There has never been less sea ice recorded on Earth than there is right now.
Both the Arctic and Antarctic are significantly below their usual extents — that is, the area of the ocean covered by ice. That’s in part because the Arctic is an astonishing 36 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual as winter begins in the Northern Hemisphere.
This is wildly unusual, and a reality that emerges from trends associated from climate change. But it also doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve stepped suddenly over the threshold into some new climate era.
Instead, according to Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), what we’re seeing is a kind of giant, scary global coincidence — the kind we should expect to see much more often as the world warms.
“We tend to shy away from reading too much into both hemisphere having really low sea ice at the same time, because they behave so differently,” Serreze said.
That’s because the Arctic and the Antarctic are very different from one another. If you got rid of all the ice in the Arctic, you’d be left with open ocean. It’s lost ice just about every year since recording began in 1978.
But Antarctica is a continent with a massive sheet of ice sitting on top of it, and its behaviour is more erratic. Some of its ice sheets have shrunk dramatically, to the point of risking collapse. But so far others have grown enough to make up for it.
“Right now, Antarctic ice extent is at this record low in the satellite era,” Serreze said, “but in the Antarctic especially it really bounces around a lot. So the situation may change a couple weeks from now … When you throw them all together into one blob, you lose perspective on what’s really happening.”
That doesn’t mean the global ice situation is nothing to worry about.
“In the Arctic you’re absolutely losing sea ice very quickly. So you’re looking at ice-free Septembers maybe 20 years from now, while the Antarctic is kind of high to low,” Serreze said. “So if you look at your climate models they say the Arctic is where the real action is right now, and the Antarctic is this sleeping elephant that’s now beginning to stir.”
Serreze says the real story is a stead global melt, not what’s happened in the last few weeks. People need to deal with it, he added, but, “there’s no need to panic.”
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