Changing Planet

What Happens At the Poles: Lowest Arctic Sea Ice on Record

Photo: Polar Bear
No longer just for polar bear, melting Arctic sea ice has implications for us all. Photo: Wikimedia Commons


This year has seen the Arctic sea ice sheet melt further, and faster, than has ever been seen before in human history – a whopping 760,000 square kilometers less than ever recorded (which is 3.29 million square kilometers below the average minimum). Though images of polar bears and walrus stranded on melting ice-cubes pop up, and we morn the ever-increasing loss of their habitat; what happens at the poles will not stay at the poles. The affect of the Arctic sea ice diminishing will not just remain in the far north, we can (and should) expect more and more extreme weather as a result of this year’s ice loss.


Photo: Arctic Sea Ice 2012
Arctic sea ice extent for September 16, 2012 was 3.41 million square kilometers (1.32 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1979 to 2000 median extent for that day. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. From the National Sea Ice Data Center.


As the Arctic Ocean becomes more and more exposed with the loss of its ice-white blanket in the summer, more and more water will be evaporated into the atmosphere, creating increased humidity and stormy weather as it’s precipitated out. The ice cover in the north also reflects sunlight and heat, cooling the upper atmosphere and cooling the planet’s overall climate. In addition, as permafrost areas warm and melt, methane, a greenhouse gas usually trapped under a layer of ice, is released. As more methane is released into the atmosphere, the atmosphere will get warmer – creating a feedback loop that will warm the Arctic even faster than before.


The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of September 17, 2012, along with daily ice extent data for 2007 and 2005, the previous record low years. 2012 is shown in blue and 2007 in green. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation ranges of the data. From the National Sea Ice Data Center.


Warmer, wetter and stormier summers are likely in our future, but conversely winters may be colder than past years. The open Arctic Ocean could cause heat advection to be faster, changing the annual high and low pressures and weakening the input of warm air from the south through the winter months. More water in the atmosphere and a cooler winter climate could equal more snow and ice storms in the Northern Hemisphere, creating drastic extremes in annual temperatures.

Though there is no way to predict the exact weather patterns that will happen on a year by year basis, but we do know the trend is not looking good.  Hotter and colder, wetter and drier — what was once classed as “extreme” will become the norm everywhere around the globe. With more than a touch of sadness, it is with almost certainty I will see an open Arctic Ocean within my lifetime.

It’s more than time for us all to start paying attention to what is happening in the Polar Oceans.


Arctic Sea and Ice News, National Snow and Ice Data Center

Ice-Free Arctic Sea May be Years, Not Decades, Away” Richard Kerr, 28th Sept 2012, Science News


Dr. Rhian Waller is a professor of Marine Sciences at the Darling Marine Center (University of Maine, USA) and specializes in the ecology of deep-sea and cold-water organisms, particularly corals. Rhian has led or participated in over 40 international research and exploration cruises and expeditions to some of the most remote parts of the planet, and has published over 30 scientific papers and book chapters in her 9 year career. She is passionate about educating the next generation of scientists, and conserving our little known deep-sea and polar ecosystems to be studied and enjoyed in the future.
  • Randy Helton

    Good Bye To the norm.

  • Tom

    as the weight of ice leaves the land masses of the north ( not sea ice) and moves to the south, the center of gravity of the earth also shifts,the pattern of magma movement also shifts(the magnetic pole is moving very fast) =earthquake…in new placeses and new strenths

  • Karl

    Well the ice is freezing up again in the Arctic and still at record highs in the Antarctic, but shhhh don’t mention that or the huge summer cyclone that parked itself over the North Pole for a week during August! They don’t fit the accepted narrative. It will be really interesting to see what the ice does next year. I foresee a lot of folk having to eat humble pie, with added ice.

  • Karl – you are correct that the Antarctic Ice is increasing, it has been since records began in 1979. Arctic sea ice has been declining by around 10% per decade, and Antarctic sea ice has been increasing by ~0.6% per decade – so why the difference? Especially considering records show that both the land and sea temperatures in the Antarctic are falling. Scientists think it’s primarily to do with the amount of ice that is melted – when ice melts it creates a ‘less salty’ cold layer on the surface of the ocean – salt water needs colder temperatures to freeze than freshwater, so this ‘fresher’ layer freezes easier increasing sea ice; this layer also keeps deeper waters (which are warmer in the south) from rising and melting the sea ice, creating stratification in the ocean.

    It’s complex, and scientists by no means understand it all, we can only report trends and correlations. Next year there may be more sea ice than this year in the arctic, but the declining trend is unlikely to reverse at this point. What we do know is that both poles are very important to how we live our life today – our air temperatures, how much rain falls, even how winds build and form storms – so paying attention to our climate, paying attention to what’s happening in our polar regions and doing what we can to reduce emissions is more important now than ever.

  • stonehillady

    I am convinced we are going to have a Polar Shift. The Earth is wobbling, Greenland last year saw the sun 2 days early last spring so this is proof that with all the earthquakes, Volcano’s all activating, & wacky weather we are experiencing magnetic changes.

  • sharoncalladine

    may be the arctic ocean has to be ice free to start the snow build up on land in the norhern hemesphere look at past ice ages ice sheets were 1000s of feet thick where would all of that snow come from to build them ice sheets up year after year a permenant ice covered arctic ocean woudent have done the job there was massive snow snow build up huge amounts falling needed to buid up the ice sheets that would have covered the nortern hemesphere so a ice free arctic ocean makes sense this is where the northern ice sheets got there snow build up from dumping huge amounts of snow on land in the arctic regions this wouldent melt because it was to deep to melt it all then it would build up year upon year reflecting sunlight back into space then more snow build up and so on then the ice sheets grew and grew bigger and deeper and ice sheets grew and grew over land and then pushed further south untill they reached britain and europe and scandinavia to have huge ice sheets on land you need huge amounts of snow and a ice free sea or ocean to feed the ice sheets

  • Frank

    Considering this latest change in arctic and antarctic sea ice extent, I guess we all feel a little silly now, don’t we…

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