Words on Weather & Climate

Global Sea Ice


Meteorologist Craig James, new Squire columnist

Last week I wrote about the Arctic Sea ice extent and how it was very likely to have been significantly lower in the past than during the recent period of satellite observations begun in 1979. Let’s take a look today at the sea ice extent on a global scale, not just in the Arctic Ocean. You may be surprised.

The graphic above is from the University of Illinois Cryosphere Today website. The line across the bottom of the chart shows how the daily global sea ice has deviated since 1979 from the overall average between 1979 and 2008. You can clearly see that the global sea ice area is currently sitting right at average. How can that be when all we have heard about is how much the ice is melting?

The above chart clearly shows that since satellite observations began, the extent of sea ice in the Northern Hemisphere declined until 2007 when it reached a minimum. However, it has recovered back almost to the average since then. I wrote about this last week.

This last chart is of the Southern Hemisphere sea ice. You can see that in 2007, when the Arctic ice was at a minimum, the Southern Hemisphere was at a record high extent. The ice in the Antarctic was not cooperating with the alarmist point of view. What is really interesting is that the long-term ice increase and decline at the two poles tends to be out of phase. When ice is increasing at one over several years, it is decreasing at the other. Several studies have been done on this, but no known reason for this behavior has been found.

I’m sure common experience has taught you that ice melts quicker when it comes in contact with warm water rather than warm air. If you have a sink full of ice, the quickest way to melt it is to add warm water, not turn up the heat in the room. However, all the alarmist predictions about the Arctic becoming ice-free were assuming the melt was due to warm air temperatures from global warming.

If you take a look at any year from the website of the Danish Meteorological Institute at ocean.dmi.dk/arctic/meant80n.uk.php, you will not find any summer since the data began in 1958 that had above-average temperatures. Summer is the only time of year when temperatures can get a little above freezing to melt ice (represented by the melt line on the graphs). Warmer air temperatures had nothing to do with it.

Take a look at the following chart of how the sea surface temperatures have changed in the Arctic since the early 1980s.

The overall trend has been slightly positive for the last 27 years, but the spike up in 2007 is obvious and that is what melted the ice. What caused the warm water? The best guess is both ocean and prevailing wind currents for that year pushed warm water into the Arctic, but as you can see from the graph, the water temperatures are now back close to average. And, lo and behold, so is the ice, although you won’t likely have been told this from the mainstream media.

A new satellite has just been launched to give us a better understanding of the reasons for the fluctuations in sea ice. This project is being led scientifically from the UK by its designer and principal investigator, Professor Duncan Wingham from University College London. Here is what he has to say about how much we know and how well we can forecast sea ice fluctuations: “None of the changes that you see [in the Arctic and the Antarctic] are either well modeled, in the case of the Arctic, or modeled at all in the case of the Antarctic,” explained Professor Wingham. “We have poor predictive capability in the Arctic and more or less no predictive capability in the Antarctic.”

Will someone please tell that to Al Gore?

Craig James has been retired since July 1, 2008, after 40 years of broadcasting television weather. He was chief meteorologist at WZZM-TV for 12 years and chief meteorologist at WOOD-TV for 24 years. He is a graduate of Penn State University, where he received a Centennial Fellowship Award. He was also honored as a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.

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