Antarctica has about 10 per cent less sea ice this year compared to the previous record minimum - a stunning reversal after an all-time high was recorded in 2014. In March 2017 the sea ice extent around Antarctica has shrunk to 2.1091 million square kilometres.

At the end of summer when temperatures drop the ocean around Antarctica freezes, starting to form pancake ice. Following the record-low seasonal sea ice minimum, Antarctic sea ice extent is now increasing with the approaching winter, but the extent is still far below average. (Photo: Katja Riedel).
At the end of summer when temperatures drop the ocean around Antarctica freezes, starting to form pancake ice. Following the record-low seasonal sea ice minimum, Antarctic sea ice extent is now increasing with the approaching winter, but the extent is still far below average. (Photo: Katja Riedel).

The area covered by sea ice has been tracking below the previous record low of 2.32 million square kilometres set in February 2011 for most of March, and is now about 10 per cent lower. “One would probably say that the old record was obliterated,” Dr Jan Lieser, a sea ice scientist at the Hobart-based Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Co-operative Research Centre, said.

The switch from a sea-ice maximum around Antarctica to its annual low is “one of the biggest natural cycles we see in the world”, with as much as 90 per cent of the ice only a year old at the most, he said.

Reliable satellite records only go back to 1979, and it's harder to access ice thickness compared with the North Pole, with Arctic ice mostly accessible from above or via submarine below.

In the southern winter of 2014, sea ice around Antarctica reached a record large extent. At the time, climate change sceptics were keen to highlight the increase in the south as a counterpoint to the more steadily decreasing Arctic ice. Last winter, though, ice around Antarctica began thawing about a month earlier than normal. Minimum air temperatures have been breaking records daily since about early November in a region of the planet where global warming has been amongst the most rapid, Dr Lieser said.

The graph above shows the Antarctic sea ice extent as of April 9, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2017 is shown in blue, 2016 in green, 2015 in orange, 2014 in brown, and 2013 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 median is in shown in dark grey. The grey areas around the median line show the ranges of the data (interquartile and interdecile). (Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center, Sea Ice Index data)
The graph above shows the Antarctic sea ice extent as of April 9, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2017 is shown in blue, 2016 in green, 2015 in orange, 2014 in brown, and 2013 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 median is in shown in dark grey. The grey areas around the median line show the ranges of the data (interquartile and interdecile). (Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center, Sea Ice Index data)

Sea-ice “variability was typical of what we'd seen for the whole period (since 1979), but then along came 2016,” said Ian Simmonds, from the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne. “It's remarkable.” The average ice coverage around Antarctica last year shrank 1.2 million square kilometres – or about the size of New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria – compared with 2015, he said.

Sea ice is now at record lows at both ends of the planet, exposing more of the dark seas to solar radiation, rather it being reflected back to space. The lack of ice will likely add to the build-up in heat in the oceans that could hinder ice recovery in the south and accelerate the melt in the north as seasons shift towards winter and summer, respectively. The Ross Sea is virtually ice free and half the Weddell Sea ice has gone, Dr Lieser said. While the loss of floating ice doesn't affect sea levels, its absence leaves shore-based ice shelves exposed to faster melting and accelerated glacier movement. “It opens up the vulnerability of the ice shelves around there,” Dr Lieser said.

This graph shows monthly ice extent anomalies plotted as a time series. The anomalies are given as percent difference between the extent for the month in question and the mean for that month based on the January 1981 to December 2010 data. The anomaly data points are plotted as plus signs and the trend line is plotted with a dashed grey line. (Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center, Sea Ice Index data)
This graph shows monthly ice extent anomalies plotted as a time series. The anomalies are given as percent difference between the extent for the month in question and the mean for that month based on the January 1981 to December 2010 data. The anomaly data points are plotted as plus signs and the trend line is plotted with a dashed grey line. (Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center, Sea Ice Index data)

Professor Simmonds said several factors were at play in the Antarctic, such as the strengthening of westerly winds that tend to push sea-ice northwards. Countering that, though, was the long-anticipated thermodynamic effect that warming ocean temperatures - with the Southern Ocean a major heat sink globally - would limit sea ice growth by melting the ice from below. While it's too early to tell whether the second effect is becoming a dominant factor during the current ice retreat, long-term climate models suggest that it will play the major role at some point, Professor Simmonds said.

Antarctic temperatures - along with those in the high Arctic - have been among the fastest rising anywhere, as rising greenhouse gases drive climate change. Gwen Fenton, chief scientist of the Australian Antarctic Division, said that air temperatures over the Antarctic Peninsula had warmed about 2.8 degrees over the past 50 years alone.

Source: Peter Hannam, Sydney Morning Herald