Arctic sea ice extent during January averaged 13.53 million square kilometers (5.2 million square miles), which is 1.04 million square kilometers (402, 000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average. This was the lowest January extent in the satellite record, 90, 000 square kilometers (35, 000 square miles) below the previous record January low that occurred in 2011. This was largely driven by unusually low ice coverage in the Barents Sea, Kara Sea, and the East Greenland Sea on the Atlantic side, and below average conditions in the Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk. Ice conditions were near average in Baffin Bay, the Labrador Sea and Hudson Bay. There was also less ice than usual in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, an important habitat for harp seals.
Conditions in context
January 2016 was a remarkably warm month. Air temperatures at the 925 hPa level were more than 6 degrees Celsius (13 degrees Fahrenheit) above average across most of the Arctic Ocean. These unusually high air temperatures are likely related to the behavior of the AO. While the AO was in a positive phase for most of the autumn and early winter, it turned strongly negative beginning in January. By mid-January, the index reached nearly -5 sigma or five standard deviations below average. The AO then shifted back to positive during the last week of January. (See the graph at the NOAA Climate Prediction Web site.)
The sea level pressure pattern during January, which featured higher than average pressure over northern central Siberia into the Barents and Kara sea regions, and lower than average pressure in the northern North Pacific and northern North Atlantic regions, is fairly typical of the negative phase of the AO. Much of the focus by climate scientists this winter has been on the strong El Niño. However, in the Arctic, the AO is a bigger player and its influence often spills out into the mid-latitudes during winter by allowing cold air outbreaks. How the AO and El Niño may be linked remains an active area of research.
The monthly average January 2016 sea ice extent was the lowest in the satellite record, 90, 000 square kilometers (35, 000 square miles) below the previous record low in 2011. The next lowest extent was in 2006. Interestingly, while 2006 and 2011 did not reach record summer lows, they both preceded years that did, though this may well be simply coincidence.