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Arctic sea ice reaches record low after record hot January


Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Friday, February 19, 2016, 4:39 PM - January 2016 is now the hottest month of January on record and Arctic sea ice extent dips to record low levels for the third time this year. It's What's Up In Climate Change.

Hottest January in the record books

It should come as no surprise after what we saw in 2015, but January 2016 is continuing the trend in the record books.


NASA's plot of global temperature anomalies for January 2016. Credit: NASA GISS

According to NOAA:

A strong El Niño that evolved in 2015 continued to impact global weather and temperatures at the beginning of 2016. The January 2016 globally-averaged temperature across land and ocean surfaces was 1.04oC (1.87oF) above the 20th century average of 12.0oC (53.6oF), the highest for January in the 137-year period of record, breaking the previous record of 2007 by 0.16oC (0.29oF). This departure from average is the second highest among all months in the historical record, second only to December 2015, which was 1.11oC (2.00oF) above average. These two months are the only two to-date to surpass a monthly temperature departure of 1oC. January 2016 also marks the ninth consecutive month that the monthly temperature record has been broken and the 14th consecutive month (since December 2014) that the monthly global temperature ranked among the three warmest for its respective month.


NOAA plot of global temperature percentiles for January 2016. Credit: NOAA NCEI

By NOAA's records, just a year ago, January 2015 certainly came in as warmer than normal, as did January 2014. At the time these records were recorded, however, these months were 2nd and 4th warmest on record, respectively. January 2007, coming off the tail end of a moderate El Niño from 2006, had remained the hottest month of January until now.

El Niño has certainly played a role in this latest record, however, scientists have concluded that this effect was fairly minor overall. The larger culprit here is the rising levels of greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere.

Arctic sea ice at record low, Antarctic far below average

In January 2016 Arctic sea ice extent started off the new year by dropping to its lowest point on record, going back to 1979. This was due, at least in part, to Storm Frank, which was working its way up between Iceland, Ireland and the UK, and bringing plenty of heat and strong winds to the Arctic in the process.

With still a few months before spring and the typical winter peak of Arctic sea ice, there was plenty of time for the extent to reach more normal levels. Indeed, the amount of sea ice did grow again as the storm passed and temperatures through the Arctic returned to something more typical for this time of year.

As of February 1st, however, data from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) showed that Arctic sea ice extent had, once again, dropped record low levels, and after briefly climbing above levels recorded back in 2005, they once again fell to record low levels as of February 11.


Arctic sea ice extent, comparing 2016 so far with the lowest years in the records for this time of year. Source: NSIDC

One particularly noteworthy point: even while the sea ice extent up until February 9 was either at record low levels or near record low, the extent was still growing. As of February 9, however, that growth has come to a stop and the extent has been decreasing for nearly 10 days.

As stated above, there is still time for the extent to grow again. This same pattern of lows was seen in 2006, although they occurred later in the season, and the maximum for that year managed to come in a more reasonable level (although definitely on the low-side of reasonable).

What's behind the record lows we're seeing in the Arctic this year? According to NASA's Earth Observatory:

The low extent in 2016 included unusually low ice coverage in the Barents Sea, Kara Sea, and the East Greenland Sea on the Atlantic side, and below average conditions in the Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk. Ice conditions were near average in Baffin Bay, the Labrador Sea and Hudson Bay. There was also less ice than usual in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
A shift in the Arctic Oscillation likely weakened the atmospheric barrier between the polar latitudes and the mid-latitudes. This brought unusually high temperatures to the Arctic in January. Storms arriving from mid-latitudes brought additional heat and prevented ice growth.

The Arctic Oscillation (AO) is a recurring switch between stronger and weaker winds ringing the Arctic. When these winds are stronger (positive AO), cold air is confined to the north and warmer weather systems are diverted from impinging on Arctic regions. When these winds are weaker, (negative AO), more cold air can influence southern latitudes, while at the same time, more storms carrying warm air can swing north and influence the Arctic. In the first half of January, the AO shifted strongly negative, bottomed out around the 16th and 17th, and then swung back to positive towards the end of the month. The current intrusion of warm air into the Arctic, which is affecting some of the same regions as in January, is happening at the same time as another, weaker, shift to a negative AO.


Credit: NOAA CPC

Given that we're coming up on one year from when 2015 set a new record for lowest Arctic sea ice maximum ever seen, and with NOAA's Climate Prediction Center currently forecasting another strong negative phase towards the end of the month and through the first half of March (shown to the right), what are the chances that we could already be seeing 2016's maximum extent?

Come back for further updates in the weeks to come.

How are things at the other end of the world right now? This is the time of year when sea ice extent around Antarctic is reaching its minimum levels for the year. Unlike the past four years, which all saw above average sea ice extents in February, 2016 is currently below average, more like it was in 2011 or 2006 (two years that saw record low amounts in the Arctic at this time as well).


Antarctic Sea Ice, Feb 18.


Antarctic Sea Ice, Feb 18.

Sources: NOAA | NASA | NASA EO | NOAA

Watch Below: See how El Niño 2015-16 stacks up against "super" El Niño 1997-98.

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