Much Ado About Arctic Sea Ice?

by Bill Chameides | April 12th, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 7 comments
The Wall Street Journal's recent "report" on sea ice and global warming's death is an exaggeration. (NASA/N. Untersteiner)
The Wall Street Journal's recent "report" on sea ice and global warming's death is an exaggeration. (NASA/N. Untersteiner)

Last week in his Global View column, the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephenswrote: “global warming is dead.” Let’s consider the “Arctic ice panic” he calls “implausible.”

Imagine my surprise when I read in Stephens’s April 6 op-ed that “global warming is dead, nailed into its coffin one devastating disclosure, defection and re-evaluation at a time.”

To support his announcement, Stephens described a new “devastating” development in the world of climate science. It’s about Arctic sea ice. His take on the issue, in my opinion, is a little skewed, more in the category of half-truths than facts. Let’s talk a look.

The Sea Ice Context

The issue is about how much ice floats on the Arctic Sea and what’s behind that extent of ice. These are not just climate-science curiosities — because the ice affects the reflectivity of the Earth’s surface, it’s a key factor in determining how much heat the Earth absorbs from the Sun.


We have data on the ice extent dating back to the 1950s when American submarines began hanging out in that part of the world, but since 1979, satellite-borne microwave sensors have been able to collect much more extensive data. (See more about monitoring et al. sea ice info here.)

The trend is clear: the Arctic’s ice cover is retreating. Perhaps more disturbing, the rate of melting has been larger than what climate models predict (see figure).

During the summer of 2007 the loss of sea ice was so extreme it led some to announce we’d reached a tipping point and summers in the region could be ice-free in as few as 10 years. Such dire predictions were not unanimous but were fairly widespread. And most probably wrong.

Enter Bret Stephens. To make his case for global warming’s demise (would that it were true), Stephens first quotes this from a news story from last fall (which appeared in the Telegraph, not, as he claimed, the Guardian): “the Arctic is now melting at such a rate that it will be largely ice free within ten years.” Then he points to a more recent news story in the Guardian (he got the source right this time) about new findings by “Japanese scientists” that, he claims, attribute “the record breaking loss of ice in the Arctic ocean in recent years … to the region’s swirling winds and is not a direct result of global warming.”

The Actual Findings in a New Paper on Arctic Sea Ice and Winds

OK. But what did the “Japanese scientists” actually report in their paper? Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer to get my scientific information from the scientific literature not the Telegraph or the Guardian.

The paper in question was published in Geophysical Research Letters last week by Masayo Ogi of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology and colleagues. They do in fact report that winds have played a role in the shrinking of Arctic sea ice, but that’s not especially new (see here, here, and here).

How can winds cause the extent of sea ice to decrease? Arctic winds are dominated by opposing atmospheric pressure patterns known as the Arctic Oscillation. Sometimes the winds tend to pile sea ice up against the Arctic Ocean’s western edge near Siberia; during other phases the winds move ice eastward where it is more susceptible to both melting and being pushed out of the Arctic altogether. (See more detailed explanations here [pdf] and here.)

By correlating historical wind data with the September Arctic sea ice extent, the authors tried to tease out the role of winds in controlling the amount of sea ice at summer’s end. They found that “wind forcing accounts for 50% of the variance of the change in September Arctic sea ice extent [SIE] from one year to the next … and it also explains roughly 1/3 of the downward linear trend of SIE over the past 31 years.”

That’s really interesting and important — winds are playing a significant role in the Arctic’s sea ice decline. Much, possibly half, of the year-to-year variability (like 2007′s extreme dive of sea ice) is driven by winds. (It’s worth noting that the study’s wind-field metric differs from the sea-level pressure data largely relied on in other studies. This in turn has led to some differences in interpreting how different wind patterns interact.)

But guess what? It also means that most of the downward trend in sea ice over the past 30 years cannot be explained by winds.

The WSJ’s Coup de Grace

Trying to account for 2007′s dramatic drop in sea ice cover may have brought some predictions of ice loss too far forward. But if there was some overreach there (the fact is ice is melting and most likely in part because of global warming), there’s also some of that going on in the WSJ’s opinion pages.

