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Satellite data reveal major loss in volume of Arctic sea-ice since 2003

Arctic sea ice volume has declined by 36% in the autumn and 9% in the winter between 2003 and 2012, an international team of scientists has found. The researchers used new data from the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 satellite spanning 2010 to 2012, and data from NASA’s ICESat satellite from 2003 to 2008 to estimate the volume of sea ice in the Arctic.

They found that from 2003 to 2008, autumn volumes of ice averaged 11,900 cubic kilometers (2,855 cubic miles). But from 2010 to 2012, the average volume had dropped to 7,600 cu. km. (1,823 cu. mi.) a decline of 4,300 cu. km (1,032 cu. mi.) The average ice volume in the winter from 2003 to 2008 was 16,300 cu. km. (3,911 cu. mi.), dropping to 14,800 cu. km (3,551 cu. mi.) between 2010 and 2012—a difference of 1,500 cu. km. (360 cu. mi.).

The data reveals that thick sea ice has disappeared from a region to the north of Greenland, the Canadian Archipelago, and to the northeast of Svalbard.

— Dr. Katharine Giles, a research fellow at the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling at University College London (UCL)

Giles and her colleagues report their findings in a paper that has been accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. AGU has posted the manuscript online as an accepted article.

The findings confirm the continuing decline in Arctic sea-ice volume simulated by the Pan-Arctic Ice-Ocean Modelling and Assimilation System (PIOMAS), which estimates the volume of Arctic sea ice and had been checked using earlier submarine, mooring, and satellite observations until 2008.

Other satellites have already shown drops in the area covered by Arctic sea ice as the climate has warmed. Indeed, sea-ice extent reached a record minimum in September 2012. But CryoSat-2, launched in April 2010, differs in that it lets scientists estimate the volume of sea ice—a much more accurate indicator of the changes taking place in the Arctic, the researchers said.

While two years of CryoSat-2 data aren’t indicative of a long-term change, the lower ice thickness and volume in February and March 2012, compared with same period in 2011, may have contributed to the record minimum ice extent during the 2012 autumn.

—Professor Christian Haas of York University, Canada Research Chair for Arctic Sea Ice Geophysics

CryoSat-2 measures ice volume using a high-resolution synthetic aperture radar altimeter, which fires pulses of microwave energy down towards the ice. The energy bounces off both the top of sections of ice and the water in the cracks in between. The difference in height between these two surfaces let scientists calculate the volume of the ice cover.

The team confirmed CryoSat-2 estimates of ice volume using measurements from three independent sources—aircraft, moorings, and NASA’s Operation IceBridge.

The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, the European Space Agency, the German Aerospace Center, Alberta Ingenuity, NASA, the Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation.


  • Seymour W. Laxon, Katharine A. Giles, Andy L. Ridout, Duncan J. Wingham, Rosemary Willatt, Robert Cullen, Ron Kwok, Axel Schweiger, Jinlun Zhang, Christian Haas, Stefan Hendricks, Richard Krishfield, Nathan Kurtz, Sinead Farrell, Malcolm Davidson (2013) CryoSat-2 estimates of Arctic sea ice thickness and volume. GRL doi: 10.1002/grl.50193



This is a very fast, almost unbelievable, Arctic Ice melting rate. What will be the total effect on the world climate if this trend is maintained another 10+ years?

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