The Arctic sea ice is record low. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Key tool to observe Arctic ice shrink lost

The Arctic sea ice is melting at previously unseen speed, and scientists have lost a key tool for valuable climate data.
April 26, 2016

The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) usually brings daily update images of the ice conditions in the Arctic, as well as scientific analysis of the conditions every first week of the month.

Earlier this month NSIDC reported that they were experiencing difficulties with the F-17 meteorological satellite that is being used for gathering the data, and that daily sea ice extent updates have to be suspended until further notice.

The American F-17 satellite, which has been in orbit since 2006, has been one of the primary resources for monitoring sea ice extent and concentration.

Daily sea ice extent updates from the National Snow and Ice Data Center are suspended until further notice. Map: NSIDC

It is unknown at this time if or when the problem with F-17 can be fixed. In the event that the sensor problem has not been resolved, NSIDC is working to transition to another satellite. This will require a careful calibration against the F-17 data, and while this transition is of high priority, NSIDC has no firm timeline on when it will be able to resume providing the sea ice time series, the center’s website reads.

The problems come at a vital time for the Arctic. Just last month, NSIDC reported that the maximum extent of sea ice this past winter was at a record low for the second straight year. The Arctic has never before in modern times seen less sea ice. The maximum extent is 1.12 million square kilometers below the 1981 to 2010 average and 13,000 square kilometers below last year’s record low.

F17 is one of many satellites launched by the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) over the years. It is one of the country’s oldest satellite programs, created in 1962, according to Washington Post.

The last satellite built for the DMSP program — F20 — was originally planned to be launched within the next few years. But last year, the Air Force’s funding request for the program was denied by Congress and the launch plans shelved. Consequently, the already-built satellite has remained on the ground in storage, the newspaper writes.