After years of resisting worldwide warming trends, Antarctic sea ice has reached its smallest extent in recorded history, according to preliminary US satellite data. Antarctic sea ice annually melts to its smallest extents at this time of year, which is summer in the southern hemisphere. To an extent, it is expected to contract and expand with the seasons.
However, this year, the sea ice reached record lows of 883,015 square miles (2.28m square km) on the 13th of February, according to data from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). The extent is significantly smaller than the previous low record of 884,173 square miles, recorded on February 27th of 1997, among satellite records going as far back as 1979.
NSIDC director Mark Serreze said they planned to wait for a few more days of measurements to come in before confirming they had reached a record low.
“But, unless something funny happens, we’re looking at a record minimum in Antarctica,” said Serreze, speaking to Reuters. “Some people say it’s already happened. We tend to be conservative by looking at five-day running averages.”
In most recent years, Antarctic sea ice has actually expanded, in contrast to overall warming trends worldwide. According to some climate scientists, this may be a result of shifts in winds and ocean currents.
“We’ve always thought of the Antarctic as the sleeping elephant starting to stir. Well, maybe it’s starting to stir now,” said Serreze.
Global average temperatures reached a record high for a third year in a row in 2016, and climate scientists have said this is leading to more days of extreme heat, and other extreme weather such as downpours and storms. The record highs have gradually increased sea levels around the globe. Arctic sea ice has already hit record lows in recent years, reaching its second lowest extent ever last summer.
Recently, Antarctic ice has become a focus for concern as the Larsen C ice shelf has developed a large crack that scientists believe will lead to it breaking off into the ocean in the next few months. It would be one of the ten largest break-offs of ice ever recorded. The break-off could destabilize inland glaciers on the continent, and contribute to already rising global sea levels. Several other ice shelves have collapsed in the northern parts of Antarctica in recent years, including the Larsen B ice shelf which collapsed in 2002.