This Year’s Arctic Sea Ice at Smallest Maximum in Modern Record

March 19, 2015


Caveat: Winter ice extent is not a reliable predictor of how summer ice melt is going to go, but this finding – the 2015 winter ice max is lowest on record – is certainly another indicator of the amount of heat that is finding its way into the arctic. With an El Nino in progress, and record global warmth continuing from all time high 2014 into early 2015, this is certainly a milestone worth pondering.

National Snow and Ice Data Center:

On February 25, 2015 Arctic sea ice likely reached its maximum extent for the year, at 14.54 million square kilometers (5.61 million square miles). This year’s maximum ice extent was the lowest in the satellite record, with below-average ice conditions everywhere except in the Labrador Sea and Davis Strait. The maximum extent is 1.10 million square kilometers (425,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average of 15.64 million square kilometers (6.04 million square miles) and 130,000 square kilometers (50,200 square miles) below the previous lowest maximum that occurred in 2011. This year’s maximum occurred 15 days earlier than the 1981 to 2010 average date of March 12. The date of the maximum has varied considerably over the years, occurring as early as February 24 in 1996 and as late as April 2 in 2010.

Because of the variability of ice extent at this time of year, there can be some delay in pinpointing the date of the maximum extent, as was true this year. NSIDC calculates daily ice extent as an average of the previous five days (see the Sea Ice Index documentation for more information), and we also look for a clear


Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of March 18, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2014 to 2015 is shown in blue, 2013 to 2014 in green, 2012 to 2013 in orange, 2011 to 2012 in brown, and 2010 to 2011 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data.Sea Ice Index data.

Part of the explanation for the record low maximum lies with recent weather patterns. As discussed in our previous post, February was characterized by an unusual configuration of the jet stream, leading to warm conditions over the Pacific side of the Arctic that maintained low sea ice extent in the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk. Furthermore, since the last half of February through the middle of March, the Arctic Oscillation was in a strongly positive phase, with index values exceeding 5.0 for several days in the first week of March. This has been expressed as a strong Icelandic Low, a semi-permanent area of low atmospheric pressure found between Iceland and southern Greenland and extending into the Barents Sea. The strong Icelandic Low led to a pattern of surface winds over the Barents and Kara seas with an unusually strong component from the south.

Over the first two weeks of March, temperatures throughout the eastern Arctic at the 925 hPa level (approximately 3,000 feet altitude) were several degrees Celsius above average, with temperatures as much as 8 to 10 degrees Celsius (14 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit) above average in the Barents Sea between Svalbard and Franz Josef Land.

11 Responses to “This Year’s Arctic Sea Ice at Smallest Maximum in Modern Record”

  1. kap55 Says:

    Another caveat is that the NSIDC extent map shows that the “missing” ice is almost entirely in the Okhotsk and the Bering seas, so this doesn’t necessarily portend a big difference in what’s happening in the Arctic basin.

  2. Next year it will be a recovery!

  3. dumboldguy Says:

    Looks and smells like a skunk to me.

    “With an El Nino in progress, and record global warmth continuing from all time high 2014 into early 2015, this is certainly a milestone worth pondering”.

    I’ve “pondered”, and IMO, we are going to hit a new low for Arctic sea ice this September. Bet on it.

  4. redskylite Says:

    I’d bet on it too, interestingly the year of the record minimum (2012) was a weak La Nina year, climate science is complex , who said Earth Science was not a true science ?

    Reuters picked up this story and it was reasonably well distributed through their network, however the impacts of ice free summers tended to be understated against the advantages to shipping and oil extraction. The best story I read was in Vox, the worst was the BBC report.

    I wish the media would print the full long term negative impacts, such as ocean current disturbance, species extinction, climate changes due to shifting jet stream etc., as they are rather profound and worthy of a good fiction story. Jeff Masters does a great job discussing the negatives.

    Maybe a lot of people are not very interested in these scientific facts, but maybe if they realized the full implications to their babies they would be a lot more alert.

  5. pbjamm Says:

    To put that in perspective (for Americans anyway) 425000 sq miles is roughly the combined area of California and Texas.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      “To put that in perspective (for Americans anyway) 425,000 sq miles is roughly the combined area of California and Texas”.

      Somehow, I am vaguely insulted by that, particularly the “(for Americans anyway)” part. Are you not an American? Where are you from? And are you so “fussy” that you would say that 425,000 is “roughly” the combined 425,522 of CA and TX when it’s actually .999? One thousandth part accuracy is good enough for rocket scientists.

      To get back to “perspective”, more Americans know that Snooky and Bruce Springsteen come from NJ than can find NJ on an unlabelled map, and many have to think about where CA and TX are and how “big” they may be. I would suspect that comparing the lost sea ice to the areas of CA and TX is not as effective as saying “425,00 sq miles is ROUGHLY equal to 1/7 the area of the continental U.S”. (Actually .1436 compared to .1428, again good enough for rocket scientists)

      • pbjamm Says:

        I had no idea my comment would be so controversial. I was not intending to insult my countrymen (I live in California) I merely thought that my use of American states and Imperial measures would far more meaningful to we here in the US than to anyone else. In the interest of being inclusive to non-US readers here are some other rough size comparisons in Square Kilometers.

        Ethiopia – 1,104,300
        Ontario Canada – 1,076,395
        France (551,500), Spain (505,992) and Slovakia (48845) = 1106337
        4.5X the size of the UK (244,820)
        564102 Monacos for you F1 racing fans.
        157142857 football pitches (go West Ham!)

        • dumboldguy Says:

          No controversy—-just “messinwitcha”, as Snooky would say. You Californians don’t get “east coast humor” all that well.

          And Snooky is not the only one who will find it impossible to visualize 564102 or 157142857 of anything, whether measured in kilometers OR square miles

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