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2016 Was the Year of Shrinking Ice

A 37-year graph tracking sea ice cover at both poles shows just how dramatic the loss of sea ice was during 2016.

(Photo: Unsplash; Edited: LW / TO)

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Both Antarctica and the Arctic saw “a wave of new record lows … for both daily and monthly extent” of sea ice during 2016, according to a recently released analysis by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado.

“For the year 2016, sea ice extent in both polar regions was at levels well below what is typical of the past several decades,” the NSIDC report said.

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A graph tracking the loss of sea ice at both poles between 1978 and this year — an image which has been referred to as the “doom spiral” — shows how dramatic the loss of sea ice has been during 2016.

Tough Times in the Arctic

According to the NSIDC report, the Arctic began 2016 with sea ice extent already at or near record low levels. Then in March, sea ice extent tied with 2015 for the lowest maximum extent for the year for the entire 37-year period of satellite measurements.

Sea ice extent was as much as 193,000 square miles below any previous year on record from the middle of May through early June. By the end of summer the minimum sea ice extent, which was recorded on September 10, tied for the second-lowest year with 2007. (2012 still holds the record for the lowest sea ice extent on satellite record, by more than 232,000 square miles.)

No new record was set in September. However, even this wasn’t particularly good news: The NSIDC report showed that the lack of record-breaking ice shrinkage was likely due to an “unusually stormy atmospheric pattern” that formed over the Arctic Ocean during the summer.

“Storm after storm moved into the central Arctic Ocean, including a pair of very deep low pressure systems in late August,” reads the report. “While a stormy pattern will tend to chew up the ice cover, it also spreads the ice out to cover a larger area and typically brings cloudy and, in summer, relatively cool conditions, inhibiting melt.”

However, by November, the Arctic and Antarctic had both hit record-low sea ice coverage, and in December the heating trend continued, with temperatures at the North Pole spiking to near melting point later in the month — a stunning 50 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, despite being the darkest time of the year.

Looking back over the course of the year, we see that the area of the Arctic Ocean covered by ice reached a record low level in seven of the first 11 months of 2016: a record-setting stretch. Additionally, the difference between temperatures in the Arctic and temperatures across the mid-latitudes of Europe, Asia and North America was the smallest differential ever seen: a harbinger of the dramatic changes happening across the globe as a result of anthropogenic climate disruption.

“It has been so crazy up there, not just this autumn and winter, but … last autumn and winter too,” Mark Serreze, director of the NSIDC said. “In 2015 you had this amazing heat wave, and you got to the melting point at the North Pole on New Years Eve. And we’ve had a repeat this autumn and winter — an absurd heat wave, and sea ice at record lows.”

“I have been looking at the Arctic since 1982, and I have never seen anything like this,” Serreze told Discover Magazine.

More Bad News for the Antarctic

Antarctica has been rivalling the Arctic when it comes to shocking developments, as Truthout has recently reported. Recent NASA photography revealed a 300-foot-wide rift along the Larsen C ice shelf, with recent reports on the rift showing that it will be a surprise if the Larsen C remains intact for even one more year.

Once the shelf breaks off, it will release an iceberg the size of the state of Delaware into the southern ocean.

Words like “unprecedented” and phrases like “we haven’t seen anything like this yet” are no longer uncommon among scientists studying the ice in Antarctica, as a massive rift across the Pine Island Glacier has shown that it, along with several other massive Antarctic glaciers, are being melted from below by warming sea water.

The recent NSIDC report confirms the unprecedented events on the ice continent.

“Now, Antarctic sea ice is very, very low,” Serreze said.

The NSIDC report indicated that in Antarctica, record low monthly sea ice extents were set in November and December. So, when we add the Antarctic and the Arctic sea ice extent record lows together, we see that the global sea ice extent was well below the long-term average for the entirety of 2016.

Globally, during the middle of November, the greatest deviation from the average occurred: Sea ice was a stunning 1.5 million square miles below average. (That is an area equivalent to 40 percent of the land area of the entire United States.)

As serious as these developments are, we should not be surprised by them, given our failure to drastically reduce CO2 emissions. Sea ice loss in the Arctic is directly linked to cumulative CO2 emissions in the atmosphere in a linear fashion, according to a December NSIDC analysis. That report revealed a linear relationship between three square meters of sea ice lost per every metric ton of CO2 added to the atmosphere.

In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, humans added nearly 35.9 billion metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere.

Looking back over the past year, we must remember to connect the dots. Scientific reports about sea ice are not detached from the political realities in which we are now even more deeply mired.