Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. 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.

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.

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

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

$32.00

All prices are NET prices.

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.

References

  1. Collins, M. et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) 1029–1136 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

    Google Scholar 

  2. Bintanja, R. & Selten, F. M. Future increases in Arctic precipitation linked to local evaporation and sea ice retreat. Nature 509, 479–482 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Liu, J. P., Curry, J. A., Wang, H., Song, M. & Horton, R. M. Impact of declining Arctic sea ice on winter snowfall. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 4074–4079 (2012).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Taylor, K. E., Stouffer, R. J. & Meehl, G. A. An overview of CMIP5 and the experiment design. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 93, 485–498 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. ACIA Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005).

  6. Berghuijs, W. R., Woods, R. A. & Hrachowitz, M. A precipitation shift from snow towards rain leads to a decrease in streamflow. Nat. Clim. Change 4, 583–586 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Nilsson, C., Polvi, L. E. & Lind, L. Extreme events in streams and rivers in arctic and subarctic regions in an uncertain future. Freshwat. Biol. 60, 2535–2546 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Callaghan, T. V. et al. The changing face of Arctic snow cover: a synthesis of observed and projected changes. Ambio 40, 17–31 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Screen, J. A. & Simmonds, I. Declining summer snowfall in the Arctic: causes, impacts and feedbacks. Clim. Dynam. 38, 2243–2256 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Hansen, B. B. et al. Climate events synchronize the dynamics of a resident vertebrate community in the high Arctic. Science 339, 313–315 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Held, I. M. & Soden, B. J. Robust responses of the hydrological cycle to global warming. J. Clim. 19, 5686–5699 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Bengtsson, L. et al. The changing atmospheric water cycle in polar regions in a warmer climate. Tellus A 63, 907–920 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Min, S. K., Zhang, X. & Zwiers, F. Human-induced Arctic moistening. Science 320, 518–520 (2008).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Doyle, S. H. et al. Amplified melt and flow of the Greenland ice sheet driven by late-summer cyclonic rainfall. Nat. Geosci. 8, 647–656 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Bintanja, R. & van der Linden, E. C. The changing seasonal cycle in the Arctic. Nat. Sci. Rep. 3, 1556 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Mankin, J. S. & Diffenbaugh, N. S. Influence of temperature and precipitation variability on near-term snow trends. Clim. Dynam. 45, 1099–1116 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Räisänen, J. Warmer climate: less or more snow? Clim. Dynam. 30, 307–319 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Holland, M. M. et al. Projected changes in Arctic Ocean freshwater budgets. J. Geophys. Res. 112, G04S55 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  19. Aoki, T., Hachikubo, A. & Hori, M. Effects of snow physical parameters on shortwave broadband albedos. J. Geophys. Res. 108, 4616 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Bulygina, O. N., Arzhanova, N. M. & Groisman, P. Y. Icing conditions over Northern Eurasia in changing climate. Environ. Res. Lett. 10, 025003 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Serreze, M. C. & Barry, R. G. The Arctic Climate System 385 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  22. Kapnick, S. B. & Delworth, T. L. Controls of global snow under a changed climate. J. Clim. 26, 5537–5562 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Krasting, J., Broccoli, A., Dixon, K. & Lanzante, J. Future changes in northern hemisphere snowfall. J. Clim. 26, 7813–7828 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Kobayashi, S. et al. The JRA-55 reanalysis: general specifications and basic characteristics. J. Meteorol. Soc. Jpn 93, 5–48 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Westermann, S., Boike, J., Langer, M., Schuler, T. V. & Etzelmüller, B. Modeling the impact of wintertime rain events on the thermal regime of permafrost. Cryosphere 5, 1697–1736 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Nowak, A. & Hodson, A. Hydrological response of a high-Arctic catchment to changing climate over the past 35 years: a case study of Bayelva watershed, Svalbard. Polar Res. 32, 19691 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Kohler, J. & Aanes, R. Effect of winter snow and ground-icing on a Svalbard reindeer population: results of a simple snowpack model. Arct. Antarct. Alp. Res. 36, 333–341 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Kaplan, J. O. et al. Climate change and Arctic ecosystems: 2. Modeling, paleodata-model comparisons, and future projections. J. Geophys. Res. 108, 8171 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Kaplan, J. O. & New, M. Arctic climate change with a 2 °C global warming: timing, climate patterns and vegetation change. Climatic Change 79, 213–241 (2006).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references

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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

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.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 2084 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3240

This article is cited by

Search

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