Arctic sea ice decline

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This graph shows monthly ice extent anomalies plotted as a time series of percent difference between the extent for the month in question and the mean for that month based on the January 1981 to December 2010 data. The anomaly data points are plotted as plus signs and the trend line is plotted with a dashed grey line. credit: NSIDC

Arctic sea ice decline describes the sea ice loss observed in recent decades in the Arctic Ocean. The IPCC AR5 report concluded with high confidence that sea ice continues to decrease in extent and there is robust evidence for the downward trend in Arctic summer sea ice extent since 1979.[1] It has been established that the region is at its warmest for at least 40.000 years and the Arctic-wide melt season has lengthened at a rate of 5  days per decade (from 1979 to 2013), dominated by a later autumn freezeup.[2] Sea ice changes have been identified as a mechanism for polar amplification.


Observation with satellites show that sea ice declines since a few decades in area, extent, and volume and may cease to exist during the summer month sometime during the 21st century. Sea ice extent is the area with at least 15% sea ice, while the volume is the total amount of sea ice.[3]

The amount of multi year sea ice in the Arctic has declined considerably in recent decades. In 1988, ice that was at least 4 years old accounted for 26% of the Arctic's sea ice. By 2013, ice that age was only 7% of all Arctic sea ice.[4]

Ice-free summer?[edit]

Monthly averages from January 1979 - January 2014. Data source via the Polar Science Center (University of Washington). Data visualisation by Andy Lee Robinson.

An "ice-free" Arctic Ocean is often defined as "having less than 1 million square kilometers of sea ice", because it is very difficult to melt the thick ice around the Canadian Arctic Archipelago;[5][6][7] the IPCC AR5 defines "nearly ice-free conditions" as "when sea ice extent is less than 106 km2 for at least five consecutive years" and (for at least one scenario) estimates that this might occur around 2050.[1]

Many scientists have attempted to estimate when the Arctic will be "ice-free". In doing so, they have noted that climate model predictions have tended to be overly conservative regarding sea ice decline.[8][9] Wang and Overland, in 2009, predicted that there would be an ice-free Arctic in the summer by 2037.[10] Similarly, a 2006 paper by Marika Holland et al. predicted "near ice-free September conditions by 2040,"[11] and Boé et al. found that the Arctic will probably be ice-free in September before the end of the 21st century.[12]

The Third National Climate Assessment (NCA), released May 6th, 2014, reports that the Arctic Ocean is expected to be ice free in summer before mid-century. Simulations by global climate models generally map well to this seasonal pattern of observed Arctic sea ice loss. However, these models do tend to underestimate the rate of sea ice loss since 2007. Models that best match historical trends project a nearly ice-free Arctic in the summer by the 2030s.[13]


Implications which arise from lesser ocean surface covered with sea-ice include the ice-albedo feedback or warmer sea surface temperatures which increase ocean heat content, which in turn changes evaporation patterns and the polar vortex.

Atmospheric chemistry[edit]

Melting of sea ice releases molecular chlorine, which reacts with sunlight to produce chlorine atoms. Because chlorine atoms are highly reactive, they can expedite the degradation of methane and tropospheric ozone and the oxidation of mercury to more toxic forms.[14] Cracks in sea ice are causing ozone and mercury uptake in the surrounding environment.[15]

Atmospheric regime[edit]

Influence of Arctic sea ice on European summer precipitation

A link has been established between reduced Barents-Kara sea ice and cold winter extremes over northern continents.[16] Model simulation suggest diminished Arctic sea ice may have been a contributing driver of recent wet summers over northern Europe, because of a weakened jet stream, which dives further south.[17] Extreme summer weather in northern mid-latitudes has been linked to a vanishing cryosphere.[18] Evidence suggest that the continued loss of Arctic sea-ice and snow cover may influence weather at lower latitudes. Correlations have been identified between high-latitude cryosphere changes, hemispheric wind patterns and mid-latitude extreme weather events for the Northern Hemisphere.[19]


Sea ice decline has been linked to forest decline in North America and is assumed to culminate with an intensifying wildfire regime in this region.[20]

Marine life[edit]

The annual net primary production of the Eastern Bering Sea was enhanced by 40–50% through phytoplankton blooms during warm years of early sea ice retreat.[21]


Polar bears are turning to alternate food sources because Arctic sea ice melts earlier and freezes later each year. Polar bears have less time to hunt their historically preferred prey seal pups and must spend more time on land and hunt other animals.[22] As a result, the diet is less nutritional, which leads to reduced body size and reproduction, thus indicating population decline in polar bears.[23]

Economic impact[edit]

