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Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis

Climate change is affecting the Arctic more than any other place on Earth. This region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe, and one serious consequence is the loss of significant amounts of sea ice. Sea ice loss impacts both Arctic ecosystems and the Earth as a whole. Because Arctic sea ice is light in color, it reflects most of the sunlight that hits the sea ice surface back into space. This prevents too much heat from being absorbed into the ocean, and helps to keep the region cool. However, as more sea ice is lost, more heat is absorbed, which causes more melting. This amplifies warming, and the cycle continues. As a result, sea ice is one of the most rapidly changing areas of the Arctic environment. Sea ice plays a critical role in regulating Earth’s climate, and it influences global weather patterns and ocean circulations. NSIDC’s Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis (ASINA) project, funded by NASA, provides near real-time data and monthly insights and analyses on how Arctic sea ice is changing and what conditions may be playing a role in ice behavior. 

Sea ice in a Svalbard fjord
Sea ice forms in a fjord in Svalbard. — Credit: Alia Khan, NSIDC

NASA has collected passive microwave data via instruments on satellites continuously since 1978, and these data are publicly available through the NASA NSIDC Distributed Active Archive Center (DAAC). Instruments continue to circle the Earth today, providing near real-time data for scientists studying the cryosphere and climate. The ASINA project scientists interpret these data, making the information that they hold about sea ice more accessible to other researchers and the general public. Our analyses focus primarily on sea ice extent, which is a measurement of the area of ocean where there is at least some sea ice. The annual minimum sea ice extent in September and the annual sea ice maximum extent in March, when compared with previous years and decadal averages, are important indicators of how much ice is being lost over time.        

Making sea ice science accessible

ASINA began as a way to make sea ice science and analysis more relevant and accessible. In combination, NASA data and NSIDC expertise provide easy-to-use resources and tools to increase our understanding of climate change in the Arctic. Since 2007, ASINA has been a go-to source for blog-like insights, analysis, and data visualization tools that communicate how sea ice has been changing from year to year. ASINA receives over two million page visits a year and is used by a wide range of users including journalists, the general public, academics, and scientists alike.

ASINA consists of multiple components, all of which are available to the public free of charge. These include:

  • Daily and monthly images and data for both Arctic and Antarctic sea ice, which illustrate sea ice extent and concentration and how these are changing. Data for this project come from passive microwave instruments on U.S. Department of Defense satellites. The raw data from these satellite-borne instruments are converted into sea ice concentration fields using algorithms developed by scientists at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. The raw data and the sea ice concentration fields are managed by the NSIDC DAAC. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization (NOAA) Sea Ice Index provides the images and estimates of sea ice extent that we use to track sea ice based on that data.
  • A monthly analysis written by NSIDC scientists about current sea ice conditions. Within these analyses, they discuss the implications of disappearing sea ice and why it matters, and also highlight new scientific research from the Arctic science community. These analyses are written twice per month during the summer melt season and sometimes feature guest scientists. Usual discussion topics include air temperature, pressure, precipitation patterns, circulation patterns, ocean temperatures, and more, all of which help us to interpret and understand what is happening with the sea ice cover. 
  • Online tools to allow people to interactively look at the data and compare different regions and time periods. For example, our Charctic interactive sea ice graph allows users to view sea ice extent in millions of square kilometers throughout the year and compare these numbers with past years, the median and average 1981 to 2010 extents, and quartile, decile, and standard deviation ranges.   
  • Easy-to-use spreadsheets of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice data that can be used for sea ice analysis. 
  • A near real-time imagery and scientific analysis project that tracks current melt conditions on the Greenland Ice Sheet and Antarctic Ice Sheet during their respective melt seasons entitled Ice Sheets Today. Ice Sheets Today produced by NSIDC, and led by Ted Scambos, an alumni NSIDC scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES). The science team consists of collaborators from multiple organizations. 

What makes ASINA so impactful is that it is on the cutting edge of near real-time science. Traditionally, scientists collect data, do analysis, write and submit a paper, wait for it to be peer-reviewed, and then the paper is published a year or two later. This traditional model of publishing every couple of years makes it challenging to keep up with and plan for how rapidly the Arctic is changing. The ASINA project transforms complex data sets into near real-time monitoring of sea ice conditions and long-term data and analysis. This open science model enables Arctic sea ice science to be more accessible and usable by a broader range of users. 

The ASINA project also contributes directly to the Sea Ice Outlook (SIO) and the Sea Ice Prediction Network (SIPN) from the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States. SIO produces monthly summer reports about Arctic sea ice conditions, modeling, and local observations, and SIPN works to improve Arctic sea ice forecasts by facilitating collaborations among groups using a variety of prediction methods. In addition, the ASINA scientists contribute to the annual NOAA Arctic Report Card, which has provided peer-reviewed updates on the state of the Arctic environmental system relative to historical records since 2006.

A product of collaboration

ASINA was conceived and built by a team of sea ice research scientists at NSIDC, and senior research scientist Walt Meier is the project’s principal investigator. NSIDC staff from a variety of disciplines contribute to the project, including research scientists, science writers, user support specialists, software developers, and data operations specialists. 

ASINA is funded by the NASA Cryospheric Sciences Program, which supports studies based on satellite and aircraft remote sensing observations to understand the factors controlling changes in the ice and its interaction with the ocean, atmosphere, solid earth, and solar radiation. The source data for the project, the near-real-time gridded sea ice concentrations, come from the NSIDC Distributed Active Archive Center, which provides data and information on the frozen parts of the world in support of research. The NOAA Sea Ice Index provides the sea ice extent images and summary data and statistics used to track sea ice based on that data.