Antarctic sea ice is declining dramatically

by Claire L. Parkinson, July 5, 2019 in WUWT

PNAS first published July 1, 2019

Contributed by Claire L. Parkinson, May 24, 2019 (sent for review April 16, 2019; reviewed by Will Hobbs and Douglas G. Martinson)


A newly completed 40-y record of satellite observations is used to quantify changes in Antarctic sea ice coverage since the late 1970s. Sea ice spreads over vast areas and has major impacts on the rest of the climate system, reflecting solar radiation and restricting ocean/atmosphere exchanges. The satellite record reveals that a gradual, decades-long overall increase in Antarctic sea ice extents reversed in 2014, with subsequent rates of decrease in 2014–2017 far exceeding the more widely publicized decay rates experienced in the Arctic. The rapid decreases reduced the Antarctic sea ice extents to their lowest values in the 40-y record, both on a yearly average basis (record low in 2017) and on a monthly basis (record low in February 2017).


Following over 3 decades of gradual but uneven increases in sea ice coverage, the yearly average Antarctic sea ice extents reached a record high of 12.8 × 106 km2 in 2014, followed by a decline so precipitous that they reached their lowest value in the 40-y 1979–2018 satellite multichannel passive-microwave record, 10.7 × 106 km2, in 2017. In contrast, it took the Arctic sea ice cover a full 3 decades to register a loss that great in yearly average ice extents. Still, when considering the 40-y record as a whole, the Antarctic sea ice continues to have a positive overall trend in yearly average ice extents, although at 11,300 ± 5,300 km2⋅y−1, this trend is only 50% of the trend for 1979–2014, before the precipitous decline. Four of the 5 sectors into which the Antarctic sea ice cover is divided all also have 40-y positive trends that are well reduced from their 2014–2017 values. The one anomalous sector in this regard, the Bellingshausen/Amundsen Seas, has a 40-y negative trend, with the yearly average ice extents decreasing overall in the first 3 decades, reaching a minimum in 2007, and exhibiting an overall upward trend since 2007 (i.e., reflecting a reversal in the opposite direction from the other 4 sectors and the Antarctic sea ice cover as a whole).

Fig. 1. Identification of the 5 sectors used in the regional analyses. These are identical to the sectors used in previous studies (7, 8).