When the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) announced that the June sea ice extent for the Arctic Ocean averaged 10.6 million square kilometers (4.09 million square miles), it was the fifth time in six months that the shrinking sea ice had reached a new record low.
Despite the extreme conditions observed in the Arctic this year, including above freezing temperatures in the North Pole in late December and the early breakup of the sea ice in the Beaufort Sea, few scientists are forecasting Arctic sea ice extents below or equal to the record low observed in September 2012.
The Arctic has warmed faster than any other region on Earth, largely due to the loss of sea ice. Without the bright and reflective ice cover, the relatively dark open ocean absorbs more heat, which further amplifies the warming. While the speed and effects of sea ice decline are difficult to predict exactly, changing ice conditions in the Arctic are already affecting communities, ecosystems and businesses in the region.
Meet six experts who are driving the conversation over the state of the Arctic sea ice.
Mark Serreze, who heads the National Snow and Ice Data Center, is a prominent and vivid voice in the effort to raise awareness about the declining Arctic sea ice cover and its possible ramifications. “I’ve never seen such a warm, crazy winter in the Arctic,” Serreze said in March. “The heat was relentless.”
Serreze has been at the helm of NSIDC, a key information and referral center for polar and cryospheric research, since 2009. The center tracks land and sea ice around the world and uses that data for its own scientific research about topics such as the Arctic climate, frozen grounds, ice sheets and “Arctic amplification.” Stakeholders, academics and reporters closely monitor the center’s findings, in particular when it comes to dwindling Arctic sea ice.
Serreze’s own research on Arctic sea ice currently focuses on the causes of that decline, its environmental impact and the global implications of climate change in the Arctic. He has authored an award-winning textbook, frequently speaks with reporters, testified before Congress and briefed former vice president and environmentalist Al Gore.
NSIDC’s Julienne Stroeve is one of the top experts working on Arctic sea ice. She specializes in monitoring sea ice extent in the Arctic through remote sensing of snow and ice in visible, infrared and microwave wavelengths. She also aims to understand how the absence of ice in the Arctic Ocean in summers in the future will impact climate in the Northern Hemisphere.
Stroeve’s work has helped to understand the steepening pace of the downward trend in Arctic sea ice and she has said the dramatic reality of a seasonally ice-free Arctic Ocean may be approaching faster than expected.
Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, uses satellite data to calculate the extent, thickness and movement of Arctic sea ice. One of the projects he has been working on lately analyzes the age of the sea ice and how it is becoming younger as the Arctic warms. Old ice has never made up the majority of the ice pack, but it has been in rapid decline for 30 years. In 1985, about 20 percent of the March Arctic ice pack consisted of very old ice (more than four years old). By 2015, old ice made up only 3 percent of the March ice pack.
Meier warns that the warm winter temperatures seen in the Arctic this year have helped keep sea ice at record lows. “It has been an extreme year, but it is accentuating a long-term trend,” he said at a press briefing in July. “The extraordinary years have become the normal years. This year may not be a record, but it’s going to be one of the lowest.”
Although most of Meier’s research involves analyzing data at a computer, he recently flew up to Barrow, Alaska, as part of a collaborative project with other scientists who study ice, and wrote about the experience for NASA’s expedition blog.
Ed Hawkins, a climate scientist at the University of Reading, accomplished something many scientists can only dream of: He made his work go viral. In May, Hawkins tweeted an animation showing the rise in global temperature. Jason Samenow of the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang described the image as “the most compelling global warming visualization ever made.” In July, Hawkins followed up with one showing the change in sea ice volume.
Meanwhile, in the Arctic, sea ice volume is at a record low for the time of year according to PIOMAS. pic.twitter.com/ig2X5MXcCg
— Ed Hawkins (@ed_hawkins) July 4, 2016
Arctic sea ice melting will be erratic in the short term, Hawkins wrote in a February 2016 blog. “Imagine a ball bouncing down a bumpy hill. Gravity will ensure that the ball will move downwards. But if the ball hits a bump at a certain angle it might move horizontally or even upwards for a time, before resuming its inevitable downward trajectory. This bouncing ball is an analogy for the changing Arctic sea ice.”
Hawkins is a frequent commentator in British and American media, an active tweeter, has testified before the U.K. House of Lords on the Arctic and was a contributing author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 5th Assessment Report. He also manages a popular blog written by climate scientists, Climate Lab Book.
James Overland, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has authored numerous papers on Arctic climate change, its effects in the region and on the global climate system. “We already are seeing very large changes in the Arctic in terms of temperatures and loss of most of the volume of sea ice,” Overland said during a panel discussion at the Arctic Science Summit Week in March 2016. “The question of whether the Arctic impacts midlatitudes is no longer a question of if there’s a connection, but how large that connection will be and whether it will be localized in certain areas,” he said.
Overland’s research has informed decision-makers on climate change and ecosystems in the Arctic region. He represented the United States as a lead author in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report.
After the record low maximum winter Arctic sea ice extent, sea ice physicist Marcel Nicolaus and his colleague Stefan Hendricks at the Alfred Wegener Institute forecast that Arctic sea ice could shrink to a record low level this summer. Based on satellite data on the thickness of the ice cover, they anticipate the sea ice cover may surpass the record low of 2012.
“In many regions of the Arctic, new ice only formed very slowly due to the particularly warm winter. If we compare the ice thickness map of the previous winter with that of 2012, we can see that the current ice conditions are similar to those of the spring of 2012 – in some places, the ice is even thinner,” Nicolaus said in a statement.
Nicolaus’ work can be followed on the AWI Twitter account.