I've already mentioned types of sea ice, but that's only a bare scratch on the surface of the subject of sea ice. Another bit of vocabulary before diving in to today's sea ice: a chunk of sea ice is called a 'floe'. Not a flow, nor a sheet, a floe. Ice sheet is something quite different.
When we get a bunch of floes together, we start to have an ice pack. Three terms come up for describing a region of the ice pack (or maybe the entirety): concentration, area, and extent. Ice pack area makes the most intuitive sense -- add up the area of all ice floes, and that's the area of the ice pack. Concentration and extent are a little more removed. For concentration, draw a curve around some region you're interested in. Then divide the area of sea ice by the total area of the region bounded by your curve. Two common 'curves' used in the science are the footprint of a satellite sensor, and the area of a grid cell. The latter is what you'll see presented on any of the graphics at the sea ice sites I link to. For extent, you then take your grid and for every cell that has more than some concentration (which you'll specify), you add up the area of the entire grid cell. Extent will always be greater than area.
The usual concentration cutoff, and the one to assume if it isn't specified, is 15%. Below this, the ice is not reliably detected by the most commonly-used sensors, and it is a greatly smaller practical problem for ships. Not that ships appreciate bashing in to ice floes, but that at this concentration or lower, it can be manageable to move around them (and get out of the ice pack you were surprised by!).
The most common type of sensor to use for detecting sea ice from space uses passive microwaves. The ice (it turns out) emits microwave energy much more effectively than the ocean around it. This gives it a higher brightness temperature. Between that and some other details, we can get back an estimate of the concentration of sea ice that the satellite was looking at. A word, though, as we're coming out of summer: the method relies on the difference between ice and water. If you have ponds of water sitting on the ice floes, which can happen on thick ice such as the Arctic can have, then your concentration (area) estimate will be biased low. The extent is probably still not too bad. The reason is, by the time you're falling below 15% cover, the thick floes will have been storm-tossed enough that the ponds will have been emptied, or that it's late enough in the season that the melt pond melted its way through the ice floe and there really isn't any ice under the apparent water any more.
In looking at the NSIDC and Cryosphere Today pages on the Arctic melt, one thing to keep in mind is that one uses extent and the other uses area. Their numbers aren't directly comparable. They also differ in how they compute their estimates, in that one uses a longer averaging period than the other. The longer period gives you more confidence about the value (weather over the ice, or ocean, can give you false readings, but it moves pretty fast compared to the ice cover), but will miss some of the details in time.
More to come ... (bwahaha) But, in the mean time, questions you have about sea ice are welcome here.
Today the Sun Stands Still
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