Winter is supposed to be a time when things quiet down in the Arctic, animals hibernate in complete darkness, and all that can be seen from satellites is this great, icy mass getting bigger and bigger. That's how it goes most of the time, despite the spectacular summer sea ice losses of the past decades. But of course, there are exceptions, and this winter is one of those. In fact, it's an exceptional exception.
I want to highlight a couple of things to give you an idea of what's going on in the Arctic right now. As some of you may already know, this year's trend line is the lowest on record in practically every graph (see here). So far, it has played a major role in the breaking of Global sea ice area and extent minimum records, and it looks highly possible that last year's Arctic sea ice maximum record gets broken too. Mind you, that record was already spectacularly early and low, which is why I referred to it as Mad Max at the time.
It's a bit too early to be calling the max, which I vowed never to do again anyway, but here's the current situation on the Cryosphere Today sea ice area and JAXA sea ice extent graph (as provided by ADS-NIPR):
2015 peaked on this date in the CT SIA data set, but this year is currently 700K lower (last week's preliminary peak was almost 600K lower). The 2015 maximum occurred on February 15th in the JAXA SIE data set, but this year's preliminary peak is almost 274K lower. That's no small change, if things stay this way.
When area/extent is exceptionally low, it's usually a sign of something going on one side of the Arctic, while things are relatively quiet on the other side. This year, however, there's stuff going on on both sides of the Arctic. I'll start with the Pacific side of the Arctic, where regional extent is again very low in the Bering Sea, though high in the Sea of Okhotsk (these graphs are produced by Wipneus and can be found on the Regional Graphs page):
It has been very cold in the Sea of Okhotsk in the past week or two, but the Bering simply doesn't budge, despite strong northerlies, just like last year.
The spectacle is taking place in the Beaufort Sea, however, where yet another cracking event is causing the ice pack to look like a broken mirror (AVHRR image posted by Diablobanquisa, as provided by Environment Canada):
The cause of the cracking is a very strong Beaufort Gyre that started spinning when the Arctic Oscillation switched to its negative phase. In other words, a high-pressure system settled over the central Arctic and the ice pack followed the clockwise motion of the winds. But a side-effect of all this, as can be seen on the AVHRR image is that ice is being pulled away from the Canadian and Alaskan coasts, leaving huge polynyas behind.
Just how big the difference is compared to 2015 can also be seen on LANCE-MODIS true color satellite images, as the darkness retreats northwards and more and more of the Arctic becomes visible again. Here's an animation showing February 13th 2015 vs 2016:
Some speculate that this is a sure sign that the ice is thin and thus easier to boss around. Of course, all the cracks and polynyas are freezing over again as it's still freezing in the Beaufort Sea. This is extra ice, and the 2013 cracking event (see here, here and here) taught us that though ominous-looking such cracking can actually increase volume by a fair share, and a cold start to the melting season may then be enough to spare a large part of the (multi-year) ice in this crucial zone.
One important difference with 2013 is that this month so far it's much warmer (or much less cold) than it was in February 2013, as can be seen on these temperature plots from Karsten Haustein's website:
Freezing or not, these temperature anomalies are astounding, and it remains to be seen how much thicker that new ice can get before the Sun starts beating down it, longer and longer every day.
In the meantime, on the Atlantic side of the Arctic, it seems that the incessant series of Atlantic storms have been preventing ice expansion with their moist, warm air (also visible on the temp map above), as regional extent is extremely low in the Barentsz and Greenland Seas, despite plenty of transport through Fram Strait (see this animation posted by Wipneus on the ASIF):
I've added the Kara Sea because it has been dropping too since last week. The reason for that became clear to me when I made this animation of Uni Bremen sea ice concentration maps:
Due to persistent westerly winds the sea ice south of Novaya Zemlya is retreating, reminiscent of 2011 and 2012, although things were a lot more spectacular in February 2012. But it could retreat some more, given the current forecasts of more westerly winds and extreme temperature anomalies:
So, that's it for now. Forgive me for having to be conservative and add the caveat that all this activity on both sides of the Arctic doesn't necessarily mean that the melting season will be this or that. Still, this winter has been quite exceptional so far, and with just a month or two to go before the melting season gets going, I wonder where the cold is going to come from to significantly fatten up the ice pack.
But first we keep an eye out for the maximum to see whether it will beat last year's record. In the meantime I'll try to provide some more insight into this winter by comparing it to previous winters. It's not easy looking forward and back when so much is going on in the present!
PS Also be sure to read this blog post by Robertscribbler describing the extreme temperature anomalies in the Arctic during January.