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Arctic death spiral





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Published on Jun 28, 2012

Arctic sea ice is disappearing rapidly, so much so that people coined the phrase "death spiral" to describe its decline. It occurred to me that this is not just a nice turn of phrase. By plotting the measured ice volume on a polar grid, such that the ice volume is represented by the distance from the centre of the grid, and one year is represented by one full turn of the circle, you can see exactly what the death spiral is.

I made this animation using the PIOMAS ice volume dataset, which starts in January 1979 and extends up to the present day. The ice volume line changes colour as time advances, starting off blue and ending up red, so that you can clearly see the way the volume is spiralling inwards towards zero. The images on the left are ice concentration images from the NSIDC.

In 1979 when accurate records began, the volume of Arctic ice in September was just under 17,000 cubic kilometres. That's enough to cover all of Russia to a depth of one metre. By 2011 the remaining volume in September was just 4,200 cubic kilometres - spread that out over Russia and it would only be just a little bit over 20cm thick. The Arctic will be ice-free in the summertime within the next couple of decades, for the first time in at least 800,000 years.

Updated for 2012 here:


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