On August 18, 2014, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this natural-color image of ice in the Greenland Sea. (The center of the image is roughly 77.5° north latitude and 9° west longitude.) Thick tongues of glacial ice stretch over the fjords on the Greenland coast at image left. Farther offshore, loosely packed floes of sea ice make swirling, paisley patterns in the Fram Strait between northeastern Greenland and Svalbard. The swirls of ice are caused by winds and currents that steer the ice around the sea.
Sea ice in the Arctic Ocean and surrounding seas is now approaching its annual minimum extent, which typically occurs in September. In 2014, as in several recent years, the Greenland Sea has seen less ice and thinner ice passing through its waters. Walt Meier, a sea ice specialist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, noted: “Ice usually extends quite a bit further south in this region because the currents push older, thicker ice out from the Arctic. Even in the warmer, more southern region, it takes a while for that ice to melt. We’ve seen a few years recently with very little ice in the Greenland Sea. Thinner ice may be one factor, but it seems like the biggest issue is that winds have been blowing perpendicular to Fram Strait and limiting the amount of ice exiting the Arctic Ocean.”
As of August 19, 2014, sea ice covered about 5.98 million square kilometers (2.31 million square miles) of Arctic waters. That extent is comparable to the same date in 2013, and above the record-setting low year of 2012. Still, sea ice is nearly 20 percent below the 1981 to 2010 average, which was 7.04 million square kilometers (2.72 million square miles). In an August 19 blog post, researchers at the National Snow and Ice Data Center wrote:
Ice extent remains below average everywhere, except near Franz Joseph Land and in the northern part of the Barents Sea. Extent is particularly low in the Laptev Sea, where open water now extends to about 85 degrees latitude, less than 560 kilometers (350 miles) from the North Pole. This is the one region of the Arctic where ice loss has been exceptional in 2014 compared to recent summers. Ice extent is also very low in the East Greenland Sea, possibly as a result of reduced ice transport through Fram Strait.
NASA’s chief cryospheric scientist, Tom Wagner, offered some perspective on the state of Arctic sea ice in this video.
In addition to making satellite observations, NASA is sponsoring three airborne campaigns to study climate-driven change to Arctic ice. The Arctic Radiation-IceBridge Sea and Ice Experiment (ARISE) campaign is flying out of Greenland to measure how changing conditions in the region are affecting the formation of clouds and the exchange of heat between Earth’s surface, atmosphere, and space. The Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment (CARVE) is flying out of Fairbanks, Alaska, to measure the emissions of greenhouse gases from thawing tundra and permafrost. And the long-running Operation IceBridge campaign will add flights over Alaskan glaciers to measure how the thickness has changed from previous years.
NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC. Caption by Mike Carlowicz, with reporting from Steve Cole, Alan Buis, and Patrick Lynch. Thanks to Claire Parkinson, Kelly Brunt, and Walt Meier for image-interpretation help.