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Mapping the future expansion of Arctic open water

This article has been updated


Sea ice impacts most of the Arctic environment, from ocean circulation and marine ecosystems to animal migration and marine transportation. Sea ice has thinned and decreased in age over the observational record1,2. Ice extent has decreased3. Reduced ice cover has warmed the surface ocean4, accelerated coastal erosion5,6 and impacted biological productivity7. Declines in Arctic sea-ice extent cannot be explained by internal climate variability alone and can be attributed to anthropogenic effects8,9. However, extent is a poor measure of ice decline at specific locations as it integrates over the entire Arctic basin and thus contains no spatial information. The open water season, in contrast, is a metric that represents the duration of open water over a year at an individual location10,11. Here we present maps of the open water season over the period 1920–2100 using daily output from a 30-member initial-condition ensemble of business-as-usual climate simulations12 that characterize the expansion of Arctic open water, determine when the open water season will move away from pre-industrial conditions (‘shift’ time) and identify when human forcing will take the Arctic sea-ice system outside its normal bounds (‘emergence’ time). The majority of the Arctic nearshore regions began shifting in 1990 and will begin leaving the range of internal variability in 2040. Models suggest that ice will cover coastal regions for only half of the year by 2070.

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Figure 1: Changes in the open water season in the CESM-LE.
Figure 2: Last year with ice coverage for 182 days.
Figure 3: Change in the open water season at four locations.
Figure 4: Shift, emergence and post-emergence expansion of the open water season.

Change history

  • 17 November 2015

    In the version of this Letter originally published online, the sentence beginning 'In the late spring, sea ice that includes...' should have ended '...Cape Bathurst Polynya to the east and the Chukchi Polynya to the west23,24'. In addition, in Fig. 3c,d and the caption, ‘East Svalbard’ and 'Parry Channel’ were swapped; Fig. 3c should have been ‘Parry Channel’ and Fig. 3d ‘East Svalbard’. Finally, the journal name in ref. 28 was incorrect and should have read ‘J. Geophys. Res.’ This has been corrected in all versions of the Letter.


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This study benefited from discussions with R. Anderson, W. Armstrong, A. Ault, D. Hobley, M. Holland, A. Jahn, W. Klieber and S. Stammerjohn. We acknowledge high-performance computing support from Yellowstone (ark:/85065/d7wd3xhc) provided by NCAR’s Computational and Information Systems Laboratory, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and computing time on the CU-CSDMS High-Performance Computing Cluster. K.R.B. is supported by a NASA Earth and Space Science Graduate Research Fellowship Award NNX12AN52H. I.O. acknowledges support from CSDMS NSF Award 1548115. J.E.K. was funded by NASA grant 12-CCST10-0095.

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K.R.B., J.E.K. and I.O. designed the study, K.R.B. performed the analysis, K.R.B. and C.R.M. designed the statistical methods, and K.R.B. wrote the manuscript with input from all co-authors.

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Correspondence to Katherine R. Barnhart.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Barnhart, K., Miller, C., Overeem, I. et al. Mapping the future expansion of Arctic open water. Nature Clim Change 6, 280–285 (2016).

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