Measurements of sea ice concentration from the Special Sensor Microwave Imager (SSM/I) using seven different algorithms are compared to ship observations, sea ice divergence estimates from the Radarsat Geophysical Processor System, and ice and water surface type classification of 59 wide-swath synthetic aperture radar (SAR) scenes. The analysis is confined to the high-concentration Arctic sea ice, where the ice cover is near 100%. During winter the results indicate that the variability of the SSM/I concentration estimates is larger than the true variability of ice concentration. Results from a trusted subset of the SAR scenes across the central Arctic allow the separation of the ice concentration uncertainty due to emissivity variations and sensor noise from other error sources during the winter of 2003-2004. Depending on the algorithm, error standard deviations from 2.5 to 5.0% are found with sensor noise between 1.3 and 1.8%. This is in accord with variability estimated from analysis of SSM/I time series. Algorithms, which primarily use 85 GHz information, consistently give the best agreement with both SAR ice concentrations and ship observations. Although the 85 GHz information is more sensitive to atmospheric influences, it was found that the atmospheric contribution is secondary to the influence of the surface emissivity variability. Analysis of the entire SSM/I time series shows that there are significant differences in trend between sea ice extent and area, using different algorithms. This indicates that long-term trends in surface and atmospheric properties, unrelated to sea ice concentration, influence the computed trends.