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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, March 07, 2018 1:00 am

Arctic wraps up warmest winter on record

SETH BORENSTEIN | Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Winter at the top of the world wimped out this year.

The Arctic just finished its warmest winter on record. And sea ice hit record lows for this time of year, with plenty of open water where ocean water normally freezes into thick sheets of ice, new U.S. weather data show.

Scientists say what's happening is unprecedented, part of a global warming-driven cycle that likely plays a role in strong, icy storms in Europe and the U.S. Northeast.

“It's just crazy, crazy stuff,” said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, who has been studying the Arctic since 1982. “These heat waves, I've never seen anything like this.”

It's been so unusually warm that the land weather station closest to the North Pole – at the tip of Greenland – spent more than 60 hours above freezing in February. Before this year, scientists had seen the temperature there rise above freezing in February only twice before, and only ever so briefly. Last month's record-hot temperatures at Cape Morris Jesup have been more like those in May, said Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute.

But it's more than that one place. Across the Arctic Circle in Barrow, Alaska, February was 18 degrees warmer than normal and the entire winter averaged 14 degrees above normal. Of nearly three dozen different Arctic weather stations, 15 of them were at least 10 degrees above normal for the winter, according to data from climatologist Brian Brettschneider of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Meteorologists consider December, January and February to be winter, and Arctic weather stations averaged 8.8 degrees warmer than normal for the season that just ended. The air above the Chukchi and Bering seas near Alaska averaged about 20 degrees warmer than normal for February, the data center reported.

“The extended warmth really has kind of staggered all of us,” Mottram said.

In February, Arctic sea ice covered 5.4 million square miles, about 62,000 square miles smaller than last year's record low, the ice data center said Tuesday. The difference is an area about the size of the state of Georgia. Sea ice coverage in February also was 521,000 square miles below the 30-year normal – an area nearly twice the size of Texas. Sea ice is frozen ocean water that forms, grows and melts on the ocean. It is still growing, but “whatever we grow now is going to be thin stuff” that easily melts in the summer, Serreze said.