Arctic Ice: New Record Low in Area – Have we Hit Bottom?

September 8, 2011

 Arctic Sea Ice Blog:

After a new volume record for the PIOMAS model, we now also have a new record in the Cryosphere Today data set. The 2011 trend line had been brushing very close to it a couple of times, going up again, but with a daily area decrease of 58,940 square km for September 6th it has gone below the 2007 record minimum sea ice area set on September 7th 2007. It is now exactly 2000 square km below the record and might go a little lower still, although the last four years all had their minimum around this date.

The trend lines are so close on the small jpeg above, that the difference cannot be eyeballed on the graph (courtesy of Piotr Djaków)

so click the above for a larger view – Peter.

Below – NSIDC on the difference between “area” and “extent”.

From National Snow and Ice Data Center Sea Ice FAQ

What is the difference between sea ice area and extent?

Area and extent are different measures and give scientists slightly different information. Some organizations, including Cryosphere Today, report ice area; NSIDC primarily reports ice extent. Extent is always a larger number than area, and there are pros and cons associated with each method.

A simplified way to think of extent versus area is to imagine a slice of swiss cheese. Extent would be a measure of the edges of the slice of cheese and all of the space inside it. Area would be the measure of where there is cheese only, not including the holes. That is why if you compare extent and area in the same time period, extent is always bigger. A more precise explanation of extent versus area gets more complicated.

Extent defines a region as “ice-covered” or “not ice-covered.” For each satellite data cell, the cell is said to either have ice or to have no ice, based on a threshold. The most common threshold (and the one NSIDC uses) is 15 percent, meaning that if the data cell has greater than 15 percent ice concentration, the cell is considered ice covered; less than that and it is said to be ice free. Example: Let’s say you have three 25 kilometer (km) x 25 km (16 miles x 16 miles) grid cells covered by 16% ice, 2% ice, and 90% ice. Two of the three cells would be considered “ice covered,” or 100% ice. Multiply the grid cell area by 100% sea ice and you would get a total extent of 1,250 square km (482 square miles).

Area takes the percentages of sea ice within data cells and adds them up to report how much of the Arctic is covered by ice; area typically uses a threshold of 15%. So in the same example, with three 25 km x 25 km (16 miles x 16 miles) grid cells of 16% ice, 2% ice, and 90% ice, multiply the grid cell areas that are over the 15% threshold by the percent of sea ice in those grid cells, and add it up. You would have a total area of 662 square km (255.8 square miles).

Scientists at NSIDC prefer to report extent because they are cautious about summertime values of ice concentration and area taken from satellite sensors. To the sensor, surface melt appears to be open water rather than water on top of sea ice. So, while reliable for measuring area most of the year, the microwave sensor is prone to underestimating the actual ice concentration and area when the surface is melting. To account for that potential inaccuracy, NSIDC scientists rely primarily on extent when analyzing melt-season conditions and reporting them to the public. That said, analyzing ice area is still quite valuable. Given the right circumstances, background knowledge, and scientific information on current conditions, it can provide an excellent sense of how much ice there really is “on the ground.”

Most recent NSIDC Extent, September 7:

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3 Responses to “Arctic Ice: New Record Low in Area – Have we Hit Bottom?”


  1. So, what is the consensus- will we surpass 2007 in extent? Weather in the arctic looks like it will see an influx of warm air over the next 10 days.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      a knowledgable source tells me we are looking at a new low, or very close second place, in ice extent, sometime next week.

  2. otter17 Says:

    First place is coming down to the wire…

    I have read the paper [Lawrence, et al, 2008] that shows loss of the sea ice can increase air temperature and permafrost degradation significantly over much of the Arctic land areas. Hopefully, no rapid ice loss event occurs (ice gone in 10 years). Hopefully, their models overestimate the temp rise and permafrost effects.


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