Antarctic sea ice extends less than two million square kilometers for the second year in a row, an international research team found with satellite observations on Feb. 21. Now, the question is if the occurrence is a brief anomaly or an indicator of long-term decline.
The team published their findings on March 6 in Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Research, a peer reviewed Science partner journal.
“On Feb. 21, the Antarctic sea ice extent reached its seasonal minimum of 1.788 million square kilometers — 136,000 square kilometers less than 2022, setting a new record low since 1979, when we started making these observations.” said corresponding author Jiping Liu, associate professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences at the University at Albany, State University of New York.
There have been anomalously low ice extents since 2017, Liu said, “in 2022, heatwaves in March kept the ice cover low, which was followed by a rare event: the lowest ice extent for three consecutive months — June, July and August — on record. Since October, the seasonal ice melt had been at a well-above-normal pace. The decline in sea ice accelerated greatly in December, leading to the lowest sea ice record for two consecutive months for January and February 2023.”
According to Liu, several atmospheric drivers associated with climate variability may contribute to the new record, including a persistent strong positive Antarctic Oscillation, a rare three-year La Niña event, a negative Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation, and a positive Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation.
“However, unlike previous years, starting in June 2022, the Antarctic, beyond control of these drivers, showed widespread negative sea ice concentration anomalies, particularly in spring and summer,” Liu said. “The global ocean has absorbed most of the excess heat induced by human activities, and its temperature surged to a record high in 2022.”
The Southern Ocean’s heat content has increased quicker than other oceans, with significantly warmer temperatures south of the latitude line wrapping the globe right below the southern tip of South America. Combined with more intense circumpolar winds, this can enhance the Ekman suction, which facilitates warmer subsurface water’s transfer upward, according to Liu.
“These are all linked to anthropogenic forcing,” Liu said. “As such, human-caused global warming might act as a control valve through which subsurface warming is being stirred into the surface.”
More critically, though, Liu said, is that the new record low officially marks the shift from long-term positive accumulation to negative levels for the time series observed. In other words, this is the first time since 1979 that the cumulative sea ice remained low without building back up.
“This finding further raises the question of whether changes in Antarctic sea ice in the past several years are a brief anomaly due largely to natural climate variability or early evidence of a robust transition from long-term increasing Antarctic sea ice to decreasing sea ice, in which anthropogenic forcing outweighs natural variability,” Liu said.
The most recent climate and Earth systems models project larger decreases in Antarctic sea ice, the result of increased greenhouse gases in the 21st century and raising the concern about a tipping point, Liu said.
“A large reduction in Antarctic sea ice would have profound impacts on the Antarctic climate and ecosystem, such as climate extremes, ice shelves stability, food chain and wildlife population, with global consequences, such as rising sea levels and carbon cycle feedback,” Liu said. “We need more research to answer this question and improve our understanding of how future Antarctic sea ice change could interact with the broader Earth systems.”
Co-authors include Zhu Zhu, State Key Laboratory of Numerical Modeling for Atmospheric Sciences and Geophysical Fluid Dynamics with the Institute of Atmospheric Physics in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Dake Chen, Southern Marine Science and Engineering Guangdong Laboratory.
Antarctic sea ice broke the lowest record for the second year in a row
Antarctic sea ice extent dropped to its lowest level in 45 years of satellite observations on 21 February 2023 - the second year in a row with an area below 2 million km2. This occurrence raises the question of whether the recent change in Antarctic sea ice is a brief anomaly or an early precursor to a transition to a long-term decline.
Sea ice in the Southern Ocean shows large variability, both seasonally and interannually. On 21 February 2023, the Antarctic sea ice extent reached its seasonal minimum of 1.788 million km2, setting a new record low since the late 1970s  (Fig. 1a). It was set against the background of anomalously low ice extents since 2017, especially immediately after the previous record of 1.924 million km2 in 2022 . After the 2022 minimum, strong heat waves in mid-March brought large warm anomalies to East Antarctica and coastal areas, which kept the ice extent well below the climatology in March (the second lowest for the month of March on record). Since late May, the pace of seasonal ice growth had slowed dramatically, partly due to anomalous northerly/northwesterly winds in the eastern Pacific, western Atlantic, and central Indian sectors that transported warmer air and pushed the sea ice edge southward. Antarctic sea ice experienced a rare event – the lowest for three consecutive months (June, July, and August) on record. Since October, the seasonal ice melt had been at a well-above-normal pace. In response to a stronger seasonal warming anomaly, the decline in sea ice in December was greatly accelerated. This acceleration led to the second lowest December extent on record, followed by the lowest for two consecutive months (January and February 2023) on record. Large polynyas were identified in the Ross, Amundsen, and Weddell Seas.
