CR
Cryospheric Sciences

Sea Ice Loss

Image of the Week – The 2018 Arctic summer sea ice season (a.k.a. how bad was it this year?)

Sea ice concentration anomaly for August 2018: blue means less ice than “normal”, i.e. 1981-2010 average. Credit: NSIDC.

With the equinox this Sunday, it is officially the end of summer in the Northern hemisphere and in particular the end of the melt season in the Arctic. These last years, it has typically been the time to write bad news about record low sea ice and the continuation of the dramatic decreasing trend (see this post on this blog). So, how bad has the 2018 melt season been for the Arctic?  


Yes, the 2018 summer Arctic sea ice was anomalously low

Before we give you the results for this summer, let us start with the definitions of the three most common sea ice statistics:

  • Sea ice concentration: how much of a given surface area (e.g. 1 km2) in the ocean is covered by sea ice. The concentration is 100% if there is nothing but sea ice, 50% if half of this area is covered by ice, and 0% if there is nothing but open water. Read more about how satellites measure sea ice concentration on this blog here.
  • Sea ice extent: typically defined as the ocean area with at least 15% sea ice concentration.
  • Sea ice volume: the whole volume of sea ice, i.e. total area times thickness of sea ice. This is probably the most difficult of the three statistics to measure since satellite measurements of sea ice thickness are only starting to be trustworthy.

So, how did summer 2018 perform regarding these three statistics?
As shown on today’s Image of the Week, the sea ice concentration has been anomalously low in most parts of the Arctic, with many areas in dark blue showing they had more than 50% less sea ice than normal (1981-2010 average).

The resulting extent was anomalously low as well (see figure below), but not record-breaking low. The volume however was the fourth lowest recorded or 50% lower than normal, with 5000 km3 of sea ice missing. In a more meaningful unit, that is one trillion elephants of ice, or 64 000 elephants per km2 of the Arctic Ocean.

But as we discussed in a previous post, talking about the Arctic as a whole is not enough to understand what happened this summer. So let us have a closer look at the area north and east of Greenland.

Summer 2018 Arctic sea ice extent up till 19th September (blue) compared to the “normal” extent (grey) and the all-time record of 2012 (green dashed). Credit: NSIDC.

North of Greenland: open water instead of multiyear ice

Until recently, most of the Arctic Ocean was covered by multiyear / perennial ice. That is, most sea ice would not melt in summer and would stay until the next winter. But with climate change and the warming of the Arctic, the multiyear ice cover has shrunk and became limited to the area north of Greenland.

The situation has been even more dramatic this summer. For the entire month of August 2018, there was open water north of Greenland where there should have been thick multiyear ice (see picture below). As nicely explained here, that area had already unexpectedly melted in February this year when the Arctic was struck with record high air temperatures; when the sea ice closed again, it was thinner and more brittle than it should have been, and did not withstand strong winds in August. Therefore, this unusual winter melting could have contributed to the formation of open water north of Greenland.

It is really bad news, and it does feel like yet another tragic milestone: even the last areas of multiyear ice are melting away. Most worryingly, we do not know what the consequences of this disappearance will be on the ecosystem and the entire climate. Or rather, we know that everything from local sea ice algae to European weather patterns will be affected, but more research is needed over the coming years before we can assess the full impact over our complex fully coupled climate system.

Optical satellite image of the northern half of Greenland, 19 August 2018. Dark colour is open water, and should not have been here. Credit: NASA.

Reference/Further reading

For near real time analysis of the sea ice conditions: https://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/

For checking sea ice data from home: https://seaice.uni-bremen.de/databrowser/

For simple visualisations of sea ice statistics: http://sites.uci.edu/zlabe/arctic-sea-ice-volumethickness/

 

Edited by David Docquier

Image of the Week — Seasonal and regional considerations for Arctic sea ice changes

Monthly trends in sea ice extent for the Northern Hemisphere’s regional seas, 1979–2016. [Credit: adapted from Onarheim et al (2018), Fig. 7]

The Arctic sea ice is disappearing. There is no debate anymore. The problem is, we have so far been unable to model this disappearance correctly. And without correct simulations, we cannot project when the Arctic will become ice free. In this blog post, we explain why we want to know this in the first place, and present a fresh early-online release paper by Ingrid Onarheim and colleagues in Bergen, Norway, which highlights (one of) the reason(s) why our modelling attempts have failed so far… 


Why do we want to know when the Arctic will become ice free anyway? 

As we already mentioned on this blog, whether you see the disappearance of the Arctic sea ice as an opportunity or a catastrophe honestly depends on your scientific and economic interests.  

