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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.

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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.


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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.

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Correspondence to Seymour Laxon.

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

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