, and absorbs less energy than snow or ice.

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By Andy Lee Robinson (Budapest)
on September 11th, 2012

Here is an animated graph that clearly shows the history and trend of Arctic Sea Ice Volume since 1979 up to 2nd September 2012.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EnCy-R7mLHI

PIOMAS data obtained from http://psc.apl.washington.edu/wordpress/research/projects/arctic-sea-ice-volume-anomaly/

If this represented a fossil fuel company’s profits, shareholders would be rioting.

Reply to this comment

By ggrant
on September 11th, 2012

Great animation, Andy. Thank you for sharing. We’re going to drop that into the story so more people can watch.

Reply to this comment

By mlemonick
on September 11th, 2012

Mark wonders if any of the environmentalists studying NASA data have ever been to the north. The answer is, first of all, that I talk to scientists, not environmentalists. Many of them have indeed been to the Arctic, and even those who haven’t know all about sun angles, reflection and absorption, which involve some very basic physics. The calculations that say open water absorbs more energy than snow and ice, even at low sun angles, are extremely straightforward.

Besides, if snow and ice weren’t highly efficient reflectors, why do you think the indigenous people of the north invented a rudimentary form of sunglasses long before anyone further south bothered to do so? The answer: snowblindness, caused by all that reflected light.

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By Paddy
on September 12th, 2012

Good summary, aside from one mathematical error:

“the ice extent has dropped by more than 35 percent below the 2007 record”

No, it hasn’t.  What the NSIDC actually said was: “Compared to September conditions in the 1980s and 1990s, this represents a 45% reduction in the area of the Arctic” (from about 7 million square kilometres to less than 4 million square kilometres).  The 2007 record low was 4.17 million square kilometres, so we’re “only” talking about a 5% drop so far.

(Quote and figures from http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/2012/09/arctic-sea-ice-falls-below-4-million-square-kilometers/).

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By Paddy
on September 12th, 2012

Drat, sorry, another quibble: the loss would not be sufficient to cover Canada and Alaska.  Comparing the <4m square kilometre minimum to the 1980s-1990s average of 7m square kilometres gives about 3m square kilometres, and the land area of Canada is nearly 10m square kilometres.

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By tommy (Iqaluit)
on September 12th, 2012

What should be considered is there is nine months of darkness without sun only moonlight on a cloudless day/night. It’s not going to be warm up here during the winter. People and animals alike will still freez to death just like you can if you came up here to see the global warming. The difference might be there is some old snow packed ice floating away due to Noah’s flood.

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By mlemonick
on September 12th, 2012

Tommy from Iqaluit (I’ve been there!) makes an excellent point. The Arctic isn’t likely to be ice-free in winter for a long, long time, no matter what happens in summer. I’m not sure about Noah’s flood, though

Paddy, meanwhile, argues with my calculation of how much lower the ice cover is now than it was in 2007. Most of the difference comes from the fact that he’s relying on an NSIDC announcement from September 5, which said the ice had just dipped below 4 million square kilometers. My number is based on the graph of ice extent put up on September 11, when the amount had dropped significantly below that. Since my calculation is based largely on squinting at the graph and plugging in the number I think I see, he’s probably right that it’s inaccurate. The truth lies somewhere in between—but much closer to my number than to his.

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By Peter Carter (Pender Island BC Canada V0N2M2)
on September 12th, 2012

Unbelievable - the only effect on human civilization in this article is more shipping routes and fossil fuel exploitation.

There is no sense in this article that the collapse of the Arctic summer sea ice is a dire planetary emergency.

There is an immediate effect not referred to at all which makes the Arctic sea ice a global emergency for all of us. Scientists call the Arctic summer sea ice the ‘air conditioner’ of the Northern hemisphere.

Not surprisingly its loss is projected to increase Northern hemisphere drought- further. Over the past 15 years there is an established trend on drought increase in the Northern hemisphere. All of the world’s best food producing region are in the Northern hemisphere.

Losing Arctic summer sea ice means losing food.


What would happen to us as a result of the added feedback warming?

