Overview of Conditions
Arctic sea ice extent in December 2011 averaged 12.38 million square kilometers (4.78 million square miles). This is the third lowest December ice extent in the 1979 to 2011 satellite data record, 970,000 square kilometers (375,000 square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average extent.
For the Arctic as a whole, ice extent for the month remained far below average. The Arctic sea ice cover grew slightly faster than average, but December started out with a lower-than-average ice extent.
Arctic sea ice extent for December 2011 was the third lowest in the satellite record. The five lowest December extents in the satellite record have occurred in the past six years. Including the year 2011, the linear rate of decline ice December ice extent over the satellite record is -3.5% per decade.
Air temperatures in December were lower than average over much of the Arctic Ocean but higher than average over the Kara and Barents seas. Higher-than-average temperatures in these regions stemmed from two major factors. First, where sea ice extent is low, heat can escape from areas of open water, warming the atmosphere. Second, surface winds in the Kara and Barents Sea ice blew persistently from the south, bringing in heat from lower latitudes. This imported heat also helped to keep sea ice extent low in this area. Conditions over Canada were also unusually warm during December, but conditions over southeast Greenland have been 6-8 degrees Celsius (11-14 degrees Fahrenheit) colder than average, partly because of northerly winds in the area.
The past two Arctic winters were dominated by a negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation, a large-scale weather pattern that brings generally warm conditions to the Arctic and colder conditions to Europe and North America. In contrast, the winter of 2011 has so far seen a mostly positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation. While temperatures were above normal in the Kara and Barents seas, the positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation tends to keep the coldest winter air locked up in the Arctic, which keeps the middle latitudes free of frigid Arctic temperatures and strong snowstorms. This weather pattern helps to explain the low snow cover and warm conditions over much of the United States and Eastern Europe so far this winter.
Arctic sea ice extent fell to its seasonal minimum on September 9, 2011, falling just short of the record low set in September 2007, when summer weather conditions were extremely favorable for ice loss. This summer, the weather was not as extreme as 2007, so it was surprising that ice extent dropped so low. The low ice extent, along with data on ice age, suggests that the Arctic ice cover remains thin and vulnerable to summer melt.
After a particularly slow ice loss rate at the beginning of the month, Antarctic sea ice extent was unusually high through much of December, in particular in the northern Ross Sea and the eastern Weddell Sea. December and November have had a markedly strong Amundsen Sea Low, an atmospheric pressure pattern that tends to spread the sea ice cover northward in the Ross Sea. Low pressure over the eastern Weddell Sea later in the month had the same effect there. Sea ice for the Antarctic in December 2011 was the fifth-highest for that month in the satellite record; the highest December extent occurred in 2007. Overall though, Antarctic sea ice extent remained below or near normal for most of 2011. Antarctic sea ice data are available on the Sea Ice Index Web site.
Rigor, I. G., and J. M. Wallace. 2004. Variations in the age of Arctic sea-ice and summer sea-ice extent, Geophys. Res. Lett., 31, L09401, doi:10.1029/2004GL019492.