Arctic Sea Ice Variability in the Context of Recent Atmospheric Circulation Trends

Clara Deser National Center for Atmospheric Research,* Boulder, Colorado

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John E. Walsh Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign, Urbana, Illinois

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Michael S. Timlin CIRES–Climate Diagnostics Center, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado

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Abstract

Forty years (1958–97) of reanalysis products and corresponding sea ice concentration data are used to document Arctic sea ice variability and its association with surface air temperature (SAT) and sea level pressure (SLP) throughout the Northern Hemisphere extratropics. The dominant mode of winter (January–March) sea ice variability exhibits out-of-phase fluctuations between the western and eastern North Atlantic, together with a weaker dipole in the North Pacific. The time series of this mode has a high winter-to-winter autocorrelation (0.69) and is dominated by decadal-scale variations and a longer-term trend of diminishing ice cover east of Greenland and increasing ice cover west of Greenland.

Associated with the dominant pattern of winter sea ice variability are large-scale changes in SAT and SLP that closely resemble the North Atlantic oscillation. The associated SAT and surface sensible and latent heat flux anomalies are largest over the portions of the marginal sea ice zone in which the trends of ice coverage have been greatest, although the well-documented warming of the northern continental regions is also apparent. The temporal and spatial relationships between the SLP and ice anomaly fields are consistent with the notion that atmospheric circulation anomalies force the sea ice variations. However, there appears to be a local response of the atmospheric circulation to the changing sea ice cover east of Greenland. Specifically, cyclone frequencies have increased and mean SLPs have decreased over the retracted ice margin in the Greenland Sea, and these changes differ from those associated directly with the North Atlantic oscillation.

The dominant mode of sea ice variability in summer (July–September) is more spatially uniform than that in winter. Summer ice extent for the Arctic as a whole has exhibited a nearly monotonic decline (−4% decade−1) during the past 40 yr. Summer sea ice variations appear to be initiated by atmospheric circulation anomalies over the high Arctic in late spring. Positive ice–albedo feedback may account for the relatively long delay (2–3 months) between the time of atmospheric forcing and the maximum ice response, and it may have served to amplify the summer ice retreat.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Clara Deser, NCAR/CGD, P.O. Box 3000, Boulder, CO 80307-3000.

Email: cdeser@ncar.edu

Abstract

Forty years (1958–97) of reanalysis products and corresponding sea ice concentration data are used to document Arctic sea ice variability and its association with surface air temperature (SAT) and sea level pressure (SLP) throughout the Northern Hemisphere extratropics. The dominant mode of winter (January–March) sea ice variability exhibits out-of-phase fluctuations between the western and eastern North Atlantic, together with a weaker dipole in the North Pacific. The time series of this mode has a high winter-to-winter autocorrelation (0.69) and is dominated by decadal-scale variations and a longer-term trend of diminishing ice cover east of Greenland and increasing ice cover west of Greenland.

Associated with the dominant pattern of winter sea ice variability are large-scale changes in SAT and SLP that closely resemble the North Atlantic oscillation. The associated SAT and surface sensible and latent heat flux anomalies are largest over the portions of the marginal sea ice zone in which the trends of ice coverage have been greatest, although the well-documented warming of the northern continental regions is also apparent. The temporal and spatial relationships between the SLP and ice anomaly fields are consistent with the notion that atmospheric circulation anomalies force the sea ice variations. However, there appears to be a local response of the atmospheric circulation to the changing sea ice cover east of Greenland. Specifically, cyclone frequencies have increased and mean SLPs have decreased over the retracted ice margin in the Greenland Sea, and these changes differ from those associated directly with the North Atlantic oscillation.

The dominant mode of sea ice variability in summer (July–September) is more spatially uniform than that in winter. Summer ice extent for the Arctic as a whole has exhibited a nearly monotonic decline (−4% decade−1) during the past 40 yr. Summer sea ice variations appear to be initiated by atmospheric circulation anomalies over the high Arctic in late spring. Positive ice–albedo feedback may account for the relatively long delay (2–3 months) between the time of atmospheric forcing and the maximum ice response, and it may have served to amplify the summer ice retreat.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Clara Deser, NCAR/CGD, P.O. Box 3000, Boulder, CO 80307-3000.

Email: cdeser@ncar.edu

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