Seeker Archives

Arctic Warms, Antarctic Ice Shelves Weaken

Low levels of Arctic sea ice and melting Antarctic glaciers and ice shelves are cause for concern. Continue reading →

Arctic sea ice extent hit a new January low last month, as warm temperatures enveloped the region and low air pressure allowed cold air to escape to mid-latitudes.

Arctic sea ice extent during January averaged 5.2 million square miles (13.53 million square kilometers), which is 402,000 square miles (1.04 million square kilometers) below the 1981 to 2010 average for the month and 35,000 square miles (90,000 square kilometers) below the previous record January low in the satellite era, which occurred in 2011. This was largely driven by unusually low ice coverage in the Barents Sea, Kara Sea, and the East Greenland Sea on the Atlantic side, and below average conditions in the Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk.

Earth's 2015 Temperatures Warmest On Record

Temperatures across most of the Arctic Ocean during January were a remarkable 13 degrees F (6 degrees C) above average. This was to a large extent a result of the Arctic Oscillation - a variation in pressure patterns in the Northern Hemisphere - entering a strong negative phase during the first three weeks of the month, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), which released the figures. That meant that lower air pressures allowed warmer air to push north, and cold air to head the other way.

However, NSIDC underlined that, even allowing for such extremes as a result of natural fluctuations, the overall trend is clear: January sea ice extent in the Arctic is declining by an average of 3.2 percent per decade. Since January 2005, that extent has not once been above 5.5 million square miles (14.25 million square kilometers) during the month; from the start of the satellite record through 2004, it had never been below that level.

Antarctic sea ice extent was also below average for the month, just one year after it reached record high levels. Indeed, on average Antarctic sea ice continues to increase in extent (albeit at a far lower level than Arctic sea ice is decreasing) despite the fact that the ocean around it is warming.

What's Ahead For Climate Change In 2016?

Several theories have been offered to explain this, including changes in wind or water circulation patterns, or increases in snowfall. Another theory is that melting glaciers and ice shelves - which, unlike sea ice, are freshwater, which freezes at a higher temperature than saltwater - are causing a freshening of the sea surface along the edges of the Antarctic continent.

It's certainly the case that numerous Antarctic glaciers and ice shelves are melting, including some that had previously been considered stable. In some cases, this has led to outright collapse: For example, Larsen-A in the Antarctic Peninsula collapsed in 1995, followed by Larsen-B in 2002, and now their larger neighbor, Larsen-C, twice the size of Wales, may well join them.

Unlike sea ice - which, as its name reflects, is frozen ocean - ice shelves are floating on the sea surface while still anchored to the shore; as they melt or collapse, they add to the total volume of the ocean. Of particular long-term concern is the fact that ice shelves that fringe Antarctica also act as "dams" for the massive ice sheet that covers the continental landmass; were those plugs to be removed, it is postulated, it could ultimately result in the loss of that ice sheet, with globally catastrophic levels of sea level rise.

Global Warming Right Before Your Eyes: Photos

A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change attempted to quantify how much of such ice shelves could "safely" be lost without starting to affect the dynamics of the ice sheet behind them. The authors combined satellite radar data with airborne observations of ice thickness to create models to calculate the buttressing effect of ice shelves.

They found that, on average, 13 percent of total ice shelf area is "passive shelf ice:" it's floating ice that provides no further buttressing. That is to say, the loss of such passive shelf ice would not in itself affect the ice sheet, although it would expose a "safety band" of ice behind it.

"Once ice loss through the calving of icebergs goes beyond the passive shelf ice and cuts into the safety band, ice flow toward the ocean will accelerate, which might well entail an elevated contribution to sea-level rise for decades and centuries to come," explained study co-author Dr Johannes Fürst, from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg's Institute of Geography. Unfortunately, some ice shelves have less passive ice than others.

"The Amundsen and Bellingshausen Seas (in the West Antarctic) have limited or almost no passive ice shelf, which implies that further retreat of current ice-shelf fronts will have serious dynamic consequences," Furst added. "This region is particularly vulnerable as ice shelves have already been thinning at high rates for two decades."

Arctic sea ice in January reached a record new low.

The effects of global warming are frequently projected decades into the future, but two recent reports -- one from the

U.S. Global Change Research Program

and the other

from the U.N.

-- put into sharp focus visible consequences of our warming planet. An increase in temperature, extreme weather, loss of ice and rising sea level are just a few of changes we can measure right now. Let's take a look at some of the most concerning trends.

BLOG: War Of The Words: Climate Change Or Global Warming?

Glaciers are shrinking worldwide and permafrost is thawing in high-latitude and high-elevation areas, reports this year's Fifth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

BLOG: Dire Outlook For Climate Impacts, New Report Says

Only a few extinctions are attributed to climate change, reports the IPCC, but climate change that occurred much more slowly, over millions of years, caused major ecosystem shifts and species extinctions. Land and sea animals are changing their geographic ranges and migratory patterns due to climate change.

NEWS: Climate Change: Why Haven't We Done More?

Sea level around the world has increased by about 8 inches since 1880, reports the 2014 National Climate Assessment, which projects a 1 to 4 foot rise by the end of the century.

PHOTOS: Craziest Environmental Ideas (That Could Work)

Excess CO2 is dissolving in the ocean and decreasing the pH of seawater. The ocean is about 30 percent more acidic than it was in pre-industrial times. More acidity in the oceans makes it harder for animals to form calcium carbonate shells and skeletons and erodes coral reefs.

11 Health Threats from Climate Change

The probability of a Sandy-like storm deluging New York, New Jersey and other parts of the East Coast has nearly doubled compared to 1950, according to the American Meteorological Society. Even weaker storms will be more damaging now than they were 10 years ago because of rising sea levels. Superstorm Sandy cost the nation $65 billion, according to the 2014 National Climate Assessment, and 2012's Hurricane Isaac cost $2.3 billion.

The global sea level rises along with the temperature for two major reasons. For one, heat causes water to expand, which causes the existing water to take up more space and encroach on the coast. At the same time, ice at the poles and in glaciers melts and increases the amount of water in the oceans.

PHOTOS: Melting Glaciers

Across the United States, heavy downpours are on the rise, especially in the Northeast and Midwest. Increases in extreme precipitation are expected for all U.S. regions, reports the 2014 National Climate Assessment.

NEWS: Shrinking Greenland Glacier Smashes Speed Record

The most recent IPCC report states with "very high confidence" that current climate-related extremes like heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones and wildfires are showing that countries around the world, at all development levels, are significantly unprepared. The American Meteorological Society estimates that approximately 35 percent of the extreme heat in the eastern United States between March and May 2012 resulted from human activities' effects on climate. The AMS warned that deadly heat waves will become four times more likely in the north-central and northeastern United States as the planet continues to warm.

NASA: Global Warming Goes On