Unrelenting warmth during what should be the iciest time of year sent global sea ice extent to a record low last month, the National Snow and Ice Data Center said on Friday, with both polar ice caps at a record-low extent every single day of the month.
Compared to the average from 1981 to 2010, the area of sea ice missing in the Arctic was about the size of Texas and Arizona combined; in the Antarctic, it was bigger than Alaska, according to the NSIDC.
Temperatures in the Arctic were about 9 degrees Fahrenheit above average throughout November and December, with peak readings soaring to 50 degrees above the long-term average around Christmas, when the North Pole warmed above freezing, a mark rarely seen outside of summer.
"Some of the crazy weather patterns we've seen this winter could be, in part, due to the loss of sea ice," said NSIDC director Mark Serreze. "We've had very unusual weather patterns pumping warmth up into the Arctic...the changes are happening so fast that we can't keep up with them."
Scientists measuring sea ice in a three-year run of record global heat feel the urgency of the data they are capturing, while the political climate around them changes even faster.
The NSIDC is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is administered by the Department of Commerce.
With many in President-elect Donald Trump's proposed cabinet on record either denying that global warming is caused by greenhouse gases or questioning the need for urgent action, many fear that future funding for government climate science could be at risk.
After Trump's election, a senior NASA official expressed concern in an internal email that the Earth Sciences division would have its funding cut, and Trump adviser Bob Walker, a former House Science Committee chair, has said he believed NASA should end its climate monitoring programs, which he calls "politically correct environmental monitoring." Christopher Shank, the leader of Trump's NASA transition team, is policy director for the House Science Committee, which has doggedly questioned the climate work of NOAA and NASA scientists.
Those sentiments have led some scientists reportedly to begin to duplicate climate data to protect it from potential Trump administration tampering.
NASA ice scientist Walt Meier said he hopes it does not come to a showdown with Trump policymakers. "Our aim is to get the best data, the best models, the best understanding of the science to policy makers and the public," Meier said. "We hope that the policymakers use that wisely. My job is to provide the information to make the decisions."
Monitoring Arctic sea ice conditions is important, he said, because of implications for shipping, the Arctic environment and energy development.
Serreze said, "We at the NSIDC view our role as the honest purveyors of the best scientific information. We've tried to avoid getting into advocacy because we would lose respect. We're in a situation now where the data speak for themselves. People who deny that, who say that humans don't have anything to do with it, have their head in the sand. Deny it at your peril.
"You can't hide or suppress data. We're in the information age."
The information these days carries sobering implications about the vicious cycle of climate change, which has been amplified in the Arctic as it warms at double the rate of the global average.
"Our attention is starting to shift to what we are seeing in the autumn and winter. Things are creeping into the cold season," he said. "September has been viewed as month that tells the most—after the melt season, what have you got left? Now, we're realizing we have to look at a lot more than what's been going on in winter."
The slow formation of sea ice this winter is a seasonal climate feedback loop. Less ice on the ocean means the water absorbs more heat in late summer, which slows the freeze-up in autumn and early winter.
"You're at a situation where, in the past, when everything was ice covered, heat from the ocean can't get to the atmosphere, but when when the ocean is exposed, it can't be colder than 32 degrees Fahrenheit," said Meier. "But the most remarkable thing about this year and last year is not just the internal Arctic warming from the sea, but the heat coming up from south."
According to Serreze and Meier, there's increasing evidence that the continuing loss of sea ice is, at least in part, causing the weather patterns that funnel even more warm air toward the Arctic by shifting the path of the jet stream.
"It's not only the extent. The thickness and volume are even more concerning," said Lars Kaleschke, an oceanographer with the Alfred Wegener Institute of Polar Research in Bremerhaven, Germany.
Recent satellite data show that much of the thicker multi-year ice has vanished from the Arctic. The remaining ice is so thin that it's susceptible to melting and breaks up faster during stormy weather, according to Mats Granskog, a research scientist at the Norwegian Polar Institute who specializes in tracking the age of Arctic ice.
Granskog and other scientists shared observations from recent field research at the recent conference of the American Geophysical Union. As the ice breaks up, water as warm as 40 degrees Fahrenheit can surge up thousands of feet from deep in the ocean, melting even more ice, said Amelie Meyer, an oceanographer at the Norwegian Polar Institute. Within 48 hours, the surface temperature can climb more than 70 degrees Fahrenheit, to above freezing, which increases the moisture in the air tenfold, Meyer said. That moisture and warmth fuel more storms, which intensifies the cycle, they said.
The changes in Antarctic ice extent the past few months have been equally dramatic, but the causes are not well understood. By August of 2016, the belt of ice around Antarctica was sharply below average.
The exact cause of the precipitous decline remains elusive, scientists said, but they detected significant changes in wind patterns in August, September and November that are most likely linked with global warming, according to Serreze.
The job of monitoring complex systems like the Arctic and Antarctic and studying climate change impacts requires not just well-funded U.S. research, but also global collaboration. For example, some European satellite missions have specialized in reading sea ice thickness and volume. Together with data from NASA and NOAA, scientists are able to most accurately paint a picture of global climate change.
Mark Drinkwater, head of the European Space Agency's Earth Observation Program science division, said in an email significant policy changes under Trump "could indeed have a very important impact on what is today an extremely positive reciprocal working relationship. Shifts in U.S. policy could easily impact this relationship."
According to Drinkwater, European Earth observation programs are dependent on NASA and NOAA for certain critical data, and vice-versa.
"Policy (be it mitigation, adaptation, technology infusion) is completely reliant on knowledge...required to avoid the 'blind spot,' which could otherwise slap humankind in the face."