Contribution of sea-ice loss to Arctic amplification is regulated by Pacific Ocean decadal variability

Abstract

The pace of Arctic warming is about double that at lower latitudes—a robust phenomenon known as Arctic amplification1. Many diverse climate processes and feedbacks cause Arctic amplification2,3,4,5,6,7, including positive feedbacks associated with diminished sea ice6,7. However, the precise contribution of sea-ice loss to Arctic amplification remains uncertain7,8. Through analyses of both observations and model simulations, we show that the contribution of sea-ice loss to wintertime Arctic amplification seems to be dependent on the phase of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). Our results suggest that, for the same pattern and amount of sea-ice loss, consequent Arctic warming is larger during the negative PDO phase relative to the positive phase, leading to larger reductions in the poleward gradient of tropospheric thickness and to more pronounced reductions in the upper-level westerlies. Given the oscillatory nature of the PDO, this relationship has the potential to increase skill in decadal-scale predictability of the Arctic and sub-Arctic climate. Our results indicate that Arctic warming in response to the ongoing long-term sea-ice decline9,10 is greater (reduced) during periods of the negative (positive) PDO phase. We speculate that the observed recent shift to the positive PDO phase, if maintained and all other factors being equal, could act to temporarily reduce the pace of wintertime Arctic warming in the near future.

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Figure 1: PDO modulation of the observed relationship between wintertime Arctic amplification and sea-ice loss.
Figure 2: Surface signature of wintertime Arctic sea-ice loss and the negative PDO phase.
Figure 3: PDO modulation of simulated wintertime atmospheric response to Arctic sea-ice loss.
Figure 4: Influence of sea-ice loss and the PDO on simulated wintertime lower tropospheric temperature and circulation.

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Acknowledgements

J.A.S. was funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) grants NE/J019585/1 and NE/M006123/1. J.A.F. was supported by NSF/ARCSS grant (1304097) and NASA grant (NNX14AH896). The model simulations were performed on the ARCHER UK National Supercomputing Service. We thank the NOAA ESRL and the UK Met Office Hadley Centre for provision of observational and reanalysis data sets. We also thank D. Ackerley for helping to diagnose the cause of model crashes and C. Deser for commenting on the manuscript before submission.

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J.A.S. and J.A.F. jointly conceived the study. J.A.S. designed and performed the model experiments, and analysed the data. Both authors contributed to the interpretation of the results. J.A.S. wrote the manuscript with input from J.A.F.

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Correspondence to James A. Screen.

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Screen, J., Francis, J. Contribution of sea-ice loss to Arctic amplification is regulated by Pacific Ocean decadal variability. Nature Clim Change 6, 856–860 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3011

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