According to data from the NASA-supported National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, the Arctic ice cap reached its maximum extent, 5.61 million square miles (14.54 million square kilometers), on February 15th. This is the smallest maximum extent on record and also one of the earliest, occurring nearly 15 days earlier than the average date from 1981 to 2010 of March 12th. Only once, in 1996, did the peak come earlier - and just by a day, February 14th.
Arctic sea ice, frozen seawater floating on top of the Arctic Ocean and its neighboring seas, is in a state of constant flux. In the winter the area increases, typically peaking between late February and early April, and then decreases in the warmth of spring and summer to reach its lowest extent near September.
Most influential in the wintertime maximum extent is the seasonal ice at the edges of the ice pack. This type of ice is thin and dependent on the direction of the wind: warm winds from the south compact the ice northward and also bring heat that makes the ice melt, while cold winds from the north allow more sea ice to form and spread the ice edge southward. While this maximum extent is telling, it is often the summertime minimum extent that more directly indicates increased global temperature. A record low sea ice maximum extent does not guarantee a record low summertime minimum extent.
Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland notes that “The winter maximum gives you a head start, but the minimum is so much more dependent on what happens in the summer that it seems to wash out anything that happens in the winter. If the summer is cool, the melt rate will slow down. And the opposite is true, too: even if you start from a fairly high point, warm summer conditions make ice melt fast. This was highlighted by 2012, when we had one of the later maximums on record and extent was near-normal early in the melt season, but still the 2012 minimum was by far the lowest minimum we’ve seen.”
Nevertheless, trends like this, that highlight warmer temperatures are increasing cause for concern about global temperature increases. Even if concerns over rising sea levels are cast aside for the present, decreased sea ice directly impacts the marine life that depends on the arctic habitat yearly.
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