Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

High interannual variability of sea ice thickness in the Arctic region


Possible future changes in Arctic sea ice cover and thickness, and consequent changes in the ice-albedo feedback, represent one of the largest uncertainties in the prediction of future temperature rise1,2. Knowledge of the natural variability of sea ice thickness is therefore critical for its representation in global climate models3,4. Numerical simulations suggest that Arctic ice thickness varies primarily on decadal timescales3,5,6 owing to changes in wind and ocean stresses on the ice7,8,9,10, but observations have been unable to provide a synoptic view of sea ice thickness, which is required to validate the model results3,6,9. Here we use an eight-year time-series of Arctic ice thickness, derived from satellite altimeter measurements of ice freeboard, to determine the mean thickness field and its variability from 65° N to 81.5° N. Our data reveal a high-frequency interannual variability in mean Arctic ice thickness that is dominated by changes in the amount of summer melt11, rather than by changes in circulation. Our results suggest that a continued increase in melt season length would lead to further thinning of Arctic sea ice.

Your institute does not have access to this article

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Average winter (October to March) Arctic sea ice thickness from October 1993 to March 2001 from satellite altimeter measurements of ice freeboard.
Figure 2: Comparison between satellite altimeter- and submarine-derived ice thickness in the Beaufort Sea during the 1990s.
Figure 3: Time series of ice thickness anomalies and winter–winter change in thickness, compared with summer melt season length.


  1. Carson, D. J. Climate modelling: Achievements and prospects. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 125, 1–27 (1999)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Rind, D., Healy, R., Parkinson, C. & Martinson, D. The role of sea ice in 2 × CO2 climate model sensitivity: Part II: hemispheric dependencies. Geophys. Res. Lett. 24, 1491–1494 (1997)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Battisti, D. S., Bitz, C. M. & Moritz, R. E. Do general circulation models underestimate the natural variability in the Arctic climate? J. Clim. 10, 1909–1920 (1997)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Houghton, J. T. et al. Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001)

    Google Scholar 

  5. Hilmer, M. & Lemke, P. On the decrease of Arctic sea ice volume. Geophys. Res. Lett. 27, 3751–3754 (2000)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Polyakov, I. V. & Johnson, M. A. Arctic decadal and interdecadal variability. Geophys. Res. Lett. 27, 4097–4100 (2000)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Zhang, J. L., Rothrock, D. & Steele, M. Recent changes in Arctic sea ice: The interplay between ice dynamics and thermodynamics. J. Clim. 13, 3099–3114 (2000)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Zhang, Y. X. & Hunke, E. C. Recent Arctic change simulated with a coupled ice-ocean model. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 4369–4390 (2001)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Chapman, W. L., Welch, W. J., Bowman, K. P., Sacks, J. & Walsh, J. E. Arctic sea ice variability: Model sensitivities and a multidecadal simulation. J. Geophys. Res. 99, 919–935 (1994)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Holloway, G. & Sou, T. Has Arctic sea ice rapidly thinned? J. Clim. 15, 1691–1701 (2002)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Smith, D. M. Recent increase in the length of the melt season of perennial Arctic sea ice. Geophys. Res. Lett. 25, 655–658 (1998)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Steele, M. & Flato, G. M. in The Freshwater Budget of the Arctic Ocean 549–587 (Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht, 2000)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  13. Manabe, S., Stouffer, R. J., Spelman, M. J. & Bryan, K. Transient responses of a coupled ocean-atmosphere model to gradual changes of atmospheric CO2. Part 1: Annual mean response. J. Clim. 4, 785–818 (1991)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Rothrock, D., Zhang, J. & Yu, Y. The Arctic ice thickness anomaly of the 1990s: A consistent view from observations and models. J. Geophys. Res. 108, doi:10.1029/2001JC001208 (2003)

  15. Rothrock, D. A., Yu, Y. & Maykut, G. A. Thinning of the Arctic sea-ice cover. Geophys. Res. Lett. 26, 3469–3472 (1999)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Wadhams, P. & Davis, N. R. Further evidence for ice thinning in the Arctic Ocean. Geophys. Res. Lett. 27, 3973–3975 (2000)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Tucker, W. B., Weatherly, J. W., Eppler, D. T., Farmer, L. D. & Bentley, D. L. Evidence for rapid thinning of sea ice in the western Arctic Ocean at the end of the 1980s. Geophys. Res. Lett. 28, 2851–2854 (2001)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Polyakov, I. V., Proshutinsky, A. Y. & Johnson, M. A. Seasonal cycles in two regimes of Arctic climate. J. Geophys. Res. 104, 25761–25788 (1999)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Peacock, N. R. & Laxon, S. W. Sea surface height determination in the Arctic Ocean from ERS altimetry. J. Geophys. Res. (in the press)

  20. Beaven, S. G. et al. Laboratory measurements of radar backscatter from bare and snow-covered saline ice sheets. Int. J. Remote Sens. 16, 851–876 (1995)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Wadhams, P. et al. Relationship between sea ice freeboard and draft in the Arctic basin, and implications for ice thickness monitoring. J. Geophys. Res. 97, 20325–20334 (1992)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Warren, S. G. et al. Snow depth on Arctic sea ice. J. Clim. 12, 1814–1829 (1999)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Radionov, V. F., Bryazgin, N. N. & Aleksandrov, Y. I. The Snow Cover of the Arctic Basin (Gidrometeoizdat, St. Petersburg, 1996)

    Google Scholar 

  24. Babko, O., Rothrock, D. A. & Maykut, G. A. Role of rafting in the mechanical redistribution of sea ice thickness. J. Geophys. Res. 107, doi:10.1029/1999JC000190 (2002)

  25. Wadhams, P. & Horne, R. J. An analysis of ice profiles obtained by submarine sonar in the Beaufort sea. J. Glaciol. 25, 401–424 (1980)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Lindsay, R. W. & Rothrock, D. A. Arctic sea ice leads from advanced very high resolution radiometer images. J. Geophys. Res. 100, 4533–4544 (1995)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Bourke, R. H. & McLaren, A. S. Contour mapping of Arctic Basin ice draft and roughness parameters. J. Geophys. Res. 97, 17715–17728 (1992)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Haas, C. & Eicken, H. Interannual variability of summer sea ice thickness in the Siberian and central Arctic under different atmospheric circulation regimes. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 4449–4462 (2001)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Gregory, J. M. et al. Recent and future changes in Arctic sea ice simulated by the HadCM3 AOGCM. Geophys. Res. Lett. 29, doi:10.1029/2001GL014575 (2002)

  30. Eicken, H., Tucker, W. B. & Perovich, D. K. Indirect measurements of the mass balance of summer Arctic sea ice with an electromagnetic induction technique. Ann. Glaciol. 33, 194–200 (2001)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank the European Space Agency for the provision of ERS data, and the National Snow and Ice Data Centre for submarine and passive microwave data. We also thank J. Mansley for assistance with data processing, and D. Wingham for comments. This work was supported by the UK Natural Environment Research Council and the European Union.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Seymour Laxon.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Laxon, S., Peacock, N. & Smith, D. High interannual variability of sea ice thickness in the Arctic region. Nature 425, 947–950 (2003).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing