Arctic Sea ice hits new record winter low

The Arctic reached another milestone in the past few weeks. The lowest Arctic Sea ice extent on record during winter.

January temperatures ran 23 degrees warmer than average in parts of the Arctic. That's resulted in the lowest percentage of ice cover on record since satellites began keeping record in 1979.

NOAA's National Snow and Ice Data Center shows Arctic Sea ice coverage has fallen even further behind the curve as of Monday February 15th. It's now clearly off the charts on the low side, in unprecedented territory for winter ice in the Arctic.

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NOAA: National Snow and Ice Data Center

Climate Central's Brian Kahn elaborates on how an unseasonably warm January in the Arctic has pushed ice cover to new seasonal lows.

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According to NASA, temperatures in some parts of the Arctic averaged up to 23°F above normal for the month. No, that’s not missing a decimal point.

NASA Jan
NASA

The extreme warmth in the region sent sea ice dwindling to a new record low for January. Sea ice extent was 402,000 square miles below average, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. That’s the equivalent of a missing area of sea ice almost four times the size of Colorado, and puts this year right in line with a trend of ever decreasing sea ice in the region as the climate warms.

Since 1979, winter sea ice extent has decreased 3.2 percent per decade (the loss is much more pronounced in summer at a rate of 13.4 percent per decade).

The first half of February has continued the trend of pronounced heat in the Arctic with no signs of it letting up soon. The western U.S., which was also a hot spot in January, is continuing to see abnormal warmth this February as is the East Coast after a brief cold blast this weekend.

Global heat is somewhat a symptom of El Niño. The climate phenomenon of warm water in the eastern tropical Pacific might have passed its peak, but is still providing a little boost to global temperatures.

The big driver, though, is human-caused climate change, according to a Climate Central analysis.

With January off to record heat, it reinforces the likelihood that 2016 could be yet another record-setting year. The U.K. Met Office has already released its forecast for 2016. It expects the globe to “be at least as warm, if not warmer” than 2015, according to Chris Folland, a Met Office research fellow.

If 2016 sets another global temperature record, that would make it back-to-back-to-back years of record setting hot temperatures. That’s never happened before.

And regardless of whether 2016 sets a record or not, some scientists think the world has stepped up to a new period of global warming. That doesn’t mean every year will set a record, but  “it seems to me quite likely that we have taken the next step up to a new level,” National Center for Atmospheric Research climate scientist Kevin Trenberth told Climate Central last month.

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