The growth of Arctic sea ice this winter recorded the lowest maximum level on record, prompting fears of faster climate change than previously expected. Unusually warm temperatures were said to be responsible for the shrinkage.
According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, ice covered a maximum of 5.607 million square miles of the Arctic Ocean in 2016. That represents 5,000 square miles less than the previous record set last year. The difference is slightly smaller than the US state of Connecticut.
The ice cover was also about 431,000 miles less than the 30-year average. Put into context, that difference is the size of Texas and California combined.
Records date back to 1979 when satellites started measuring sea ice, which forms when Arctic Ocean water freezes. While this year’s winter ice didn’t break the record by a lot, it was described as “an exclamation point on a longer-term trend,” by NASA scientist Walt Meier, who helped calculate the data.
According to data center scientist Julienne Stroeve, winter temperatures over the North Pole were 16 degrees warmer than normal, while other parts of the Arctic ran 4 to 11 degrees warmer than normal.
“I have never seen such a warm, crazy winter in the Arctic,” commented data center chief Mark Serreze.
“It was so warm that the Barents Sea was pretty much close to ice -free for almost the whole winter, which is very unusual,” noted NASA’s Meier.
In addition to the reduction in area, data scientist Stroeve said early indications showed that the sea ice was thinner than last year.
Stroeve also pointed to a leading but still controversial theory that claims loss of sea ice in the Arctic may alter the jet stream and take more extreme weather to the US.
According to Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann, the new report reveals “just the latest disturbing data point in a disturbing trend wherein climate changes are happening even faster than we had forecast.”
NASA nevertheless added that the cap of sea ice over the Arctic Ocean is always changing.
It grows dramatically each winter, usually reaching its maximum in March, and melts just as dramatically every summer, reaching its minimum in September.
That growth got off to a slow start in winter 2015-2016 due in part to a month of unusually warm weather in the region.
Scientists nevertheless said that the sub-par winter showing doesn’t necessarily mean that the minimum extent this summer will also break a record. The summer minimum is said to be more important for affecting Earth’s climate and weather.