Arctic and Baltic Sea ice
- The extent and volume of the Arctic Sea ice has declined rapidly since global data became available in 1980, especially in summer. Record low sea ice cover in September 2007, 2011 and 2012 was roughly half the size of the normal minimum extent in the 1980s. In September 2013 ice cover was well below the average for 1981-2010.
- Over the period 1979–2013, the Arctic has lost on average 43 000 km2 of sea ice per year in winter and 95 000 km2 per year at the end of summer. The decline in summer sea ice appears to have accelerated since 1999.
- The maximum sea ice extent in the Baltic Sea has been decreasing most of the time since about 1800. The decrease appears to have accelerated since the 1980s but the large interannual variability prohibits a clear assessment as to whether this increase is statistically significant.
- Arctic Sea ice is projected to continue to shrink and thin all year round. For high greenhouse gas emissions, a nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean in September is likely before mid-century. There will still be substantial ice in winter.
- Baltic Sea ice, in particular the extent of the maximal cover, is projected to continue to shrink.
What is the trend in the extent of Arctic and Baltic Sea ice?
In the period 1979-2013 the sea ice extent in the Arctic decreased by 43 000 km2 per year in winter (measured in March) and by 95 000 km2 per year in summer (measured in September) (Figure 1). Winter sea ice loss has occurred in the peripheral seas, influenced by warmer oceans, while summer sea ice loss has developed in the Arctic Ocean driven by a warmer atmosphere (caused in part by warmer oceans south of Svalbard). This is evidenced by an earlier onset of summer surface melt [i]. In contrast Antarctic sea ice reached record high levels, with a monthly average Southern Hemisphere winter maximum extent in September 2012 of 19.39 million square kilometres. Scientists largely attribute the increase in Antarctic sea ice extent to stronger circumpolar winds, which blow the sea ice outward, increasing extent [ii].
Changes in Arctic Sea ice may trigger complex feedback processes. A longer melt season results in a lower sea ice extent in autumn and increased solar heat uptake by the ocean which delays the refreeze [iii]. However, a warmer atmosphere means more clouds and in summer these reflect sunlight, thus representing a negative feedback. Even so, some evidence suggests that winter regrowth of ice is inhibited by the warmer ocean surface[iv]. Thinner winter ice leads to more heat loss from the ocean and a warmer atmosphere, and hence a thicker cloud cover which inhibits the escape of heat to space[v], which is a positive feedback mechanism.
The extent of the minimum sea ice cover at the end of the melt season in September 2012 broke all previously observed records. Comparison of recent sea ice coverage with older ship and aircraft observations suggests that sea ice coverage may have halved since the 1950s [vi]. Since the more reliable satellite observations started in 1979, summer ice has shrunk by 10.2 % per decade [vii]. The reduction in maximum winter extent is smaller, with a decrease of 2.9 % per decade [viii]. There is some evidence that the decline in summer ice has accelerated since 1999 [ix].
The Arctic Sea ice is also getting thinner and younger since less sea ice survives the summer to grow into thicker multi-year floes. Currently there is less multi-year ice than seasonal sea ice in the Arctic Ocean [x]. It is hard to calculate trends for the whole sea ice cover, but submarine data collected in the central Arctic Ocean considered to be the most representative suggest a decrease of 40 % in sea ice thickness from an average of 3.1 m in 1956–1978 to 1.8 m in the 1990s [xi]. British submarine data from 2007 also show continued thinning [xii].
Calculations of sea ice volume from satellite suggest that the Arctic autumn (winter) sea ice volume decreased by 1 237 km³ (862 km³) from 2004 to 2008 [xiii]. This estimate is consistent with the estimate by the Pan Arctic Ice-Ocean Modelling and Assimilation System (PIOMAS), which suggests that the mean monthly sea ice volume decreased by 2 800 km³/decade over the period 1979–2010. PIOMAS further suggests that sea ice volume has decreased by 70 % (September) and almost 40 % (March) relative to the period 1958–1978 [xiv].
Information on sea ice extent in the Baltic Sea goes back to 1720. The maximum sea ice extent has been decreasing most of the time since about 1800 (Figure 2). The decrease in sea ice extent appears to have increased since the 1980s but the large interannual variability prohibits a clear assessment as to whether this increase is statistically significant. The frequency of mild ice winters, defined as having a maximum ice cover of less than 130 000 km2, has increased substantially. The frequency of severe ice winters, defined as having a maximum ice cover of at least 270 000 km2, has decreased.
Most climate models still underestimate the observed summer-time melting of Arctic Sea ice even though the disagreement between models and observations has decreased compared to earlier models. All model projections agree that Arctic sea ice will continue to shrink and thin in all seasons. Those models that best reproduce the observed sea-ice decline project a considerably faster decline than other models. Recent studies that consider the ability of models to reproduce the observed sea-ice decline suggest that for high greenhouse gas emissions, a nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean in September is likely before mid-century (Figure 3) [xv].
Projections of Baltic Sea ice extent under different emissions scenarios suggest that the maximal ice cover and ice thickness will continue to shrink significantly in the 21st century [xvi]. A recent study suggests that by the end of this century, approximately all areas, except the Bothnian Bay, will be ice free during early spring (March) under the SRES A1B emissions scenario [xvii].
