Strange summer melt leaves Arctic ice near record low

By John Timmer

At a rough level, the ice cap in the Arctic acts a bit like a metronome. During the sunless months of the winter, the ice grows, reaching a peak in early March. As the sun returns, it melts, bottoming out in early September. But a closer look shows that there are both long-term trends and short-term variations in the seasonal swings, and this year was no exception: after flirting with a return to historic averages, ice levels plunged to below the record low in the spring before flattening out. The end result was the third-lowest ice coverage since the satellite era began.

The best place to go for tracking Arctic ice is the National Snow and Ice Data Center, based at the University of Colorado. The Center constantly updates plots of the satellite data, and compares it to the average ice coverage from the period 1979 to 2000. Every month or so, it provides an overview of how things are progressing; the NSIDC’s latest entry indicates that the melting has probably bottomed out for the year.

It took a rather strange route to get there. Although the peak freezing tends to be in early March, this year, the peak didn’t arrive until some time in April, and the first month or so of melting occurred relatively slowly. As a result, by late April, the level of ice was nearly back to the historic average. This was especially odd, given that the planet as a whole was experiencing record high temperatures at the time.

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