New data from the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) suggests that Antarctic sea ice is now at the second lowest level on record, not long after multiple years of historically high figures were set earlier this decade.
According to a report from SBS News, the sea ice surrounding the continent of Antarctica is now at only 830,120 square miles (2.15 million square kilometers) for the current year, an increase over last year's record lowest minimum extent of 799,230 square miles (2.07 million square kilometers), but still the second lowest figure in recorded history. The new data is also notable as it reverses a pattern of increasing Antarctic sea ice levels, which included record highs being set consecutively from 2012 to 2014.
In a statement quoted by Phys.org, Bureau of Meteorology Antarctic scientist Phil Reid explained that the new figures, which were released on Friday, are a "significant departure" from the steady increases from 1979 to 2014 that saw Antarctic sea ice levels rise about 1.7 percent per decade.
"In 2017, the wintertime maximum sea ice extent was the second-lowest on record at 18.05 million square kilometers following closely on the heels of successive record highs in 2012, 2013 and 2014," said Reid.
Speaking to SBS News, AAD chief research scientist Dr. Rob Massom said that sea ice is important because it reduces the rate in which heat, moisture, and gas exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere, creating an "insulating blanket" by bouncing back about 50 to 85 percent of incoming sunlight. While he stopped short of saying that the newly published figures from Antarctica herald a new and negative trend, Massom said that changes in sea ice are "critical" drivers of global climate and marine ecosystems, and also play a big role in shipping and logistics in the southern ocean.