Towards a marginal Arctic sea ice cover

Recent observed changes in the Arctic have become a ‘poster child’ for global climatic changes, particularly because the summer sea ice extent has shrunk rapidly over the past 35 years. This retreat of the sea ice has led to growth of trans-Arctic shipping and plans to extract minerals and fossil fuels from the ocean floor.

The latest assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that it was likely that the Arctic would become reliably ice-free by 2050 assuming greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase.

However, the climate simulations used by the IPCC often fail to realistically capture large scale properties of the Arctic sea ice, such as the extent, variability and recent trends. Therefore, there is a need to improve simulations of Arctic sea ice to provide better understanding of the recent observed changes and credible projections of the future to help assess risks and opportunities and inform important policy decisions about adaptation and mitigation. Observations of the Arctic have improved in recent years with new satellites measuring sea ice properties from space. These satellites reveal not only that the extent and thickness of the Arctic ice cover is reducing in all seasons but that the Marginal Ice Zone (MIZ), a region of low ice area concentration consisting of a relatively disperse collection of small floes, has grown. Model projections indicate the MIZ will grow from around 10% to 80% of the summer sea ice cover by 2050, exposing a hitherto relatively quiescent Arctic Ocean to the atmosphere. Nonlinear interactions between the air, ice, and ocean that magnify or diminish change, known as feedbacks, associated with a reduced and marginal sea ice cover will emerge or assume dominance in the coming years. Many of these feedbacks are either entirely absent or inadequately captured in current models. For example, not included is the feedback whereby the creation of smaller floes due to ice melt or breakup under ocean wave stress promotes further lateral melt and propagation of waves deeper into the pack, further enlarging the MIZ. Because existing climate models oversimplify these feedbacks, their utility for understanding and predicting variability and change in the Arctic is compromised. This leads to impairment of climate model accuracy at lower latitudes also, due to errors in meridional atmospheric and oceanic circulations as well as ice export from the Arctic. We will investigate processes controlling evolution of the MIZ using existing and new observations. We will include physics of wave-ice interaction, ice breakup and melt, and floe collisions into ice, ocean, and climate models. We will use these models, constrained and verified with new observations, to explore feedbacks between the sea ice, ocean, and atmosphere using a series of numerical experiments. We will quantify the impact of the increase in the MIZ on the Arctic physical climate, and explore the processes responsible for the projected loss of Arctic sea ice.

Grant reference
Natural Environment Research Council
Total awarded
£214,967 GBP
Start date
16 Nov 2017
1 year 11 months 15 days
End date
31 Oct 2019