The central role of diminishing sea ice in recent Arctic temperature amplification


The rise in Arctic near-surface air temperatures has been almost twice as large as the global average in recent decades1,2,3—a feature known as ‘Arctic amplification’. Increased concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases have driven Arctic and global average warming1,4; however, the underlying causes of Arctic amplification remain uncertain. The roles of reductions in snow and sea ice cover5,6,7 and changes in atmospheric and oceanic circulation8,9,10, cloud cover and water vapour11,12 are still matters of debate. A better understanding of the processes responsible for the recent amplified warming is essential for assessing the likelihood, and impacts, of future rapid Arctic warming and sea ice loss13,14. Here we show that the Arctic warming is strongest at the surface during most of the year and is primarily consistent with reductions in sea ice cover. Changes in cloud cover, in contrast, have not contributed strongly to recent warming. Increases in atmospheric water vapour content, partly in response to reduced sea ice cover, may have enhanced warming in the lower part of the atmosphere during summer and early autumn. We conclude that diminishing sea ice has had a leading role in recent Arctic temperature amplification. The findings reinforce suggestions that strong positive ice–temperature feedbacks have emerged in the Arctic15, increasing the chances of further rapid warming and sea ice loss, and will probably affect polar ecosystems, ice-sheet mass balance and human activities in the Arctic2.

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Figure 1: Surface amplification of temperature trends, 1989–2008.
Figure 2: Temperature trends linked to changes in sea ice.
Figure 3: Impacts of cloud-cover changes on the net surface radiation.
Figure 4: Atmospheric moisture trends, 1989–2008.


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We thank N. Gillett and R. Graversen for comments on the manuscript. The ERA-Interim data were obtained from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts data server. Parts of this research were supported by funding from the Australian Research Council.

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The analysis was performed and the manuscript written by J.A.S. Both authors contributed with ideas and discussions.

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Correspondence to James A. Screen.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Screen, J., Simmonds, I. The central role of diminishing sea ice in recent Arctic temperature amplification. Nature 464, 1334–1337 (2010).

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