By Bob Berwyn, InsideClimate News
Jan 9, 2017
Unrelenting warmth during what should be the iciest time of year sent global sea ice extent to a record low last month, the National Snow and Ice Data Center said on Friday, with both polar ice caps at a record-low extent every single day of the month.
Compared to the average from 1981 to 2010, the area of ice missing in the Arctic was about the size of Texas and Arizona combined; in the Antarctic, it was bigger than Alaska, according to the NSIDC.
Temperatures in the Arctic were about 9 degrees Fahrenheit above average throughout November and December, with peak readings soaring to 50 degrees above the long-term average around Christmas, when the North Pole warmed above freezing, a mark rarely seen outside of summer.
"Some of the crazy weather patterns we've seen this winter could be, in part, due to the loss of sea ice," said NSIDC director Mark Serreze. "We've had very unusual weather patterns pumping warmth up into the Arctic...the changes are happening so fast that we can't keep up with them."
Scientists measuring sea ice in a three-year run of record global heat feel the urgency of the data they are capturing, while the political climate around them changes even faster.
After Trump's election, a senior NASA official expressed concern in an internal email that the Earth Sciences division would have its funding cut, and Trump adviser Bob Walker, a former House Science Committee chair, has said he believed NASA should end its climate monitoring programs, which he calls "politically correct environmental monitoring." Christopher Shank, the leader of Trump's NASA transition team, is policy director for the House Science Committee, which has doggedly questioned the climate work of NOAA and NASA scientists.
Those sentiments have led some scientists reportedly to begin to duplicate climate data to protect it from potential Trump administration tampering.
Monitoring Arctic sea ice conditions is important, he said, because of implications for shipping, the Arctic environment and energy development.
Serreze said, "We at the NSIDC view our role as the honest purveyors of the best scientific information. We've tried to avoid getting into advocacy because we would lose respect. We're in a situation now where the data speak for themselves. People who deny that, who say that humans don't have anything to do with it, have their head in the sand. Deny it at your peril.
"You can't hide or suppress data. We're in the information age."
The information these days carries sobering implications about the vicious cycle of climate change, which has been amplified in the Arctic as it warms at double the rate of the global average.
According to Serreze and Meier, there's increasing evidence that the continuing loss of sea ice is, at least in part, causing the weather patterns that funnel even more warm air toward the Arctic by shifting the path of the jet stream.
"It's not only the extent. The thickness and volume are even more concerning," said Lars Kaleschke, an oceanographer with the Alfred Wegener Institute of Polar Research in Bremerhaven, Germany.
Recent satellite data show that much of the thicker multi-year ice has vanished from the Arctic. The remaining ice is so thin that it's susceptible to melting and breaks up faster during stormy weather, according to Mats Granskog, a research scientist at the Norwegian Polar Institute who specializes in tracking the age of Arctic ice.
The changes in Antarctic ice extent the past few months have been equally dramatic, but the causes are not well understood. By August of 2016, the belt of ice around Antarctica was sharply below average.
The exact cause of the precipitous decline remains elusive, scientists said, but they detected significant changes in wind patterns in August, September and November that are most likely linked with global warming, according to Serreze.
The job of monitoring complex systems like the Arctic and Antarctic and studying climate change impacts requires not just well-funded U.S. research, but also global collaboration. For example, some European satellite missions have specialized in reading sea ice thickness and volume. Together with data from NASA and NOAA, scientists are able to most accurately paint a picture of global climate change.