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The area of frozen ocean that caps the North Pole was smaller this past month than during any January on record. Measurements released last week by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) showed Arctic sea ice at the lowest level since satellite record keeping began in 1979 — roughly 35,000 square miles smaller than 2011's record low and over 400,000 square miles smaller than the historic average.
The new low, scientists said, was caused by record high atmospheric temperatures, but is part of the broad pattern of climate change that is rapidly altering the Arctic.
"We are headed towards a seasonally ice-free Arctic Ocean," NSIDC director Mark Serreze said. "Sometime well within this century, and maybe only 20 years from now, you could go to the Arctic Ocean in late summer and there will be no sea ice there to speak of."
An iceless Arctic is something that hasn't been seen in at least 125,000 years and probably not in human history, Serreze said. And the University of Colorado Boulder geographer warned that as the trends that shrunk the sea ice last year continue into 2016, there will be serious impacts on climate, economies, and even geopolitics, with countries and companies vying for new shipping routes and mineral deposits in the thawing Arctic.
The sea ice, which even now covers 5.2 million square miles of ocean, naturally waxes and wanes with the seasons. It grows through the Arctic's long dark winters and shrinks with spring and the return of the sun. But last year was the warmest on record, and through January the NSIDC marked air temperatures across the Arctic ocean at 13 degrees Fahrenheit above average. The result was a slowdown in ocean freezing and 7.1 percent less floating ice than was averaged between 1981 and 2010.
While this year's strong El Niño may have contributed to the warming, Serreze said that the primary driver of the record ice retreat is likely a climate pattern known as the Arctic Oscillation. A massive counter clockwise swirl of freezing air, the pattern is driven by varying pressures in the atmosphere that either keep cold air locked above the Arctic circle or let it drift southward. January saw this icy air moving south, driving winter storms at lower latitudes even while the Arctic had exceptionally little ice growth.
"We're probably going to be starting out this melt season in a pretty deep hole," Serreze said. "That doesn't bode well for what we'll see this summer. We'll probably lose a lot."
The dwindling sea ice bodes ill for the people and animals who live in the Arctic, and a study last year suggested that receding polar ice is already creating food scarcity for polar bear that rely on the ice to hunt seals. But what happens up north also has implications for those living further south.
Jennifer Francis, a climate scientist at Rutgers University, said that the loss of sea ice appears to altering the polar jet stream, causing more frequent, more severe extreme weather events, including cold snaps along the eastern United States, and relatively warm temperatures in Europe.
"We've lost half of the sea ice in the Arctic just in the last 30 years," Francis said. "This is a humongous change that's going to affect … what we consider normal weather patterns down here where billions of people live."
Serreze cautioned that not all scientists are in agreement about how the effects of melting sea ice will be felt further south. As Arctic temperatures rise, though, huge amounts of greenhouse gases could be released from the soil that lies below melting permafrost and from the sea floor.
"You'd have a sort of feedback loop in the system putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere," explained Serreze, "which just makes things warmer."
Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg