Influence of high-latitude atmospheric circulation changes on summertime Arctic sea ice

Journal name:
Nature Climate Change
Year published:
Published online


The Arctic has seen rapid sea-ice decline in the past three decades, whilst warming at about twice the global average rate. Yet the relationship between Arctic warming and sea-ice loss is not well understood. Here, we present evidence that trends in summertime atmospheric circulation may have contributed as much as 60% to the September sea-ice extent decline since 1979. A tendency towards a stronger anticyclonic circulation over Greenland and the Arctic Ocean with a barotropic structure in the troposphere increased the downwelling longwave radiation above the ice by warming and moistening the lower troposphere. Model experiments, with reanalysis data constraining atmospheric circulation, replicate the observed thermodynamic response and indicate that the near-surface changes are dominated by circulation changes rather than feedbacks from the changing sea-ice cover. Internal variability dominates the Arctic summer circulation trend and may be responsible for about 30–50% of the overall decline in September sea ice since 1979.

At a glance


  1. Relationship between the September Arctic sea ice and summer large-scale circulation.
    Figure 1: Relationship between the September Arctic sea ice and summer large-scale circulation.

    a, Linear trend (% per decade) of September sea-ice concentration from the NSIDC passive microwave monthly sea-ice record (1979–2014). b, Linear trend (m per decade) of JJA Z200 and surface wind (ms−1 per decade) in ERA-Interim reanalysis. c, Domain-averaged time series for September sea-ice anomaly (%) averaged over the region circled by the blue contour in a, lower-level (1,000hPa to 750hPa) JJA temperature (°C) and JJA specific humidity anomalies (gkg−1) in the Arctic (averaged over the region north of 70° N), JJA downwelling longwave radiation (LW) anomaly at surface (Wm−2) in the Arctic north of 70° N, and JJA Z200 anomaly (m) over Greenland (66°–80° N, 310°–330° E, indicated by the dot in b, and referred to as GL-Z200). dg, Correlation of each time series in c with JJA Z200 for the period 1979–2014. In d, regression of JJA surface wind with September sea-ice index is superposed. The sign is reversed in d for simplicity of comparison with other plots. In f, regression between the specific humidity index and vertically integrated water vapour flux is plotted. All linear trends are removed in calculating the correlations in dg. Black stippling in all plots indicates statistically significant correlation or trend at the 5% level; in d and f, vectors are plotted when regressions are statistically significant at the 5% level.

  2. Simulated impact of atmospheric circulation on Arctic thermodynamic trends.
    Figure 2: Simulated impact of atmospheric circulation on Arctic thermodynamic trends.

    a, Meridional cross-section of the linear trend of zonal mean JJA temperature (shading, °C per decade), geopotential height (black contour, m per decade) and vertical velocity (red/blue contour, interval: 6 × 10−5Pas−1decade−1) in ERA-I (1979–2014). b,c, Same as a but for Exp-1 and Exp-2 simulations, respectively. d, Linear trend of lower tropospheric (1,000hPa to 750hPa) JJA temperature (shading, °C per decade) and geopotential height at 700hPa (red contour, m/decade) in ERA-I (1979–2014). e,f, Same as d but for Exp-1 and Exp-2 simulations, respectively. g, Linear trend of September sea-ice concentration (% per decade) simulated in Exp-2. h, Domain-averaged time series for lower tropospheric (1,000hPa to 750hPa) JJA temperature (°C) and specific humidity anomalies (gkg−1), and JJA downwelling longwave radiation (LW) anomaly (Wm−2) at surface in the Arctic (north of 70° N) simulated in Exp-2. In d to g stippling indicates statistically significant trends at the 5% level.

  3. Simulated impact of atmospheric circulation on summertime Arctic sea-ice trends.
    Figure 3: Simulated impact of atmospheric circulation on summertime Arctic sea-ice trends.

    a,b,d,e, Linear trend of September sea-ice concentration (a,b, % per decade) and thickness (d,e, m per decade) in Exp-5 (denoted as ‘full forcing) and Exp-6 (denoted as ‘modified forcing). c, Anomalous total area of September sea-ice extent (area of ocean with ice concentration of at least 15%) in both simulations and NSIDC observations. f, Anomalous total volume of September sea ice (area of ocean with ice concentration of at least 15%) in both simulations and the Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System (PIOMAS; ref. 46).

  4. Observed and estimated radiatively forced trends in upper and lower tropospheric geopotential height and winds.
    Figure 4: Observed and estimated radiatively forced trends in upper and lower tropospheric geopotential height and winds.

    af, Linear trends of JJA geopotential height (m per decade) and zonal and meridional winds at 200hPa (ac) and 700hPa (df) for the period 1979–2014 from a and d ERA-I (a,d) (repeated from Fig. 1b) the 26-model ensemble mean from the CMIP5 project (b,e) and the 30-member ensemble mean from the LENS project (c,f).


