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Hey Look, Another Record Low Month for Sea Ice

Climate change continues its rapid reshaping of the Arctic as yet another month saw sea ice set a record-low mark.

March data just released by the National Snow and Ice Data Center marks six months in a row of near-record or record-low sea ice for the region. It’s a story that’s been reported so often recently, it risks feeling almost normal. But make no mistake. There has never been a run like this in nearly 40 years of satellite data.

Arctic sea ice extent is record low for this time of year and has been since October 2016 with the exception of December (which was still the second-lowest extent on record).
Credit: Zack Labe

Sea ice was missing from a 452,000-square-mile area it usually covers in March. That’s an area roughly the size of all of Scandinavia. Warm weather was yet again a major culprit in the case of the missing ice.

Temperatures were up to 13°F above normal along Russia’s coastal seas. Incidentally, those areas — particularly the Barents Sea and Sea of Okhotsk — were home to some of the largest sea ice anomalies.

Sea ice thickness is an even more important indicator for the melt season, which is underway after setting a record-low peak in early March (for the third year running, no less).

Just as extent has set a record low in March, so too has thickness, according to data from the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center. NSIDC also reported that ice thinner than 6 feet “covers a much larger region and extends much farther north than it used to — well north of 80°N latitude on the Atlantic side of the Arctic.”

Thin — and generally younger — sea ice is more susceptible to melt than its older, thicker counterpart. Yet young, thin ice is making up an increasingly large portion of Arctic ice pack as climate change whittles away at stores of old ice.

Arctic sea ice thickness is also record low.
Credit: Zack Labe

The Arctic started out winter with a dearth of sea ice. The September minimum was the second lowest on record. Now it’s headed into melt season with record-low ice extent and thickness. It’s much too early to say if the minimum will set a record, but then what’s happening from month-to-month isn’t the most important issue at hand.

This March’s low ice extent and thickness is a symptom of a much larger problem that the region faces. Sea ice has been declining in all seasons at a quickening pace. That’s destabilizing the region, tilting it into a new state.

Among recent findings, researchers have found disappearing sea ice is turning parts of the Arctic Ocean into a state more like the Atlantic, while thinner sea ice is allowing unheard of algae blooms.

That has knock-on effects for the shipping industry, mining and oil extraction, coastal protection and a host of problems humans will face if carbon pollution is allowed to continue unabated. That will force temperatures ever higher, causing sea ice to dwindle ever lower.

Editor's Note: This story previously referred to the missing sea ice area as equivalent to Sweden. In fact, it's all of Scandinavia. Apologies to the denizens of Norway, Denmark and Finland.

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