Okay, I'm not calling the max - short for maximum extent of the sea ice pack that marks the end of the freezing season - as I've sworn not to do that anymore since 2012, when I called the max twice, only to see the trend line bounce up higher and later. But this year something really interesting is taking place.
It started almost a month ago, on February 15th to be exact. IARC-JAXA (IJIS) sea ice extent grew to 13,942,060 square kilometres, and the 2015 trend line was just below the middle of the pack. Nothing out of the ordinary. In the two days that followed extent went down by over 170 thousand km2. Still nothing out of the ordinary.
But the gains in the following 8 days, up to February 25th, didn't manage to make up for the deficit and the preliminary peak was still standing. Then a drop of over 240 thousand km2 followed, somewhat out of the ordinary, and that's where we are as of today.
Last year, extent trended relatively low as well, but a surge in the middle of March made for a late max on March 19th. The current trend line is much lower, but there is enough refreezing potential on the fringes of the ice pack, as this sea ice concentration map from JAXA shows:
This map, by the way, was taken from the Arctic Data archive System (or ADS) that has temporarily replaced the IARC-JAXA (IJIS) website which always provided us with graphs and the sea ice extent numbers based on the AMSR-2 satellite sensor. I overlayed the image with the 2000's average (orange line). As can be seen there's still plenty of room for ice growth in the Bering and Okhotsk Sea, some in the Barentsz Sea as well. At the same time, some of the growth could be offset by melting/compaction in the Baffin and Labrador Sea, as they look pretty filled up.
All depends, as always on the weather. If we say that last year's max date is the latest possible date, there's still two weeks to go. That's a relatively long way out, given the potential swings during this transition phase between freezing and melting seasons, but we can at least look at the forecast for the coming week.
Here's the atmospheric situation for the next six days, as forecast by the ECMWF weather forecast model (click for a larger version):
Okay, so first of all, there's a huge storm approaching the Atlantic side of the Arctic. It might be difficult to see because of all the colours and many isobars, but it's possible to make out the features of Scandinavia, East Siberia and Alaska.
Quite a few storms have been funnelled into the Arctic via this route this winter, but this is a really big one, potentially bombing out at 950 hPa. It's difficult to tell what its influence will be on extent numbers at this final stage of the freezing season. The storm will be relatively short-lived, will probably cause some compaction in the Barentsz Sea, possibly compensated by increased transport into the Greenland Sea, via Fram Strait.
Another factor is the heat and moisture that this storm will inject into the Arctic, and so we turn to the temperature anomaly forecast on the ClimateReanalyzer website (from the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine):
That's a lot of (relative) heat reaching the Atlantic side of the Arctic, which should prevent any serious refreezing there in the coming week. At the same time very low temps are moving over the Bering Sea area, so possibly a lot of new, very thin ice is formed, especially as some very strong northerlies are forecast for the region. This could very well cause a second peak that tops the one reached last month, like happened more often in recent years. If not, this will be the lowest maximum in the IJIS SIE record, and the first not to pass the 14 million km2 mark. In other words: a mad max. ;-)
Although this event adds extra spice to the end of the freezing season, in itself it doesn't necessarily mean anything with regards to the coming melting season. Sure, 1 million km2 less ice than around this time in 2012, means a head start with regards to how much insolation the fringes of the ice pack get to build up, but if those cyclones keep getting pumped towards the Arctic, increased cloudiness will quickly negate this advantage, especially during that important start of the melting season when the amount of melt ponds on the ice pack greatly influences the chance for new records at the end of the melting season.
First, let's see what this big storm does to the numbers in the coming week, and whether cold northerlies on the Pacific side of the Arctic have it in them to yet again emphasize the futility of trying to call the maximum. If you can't wait for me to call the maximum, you can follow the daily nitty-gritty over on the Arctic Sea Ice Forum.