The good news: The Arctic sea ice extent reached its winter maximum on February 25. The bad news: That’s unseasonably early, and satellite records indicate that this is the lowest maximum extent on record, according to NOAA. In other words, even at its winter peak, the Arctic sea ice extent was missing an amount of ice equivalent to the size of Texas and California.
On February 25, the Arctic sea ice extent reached 5.61 million square miles, likely its maximum for the 2014-2015 season, though late-season expansion is possible. According to satellite records, ice coverage was below average everywhere but the Labrador Sea and Davis Strait. The current extent is 425,000 square miles short of the 1981-2010 average, and over 50,000 square miles below the previous low maximum set in 2011. This year’s maximum occurred 15 days earlier than the average date of March 12. However, the agency notes that this date can vary considerably. Still, this year’s date comes just one day later than the earliest maximum of February 24, set in 1996.
On average, Arctic sea ice extent has been declining at a rate of about 4.52% per decade.
Extent isn’t the only story to tell. An earlier study found that the average Arctic sea ice thickness has declined more than previously estimated. All told, sea ice thickness in the Arctic has declined 65% since 1975.
It’s possible that the ice extent retreat could be even worse than it looks, as recent ice growth in the Bering Sea helped flatten the trend and offset retreats in other areas. However, it’s still possible that additional growth will occur, though NOAA doubts that it will be enough to surpass the maximum reached on February 25.
The arctic has had a turbulent couple of winters. The 2013-2014 season saw record ice extent growth, significantly more than this year’s growth of 3.83 million square miles. NOAA says that this year’s growth was hindered, in part, by recent weather patterns, including an unusual configuration of the jet stream that lead to warm conditions over the Pacific side of the Arctic that maintained low sea ice extent in the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk.
It’s not all bad news. Though some scientists estimate that the Arctic will see completely ice-free summers by 2050, there’s no consensus as to weather our northern pole has reached a “tipping point,” or a point at which it cannot be saved from human-induced climate change. One study published in Nature estimated that the world would have to cut greenhouse
On the other side of the world, Antarctic sea ice continues to expand, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Of more pressing concern, though, is Antarctic land ice, which has the ability to drive up sea levels should it melt and fall into the ocean, which some reports indicate is happening.