It is an opportunity because the Arctic Ocean will finally be accessible to, for example: 

  • tourism; 
  • fisheries; 
  • fast and safe transport of goods between Europe and Asia; 
  • scientific exploration. 

All those activities would no longer need to rely on heavy ice breakers, hence becoming more economically viable. In fact, the Arctic industry has already started: in summer 2016, the 1700-passenger Crystal Serenity became the first large cruise ship to safely navigate the North-West passage, from Alaska to New York. Then in summer 2017, the Christophe de Margerie became the first tanker to sail through the North-East passage, carrying liquefied gas from Norway to South Korea without an ice breaker escort, while the Eduard Toll became the first tanker to do so in winter just two months ago. 

On the other hand, the disappearance of the Arctic sea ice could be catastrophic as having more ships in the area increases the risk of an accident. But not only. The loss of Arctic sea ice has societal and ecological impacts, causing coastal erosion, disappearance of a traditional way of life, and threatening the whole Arctic food chain that we do not fully understand yet. Not to mention all of the risks on the other components of the climate system. (See our list of further readings at the end of this post for excellent reviews on this topic). 

Either way, we need to plan for the disappearance of the sea ice, and hence need to know when it will disappear. 

Arctic sea ice decrease varies with region and season 

In a nutshell, the new paper published by Onarheim and colleagues says that talking about “the Arctic sea ice extent” is an over simplification. They instead separated the Arctic into its 13 distinct basins, and calculated the trends in sea ice extent for each basin and each month of the year. They found a totally different behaviour between the peripheral seas (in blue on this image of the week) and the Arctic proper, i.e. north of Fram and Bering Straits (in red). As is shown by all the little boxes on the image, the peripheral seas have experienced their largest long term sea ice loss in winter, whereas those in the Arctic proper have been losing their ice in summer only. In practice, what is happening to the Arctic proper is that the melt season starts earlier (note how the distribution is not symmetric, with largest values on the top half of the image).  

Talking about Arctic sea ice extent is an over simplification

Moreover, Onarheim and colleagues performed a simple linear extrapolation of the observed trends shown on this image, and found that the Arctic proper may become ice-free in summer from the 2020s. As they point out, some seas of the Arctic proper have in fact already been ice free in recent summers. The trends are less strong in the peripheral seas, and the authors write that they will probably have sea ice in winter until at least the 2050s. 

So, although Arctic navigation should become possible fairly soon, in summer, you may need to choose a different holiday destination for the next 30 winters. 

Melting summer ice. [Credit: Mikhail Varentsov (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)]

But why should WE consider the regions separately? 

The same way that you would not plan for the risk of winter flood in New York based on yearly average of the whole US, you should not base your plan for winter navigation from Arkhangelsk to South Korea on the yearly Arctic-wide average of sea-ice behaviour. 

Scientifically, this paper is exciting because different trends at different locations and seasons will also have different consequences on the rest of the climate system. If you have less sea ice in autumn or winter, you will lose more heat from the ocean to the atmosphere, and hence impact both components’ heat and humidity budget. If you have less sea ice in spring, you may trigger an earlier algae bloom. 

As often, this paper highlights that the Earth system behaves in a more complex fashion that it first appears. Just like global warming does not prevent the occurrence of unpleasantly cold days, the disappearance of Arctic sea ice is not as simple as ice cubes melting in your beverage on a sunny day.  

Reference/Further reading

Bhatt, U. S., et al. (2014), Implications of Arctic sea ice decline for the Earth system. Ann. Rev. Environ. Res., 39, 57-89 

Meier, W. N., et al. (2014), Arctic sea ice in transformation: A review of recent observed changes and impacts on biology and human activity. Reviews of Geophysics, 52(3), 185-217. 

Onarheim, I., et al. (2018), Seasonal and regional manifestation of Arctic sea ice loss. Journal of Climate, EOR.  

Post, E., et al. (2013), Ecological consequences of sea-ice decline. Science, 341, 519-524 

Edited by Sophie Berger

Image of the Week – Does size really matter? A story of ice floes and power laws

Figure 1: Sea ice extent in 2014 during the melting season. The pink lines mark the inner and outer extent of the marginal ice zone. The data comes from the CPOM setup of the CICE sea-ice model run with 9 years spin up from 2005. [Credit: Adam Bateson]

The retreating Arctic sea ice is one of the most well-known facets of Climate Change. Images of polar bears desperately swimming through polar seas searching for somewhere to rest and feed resonate strongly with the public. Beyond these headlines however, the Arctic Ocean is displaying a rapid transition from having mostly permanent ice cover to a more seasonal cover.


