Melting Arctic ice is the "new normal," NASA says

Arctic sea ice has varied terrain in the summer months, as ridges and melt ponds form and floes break apart. A new NASA satellite called ICESat-2, launching in 2018, will measure the height of sea ice year-round.

NASA/Kate Ramsayer

It is by now a familiar headline -- the Arctic sea ice is melting at increasingly rapid rates. This year’s melt season started at an alarming pace, with a record-low maximum ice extent in March, the melt slowed down by June. While this summer won’t be setting a melt record, NASA scientists now say we have to consider this kind of melt “the new normal.”

“A decade ago, this year’s sea ice extent would have set a new record low and by a fair amount. Now, we’re kind of used to these low levels of sea ice -- it’s the new normal,” Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a press release. 

Meier stressed that while we won’t be seeing a record low for the year, “the sea ice is not showing any kind of recovery.” The melt was not as extreme this year because the Arctic weather conditions overall were not as extreme as they have been. 

Arctic Sea Ice from March to August 2016 by NASA.gov Video on YouTube

But the longer-term trend paints a bleak picture. Arctic ice watchers see the melting ice as a visceral example of the impact of accelerated climate change. The ice cover over the Barents and Kara Seas, north of Russia, opened up early back in April. This left the surface ocean waters exposed to the sun’s penetrating rays weeks ahead of the normal schedule. 

In May, the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reported that May saw the Arctic sea ice recede to its lowest levels in 38 years

Similarly, in April, the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) reported that spring thaw would be coming earlier than in past years. The institute predicted that the melt area would make up 12 percent of Earth’s northernmost ice sheet.

DMI climate​ scientist Peter Langen wrote in a blog post that the findings were so surprising, his team had to check and see if their “models were still working properly.”

While we’re in the dog days of summer, we can expect to see continued ice loss​. The melt rate accelerated again during the first two weeks of August, exceeding the average for this time of the season. 

“This year is a great case study in showing how important the weather conditions are during the summer, especially in June and July, when you have 24 hours of sunlight and the sun is high in the sky in the Arctic,” Meier said. “If you get the right atmospheric conditions during those two months, they can really accelerate the ice loss. If you don’t, they can slow down any melting momentum you had. So our predictive ability in May of the September minimum is limited, because the sea ice cover is so sensitive to the early-to-mid-summer atmospheric conditions, and you can’t foresee summer weather​.”

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