First came January, when Arctic sea ice hit a record low monthly extent — the area of ice over the ocean was 1.04 million square kilometers lower than the average from 1981-2010, based on satellite observations.
Then came February — and the very same story. The ice grew in comparison with January, as is typical of the seasonal cycle, but still was at a record low for the month, and this time 1.16 million square kilometers below average.
The records aren’t over yet — on Monday, the National Snow and Ice Data Center and NASA announced that a few days ago, on March 24, Arctic sea ice “likely” hit its maximum extent for the year of 2016 – a winter peak from which the ice will now decline for months until it hits a low at the end of summer, usually in September. And it was the lowest maximum extent on record, at 14.52 million square kilometers, or 5.607 million square miles.
A low sea ice maximum may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it’s not: Each year, the ice hits a peak or maximum in winter, and a low or minimum in summer. And of late, both the annual highs and the yearly lows have been moving lower.
“This year’s maximum ice extent was the lowest in the satellite record, with below-average ice conditions everywhere except in the Labrador Sea, Baffin Bay, and Hudson Bay,” the center said.
The new low, 14.52 million square kilometers, is just a slight tick less than the last record low maximum extent, which was set just last year. That year, the ice was at 14.54 million square kilometers, according to the center’s announcement roughly a year ago.
The difference between the two years, 2015 and 2016, is just 13,000 square kilometers or 5,000 square miles, according to NSIDC. That may not seem like much, but for records, still represents “two in a row,” says Julienne Stroeve, a senior research scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
In calling the record, the center nonetheless noted, “A late season surge in ice growth is still possible.”
A low maximum does not necessarily mean that the year will also see a low sea ice minimum, which usually occurs in September, when ice extent is lowest of all in the Arctic. For instance, the previous record low maximum, as noted, occurred in 2015, but the current record low minimum fell in 2012.
So while there’s “not a strong relationship” between the seasons, Stroeve says that “I think this doesn’t actually set us up very good for the summer.”
The Arctic has been pummeled by extremely high temperatures since the beginning of the year. According to NASA data for the month of February, for instance, the globe as a whole was 1.35 degrees Celsius warmer than the 1951-1980 average — but above 70 degrees North latitude, the anomaly was higher than 4 degrees Celsius.
“Records attract attention, but the critical thing is, what’s the trend,” says Rafe Pomerance, a former state department environmental official who is a member of the National Academy of Sciences’ Polar Research Board. “This is just part of the overall trend of unraveling in the Arctic.”