November brings lowest sea ice extent on record for Chukchi Sea

 Ice accumulating along the northern edge of Kotzebue sound on Nov. 8. (AAKOH)
Ice accumulating along the northern edge of Kotzebue sound on Nov. 8. (AAKOH) (KTUU)
Published: Dec. 1, 2019 at 7:53 PM AKST
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The Chukchi Sea saw the lowest sea ice extent on record for the month of Nov., according to scientists with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Ice in the northern Chukchi was extending at a snails' pace until Nov. 10th, according to climate specialist for UAF's Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy Rick Thoman. He says that's when it started extending rapidly.

However, in the last week of Nov. a storm which ravaged the Bering Sea shifted weather patterns and brought ice extension "to a screeching halt," according to Thoman.

"Here we are at the beginning of December, and we have more open water in the Chukchi Sea than we've had any time in the last 41 years," Thoman said. "And, frankly, as far as we know, there's never been a time in the known past when we've had this much open water in the Chukchi Sea at this point in the season."

Thoman says variation is not uncommon this time of year, as ocean winds blow and shift the ice around. Of concern is the immediate and drastic change, over the course of about a week, from steady extension to the lowest on record.

Even more concerning is what all of this means in the context of a warming climate. Where sea ice reflects solar rays and helps temper atmospheric warming, open water does the opposite.

"That water is acting like a heating pad, continuously providing warmth to the atmosphere," Thoman said.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center has measured sea ice extent on the Chukchi Sea since 1979. 2017 trended well below average for most of the year, with record lows starting in the first week of Nov. lasting through the first week of Dec.

This year, 50,000 cubic kilometers marked the new record low ice extension for mid-Oct. -- four times lower than 2017 measurements of 200,000 cubic kilometers. Both years evened out around Nov. 30, measuring at just below 400,000 cubic kilometers -- less than half of average sea ice extension on that date, measured over a 30-year period, 1981 - 2010.

Thoman says weather patterns will likely shift again and ice will continue accumulating in the coming week. But this drastic fluctuation of sea ice accumulation in the Chukchi Sea is a major red-flag in an already rapidly warming Arctic.

"We know this is going to be affecting, over the long-term, the weather and climate jet stream all around the Northern Hemisphere," Thoman said.

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