Sea ice extent 9-25
Source: NSIDC

Here’s more insight into the solar influence behind the Arctic Ocean’s record meltdown, released last week during the American Geophysical Union’s annual conference in San Francisco.

Portions of the sea surface in the Arctic Ocean just north of the Chukchi Sea beyond Alaska warmed about 9 ° F more than historical averages — rising from a “normal” average summer temperature of about 30.2 ° F to more than 39 °F.

The data comes from a study led by Washington oceanographer Michael Steele, who has appeared in several FNS dispatches and national climate news this past week.

Steele and his co-authors worked data showing the summertime ocean surface temperatures and heat content, with a particular concentration on the Arctic’s “peripheral” seas, he wrote in the abstract published by the AGU.

Many areas cooled almost 1 deg;F per decade between 1930 and 1965, when the Arctic Oscillation pattern fell. The same areas warmed by the same factor during the next 30 years.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Summer warming of the ocean between 1965 and 1995 stored enough heat in the water to actually thin the next winter’s ice pack by about 50 cm, or about 20 inches.

As the heat oozes back into the air, it can delay fall freeze-up up to 10 days. Further, the extra warmth rides the wind to shore, where it can deliver an extra 15 to 20 watts/m2 to Alaska’s North Slope, Steele and his authors wrote.

This process feeds on itself: More heat, later freeze up, thinner ice, bigger meltback. And the heat goes on….

Here’s more detail about what happens when the Arctic loses its “insulating ice cap,” in a story by Sandra Hines from the University of Washington.

Record-breaking amounts of ice-free water have deprived the Arctic of more of its natural “sunscreen” than ever in recent summers.

The effect is so pronounced that sea surface temperatures rose to 5 C above average in one place this year, a high never before observed, says the oceanographer who has compiled the first-ever look at average sea surface temperatures for the region.

Such superwarming of surface waters can affect how thick ice grows back in the winter, as well as its ability to withstand melting the next summer, according to Michael Steele, an oceanographer with the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

Indeed, since September, the end of summer in the Arctic, winter freeze-up in some areas is two months later than usual. The extra ocean warming also might be contributing to some changes on land, such as previously unseen plant growth in the coastal Arctic tundra, if heat coming off the ocean during freeze-up is making its way over land, says Steele, who (spoke last week) at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. (See the Steel’s AGU abstract here.)

He is lead author of “Arctic Ocean surface warming trends over the past 100 years,” accepted for publication in AGU’s Geophysical Research Letters. Co-authors are physicist Wendy Ermold and research scientist Jinlun Zhang, both of the UW Applied Physics Laboratory. The work is funded by the National Science Foundation.

“Warming is particularly pronounced since 1995, and especially since 2000,” the authors write. The spot where waters were 5 C above average was in the region just north of the Chukchi Sea.


The historical average temperature there is -1 C — remember that the salt in ocean water keeps it liquid at temperatures that would cause fresh water to freeze. This year water in that area warmed to 4 C, for a 5-degree change from the average.

That general area, the part of the ocean north of Alaska and Eastern Siberia that includes the Bering Strait and Chukchi Sea, experienced the greatest summer warming.

Temperatures for that region were generally 3.5 C warmer than historical averages and 1.5 C warmer than the historical maximum. Such widespread warming in those areas and elsewhere in the Arctic is probably the result of having increasing amounts of open water in the summer that readily absorb the sun’s rays, Steele says.

Hard, white ice, on the other hand, can work as a kind of sunscreen for the waters below, reflecting rather than absorbing sunlight. The warming also may be partly caused by increasing amounts of warmer water coming from the Pacific Ocean, something scientists have noted in recent years.

The Arctic was primed for more open water since the early 1990s as the sea-ice cover has thinned, due to a warming atmosphere and more frequent strong winds sweeping ice out of the Arctic Ocean via Fram Strait into the Atlantic Ocean where the ice melts.

The wind effect was particularly strong in the summer of 2007. Now the situation could be self-perpetuating, Steele says.

For example, he calculates that having more heat in surface waters in recent years means 23 to 30 inches less ice will grow in the winter than formed in 1965.

Since sea ice typically grows about 80 inches in a winter, that is a significant fraction of ice that’s going missing, he says. Then too, higher sea surface temperatures can delay the start of freeze-up because the extra heat must be discharged from the upper ocean before ice can form.

“The effect on net winter growth would probably be negligible for a delay of several weeks, but could be substantial for delays of several months,” the authors write.