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Thursday, May 2, 2013

NSIDC: Earliest satellite maps of Antarctic and Arctic sea ice

Earliest satellite maps of Antarctic and Arctic sea ice

Figure 5. The National Snow and Ice Data Center scanned close to 40,000 images from Nimbus 1 satellite data to produce the earliest satellite images of Arctic and Antarctic satellite extent. The left image is a composite of the Arctic and the right image is a composite of the Antarctic. 
Credit: NSIDC. High-resolution image
While the modern satellite data record for sea ice begins in late 1978, some data are available from earlier satellite programs. NSIDC has been involved in a project to map sea ice extent using visible and infrared band data from NASA’s Nimbus 1, 2, and 3 spacecraft, which were launched in 1964, 1966, and 1969. Analysis of the Nimbus data has revealed Antarctic sea ice extents that are significantly larger and smaller than seen in the modern 19792012 satellite passive microwave record. The September 1964 average ice extent for the Antarctic is 19.7 ± 0.3 million square kilometers (7.6 million ± 0.1 square miles. This is more than 250,000 square kilometers (97,000 square miles) greater than the 19.44 million square kilometers (7.51 million square miles) seen in 2012, the record maximum in the modern data record. However, in August 1966 the maximum sea ice extent fell to 15.9 ± 0.3 million square kilometers (6.1 ± 0.1 million square miles). This is more than 1.5 million square kilometers (579,000 square miles) below the passive microwave record low September of 17.5 million square kilometers (6.76 million square miles) set in 1986.
The early satellite data also reveal that September sea ice extent in the Arctic was broadly similar to the 1979 to 2000 average, at 6.9 million square kilometers (2.7 million square miles) versus the average of 7.04 million square kilometers (2.72 million square miles).

In memoriam

We dedicate this post to Dr. Katharine Giles, who was tragically killed cycling to work on 8 April 2013. Together with Dr. Laxon, Katherine Giles worked to retrieve sea ice thickness from satellite radar altimeter data. In 2007 she was the first to show that this data could also be used to show how winds affect the newly exposed Arctic Ocean. Since Dr. Laxon’s death earlier this year, Katharine worked hard to continue his legacy and supervise his students. We have lost yet another talented scientist and a great friend.


Meier, W. N., D. Gallaher, and G. C. Campbell. 2013. New estimates of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice extent during September 1964 from recovered Nimbus I satellite imagery. The Cryosphere, 7, 699–705; doi:10.5194/tc-7-699-2013.

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