PRE-MELT: Preconditioning the trigger for rapid Arctic ice melt

The oldest, thickest sea ice in the ‘last ice area’ of the Arctic – a region thought to be most resilient to climate warming – unexpectedly broke up twice in the past year. Our current theories assume that the end-of-summer ice-covered area will steadily retreat into the Central Arctic Basin as global warming accelerates over coming decades. However, the dynamic break-up events witnessed in 2018 challenge this prevailing view.

Here we hypothesise that a weaker, increasingly mobile Central Arctic ice pack is now susceptible to dynamic episodes of fragmentation which can precondition the ice for rapid summer melt. This mechanism of dynamic seasonal preconditioning is unaccounted for in global climate models, so our best current projections are overlooking the possibility for rapid disintegration of the Arctic’s last ice area. Our team has demonstrated that seasonal preconditioning is already responsible for the neighbouring Beaufort Sea becoming ice-free twice in the past five years. Even ten years ago this region contained thick perennial sea ice, mirroring the Central Arctic Ocean, but it has now transitioned to a marginal Arctic sea. Could the processes responsible for the decline of the Beaufort Sea ice pack start to manifest themselves in the Central Arctic? Currently, a shortfall in satellite observations of the Arctic pack ice in summer prevents us from testing our hypothesis. We desperately require pan-Arctic observations of ice melting rates, but so far satellite observations of sea ice thickness are only available during winter months. Our project will therefore deliver the first measurements of Arctic sea ice thickness during summer months, from twin satellites: ESA’s Cryosat-2 & NASA’s ICESat-2. We have designed a new classification algorithm for separating ice and ocean radar altimeter echoes, regardless of surface melting state, providing the breakthrough required to fill the existing summer observation ‘gap’. Exploiting the recent launch of multiple SAR missions for polar reconnaissance, our project will integrate information on ice-pack ablation, motion and deformation to generate a unique year-round sea ice volume budget in the High Arctic. This record will inform high-resolution ice dynamics simulations, performed with a suite of state-of-the-art sea ice models from stand alone (CICE), ocean-sea ice (NEMO/CICE), to fully coupled regional high resolution (RASM), and global coarser resolution (HadGEM) models, all now equipped with the anisotropic (EAP) sea ice rheology developed by our team. Using the regional and stand-alone models we will analyse the role of mechanics in this keystone region north of Greenland to scrutinise the coupling and preconditioning of winter breakup events – such as those witnessed in 2018 – to summer melting rates. Using the coupled models, we will quantify the likelihood of the Arctic’s last ice area breaking up much sooner than expected due to oceanic and atmospheric feedbacks and how this will affect the flushing of ice and freshwater into the North Atlantic.

Grant reference
Natural Environment Research Council
Total awarded
£208,293 GBP
Start date
1 Dec 2019
2 years 5 months 29 days
End date
30 May 2022