New Wave Media

October 12, 2018

Arctic Sea Ice is Youngest and Thinnest Now

Small remnants of thicker, multiyear ice float with thinner, seasonal ice in the Beaufort Sea on Sept. 30, 2016. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Alek Petty

Small remnants of thicker, multiyear ice float with thinner, seasonal ice in the Beaufort Sea on Sept. 30, 2016. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Alek Petty

The Arctic Ocean's blanket of sea ice has changed since 1958 from predominantly older, thicker ice to mostly younger, thinner ice, according to new research published by NASA scientist Ron Kwok of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

With so little thick, old ice left, the rate of decrease in ice thickness has slowed. New ice grows faster but is more vulnerable to weather and wind, so ice thickness is now more variable, rather than dominated by the effect of global warming, according to NASA's Earth Science News Team.

Working from a combination of satellite records and declassified submarine sonar data, NASA scientists have constructed a 60-year record of Arctic sea ice thickness. Right now, Arctic sea ice is the youngest and thinnest its been since we started keeping records.

More than 70 percent of Arctic sea ice is now seasonal, which means it grows in the winter and melts in the summer, but doesn't last from year to year. This seasonal ice melts faster and breaks up easier, making it much more susceptible to wind and atmospheric conditions.

Kwok's research, published today in the journal Environmental Research Letters, combined decades of declassified U.S. Navy submarine measurements with more recent data from four satellites to create the 60-year record of changes in Arctic sea ice thickness. He found that since 1958, Arctic ice cover has lost about two-thirds of its thickness, as averaged across the Arctic at the end of summer.

Older ice has shrunk in area by almost 800,000 square miles (more than 2 million square kilometers). Today, 70 percent of the ice cover consists of ice that forms and melts within a single year, which scientists call seasonal ice.

Sea ice of any age is frozen ocean water. However, as sea ice survives through several melt seasons, its characteristics change. Multiyear ice is thicker, stronger and rougher than seasonal ice. It is much less salty than seasonal ice; Arctic explorers used it as drinking water. Satellite sensors observe enough of these differences that scientists can use spaceborne data to distinguish between the two types of ice.

Thinner, weaker seasonal ice is innately more vulnerable to weather than thick, multiyear ice. It can be pushed around more easily by wind, as happened in the summer of 2013. During that time, prevailing winds piled up the ice cover against coastlines, which made the ice cover thicker for months.

Arctic OceanCaliforniaNational Aeronautics and Space Administration
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