What is causing Arctic sea ice decline?

The Arctic Ocean has lost more than 30 percent of its summer ice cover in the last thirty years. Scientists have long thought that climate change is to blame, but a new study provides more evidence for that idea. Credit: Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard. High Resolution Image

Readers sometimes ask us, “What are the reasons behind Arctic sea ice decline?” In summer months, ice extent has declined by more than 30 percent since the start of satellite observations in 1979. But is climate change really the culprit, or could other factors be contributing? Continue reading

Are icebreakers changing the climate?

On July 20, 2011, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy traveled through a break in the sea ice and melt ponds in the Arctic Ocean, during the NASA Impacts of Climate on Ecosystems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment (ICESCAPE) mission, a field survey aimed at understanding the ecology of the Arctic Ocean. Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen

In summer months, icebreaking ships head north into the Arctic Ocean, tearing through the sea ice and leaving trails of open water in their wakes. Readers occasionally write in to ask us whether the trails left by these ships contribute to the melting of sea ice. Continue reading

Modeling the Arctic climate

In February, polar climate researchers gathered at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado to discuss the newest updates to models of the Earth’s climate system. The researchers are working together to create better models of the Arctic and Antarctic climates, which will feed into larger models of the whole Earth that help scientists understand how climate will change in the future. What goes into a climate model, and what can scientists learn from models that they cannot learn from observations?

This image shows several aspects of climate, including sea ice, surface winds, and sea surface temperature. This image came from data simulated from NCAR’s Community Earth System Model. Credit: ©UCAR, image courtesy Gary Strand, NCAR

What’s in a model?
Computer climate models are based on scientists’ understanding of Earth’s climate. The models use mathematical relationships to try to quantify the relationships between parts of the climate system. If you tweak one factor in climate, how does the simulated climate system respond? Models that bring many factors together help scientists learn how the climate system works, and let them run simulations on Earth’s climate. They also allow scientists to assess how climate may be affected by present and future changes in greenhouse gases and solar forcing, and how much of a role natural variability plays. Continue reading

Climate change or variability: What rules Arctic sea ice?

This photo, taken during the NASA ICESCAPE mission in summer 2011, shows melt ponds on the surface of Arctic sea ice. Weather patterns in the Arctic this summer have favored ice loss, leading to near-record low ice extent over most of the summer. New research is explaining how much ice loss is caused by variable conditions, and how much can be pinned on human-caused climate change. Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen

Arctic sea ice is near its annual low extent for the year. Will it reach a new record low? While many people are watching this year’s ice extent closely, the effect of climate change on ice extent in a single year is different than its effect in the long term. Arctic sea ice has declined more than 30 percent in summer since satellite measurements started in 1979. But from year to year, ice extent jumps up and down quite a lot. Continue reading

Getting beneath the ice

Researchers can measure ice thickness by drilling holes in the sea ice. But the method is not a practical way to measure thickness over the millions of square miles of Arctic sea ice. Image courtesy of Martin Hartley

NSIDC reports ice extent, a two-dimensional measure of the Arctic Ocean’s ice cover. But sea ice extent tells only part of the story: sea ice is not all flat like a sheet of paper. While freshly formed ice might not be much thicker than a few sheets of paper, the oldest, thickest ice in the Arctic can be more than 15 feet thick—as thick as a one-story house. Scientists want to know not just how far the ice extends, but also how deep and thick it is, because thinner ice is more vulnerable to summer melt. Continue reading