‘Sleeping elephant starting to stir’: sea ice shrinks to record low in Antarctica

National Snow and Ice Data Center

Sea ice in Antarctica has shrunk to its lowest level since record keeping began in 1979.

U.S. satellite data show the ice at the world’s southern-most point has contracted to 2.287 million square kilometers, which is about 883,015 square miles. The preliminary data measurement was taken on February 13 by the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center. The previous lowest record for ice cover was measured in 1997, when there was 2,290 million square kilometers, or 884,173 miles.

"We've always thought of the Antarctic as the sleeping elephant starting to stir,” NSIDC Director Mark Serreze told Reuters. “Well, maybe it's starting to stir now.”

Serreze said the center measures sea ice extent by five-day running averages, so NSIDC will analyze several more days measurements before it confirms the record low.

“But unless something funny happens, we’re looking at a record minimum in Antarctica,” Serreze said. “Some people say it’s already happened.”

Sea ice extent is typically the smallest in February as the southern hemisphere is most heavily tilted towards the sun. More ice returns as winter arrives and the globe tilts back the other direction. The average amount of ice around the south pole has expanded in recent years, an argument global warming skeptics have used as proof the trend is not real.

NSIDC said that Arctic ice levels have also been declining. Since last October there was record low daily ice extents, which lasted through most of January this year. That month saw the lowest January figures in the 38 years’ worth of records and 100,000 square miles less than January 2016. Air temperatures were above average “over nearly all of the Arctic Ocean,” NSIDC reported.

Global temperatures in 2016 hit record levels, hitting a record high for the third year in a row. Warming is caused by greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, which scientists say is caused by human activity. Temperatures in the Arctic were 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit above normal during the fall. Of the 17 hottest years on record, 16 have occurred since 2000.