Changes in atmospheric weather regimes are tied to economic losses in the UK tourism economy and negative impacts for farming in the UK.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b IPCC AR5 WG1 (2013). PDF The Physical Science Basis. 
  2. ^ J. C. Stroeve, T. Markus, L. Boisvert, J. Miller, A. Barrett (2014). Open Access Changes in Arctic melt season and implications for sea ice loss. 
  3. ^ "Daily Updated Time series of Arctic sea ice area and extent derived from SSMI data provided by NERSC". Retrieved 14 September 2013. 
  4. ^ Watch 27 years of 'old' Arctic ice melt away in seconds The Guardian 21 February 2014
  5. ^ PNAS
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Overland, J. E.; Wang, M. (2013). "When will the summer Arctic be nearly sea ice free?". Geophysical Research Letters 40 (10): 2097. doi:10.1002/grl.50316.  edit
  9. ^ Stroeve, J.; Holland, M. M.; Meier, W.; Scambos, T.; Serreze, M. (2007). "Arctic sea ice decline: Faster than forecast". Geophysical Research Letters 34 (9): L09501. Bibcode:2007GeoRL..3409501S. doi:10.1029/2007GL029703.  edit
  10. ^ Wang, M.; Overland, J. E. (2009). "A sea ice free summer Arctic within 30 years?". Geophysical Research Letters 36 (7). doi:10.1029/2009GL037820.  edit
  11. ^ Holland, M. M.; Bitz, C. M.; Tremblay, B. (2006). "Future abrupt reductions in the summer Arctic sea ice". Geophysical Research Letters 33 (23). doi:10.1029/2006GL028024.  edit
  12. ^ Boé, J.; Hall, A.; Qu, X. (2009). "September sea-ice cover in the Arctic Ocean projected to vanish by 2100". Nature Geoscience 2 (5): 341. Bibcode:2009NatGe...2..341B. doi:10.1038/ngeo467.  edit
  13. ^ "Melting Ice Key Message Third National Climate Assessment". National Climate Assessment. Retrieved 25 June 2014. 
  14. ^ Jin Liao et al.(2013) (January 2014). "High levels of molecular chlorine in the Arctic atmosphere". Nature Geoscience Letter. doi:10.1038/ngeo2046. Retrieved January 14, 2014. 
  15. ^ Christopher W. Moore, Daniel Obrist, Alexandra Steffen, Ralf M. Staebler, Thomas A. Douglas, Andreas Richter & Son V. Nghiem (January 2014). "Convective forcing of mercury and ozone in the Arctic boundary layer induced by leads in sea ice". Nature Letter. doi:10.1038/nature12924. Retrieved January 16, 2014. 
  16. ^ Vladimir Petoukhov and Vladimir A. Semenov (November 2010). "A link between reduced Barents-Kara sea ice and cold winter extremes over northern continents". Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres (1984–2012) 115 (21). doi:10.1029/2009JD013568. Retrieved January 26, 2014. 
  17. ^ a b J A Screen (November 2013). "Influence of Arctic sea ice on European summer precipitation". Environmental Research Letter 8 (4). doi:10.1088/1748-9326/8/4/044015. Retrieved January 26, 2014. 
  18. ^ Qiuhong Tang, Xuejun Zhang and Jennifer A. Francis (December 2013). "Extreme summer weather in northern mid-latitudes linked to a vanishing cryosphere". Nature Climate Change 4: 45–50. doi:10.1038/nclimate2065. Retrieved January 26, 2014. 
  19. ^ James E. Overland (December 2013). "Atmospheric science: Long-range linkage". Nature Climate Change 4: 11–12. doi:10.1038/nclimate2079. Retrieved January 26, 2014. 
  20. ^ Martin P. Girardin, Xiao Jing Guo, Rogier De Jong, Christophe Kinnard, Pierre Bernier and Frédéric Raulier (December 2013). "Unusual forest growth decline in boreal North America covaries with the retreat of Arctic sea ice". Global Change Biology. doi:10.1111/gcb.12400. Retrieved January 26, 2014. 
  21. ^ Zachary W. Brown and Kevin R. Arrigo (January 2013). "Sea ice impacts on spring bloom dynamics and net primary production in the Eastern Bering Sea". Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans 118 (1): 43–62. doi:10.1029/2012JC008034. Retrieved January 26, 2014. 
  22. ^ Elizabeth Peacock, Mitchell K. Taylor, Jeffrey Laake and Ian Stirling (April 2013). "Population ecology of polar bears in Davis Strait, Canada and Greenland". The Journal of Wildlife Management 77 (3): 463–476. doi:10.1002/jwmg.489. Retrieved January 26, 2014. 
  23. ^ Karyn D. Rode, Steven C. Amstrup, and Eric V. Regehr (2010). "Reduced body size and cub recruitment in polar bears associated with sea ice decline". Ecological Applications 20: 768–782. doi:10.1890/08-1036.1. Retrieved January 26, 2014. 

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