Stephens notes that “the extent of Arctic sea ice in March was around the recorded average” for the period from 1979 to today. True enough, but if you take it as I did and as I think most folks would — as implying that there’s not been much loss of sea ice since 1979 — it’s quite misleading.

Source: NSIDC

First of all, the sea ice extent this past March is consistent with a long-term downward trend that shows March sea ice cover dropping by about 2.6 percent per decade.

More importantly, March comes at the end of the winter — when sea ice extent is at its maximum and even thin ice counts as ice coverage. A very different picture emerges from the September record of sea ice extent — when the winter’s thin ice disappears. Suffice it to say, the September data show a significant loss of ice since 1979, declining at a rate of 11.2 percent per decade, relative to the 1979-2000 average (see figure). Notably, 2009 marked the third lowest September ice cover on record.

The moral of this story: half-truths doth lousy coffin-nails make.

filed under: Arctic, climate change, faculty, global warming, science
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  1. MattN
    May 3, 2010

    …to talk about THE WHOLE story? I do not see any reason why summer ice is that much more important than winter ice. Ice is ice, and when it’s winter at one end its summer at the other. Always. Forever and ever. Balance. And, again, right this very minute we are near zero anomaly for global sea ice, pretty much right where we were 30 years ago. Aren’t you the least bit enthusiastic about the recovery (and fairly substantial I might add) of summer Arctic ice extent (and area) since summer 2007?

    • Bill Chameides
      May 4, 2010

      MattN: 1. You can’t compare sea ice extent in the summer in one hemisphere with extent in the winter in the other — one is at a minimum, the other at a maximum. 2. Summer loss is most relevant because that is when the sun shines and a change in reflectivity is relevant; and we generally see more loss in the summer since thinning of winter ice does not show up when measuring extent. 3. We are not close to 0 anomaly as described in previous response. 4. Recovery since 2007 is good, but it was something I expected to see as 2007 looked to me to be anomalous. Let’s see what happens over the long term — I hope along with you that the decline ends.

  2. MattN
    Apr 23, 2010

    The long term trend in ses ice is down. I agree with that if you limit your view to the Arctic only. But, that’s HALF the story. Globally, what’s the trend? We’re sitting near 0 ananoly today for the 30 year trend. You lose in one place, gain in another. So, you saying “half-truths doth lousy coffin-nails make” is really the pot calling the kettle black. Talk about ALL the global sea ice Doc, instead of half of it…

    • Bill Chameides
      May 3, 2010

      MattN: You’ve got it wrong; globally sea ice extent has decreased even after accounting for the Antarctic. 1. Since 1979, the end of summer sea ice extent in the Southern Hemisphere has grown by about 0.5 million sq km. This is based on an estimated growth rate of 4 percent per decade, but it should be borne in mind that that estimated rate is not statistically significant; it has an uncertainty of 4.3 percent per decade. 2. Over the same period, the end of summer sea ice extent in the Northern Hemisphere has grown by about 2.2 million sq km. The average loss rate was a little more than 11 percent per decade. As stated by the National Snow and Ice Data Center: “Although Arctic sea ice extent underwent a strong decline from 1979 to 2009, Antarctic sea ice underwent a slight increase. The Antarctic ice extent increases were smaller in magnitude than the Arctic increases, and some regions of the Antarctic experienced strong declining trends in sea ice extent.”

  3. Bill Chameides
    Apr 22, 2010

    You said: “half-truths doth lousy coffin-nails make.” So why only talk about half the sea ice on the planet? You don’t WANT to talk about Antarctic sea ice trends, do you? Why not? BTW, in case you were wondering, the AQUA satellite has measure a recrod high extent for the date. Only 9 years of data, though… Happy Earth Day….

  4. MattN
    Apr 12, 2010

    …why no mention of Antarctic sea ice? Oh, that’s right, because it’s been gaining sea ice and that’s not what you want to report….

  5. Bill Chameides
    Apr 23, 2010

    Give up. The long-term trend in sea ice is downward. And the key time to check is at the end of the *summer* not the end of the winter.

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