Several atmospheric drivers associated with modes of climate variability might contribute to the 2023 new record minimum. First, at mid- and high-latitudes, 2022 experienced a persistent positive Antarctic Oscillation (AAO, except June) . Moreover, a very strong AAO occurred in September, November and December 2022, and the strongest AAO for the month of January during the satellite era was set in 2023. This occurrence led to a persistent, stronger, and southwestward shift in the Amundsen Sea Low (ASL), which greatly reduced the sea ice in the Bellingshausen Sea and east of the Antarctic Peninsula through onshore warm wind advection and increased sea ice in the marginal sea ice zone between the Amundsen Sea and the eastern Ross Sea (Fig. 1b). Second, in the tropics, there was a moderate La Niña event that occurred in 2022, but it had been unusually prolonged for three consecutive years , making it a rare triple-dip event. Atmospheric deep convection over the southwestern tropical Pacific associated with La Niña triggered southeastward propagating Rossby waves, further deepening the ASL. Third, the joint influence of the negative phase of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation and the positive phase of the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation also favored strengthening of the ASL through stationary wave dynamics  but tended to have the opposite effect on atmospheric circulation in the central Indian sector.
However, unlike previous years, starting in June 2022, the Antarctic, beyond the control of the anomalous ASL, showed widespread negative sea ice concentration anomalies, particularly in spring and summer (Fig. 1b). The global ocean has absorbed most of the excess heat induced by anthropogenic forcing, and its temperature surged to a record high in 2022 . The heat content of the Southern Ocean has increased faster than that of other oceans, and the subsurface south of ~55°S has been significantly warmer . The circumpolar westerlies over the Southern Ocean have shown poleward intensification since satellite observations and are predicted to increase under anthropogenic forcing . This can enhance Ekman suction, which facilitates warmer subsurface water being transferred upward. Recent research suggested that compared to the atmospheric circulation, the subsurface of the Southern Ocean had a smaller contribution to the extreme sea ice state before the unprecedented plunge during 2014-2017 but played a critical role in the persistent negative ice extent anomalies since 2016 . Thus, human-caused global warming might act as a control valve through which subsurface ocean warming is being stirred into the surface.
More importantly, the new record low Antarctic sea ice extent in 2023 marks a reversal from the long-term positive trend to a negative trend for the time series of the minimum ice extent (Fig. 1a), indicating that Antarctic sea ice might enter a new regime. This finding further raises the question of whether changes in Antarctic sea ice in the past several years are a brief anomaly due largely to natural climate variability or early evidence of a robust transition from long-term increasing Antarctic sea ice to decreasing sea ice, in which anthropogenic forcing outweighs natural variability. Concern about a tipping point is enhanced by the fact that the latest generation of climate and earth system models projects a large decrease in Antarctic sea ice associated with increased greenhouse gases during the 21st century [9,10]. A large reduction in Antarctic sea ice would have profound impacts on the Antarctic climate and ecosystem, i.e., climate extremes, stability of ice shelves, the food chain and wildlife population, and global consequences, such as sea level rise and carbon cycle feedback. Thus, more research is needed to answer this question and improve our understanding of how future Antarctic sea ice change could interact with the broader earth system.
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Contributions: J.L. conceived the study and wrote the manuscript, Z.Z. and J.L. prepared the figure, and all authors contributed to the manuscript preparation and discussion.
Data Availability: The satellite-derived Antarctic sea ice data are available at ftp://sidads.colorado.edu/DATASETS/NOAA/G02135.
Competing Interest: The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.
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Lowest Antarctic sea ice record broken for the second year in a row
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The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.