  1. Min, S. K., Zhang, X. B., Zwiers, F. W. & Agnew, T. Human influence on Arctic sea ice detectable from early 1990s onwards. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L21701 (2008).
  2. Kay, J. E., Holland, M. M. & Jahn, A. Inter-annual to multi-decadal Arctic sea ice extent trends in a warming world. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L15708 (2011).
  3. Notz, D. & Marotzke, J. Observations reveal external driver for Arctic sea-ice retreat. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L08502 (2012).
  4. Stroeve, J., Holland, M. M., Meier, W., Scambos, T. & Serreze, M. Arctic sea ice decline: faster than forecast. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L09501 (2007).
  5. Day, J. J., Hargreaves, J. C., Annan, J. D. & Abe-Ouchi, A. Sources of multi-decadal variability in Arctic sea ice extent. Environ. Res. Lett. 7, 034011 (2012).
  6. Rampal, P., Weiss, J., Dubois, C. & Campin, J.-M. IPCC climate models do not capture Arctic sea ice drift acceleration: consequences in terms of projected sea ice thinning and decline. J. Geophys. Res. 116, C00D07 (2011).
  7. Swart, N. C., Fyfe, J. C., Hawkins, E., Kay, J. E. & Jahn, A. Influence of internal variability on Arctic sea-ice trends. Nat. Clim. Change 5, 8689 (2015).
  8. Zhang, R. Mechanisms for low frequency variability of summer Arctic sea ice extent. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 1422296112 (2015).
  9. Francis, J. A. & Hunter, E. New insight into the disappearing Arctic sea ice. Eos 87, 509511 (2006).
  10. Graversen, R. G. & Wang, M. Polar amplification in a coupled climate model with locked albedo. Clim. Dynam. 33, 629643 (2009).
  11. Chylek, P., Folland, C. K., Lesins, G., Dubey, M. K. & Wang, M.-Y. Arctic air temperature change amplification and the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L14801 (2009).
  12. Screen, J. A. & Simmonds, I. The central role of diminishing sea ice in recent Arctic temperature amplification. Nature 464, 13341337 (2010).
  13. Serreze, M. C. & Barry, R. G. Processes and impacts of Arctic amplification: a research synthesis. Glob. Planet. Change 77, 8596 (2011).
  14. Bintanja, R., Graversen, R. & Hazeleger, W. Arctic winter warming amplified by the thermal inversion and consequent low infrared cooling to space. Nat. Geosci. 4, 758761 (2011).
  15. Vaughan, D. G. et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) 317382 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).
  16. Park, H.-S., Lee, S., Kosaka, Y., Son, S.-W. & Kim, S.-W. The impact of Arctic winter infrared radiation on early summer sea ice. J. Clim. 28, 62816296 (2015).
  17. Park, D.-S., Lee, S. & Feldstein, S. B. Attribution of the recent winter sea-ice decline over the Atlantic sector of the Arctic Ocean. J. Clim. 28, 40274033 (2015).
  18. Screen, J. A., Deser, C. & Simmonds, I. Local and remote controls on observed Arctic warming. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L10709 (2012).
  19. Perlwitz, J., Hoerling, M. & Dole, R. Arctic tropospheric warming: causes and linkages to lower latitudes. J. Clim. 28, 21542167 (2015).
  20. Deser, C., Walsh, J. E. & Timlin, M. S. Arctic sea ice variability in the context of recent atmospheric circulation trends. J. Clim. 13, 617633 (2000).
  21. Hu, A., Rooth, C., Bleck, R. & Deser, C. NAO influence on sea ice extent in the Eurasian coastal region. Geophys. Res. Lett. 29, 2053 (2002).
  22. Deser, C. & Teng, H. Evolution of Arctic sea ice concentration trends and the role of atmospheric circulation forcing 1979–2007. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L02504 (2008).
  23. Ogi, M., Rigor, I. G., McPhee, M. G. & Wallace, J. M. Summer retreat of Arctic sea ice: role of summer winds. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L24701 (2008).
  24. Ogi, M., Yamazaki, K. & Wallace, J. M. Influence of winter and summer surface wind anomalies on summer Arctic sea ice extent. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L07701 (2010).
  25. Watanabe, E., Wang, J., Sumi, A. & Hasumi, H. Arctic dipole anomaly and its contribution to sea ice export from the Arctic Ocean in the 20th century. Geophys. Res. Lett. 33, L23703 (2006).
  26. Blanchard-Wrigglesworth, E., Armour, K. C., Bitz, C. M. & DeWeaver, E. Persistence and inherent predictability of Arctic sea ice in a GCM ensemble and observations. J. Clim. 24, 231250 (2011).
  27. Wettstein, J. J. & Deser, C. Internal variability in projections of twenty-first century Arctic sea ice loss: role of the large-scale atmospheric circulation. J. Clim. 27, 527550 (2014).
  28. Screen, J. A., Simmonds, I. & Keay, K. Dramatic interannual changes of perennial Arctic sea ice linked to abnormal summer storm activity. J. Geophys. Res. 116, D15105 (2011).
  29. Kay, J. E., LEcuyer, T., Gettelman, A., Stephens, G. & ODell, C. The contribution of cloud and radiation anomalies to the 2007 Arctic sea ice extent minimum. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L08503 (2008).
