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Arctic Ocean Freshwater Changes over the Past 100 Years and Their Causes

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  • a *International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska
  • | + Institute of Ecology RAN, Moscow, Russia
  • | # Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, St. Petersburg, Russia
  • | @ Polar Science Center, Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington
  • | & Ocean Circulation Section, Ocean Sciences Division, Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada
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Abstract

Recent observations show dramatic changes of the Arctic atmosphere–ice–ocean system. Here the authors demonstrate, through the analysis of a vast collection of previously unsynthesized observational data, that over the twentieth century the central Arctic Ocean became increasingly saltier with a rate of freshwater loss of 239 ± 270 km3 decade−1. In contrast, long-term (1920–2003) freshwater content (FWC) trends over the Siberian shelf show a general freshening tendency with a rate of 29 ± 50 km3 decade−1. These FWC trends are modulated by strong multidecadal variability with sustained and widespread patterns. Associated with this variability, the FWC record shows two periods in the 1920s–30s and in recent decades when the central Arctic Ocean was saltier, and two periods in the earlier century and in the 1940s–70s when it was fresher. The current analysis of potential causes for the recent central Arctic Ocean salinification suggests that the FWC anomalies generated on Arctic shelves (including anomalies resulting from river discharge inputs) and those caused by net atmospheric precipitation were too small to trigger long-term FWC variations in the central Arctic Ocean; to the contrary, they tend to moderate the observed long-term central-basin FWC changes. Variability of the intermediate Atlantic Water did not have apparent impact on changes of the upper–Arctic Ocean water masses. The authors’ estimates suggest that ice production and sustained draining of freshwater from the Arctic Ocean in response to winds are the key contributors to the salinification of the upper Arctic Ocean over recent decades. Strength of the export of Arctic ice and water controls the supply of Arctic freshwater to subpolar basins while the intensity of the Arctic Ocean FWC anomalies is of less importance. Observational data demonstrate striking coherent long-term variations of the key Arctic climate parameters and strong coupling of long-term changes in the Arctic–North Atlantic climate system. Finally, since the high-latitude freshwater plays a crucial role in establishing and regulating global thermohaline circulation, the long-term variations of the freshwater content discussed here should be considered when assessing climate change and variability.

Corresponding author address: Igor Polyakov, International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks, 930 Koyukuk Dr., Fairbanks, AK 99775. Email: igor@iarc.uaf.edu

Abstract

Recent observations show dramatic changes of the Arctic atmosphere–ice–ocean system. Here the authors demonstrate, through the analysis of a vast collection of previously unsynthesized observational data, that over the twentieth century the central Arctic Ocean became increasingly saltier with a rate of freshwater loss of 239 ± 270 km3 decade−1. In contrast, long-term (1920–2003) freshwater content (FWC) trends over the Siberian shelf show a general freshening tendency with a rate of 29 ± 50 km3 decade−1. These FWC trends are modulated by strong multidecadal variability with sustained and widespread patterns. Associated with this variability, the FWC record shows two periods in the 1920s–30s and in recent decades when the central Arctic Ocean was saltier, and two periods in the earlier century and in the 1940s–70s when it was fresher. The current analysis of potential causes for the recent central Arctic Ocean salinification suggests that the FWC anomalies generated on Arctic shelves (including anomalies resulting from river discharge inputs) and those caused by net atmospheric precipitation were too small to trigger long-term FWC variations in the central Arctic Ocean; to the contrary, they tend to moderate the observed long-term central-basin FWC changes. Variability of the intermediate Atlantic Water did not have apparent impact on changes of the upper–Arctic Ocean water masses. The authors’ estimates suggest that ice production and sustained draining of freshwater from the Arctic Ocean in response to winds are the key contributors to the salinification of the upper Arctic Ocean over recent decades. Strength of the export of Arctic ice and water controls the supply of Arctic freshwater to subpolar basins while the intensity of the Arctic Ocean FWC anomalies is of less importance. Observational data demonstrate striking coherent long-term variations of the key Arctic climate parameters and strong coupling of long-term changes in the Arctic–North Atlantic climate system. Finally, since the high-latitude freshwater plays a crucial role in establishing and regulating global thermohaline circulation, the long-term variations of the freshwater content discussed here should be considered when assessing climate change and variability.

Corresponding author address: Igor Polyakov, International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks, 930 Koyukuk Dr., Fairbanks, AK 99775. Email: igor@iarc.uaf.edu

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