Figure 5. The Arctic summer sea ice extent in 2012, (measured in September) was a record low, shown (in white) compared to the median summer sea ice extent for 1979 to 2000 (in orange outline). In 2013, Arctic summer sea ice extent rebounded somewhat, but was still the sixth smallest extent on record. Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center (larger version)
Sea ice in the Arctic has decreased dramatically since the late 1970s, particularly in summer and autumn. Since the satellite record began in 1978 (providing for the first time a complete and continuous areal coverage of the Arctic), the yearly minimum Arctic sea ice extent (which occurs in early to mid-September) has decreased by more than 40% (see Figure 5). Ice cover expands again each Arctic winter but the ice is thinner than it used to be. Estimates of past sea ice extent suggest that this decline may be unprecedented in at least the past 1,450 years. The total volume of ice, the product of ice thickness and area, has decreased faster than ice extent over the past decades. Because sea ice is highly reflective, warming is amplified as the ice decreases and more sunshine is absorbed by the darker underlying ocean surface.
Sea ice in the Antarctic has shown a slight increase in extent since 1979 overall, although some areas, such as that to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula, have experienced a decrease. Changes in surface wind patterns around the continent have contributed to the Antarctic pattern of sea ice change while ocean factors such as the addition of cool fresh water from melting ice shelves may also have played a role. The wind changes include a recent strengthening of westerly winds, which reduces the amount of warm air from low latitudes penetrating into the southern high latitudes and alters the way in which ice moves away from the continent. The change in winds may result in part from the effects of stratospheric ozone depletion over Antarctica (i.e., the ozone hole, a phenomenon that is distinct from the human-driven changes in long-lived greenhouse gases discussed in this document). However, short-term trends in the Southern Ocean, such as those observed, can readily occur from natural variability of the atmosphere, ocean and sea ice system.
Page last updated: February 2014
Find out about the Royal Society's latest work on energy, environment and climate