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.

  • Letter
  • Published:

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

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.

Similar content being viewed by others

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.


  1. Kwok, R. & Rothrock, D. A. Decline in Arctic sea ice thickness from submarine and ICESat records: 1958–2008. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L15501 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Maslanik, J. A. et al. A younger, thinner Arctic ice cover: Increased potential for rapid, extensive sea-ice loss. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L24501 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Simmonds, I. Comparing and contrasting the behaviour of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice over the 35 year period 1979–2013. Ann. Glaciol. 56, 18–28 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Steele, M., Ermold, W. & Zhang, J. Arctic Ocean surface warming trends over the past 100 years. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L02614 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Overeem, I. et al. Sea ice loss enhances wave action at the Arctic coast. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L17503 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Barnhart, K. R. et al. Modeling erosion of ice-rich permafrost bluffs along the Alaskan Beaufort Sea coast. J. Geophys. Res. 119, 1155–1179 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Arrigo, K. R., van Dijken, G. & Pabi, S. Impact of a shrinking Arctic ice cover on marine primary production. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L19603 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Min, S.-K., Zhang, X., Zwiers, F. W. & Agnew, T. Human influence on Arctic sea ice detectable from early 1990s onwards. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L21701 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Parkinson, C. L. Spatially mapped reductions in the length of the Arctic sea ice season. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 4316–4322 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Stammerjohn, S., Massom, R., Rind, D. & Martinson, D. Regions of rapid sea ice change: An inter-hemispheric seasonal comparison. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L06501 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 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, 1333–1349 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Hurrell, J. W. et al. The Community Earth System Model: A framework for collaborative research. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 94, 1339–1360 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Hawkins, E. & Sutton, R. The potential to narrow uncertainty in regional climate predictions. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 90, 1095–1107 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Deser, C., Phillips, A., Bourdette, V. & Teng, H. Uncertainty in climate change projections: The role of internal variability. Clim. Dynam. 38, 527–546 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Screen, J. A., Simmonds, I., Deser, C. & Tomas, R. The atmospheric response to three decades of observed Arctic sea ice loss. J. Clim. 26, 1230–1248 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Swart, N. C., Fyfe, J. C., Hawkins, E., Kay, J. E. & Jahn, A. Influence of internal variability on Arctic sea-ice trends. Nature Clim. Change 5, 86–89 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Peters, G. P. et al. The challenge to keep global warming below 2 °C. Nature Clim. Change 3, 4–6 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Screen, J. A., Deser, C., Simmonds, I. & Tomas, R. Atmospheric impacts of Arctic sea-ice loss, 1979–2009 separating forced change from atmospheric internal variability. Clim. Dynam. 43, 333–344 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Woodgate, R. A., Weingartner, T. J. & Lindsay, R. Observed increases in Bering Strait oceanic fluxes from the Pacific to the Arctic from 2001 to 2011 and their impacts on the Arctic Ocean water column. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L24603 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Onarheim, I. H., Eldevik, T. & Arthun, M. Skillful prediction of Barents Sea ice cover. Geophys. Res. Lett. 42, 5364–5371 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Markus, T., Stroeve, J. C. & Miller, J. Recent changes in Arctic sea ice melt onset, freezeup, and melt season length. J. Geophys. Res. 114, C12024 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Stringer, W. J. & Groves, J. E. Location and areal extent of polynyas in the Bering and Chukchi seas. Arctic 44, 164–171 (1991).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Steele, M., Dickinson, S., Zhang, J. & Lindsay, R. W. Seasonal ice loss in the Beaufort Sea: Toward synchrony and prediction. J. Geophys. Res. 120, 1118–1132 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Carmack, E. C. in The Freshwater Budget of the Arctic Ocean (eds Lewis, E. L., Jones, E. P., Lemke, P., Prowse, T. D. & Wadhams, P.) 91–126 (Springer, 2000).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  26. Reimnitz, E., Dethleff, D. & Nürnberg, D. Contrasts in Arctic shelf sea-ice regimes and some implications: Beaufort Sea versus Laptev Sea. Mar. Geol. 119, 215–225 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Günther, F. et al. Observing Muostakh disappear: Permafrost thaw subsidence and erosion of a ground-ice-rich island in response to arctic summer warming and sea ice reduction. Cryosphere 9, 151–178 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Howell, S. E. L. et al. Recent changes in the exchange of sea ice between the Arctic Ocean and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. J. Geophys. Res. 118, 3595–3607 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Barnhart, K. R., Overeem, I. & Anderson, R. S. The effect of changing sea ice on the physical vulnerability of Arctic coasts. Cryosphere 8, 1777–1799 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Rigor, I., Wallace, J. M. & Colony, R. L. Response of sea ice to the Arctic Oscillation. J. Clim. 15, 2648–2663 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Katherine R. Barnhart.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information (PDF 40525 kb)

Supplementary Movie.

This file was uploaded on 4 November 2015. (MOV 38534 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


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