While the polar vortex has been wreaking havoc this season, spreading record-breaking cold and snow across North America and pummeling Europe with intense storms, the situation in the Arctic is looking even more grim.
The video above, produced by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), shows the amount of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean — not only the extent (how much ocean surface is covered by ice), but also the age (and thus the thickness and density) of the ice. The seasonal changes over the past 26 years (1987 to 2013) are compacted down to just one minute, with the oldest ice showing up as the brightest white and the youngest ice coloured in dark blue.
The extent of the ice fluctuates from year to year, of course, as it melts through the northern spring and summer, reaches a minimum in September, then grows again as the north slips into fall and winter, reaching a maximum in March. There's a steady decline in the minimum amounts, with some alarming dips in 2007 and 2012, but it's the oldest, densest ice that's really taking the hit. It doesn't even look that bad for the first two-thirds of the video, but once we get into latter portion, the old ice is chewed away over the last decade until there's just a thin band of it left along the shores of northern Canada and a little ribbon reaching out towards the pole.
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The key here is that having a large extent of ice in the Arctic is good, but having a lot of older ice is far more important. Thinner ice is much easier to melt, and this is why there are predictions we'll eventually have completely ice-free summers in the Arctic. That's just fine for shipping companies who want to run ships through the area, but it's terrible for our weather and our overall climate.
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