Extremely warm Arctic temperatures lead to record low sea ice coverage

While Arctic sea ice does form and melt each year, formation has declined drastically in recent years. (NASA/Flickr)
Jenna Ladd | November 22, 2016

The Arctic is experiencing unusually hot air and sea surface temperatures, which scientists say could have a devastating effect on sea ice formation.

According to data gathered by U.S. and Danish researchers through satellites and regional weather stations, peak air temperatures in the Arctic are coming in at 68 degrees Fahrenheit above average for this time of year. Once more, oceanic temperatures are averaging about 39 degrees Fahrenheit higher than usual. Jennifer Francis is a researcher from Rutgers University. She said, “These temperatures are literally off the charts for where they should be at this time of year. It is pretty shocking. The Arctic has been breaking records all year. It is exciting but also scary.”

These temperature spikes have a direct relationship with the formation of sea ice in the region. Near-record low sea ice coverage this summer has bled into an autumn season that is much hotter than usual, Frances said in an interview with the Guardian. She added that this weather pattern decreased the temperature difference between the Arctic and mid-latitude regions. She said, “This helped make the jet stream wavier and allowed more heat and moisture to be driven into Arctic latitudes and perpetuate the warmth. It’s a vicious circle.”

Sea ice coverage in the Arctic has declined by more than 30 percent over the last quarter century, and this week marks the lowest sea ice coverage ever recorded for late November. Loss of sea ice can have serious consequences for the climate, researchers say. Rasmus Tonboe is a sea ice remote sensing expert at the Danish Meteorological Institute in Copenhagen. He said,

“When we have large areas of open water, it also raises air temperatures, and it has been up to 10/15C warmer. Six months ago the sea ice was breaking up unusually early. This made more open water and allowed the sunlight to be absorbed, which is why the Arctic is warmer this year.”

Francis said that she is certain these phenomena are the result of climate change. She said, “It’s all expected. There is nothing but climate change that can cause these trends. This is all headed in the same direction and picking up speed.”

The researchers concluded that with the exception a few hiccups, a long-term continual decline in ice coverage is likely.

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