The Marginal Ice Zone

As both atmospheric and ocean average temperatures increase over the 21st century, the region of the Arctic considered either marginal or seasonal i.e. regions where sea ice is present for at least some of the year but with periods of either no or incomplete sea ice cover, is projected to increase significantly. Our image of the Week (Fig. 1) shows how the Marginal Ice Zone (defined here as regions with 15 % – 80 % ice coverage) evolves through the melting season. This means that the thermodynamic (i.e. melting, freezing) and dynamic (i.e. mechanical) processes which dominate the marginal ice zone are likely to become more important in influencing how the sea ice evolves in future.

Floe size matters

A key parameter to describe the behaviour of this region is the size of the individual ice floes – sheets of floating sea ice – which form the sea ice cover (see also a previous post on this topic). Floe size impacts melt rate, floe mechanical response, atmosphere-ocean momentum exchange and wave-ice interactions (Fig. 2). The sea ice component of climate models usually assumes all floes have the same, constant size; this assumption removes the ability of sea ice models to represent the complexity of the marginal ice zone. As a result processes which influence floe size such as wave induced break up of floes and lateral melting can’t be represented adequately in current climate models.

Figure 2: Video shows significant wave height in 2014 (darker blue colours indicate bigger waves; note also that a white colour indicates no waves, not necessarily sea ice cover). The purple/pink lines mark the inner and outer extent of the Marginal Ice Zone respectively. The data come from the CPOM setup of the CICE sea-ice model run with 9 years spin up from 2005. [Credit: Adam Bateson]

How can we represent different floe sizes in models?

Given the changing Arctic environment, representing floe size as a variable quantity is likely to be important for future accuracy of sea ice modelling. Currently sea ice models tend to divide the Polar Regions into grid cells, with properties defined as an average across the grid cell. However floe sizes can vary significantly over sub kilometre scales. There are four alternative approaches to representing such a non-uniform distribution of floe sizes within a grid cell:

  1. Define floes individually within the model and allow each floe to evolve independently.
  2. Use a categorical floe size distribution i.e. assign floes to size categories of 1 – 10 m, 10 – 20 m etc. (e.g. Horvat et. al, 2015).
  3. Impose a floe size distribution on each grid cell which evolves over time driven by relevant processes such as lateral melting or floe break-up (e.g. Williams et. al, 2013 a & b).
  4. A single floe size for each grid cell is diagnosed from the fractional ice coverage.

 

Option 1 would be the ideal approach from a Physics perspective. It assumes nothing about what form the floe size distribution may take and allows us to properly assess the impact of different processes for floes of different sizes. This approach is computationally expensive however, which means it will take longer for models to run. Option 4 would the simplest option and wouldn’t have negligible impacts on model run times, however it wouldn’t be possible to include in the model any processes which influence floe size. Option 2 and option 3 represent intermediates between these two extremes. In particular option 3 would be a preferred compromise if floes can be represented as a coherent distribution which evolves over time at the grid length scale.

We should now look at whether observations support the use of such a distribution.

The power law distribution

Figure 3: The cumulative number density for floe size can be represented by a power law. Note that both scales are log scales, and that C in the equation is a constant. The blue and green lines show the distribution for smaller and larger exponents respectively. Note the cumulative number density for a given floe diameter, x, is the fraction of floes size x and larger. [Credit: Adam Bateson]

The floe size distribution is most commonly fitted to a power law (Fig. 3). Power law systems have the property of self-similarity, a term attributed to a system which looks the same over different scales (e.g. the metre or kilometre scale). Power law distributions are relatively easily to investigate mathematically, and can easily be incorporated into a model without significant computational expense.

Do observations support the use of a power law?

Many individual experiments to assess the floe size distribution have shown a good fit to the power law. However, a large range of values for the power law exponent have been reported with observations ranging from 0.9 to 4. Other papers have proposed two power laws over different size ranges, with smaller exponents used for the smaller floe range. Herman et. al (2010) proposed that a distribution with a variable exponent would produce a better fit than a power law. There are further questions we need to consider as well. Over what scale are power laws a valid approximation? What determines the exponent of the power law and can it be assumed that this is constant? Is the power law only valid over a certain range of floe sizes and if so what determines this range?

These questions are not trivial, and the available observations are not sufficient to answer them. However, there is still value in testing different distributions and approaches within models. This can provide information about how sensitive the sea ice cover is to different distributions and which processes in particular are important to accurately model winter ice growth and summer ice loss in the marginal ice zone.

