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Fifth National Climate Assessment - Read the Report

Arctic Sea Ice Extent

Sea ice extent is a measure of the surface area of the ocean covered by sea ice. Increases in air and ocean temperatures decrease sea ice extent; in turn, the resulting darker ocean surface absorbs more solar radiation and increases Arctic warming.

With 2.7 million square miles in 1979 and 1.7 million square miles in 2023, this graph shows a decline in Arctic sea ice extent of about 38%.

With 2.7 million square miles in 1979 and 1.7 million square miles in 2023, this graph shows a decline in Arctic sea ice extent of about 38%.

Date Range: 1979 - 2023

September Arctic Sea Ice Extent is Declining

The September minimum sea ice extent in the Arctic has continued to decrease over the past four decades. Some projections suggest that the Arctic will be virtually ice-free during summers by the middle of this century.

Why It's Important

  • As sea ice cover declines and the Arctic atmosphere warms, wind patterns in the northern hemisphere may shift.

  • The loss of ice increases the risk of erosion along coastlines and changes the presence of marine species in certain areas, affecting commercial fish stocks and the economies of some coastal towns.

  • Decision makers can use this indicator to understand the magnitude and rate of sea ice loss and prepare for the associated impacts on coastlines and commercial industries.

About Arctic Sea Ice Extent

Sea ice extent is estimated using daily satellite images to calculate the total ocean area that has an ice concentration of 15% or more. Trends in sea ice extent are calculated from measurements taken during the month of September, which is typically when sea ice extent reaches its annual minimum. The 2023 average September Arctic sea ice extent was about 38% lower than in 1979 (the first full year of satellite data). Values fluctuate from year to year, but have continued to decrease over the past four decades. At the current rate of decline, some projections suggest that the Arctic will be virtually ice-free during summers by the middle of this century.

The melting of sea ice reduces the area of white surface that reflects the sun’s radiation, simultaneously increasing the area of dark ocean surface that absorbs it. This albedo affect results in a cycle of further sea ice melt and more warming of the ocean. Before melting begins, snow-covered sea ice absorbs only about 20% of the solar radiation that reaches it, whereas the ice-free ocean surface absorbs over 90%. A warmer ocean may melt ice from below, or may release heat back into the atmosphere before the ocean refreezes in the winter—leading over time to less sea ice and a warmer climate.