Here are two seemingly contradictory facts: This past January was the second warmest on record globally, but at the same time, Antarctic sea ice covered the greatest area ever observed, according to the National Climatic Data Center at NOAA.
Don’t worry, our science isn’t broken.
Specifically, the average temperature across all land and ocean surfaces was 1.39 degrees Fahrenheit above the average for the 20th century. The only January to beat this was in 2007, when temperatures rose 1.55 degrees F above average.
Antarctic sea ice during January covered 890,000 square miles, which is 44.6 percent above average for the period of 1981 to 2010. It beat 2008’s coverage by 220,000 square miles.
The difference between Antarctica’s sea ice trend and the global ones amount to the difference between weather and climate. While researchers don’t know exactly how southern sea ice can be covering a greater area in Antarctica while the sea around it warms, they have some ideas. It might be because wind patterns have created a chilled water and slush mixture primed to form ice or because of changes in ocean currents. All those explanations are variations in weather.
Part of the seemingly counterintuitive nature of this observation is just a failure to really look at the big picture: “The planet as a whole is doing what was expected in terms of warming," says Claire Parkinson, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in a statement back in October, when the Antarctic sea ice first set a record maximum. "Sea ice as a whole is decreasing as expected, but just like with global warming, not every location with sea ice will have a downward trend in ice extent."
Take a step back and look at the world as a whole—you’ll see that the Arctic is rapidly losing sea ice. While this puts the South and North poles on apparently different trajectories, the overall loss is greater than the gain. Bad news for the polar bears...and probably the rest of us as well.