As a writer focused on climate change, when I traveled to the Arctic last month to write about the threatened village of Kivalina I couldn’t take my eyes off the sea ice.
As I wrote in my story, the flight to Kivalina, which hugged the coastline of the Chukchi Sea north of Kotzebue, Alaska, revealed weak sea ice conditions that were visible to the naked eye. In many cases, the ice covering the ocean did not reach the frozen shore. The ice itself had extended fractures in many places — and this was February.
When I got to Kivalina, the villagers — who know their environment better than anyone because they’ve practiced subsistence hunting atop the sea ice for generations — confirmed that the ice offshore was weak and dangerous. And now, a scientific assessment of the state of the Arctic’s sea ice as a whole this year has delivered a parallel message.
The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), in Boulder, Colo., is our top tracker of Arctic sea ice, which reaches a winter maximum each year right around now and then declines to yearly minimum in September. Usually, people focus on that September minimum extent because that’s when there’s the least sea ice at the top of the world — and the lows keep getting lower, with the current record low having come in 2012.
But declining sea ice maxima are also important; if sea ice starts from a lower high in a given year, then it can also fall to a lower low.
Which brings us to NSIDC’s just released report on February’s ice conditions. First, the agency notes that last month saw the third-lowest ice extent ever recorded for February, based on satellite records going back to 1979. Indeed, Arctic sea ice extent in February just keeps ticking lower and lower:
But that’s not all. NSIDC also notes that there could be a new record coming. “If the current pattern of below-average extent continues, Arctic sea ice extent may set a new lowest winter maximum,” wrote the agency.
Here’s another image from the center, showing that ice extent is running low this winter:
The record to beat here is the year 2011, when the sea ice maximum was only 14.63 million square kilometers (5.65 million square miles). Last month the extent was 14.41 million square kilometers.
So unless the ice grows more this March – certainly a possibility, as NSIDC says this has happened in past years — there will be a record low for this winter. We’ll probably know in early April.
All eyes have certainly been on the Arctic lately, where truly rapid climate change is occurring. A visit to Kivalina by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell last month drew newfound attention to its plight. Meanwhile, the United States will assume chairmanship of the eight-nation Arctic Council next month, with Secretary of State John Kerry serving as chair.
And just in time: It’s a radically new world at the top of the world.