This is no mere threat or could be situation.

That would increase Northern hemisphere drought even more.

It would definitely accelerate global warming and definitely accelerate the release of the Arctic methane and drive up atmospheric methane faster. Why definite?

Global warming can only increase for many decades. All sources of Arctic methane are adding more methane to the atmosphere right now due to extremely rapid Arctic warming. Atmospheric methane having having increased two and a half times with industrialization flattened out at year 2000 but since the 2007 last big Arctic sea drop has been on a rapid sustained renewed increase. The scientists say this increase is due to planetary feedback emissions.

Connect the deadly dots. Only drastic emergency Arctic intervention can prevent global climate catastrophe from Arctic methane and catastrophe to world food production.

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By Byron Smith (Edinburgh)
on September 12th, 2012

Peter, I don’t think you’re being fair to Michael.

1. This website regularly covers human impacts (just do a little digging round).

2. Even in this piece there is explicit mention of three positive feedbacks associated with loss of summer Arctic sea ice (albedo, permafrost and methane clathrates).

3. There is also this: ” a warmer Arctic could throw a monkey wrench into existing weather patterns in other parts of the world, bringing colder winters and more snowfall to the U.S. and Europe, for example.”

The possibility of more NH drought is indeed a serious threat, though I don’t think the science on the relation between this and Arctic sea ice is currently as certain as you imply. I am not saying that the loss of ice is irrelevant or minor or indeed anything other than truly alarming. But more drought is a possibility, not a certainty.

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By Andrew MacDonald (west of Ottawa)
on September 12th, 2012

Nice and thanks to Paddy for setting the record straight that the ice loss wasn’t equal to the size of Canada and Alaska, as I’d guessed.

Fox News doesn’t have to be factual but we do!

And thanks for the great work!

Reply to this comment

By Paddy
on September 13th, 2012

Ah.  One problem with squinting at the NSIDC graph: the Y axis starts at 2, rather than 0.  So the drop from the 2007 low is really about 1- (3.5 / 4.17), or 16%.  Pretty substantial, but not 45%.

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By Jon (Foxboro, Ma. 02035)
on September 13th, 2012

  to make it short . are getting invovled   into another ” Ice Age”?

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By william
on September 14th, 2012

Northwest passage today closed by ice ,


What was the significance of St Roch?
First vessel to sail the Northwest Passage from west to east (1940 ”“ 1942)

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By William Fraser (Santa Cruz, CA 95060)
on September 17th, 2012

Thanks, Paddy for setting the record straight on the 16% drop (which is now 19%, based on the data at ftp://sidads.colorado.edu/DATASETS/NOAA/G02135/north/daily/data/

The claim that the ice lost was equal to Alaska plus Canada was referring to the difference between 2012 Max and 2012 Min.  (Not between 2007 Min and 2012 Min).

It was a record for the most ice lost (11,922,300 km2), with the previous record probably being 2007 (10,628,930).  For comparison, the next largest loss that I found in a quick search was 2011—10,387,000.

I think that the problem was the juxtaposition of the headline, referring to the loss since March, with the start of the article, which referred to the loss since 2007.  My guess is that both facts were taken from another article, which had them arranged differently.

The more natural comparison to make would be that the amount of ice that we lost since the minimum in 2007 was 792,000km2 or more than the area of Texas (and to further note that this occurred on top of a record which was quite stunning when it happened).

And to top it off, we may not have reached this year’s minimum yet. (The value of 3,368,550 set on 9/16/2012 was the fourth day in a row in record territory and nearly 1% lower than the day before—3,393,240.)

Also, although I’ve never been to Iqaluit (and don’t dispute that the winter ice will hang on for a while after the summer ice has gone—and while it does, freezing to death is certainly what would happen to the unprotected.) isn’t it only 6 months of 24-hour-a-day darkness?

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By OLD COWBOY (MAGNOLIA, TX 77354)
on April 29th, 2014

DID MAN-MADE CO2 CAUSE THE END OF THE LAST ICE AGE?

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