Towards a rain-dominated Arctic

Abstract

Climate models project a strong increase in Arctic precipitation over the coming century1, which has been attributed primarily to enhanced surface evaporation associated with sea-ice retreat2. Since the Arctic is still quite cold, especially in winter, it is often (implicitly) assumed that the additional precipitation will fall mostly as snow3. However, little is known about future changes in the distributions of rainfall and snowfall in the Arctic. Here we use 37 state-of-the-art climate models in standardized twenty-first-century (2006–2100) simulations4 to show a decrease in average annual Arctic snowfall (70°–90° N), despite the strong precipitation increase. Rain is projected to become the dominant form of precipitation in the Arctic region (2091–2100), as atmospheric warming causes a greater fraction of snowfall to melt before it reaches the surface, in particular over the North Atlantic and the Barents Sea. The reduction in Arctic snowfall is most pronounced during summer and autumn when temperatures are close to the melting point, but also winter rainfall is found to intensify considerably. Projected (seasonal) trends in rainfall and snowfall will heavily impact Arctic hydrology (for example, river discharge, permafrost melt)5,6,7, climatology (for example, snow, sea-ice albedo and melt)8,9 and ecology (for example, water and food availability)5,10.

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Figure 1: Geographical distribution of simulated (model-mean) snowfall fraction (ratio of snowfall and total precipitation) in the Arctic region for RCP8.5 forcing.
Figure 2: Model-dependent Arctic-mean (70°–90° N) twenty-first-century changes in surface air temperature, precipitation components and snowfall fraction for RCP8.5 forcing.
Figure 3: Simulated model-mean monthly twenty-first-century changes in Arctic-mean (70°–90° N) precipitation variables and surface air temperature for RCP8.5 forcing.
Figure 4: Simulated model-mean Arctic total snowfall and rainfall.

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Acknowledgements

We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank all climate-modelling groups for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led the development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. We are grateful to the EC-Earth consortium for their contribution to the development of the Earth System Model EC-Earth. We thank M. Loonen and F. Selten for their comments on earlier versions of the manuscript.

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R.B. developed the ideas that led to this paper. R.B. analysed the climate model simulations, while O.A. analysed the reanalyses data. R.B. wrote the main paper, with input from O.A. All authors discussed the results and implications and commented on the manuscript at all stages.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to R. Bintanja.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Bintanja, R., Andry, O. Towards a rain-dominated Arctic. Nature Clim Change 7, 263–267 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3240

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