An animation from NOAA shows the decline in multi-year Arctic sea ice extent from 1987 to 2013:
[i] M. Collins et al., “Long-Term Climate Change: Projections, Commitments and Irreversibility,” in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ed. T. F. Stocker et al. (Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 2013), Chapter 12, http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_Chapter12_FINAL.pdf.
[ii] NSIDC, “Press Release: Arctic Sea Ice Shatters Previous Low Records; Antarctic Sea Ice Edges to Record High,” 2012, http://nsidc.org/news/press/20121002_MinimumPR.html.
[iii] Sharon Stammerjohn et al., “Regions of Rapid Sea Ice Change: An Inter-Hemispheric Seasonal Comparison,” Geophysical Research Letters 39 (March 16, 2012): L06501, doi:10.1029/2012GL050874.
[iv] Jennifer M. Jackson, William J. Williams, and Eddy C. Carmack, “Winter Sea-Ice Melt in the Canada Basin, Arctic Ocean,” Geophysical Research Letters 39 (February 15, 2012): L03603, doi:10.1029/2011GL050219.
[v] Stephen P. Palm et al., “Influence of Arctic Sea Ice Extent on Polar Cloud Fraction and Vertical Structure and Implications for Regional Climate,” Journal of Geophysical Research 115 (November 12, 2010): D21209, doi:10.1029/2010JD013900.
[vi] Walter N. Meier, Julienne Stroeve, and Florence Fetterer, “Whither Arctic Sea Ice? A Clear Signal of Decline Regionally, Seasonally and Extending beyond the Satellite Record,” Annals of Glaciology 46, no. 1 (October 2007): 428–34, doi:10.3189/172756407782871170.
[vii] Josefino C. Comiso et al., “Accelerated Decline in the Arctic Sea Ice Cover,” Geophysical Research Letters 35 (January 3, 2008): L01703, doi:10.1029/2007GL031972; M.A. Killie and T. Lavergne, “Time Series of the 1979 to 2010 Monthly Arctic Sea-Ice Extent in March (the Month of Sea-Ice Extent Maximum) and September (the Month of Sea-Ice Extent Minimum) in km2.” (Source: data produced by the EUMETSAT OSI SAF (http://osisaf.met.no) and the CryoClim (http://www.cryoclim.net) project, delivered through MyOcean)., 2011).
[viii] Julienne Stroeve et al., “Arctic Sea Ice Decline: Faster than Forecast.,” Geophysical Research Letters 34 (2007): L09501, doi:10.1029/2007GL029703; Comiso et al., “Accelerated Decline in the Arctic Sea Ice Cover”; Killie and Lavergne, “Time Series of the 1979 to 2010 Monthly Arctic Sea-Ice Extent in March (the Month of Sea-Ice Extent Maximum) and September (the Month of Sea-Ice Extent Minimum) in km2.”
[ix] Julienne C. Stroeve et al., “The Arctic’s Rapidly Shrinking Sea Ice Cover: A Research Synthesis,” Climatic Change 110, no. 3–4 (June 8, 2011): 1005–27, doi:10.1007/s10584-011-0101-1.
[x] R. Kwok et al., “Thinning and Volume Loss of the Arctic Ocean Sea Ice Cover: 2003–2008,” Journal of Geophysical Research 114, no. C7 (July 2009), doi:10.1029/2009JC005312.
[xi] UNEP, Global Outlook for Ice and Snow (Arendal: United Nations Environment Programme, 2007), http://www.grida.no/publications/geo-ice-snow/.
[xii] P. Wadhams, N. Hughes, and J. Rodrigues, “Arctic Sea Ice Characteristics in Winter 2004 and 2007 from Submarine Sonar Transects,” Journal of Geophysical Research 116 (2011): C00E02, doi:10.1029/2011JC006982.
[xiii] Kwok et al., “Thinning and Volume Loss of the Arctic Ocean Sea Ice Cover.”
[xiv] Axel Schweiger et al., “Uncertainty in Modeled Arctic Sea Ice Volume,” Journal of Geophysical Research 116 (September 27, 2011): C00D06, doi:10.1029/2011JC007084.
[xv] F. Massonnet et al., “Constraining Projections of Summer Arctic Sea Ice,” The Cryosphere 6, no. 6 (November 22, 2012): 1383–94, doi:10.5194/tc-6-1383-2012; Julienne C. Stroeve et al., “Trends in Arctic Sea Ice Extent from CMIP5, CMIP3 and Observations,” Geophysical Research Letters 39, no. 16 (2012): n/a – n/a, doi:10.1029/2012GL052676; Muyin Wang and James E. Overland, “A Sea Ice Free Summer Arctic within 30 Years: An Update from CMIP5 Models: SUMMER ARCTIC SEA ICE,” Geophysical Research Letters 39, no. 18 (September 2012): n/a – n/a, doi:10.1029/2012GL052868; James E. Overland and Muyin Wang, “When Will the Summer Arctic Be Nearly Sea Ice Free?,” Geophysical Research Letters 40, no. 10 (2013): 2097–2101, doi:10.1002/grl.50316; Collins et al., “Long-Term Climate Change: Projections, Commitments and Irreversibility.”
