Arctic sea ice may be more resilient than many observers recognise.
While global warming seems to have set the polar north on a path to floe-free summers, the latest data from Europe’s Cryosat mission suggests it may take a while yet to reach those conditions.
The spacecraft observed 7,500 cu km of ice cover in October when the Arctic traditionally starts its post-summer freeze-up.
This was only slightly down on 2013 when 8,800 cu km were recorded.
Two cool summers in a row have now allowed the pack to increase and then hold on to a good deal of its volume.
And while the ice is still much reduced compared with the 20,000 cu km that used to stick around in the Octobers of the early 1980s, there is no evidence to indicate a collapse is imminent.
“What we see is the volume going down and down, but then, because of a relatively cool summer, coming back up to form a new high stand,” said Rachel Tilling from the UK’s Nerc Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM) at University College London (UCL).
“So, what may be occurring here is a decline that looks a bit like a sawtooth, where we can lose volume but then recover some of it if there happens to be a shorter melt season one year,” she told BBC News.
The British researcher is presenting her work this week at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco.
Cryosat is the European Space Agency’s (Esa) dedicated polar monitoring platform.
It was sent up with a sophisticated radar system that enables scientists to work out the thickness of the sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean.
In the three years following its launch in 2010, the satellite saw a steady decline in autumn volume at the end of the summer melt.
The deep lows in this short series were 5,300 and 5,400 cubic km in 2011 and 2012, respectively. But then came the bounce back, with colder weather over the following two years resetting the minimum.
Indeed, Cryosat’s five-year October average now shows pretty stable volume - even modest growth (2014 is 12% above the five year-average).
What Tilling and colleagues see in the data is a very strong link between autumn thickness and the degree of melting in a year.
“You might think, for example, that wind conditions would be important because they can pile the ice up and make it less susceptible to melting, while at the same time exposing more water to freeze,” the University College London researcher explained.
“But we’ve looked at this and other factors, and by far the highest correlation is with temperature-driven melting.”
Long term that looks bad for the Arctic because average temperatures are climbing.
However, the Cryosat team cautions against extrapolating limited observations to predict future trends in Arctic sea ice.
Far more data is required, over a much longer period of time.