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Arctic sea ice melt resumes even as Alaska shivers

Ben Anderson
Sea ice in the Arctic reached the end of its freezing season and began to thaw again on March 15, marking the maximum ice extent for the year. Ned Rozell photo

Even though breakup is only a distant dream for many Alaskans, in the Arctic, it's already happening in a big way. The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Colorado announced Monday that the Arctic reached its maximum extent for the year on March 15, which means the ice in the world's far north is once again beginning to melt. 

By the time the ice was done thawing in 2012, the old record for minimum ice cover in the Arctic had been shattered. The old record fell in August, when sea ice dropped below 1.6 million square miles, and didn't stop melting until mid-September, when an additional area the size of Texas had turned to water. The previous record low had come in 2007.

But after the freezing season resumed in fall 2012, ice grew rapidly to replace the additional open water attributable to such unprecedented lows. The good news: the maximum sea ice extent that was measured on March 15 was 5.84 million square miles, 200,000 square miles more than the lowest maximum that was measured in 2011. The bad news: including 2013, the last 10 years are the 10 lowest maximums on record, and this year's ice cover is still significantly less than it was during the time period of 1979-2000. In 2012, the maximum ice extent was measured at 5.88 million square miles.

The beginning of the melt season is a bit of a wash, too -- the March 15 date when sea ice levels were at their greatest fell pretty much smack-dab in the middle of the expected dates for when melting might resume. It was five days later than the 1979-2000 average, but far from the latest melt recorded.

"The date of the maximum has varied considerably over the years, with the earliest maximum in the satellite record occurring as early as February 24 in 1996 and as late as April 2 in 2010," the NSIDC reported.

A more extensive report on the freezing season is expected sometime in early April. In the meantime, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a video of a series of huge "leads" -- patches of open water -- that appeared last month north of the Alaska coast following a series of "intense" storms in the Arctic in the early part of 2013. Though the video is an interesting visual, Kathleen Cole with the National Weather Service sea ice desk said that such leads in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas are "a very normal occurrence."

NOAA also released its annual spring outlook on Friday, noting that Alaska and much of the continental U.S. can expect warmer-than-normal temps for spring 2013.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com