[xvi] Kirsti Jylhä et al., “Changes in Frost, Snow and Baltic Sea Ice by the End of the Twenty-First Century Based on Climate Model Projections for Europe,” Climatic Change 86, no. 3–4 (2008): 441–62, doi:10.1007/s10584-007-9310-z; HELCOM, Climate Change in the Baltic Sea Area - HELCOM Thematic Assessment in 2013, Baltic Sea Environment Proceedings (Helsinki: HELCOM, 2013), http://helcom.fi/Lists/Publications/BSEP137.pdf.
[xvii] K. Eilola, S. Mårtensson, and H. E. M. Meier, “Modeling the Impact of Reduced Sea Ice Cover in Future Climate on the Baltic Sea Biogeochemistry,” Geophysical Research Letters 40, no. 1 (2013): 149–54, doi:10.1029/2012GL054375.
Indicator specification and metadata
- Trend in Arctic sea ice extent in March and September
- Maximum ice cover extent in the Baltic Sea
- Projected changes in Nothern Hemisphere sea ice extent
Policy context and targets
In April 2013 the European Commission presented the EU Adaptation Strategy Package (http://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/adaptation/what/documentation_en.htm). This package consists of the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change /* COM/2013/0216 final */ and a number of supporting documents. One of the objectives of the EU Adaptation Strategy is Better informed decision-making, which should occur through Bridging the knowledge gap and Further developing Climate-ADAPT as the ‘one-stop shop’ for adaptation information in Europe. Further objectives include Promoting action by Member States and Climate-proofing EU action: promoting adaptation in key vulnerable sectors. Many EU Member States have already taken action, such as by adopting national adaptation strategies, and several have also prepared action plans on climate change adaptation.
The European Commission and the European Environment Agency have developed the European Climate Adaptation Platform (Climate-ADAPT, http://climate-adapt.eea.europa.eu/) to share knowledge on observed and projected climate change and its impacts on environmental and social systems and on human health; on relevant research; on EU, national and subnational adaptation strategies and plans; and on adaptation case studies.
No targets have been specified.
Related policy documents
Climate-ADAPT: Mainstreaming adaptation in EU sector policies
Overview of EU sector policies in which mainstreaming of adaptation to climate change is ongoing or explored
Climate-ADAPT: National adaptation strategies
Overview of activities of EEA member countries in preparing, developing and implementing adaptation strategies
DG CLIMA: Adaptation to climate change
Adaptation means anticipating the adverse effects of climate change and taking appropriate action to prevent or minimise the damage they can cause, or taking advantage of opportunities that may arise. It has been shown that well planned, early adaptation action saves money and lives later. This webportal provides information on all adaptation activities of the European Commission.
EU Adaptation Strategy Package
In April 2013 the European Commission adopted an EU strategy on adaptation to climate change which has been welcomed by the EU Member States. The strategy aims to make Europe more climate-resilient. By taking a coherent approach and providing for improved coordination, it will enhance the preparedness and capacity of all governance levels to respond to the impacts of climate change.
Methodology for indicator calculation
Input data was available from the EUMETSAT OSI SAF reanalysis project, in which a consistent time series of daily, gridded data for sea ice concentration is made from the passive microwave sensors SMMR and SSM/I data, monthly aggregated sea ice products are generated by CryoClim.
The annual maximum ice extent in the Baltic Sea was estimated utilizing the material of the Finnish operational ice service from the winters of 1945-1995 and information collected by Prof. Jurva from the winters of 1720-1940. The latter originated from various sources, including observations at lighthouses, old newspapers, records on travel on ice,scientific articles, and air temperature data from Stockholm and Helsinki.
Projections for Northern Hemisphere sea ice extent were derived from the CMIP5 ensemble experiment.
The graphs show the data as delivered; Trend lines were added.
Methodology for gap filling
- Assessment of Climate Change for the Baltic Sea Basin BACC Author Team, 2008. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg;
Data sets uncertainty
Data on the cryosphere vary significantly with regard to availability and quality. Snow and ice cover have been monitored globally since satellite measurements started in the 1970s. Improvements in technology allow for more detailed observations and higher resolution.
Further information on uncertainties is provided in Section 1.7 of the EEA report on Climate change, impacts, and vulnerability in Europe 2012 (http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/climate-impacts-and-vulnerability-2012/)
No uncertainty has been specified
CMIP5 Coupled Model Intercomparison Project
provided by CMIP5 coupled model intercomparison project
Maximum Annual Extent of Ice Cover in the Baltic Sea since 1720
provided by Baltic sea portal
Time series of sea ice extent in the Arctic
provided by Ocean Monitoring and Forecasting (MyOcean)
Climate change (Primary topic)
Coasts and seas
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
- CLIM 010
Contacts and ownership
EEA Contact InfoHans-Martin Füssel
EEA Management Plan2014 1.4.1 (note: EEA internal system)
Frequency of updates
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe's environment.
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