  30. Francis, J. A. & Hunter, E. Drivers of declining sea ice in the Arctic winter: a tale of two seas. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L17503 (2007).
  31. Schweiger, A. J., Lindsay, R. W., Vavrus, S. & Francis, J. A. Relationships between Arctic clouds and sea ice during autumn. J. Clim. 21, 47994810 (2008).
  32. Bhatt, U. S. et al. The Atmospheric Response to Realistic Reduced Summer Arctic Sea Ice Anomalies, in Arctic Sea Ice Decline: Observations, Projections, Mechanisms, and Implications (American Geophysical Union, 2008).
  33. Liu, J. P. et al. Has Arctic sea ice loss contributed to increased surface melting of the Greenland ice sheet? J. Clim. 29, 33733386 (2016).
  34. Deser, C., Tomas, R., Alexander, M. & Lawrence, D. The seasonal atmospheric response to projected Arctic sea ice loss in the late 21st century. J. Clim. 23, 333351 (2010).
  35. Taylor, K. E., Stouffer, R. J. & Meehl, G. A. An overview of CMIP5 and the experiment design. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 93, 485498 (2012).
  36. Kay, J. E. et al. The Community Earth System Model (CESM) large ensemble project: a community resource for studying climate change in the presence of internal climate variability. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 96, 13331349 (2015).
  37. Hoerling, M. P., Hurrell, J. W. & Xu, T. Y. Tropical origins for recent North Atlantic climate change. Science 292, 9092 (2001).
  38. Lee, S. Testing of the tropically excited Arctic warming (TEAM) mechanism with traditional El Nino and La Nina. J. Clim. 25, 40154022 (2012).
  39. Ding, Q. H. et al. Tropical forcing of the recent rapid Arctic warming in northeastern Canada and Greenland. Nature 509, 209212 (2014).
  40. Trenberth, K. E., Fasullo, J. T., Branstator, G. & Phillips, A. S. Seasonal aspects of the recent pause in surface warming. Nat. Clim. Change 4, 911916 (2014).
  41. Liu, Y. & Key, J. Assessment of Arctic cloud cover anomalies in atmospheric reanalysis products using satellite data. J. Clim. 29, 60656083 (2016).
  42. Barnes, E. A. & Screen, J. The impact of Arctic warming on the midlatitude jetstream: Can it? Has it? Will it? WIREs Clim. Change 6, 277286 (2015).
  43. Overland, J. E. & Wang, M. Increased variability in the early winter subarctic North American atmospheric circulation. J. Clim. 28, 72977305 (2015).
  44. Francis, J. A. & Skific, N. Evidence linking rapid Arctic warming to mid-latitude weather patterns. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 373, 20140170 (2015).
  45. Cohen, J. An observational analysis: tropical relative to Arctic influence on midlatitude weather in the era of Arctic amplification. Geophys. Res. Lett. 43, 52875294 (2016).
  46. Zhang, J. & Rothrock, D. A. Modeling global sea ice with a thickness and enthalpy distribution model in generalized curvilinear coordinates. Mon. Weath. Rev. 131, 845861 (2003).
  47. Dee, D. P. et al. The ERA-Interim reanalysis: configuration and performance of the data assimilation system. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 137, 553597 (2011).
  48. Roeckner, E. et al. Max Planck Institut für Meteorologie Report (Max-Planck-Institut für Meteorologie, 2003).
  49. Hurrell, J. W. et al. The community earth system model: a framework for collaborative research. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 94, 13391360 (2013).
  50. Bretherton, C. S., Widmann, M., Dymnidov, V. P., Wallace, J. M. & Blade, I. The effective number of spatial degrees of freedom of a time-varying field. J. Clim. 12, 19902009 (1999).

Download references

Author information


  1. Department of Geography, University of California, Santa Barbara, California 93106, USA

    • Qinghua Ding
  2. Earth Research Institute, University of California, Santa Barbara, California 93106, USA

    • Qinghua Ding
  3. Polar Science Center, Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

    • Qinghua Ding &
    • Axel Schweiger
  4. NOAA Climate Prediction Center, College Park, Maryland 20740, USA

    • Michelle LHeureux,
    • Kirstin Harnos &
    • Qin Zhang
  5. Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

    • David S. Battisti,
    • Stephen Po-Chedley,
    • Eduardo Blanchard-Wrigglesworth,
    • Ryan Eastman &
    • Eric J. Steig
  6. Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

    • David S. Battisti &
    • Eric J. Steig
  7. Cooperative Institute for Climate Science, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08540, USA

    • Nathaniel C. Johnson


Q.D. led this work with contributions from all authors. Q.D. made the calculations, implemented the general circulation model experiments, created the figures, and led writing of the paper. All authors contributed to the experimental design, interpreting results and writing the paper.

Competing financial interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to:

Author details

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. Supplementary Information (2.11 MB)

    Supplementary Information

Additional data