When Sea Ice Expands It’s Due To Nature, When It Melts It’s Due To Humans

  • Date: 05/07/16
  • National Center for Atmospheric Research/University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

The recent trend of increasing Antarctic sea ice extent — seemingly at odds with climate model projections — can largely be explained by a natural climate fluctuation, according to a new study led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

Antarctic sea ice in 2014

On Sept. 19, 2014, the five-day average of Antarctic sea ice extent exceeded 20 million square kilometers (about 7.7 million square miles) for the first time since 1979, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. The red line shows the average maximum extent from 1979-2014. (Image courtesy NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio/Cindy Starr)

The study offers evidence that the negative phase of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO), which is characterized by cooler-than-average sea surface temperatures in the tropical eastern Pacific, has created favorable conditions for additional Antarctic sea ice growth since 2000.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, may resolve a longstanding mystery: Why is Antarctic sea ice expanding when climate change is causing the world to warm?

The study’s authors also suggest that sea ice may begin to shrink as the IPO switches to a positive phase.

“The climate we experience during any given decade is some combination of naturally occurring variability and the planet’s response to increasing greenhouse gases,” said NCAR scientist Gerald Meehl, lead author of the study. “It’s never all one or the other, but the combination, that is important to understand.”

Study co-authors include Julie Arblaster of NCAR and Monash University in Australia, Cecilia Bitz of the University of Washington, Christine Chung of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and NCAR scientist Haiyan Teng. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and by the National Science Foundation, which sponsors NCAR.

Expanding ice

The sea ice surrounding Antarctica has been slowly increasing in area since the satellite record began in 1979. But the rate of increase rose nearly five fold between 2000 and 2014, following the IPO transition to a negative phase in 1999.

The new study finds that when the IPO changes phase, from positive to negative or vice versa, it touches off a chain reaction of climate impacts that may ultimately affect sea ice formation at the bottom of the world.

When the IPO transitions to a negative phase, the sea surface temperatures in the tropical eastern Pacific become somewhat cooler than average when measured over a decade or two. These sea surface temperatures, in turn, change tropical precipitation, which drives large-scale changes to the winds that extend all the way down to Antarctica.

The ultimate impact is a deepening of a low-pressure system off the coast of Antarctica known as the Amundsen Sea Low. Winds generated on the western flank of this system blow sea ice northward, away from Antarctica, helping to enlarge the extent of sea ice coverage.

“Compared to the Arctic, global warming causes only weak Antarctic sea ice loss, which is why the IPO can have such a striking effect in the Antarctic,” said Bitz. “There is no comparable natural variability in the Arctic that competes with global warming.”

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