In 2012, news about the record low of Arctic sea ice minimum extent went around the world. Now, the Arctic sea ice maximum extent also has reached an all-time record low according to the data presented by the US National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. A mere 14.4 million square kilometers of the Arctic Ocean were covered by ice.

The formation of sea ice is an important asset in the Arctic and offers a habitat for seals, polar bears and many seabirds above the water. In addition, many marine organisms depend on this annual process. Picture: Michael Wenger
The formation of sea ice is an important asset in the Arctic and offers a habitat for seals, polar bears and many seabirds above the water. In addition, many marine organisms depend on this annual process. Picture: Michael Wenger

According to data presented by the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Colorado, the winter of 2016/17 will go down in history as the lowest Arctic sea ice extent in the 38 years since records started. The ice only covered 14.42 million square kilometers of the Arctic Ocean. This is 1.22 million square kilometer less than the 30- average maximum of 15.6 million and 97’000 square kilometers less than the record low of 2015. Overall, this is the sixth consecutive season of below average maximum extent of Arctic sea ice.

The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of March 20, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years. The 1981 – 2010 average is shown in gray. Graph: NSIDC
The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of March 20, 2017, along with daily ice extent data for five previous years. The 1981 – 2010 average is shown in gray. Graph: NSIDC

The record low is the result of several factors such as increased warming of Arctic waters due to lack of sea ice in previous years and a very unusual warm winter 2016/17 when several heat waves had struck the Arctic with temperatures more than 2.5 °C above average or even higher. At the North Pole, scientists at times had measured temperatures just below 0°C when it was supposed to be 10 degrees lower. In addition, in the Chukchi and the Barents Sea, average temperatures were 5 degrees higher than average.

The plot shows Arctic air temperature differences in degrees Celsius from October 1, 2016 to February 28, 2017. Yellows and reds indicate temperatures higher than the 1981 to 2010 average; blues and purples indicate temperatures lower than the 1981 to 2010 average. Plot: NSIDC
The plot shows Arctic air temperature differences in degrees Celsius from October 1, 2016 to February 28, 2017. Yellows and reds indicate temperatures higher than the 1981 to 2010 average; blues and purples indicate temperatures lower than the 1981 to 2010 average. Plot: NSIDC

According to data presented by the ESA CyoSat-2 satellite, Arctic sea ice was also thinner this winter than average. This will increase pressure on ice-loving animals such as polar bears and seals living on the ice as well as marine organisms below the surface whose life cycles heavily depend on ice formation. Additionally, the lack of ice means no sunlight reflection and a further warming of Arctic waters. Some researchers already issued warnings that the Arctic sea ice formation has passed the tipping point and we will see an ice-free Arctic within the next 15 years.

Many Arctic animals are highly dependent on the formation of sea ice. With the shrinking sea ice area as well as the thinning, polar bears and seals will lose their habitat. Picture: Michael Wenger
Many Arctic animals are highly dependent on the formation of sea ice. With the shrinking sea ice area as well as the thinning, polar bears and seals will lose their habitat. Picture: Michael Wenger

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center