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Arctic sea ice stubbornly stuck near record-low levels

Ben Anderson

It may not feel like it in Alaska -- where the state's largest city of Anchorage just experienced the fourth-coldest July on record and farmers statewide are having trouble growing crops in the damp chill -- but the Earth is pretty warm nowadays. The Lower 48 just experienced the warmest month ever on record, and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reported Wednesday that Arctic sea ice levels remained well below average in July.

In its most recent analysis of Arctic sea ice, the center said the ice coverage was a little more than 3 million square miles, nearly 1 million square miles less than the average from 1979-2000. It's just 7,700 square miles larger than last July's record low.

"As throughout the summer, the low ice extent for the Arctic as a whole is primarily due to extensive open water on the Atlantic side of the Arctic (Kara, Laptev and East Siberian seas) and the Beaufort Sea," the report said.

The Beaufort Sea is located north of Alaska and Canada and east of Point Barrow in the northernmost part of the state. The other Arctic sea off of Alaska, the Chukchi, has remained near average levels for this time of year, the report said.

A fleet of vessels on their way to the Arctic hoping to begin exploratory drilling of offshore oil wells for Royal Dutch Shell recently have dealt with sea ice off Alaska's northwest coast. Shell had hoped to begin drilling in July, but that didn't happen. Instead, parts of Shell's fleet began trickling out of Dutch Harbor at the beginning of August with hopes of still getting a few months of work in before being shut down by winter. 

The July summary shows some minor improvement over last month, when the extent of sea ice was the lowest ever in June. Beaufort Sea air temperatures were 2 to 5 degrees warmer than the average between 1981 and 2010 temperatures, the report said.

The report also makes a special note of extensive ice melt over the Greenland ice sheet, including at higher altitudes. Researchers said that some melt isn't unusual, but noted that it is usually confined to lower elevations. 

"The 2012 event was associated with a high-pressure weather pattern bringing unusually warm temperatures over the higher elevations of the ice sheet," the report said. "While the event has not been seen previously in the 34-year satellite record, there is evidence in ice core data from Summit, Greenland of similar events occurring several times over the past few thousand years."

Scientists said that such a melt tends to happen every 150 years or so. However, researchers said the greater cause for concern is elevated levels of melt at the lower altitudes, leading to glacier calving and surface water runoffs. Both contribute to rising sea levels.

"Along with the substantial summer sea ice extent decline and the early Northern Hemisphere snow melt, the pace of Greenland surface melt suggests that 2012 is yet another interesting summer in the Arctic," the report said.

Finally, the report makes note of thin ice in the Beaufort Sea regions, saying that such low-density ice is likely to melt soon. The first-year sea ice lingering near shore has been a problem in recent weeks, as winds blowing the ice toward shore have temporarily clogged shipping routes above Point Barrow and in the Canadian high Arctic. It's also caused fits for a crew of rowers attempting a bold and unprecedented Arctic journey from Canada to Russia in a 29-foot-long rowboat.

"They’re still sitting 2 miles north of Barrow, in Elson Lagoon, waiting for the all-clear to row south again," according to the most recent entry on the team's expedition blog.  "Reports tell us that sea ice floes are retreating now, rather than threatening to hit shore, but until the winds co-operate and the storm has passed, the Arctic Row team will continue to sit."

Read the full sea ice report, at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com