References/Further Reading

Edited by Sophie Berger


Adam Bateson is a PhD student at the University of Reading (United Kingdom), working with Danny Feltham. His project involves investigating the fragmentation and melting of the Arctic seasonal sea-ice cover, specifically improving the representation of relevant processes within sea-ice models. In particular he is looking at lateral melting and wave induced fragmentation of sea-ice as drivers of break up, as well as the role of the ocean mixed layer as either an amplifier or dampener to the impacts of particular processes. Contact: a.w.bateson@pgr.reading.ac.uk or @a_w_bateson on twitter.

Image of the Week – See How Seasonal Sea Ice Decline Differs!

Image of the Week – See How Seasonal Sea Ice Decline Differs!

Why do we care about sea ice in the first place?

  • Sea ice is important for several components of the climate system.
  • Due to its high albedo, sea ice reflects a high amount of the incoming solar radiation and is therefore relevant for the Earth’s energy budget.
  • Sea ice inhibits the exchange of heat, moisture and momentum between ocean and atmosphere, which usually occur at the sea surface.
  • Where sea ice forms, it releases heat and salt. When sea ice melts, it takes up heat and reduces the salinity of the surrounding water. Sea ice therefore redistributes heat and freshwater.
  • Sea ice provides habitat for plants and animals and hunting grounds for animals and indigenous populations.
  • Sea ice is an obstacle for shorter commercial shipping routes through the Arctic and oil and gas drilling.

The Arctic sea-ice cover is decreasing!

In recent decades, the Arctic sea-ice cover has been retreating rapidly. As we care about sea ice (see above!), scientists have been trying to understand this decline and to define a time span over which the sea-ice cover is expected to totally disappear (usually below 1 million km²). Up to now, research has mostly focused on the Arctic summer sea-ice cover, as this is expected to disappear much sooner than the winter cover. However, it is also of interest how winter sea-ice cover will evolve in the future and has evolved in the past.

What is meant by summer and winter sea-ice cover?

The Arctic sea-ice area follows a seasonal cycle with a maximum in late winter and a minimum in late summer (see figure below).

Figure 2: Arctic sea-ice concentration climatology from 1981-2010, at the approximate seasonal maximum (late winter) and minimum (late summer) levels based on passive microwave satellite data. (Credit : National Snow & Ice Data Center )

Figure 2: Arctic sea-ice concentration climatology from 1981-2010, at the approximate seasonal maximum (late winter) and minimum (late summer) levels based on passive microwave satellite data. (Credit : National Snow & Ice Data Center )

So, what about our Image of the Week?

In their study, Bathiany et al. (2016) compare the characteristics of the summer and winter sea-ice loss in the Arctic in general circulation models (GCMs). They investigate the changes in sea-ice area as a function of global annual mean surface air temperature. Summer sea-ice area (see red points) declines more linearly, “with no or a less pronounced change in slope”. Winter sea-ice area (see blue points), however, declines slowly at first and then more abruptly (this can still mean several years to decades, depending on the projection scenario used!). This abrupt decrease starts when ice volume is already very small.

How can this be?

Summer sea ice is distributed very heterogeneously over the Arctic, with very thick ice north of Greenland and Canada. It takes a given time (several years) until the thick multiyear ice (ice that has not melted during the previous summer) has melted. There can therefore still be ice in one location of the Arctic, while the rest of the area is ice-free. When these big “bunks” of ice have melted, then the summer sea-ice cover is gone. Large-scale abrupt shifts in sea ice therefore cannot occur in summer.

Winter sea ice, however, forms very homogeneously over the whole Arctic basin, when the ocean reaches the freezing temperature (the ocean temperature is relatively homogeneous over the basin). Warmer conditions in winter inhibit the growth of multiyear ice but a thin cover will always form on top of the ocean if the water is cold enough even if the ice melted in summer. Therefore, the sea-ice thickness and sea-ice volume decrease whereas the sea-ice area stays relatively constant and can still cover large areas (where the ocean is cold enough for ice to form). When the ocean does not reach the freezing temperature in winter, a large area of sea ice does not form any more and the sea-ice area declines abruptly.

What is the take-home message?

The explanation for the different behaviours in the retreat of summer and winter sea-ice is quite simple: the summer sea-ice cover disappears when all summer sea-ice has melted. The winter sea-ice cover disappears when no new ice forms in winter. As ice formation and ice melting are different processes governed by different mechanisms, the behaviour of the ice decline is different in both cases.

Note: These results are only relevant for the Arctic sea-ice cover as the Antarctic sea-ice cover is governed by different processes.

Further Reading

Acknowledgement: Thanks a lot to Sebastian Bathiany, who took the time to make sure I understood his paper well and helped me to make this blog entry understandable 🙂

Edited by Emma Smith and Sophie Berger