Influence of high-latitude atmospheric circulation changes on summertime Arctic sea ice


The Arctic has seen rapid sea-ice decline in the past three decades, whilst warming at about twice the global average rate. Yet the relationship between Arctic warming and sea-ice loss is not well understood. Here, we present evidence that trends in summertime atmospheric circulation may have contributed as much as 60% to the September sea-ice extent decline since 1979. A tendency towards a stronger anticyclonic circulation over Greenland and the Arctic Ocean with a barotropic structure in the troposphere increased the downwelling longwave radiation above the ice by warming and moistening the lower troposphere. Model experiments, with reanalysis data constraining atmospheric circulation, replicate the observed thermodynamic response and indicate that the near-surface changes are dominated by circulation changes rather than feedbacks from the changing sea-ice cover. Internal variability dominates the Arctic summer circulation trend and may be responsible for about 30–50% of the overall decline in September sea ice since 1979.

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Figure 1: Relationship between the September Arctic sea ice and summer large-scale circulation.
Figure 2: Simulated impact of atmospheric circulation on Arctic thermodynamic trends.
Figure 3: Simulated impact of atmospheric circulation on summertime Arctic sea-ice trends.
Figure 4: Observed and estimated radiatively forced trends in upper and lower tropospheric geopotential height and winds.


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This study was supported by NOAA’s Climate Program Office, Climate Variability and Predictability Program (NA15OAR4310162). We thank the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology and National Center for Atmospheric Research model developers for making the ECHAM5 and CESM available and M. Steele, J. M. Wallace, C. Bitz, Q. Fu, M. Wang, D. L. Hartmann and D. Frierson for discussions. We acknowledge the CESM Large Ensemble Community Project and supercomputing resources provided by NSF/CISL/Yellowstone. Q.D. acknowledges support from the University of Washington’s Polar Science Center, the UW-Future of Ice Initiative, the Tamaki Foundation and UCSB Center for Scientific Computing at CNSI. A.S. is grateful for funding from the National Science Foundation through grant ARC-1203425. D.S.B. acknowledges support from the Tamaki Foundation. R.E. acknowledges support from NASA NNXBAQ35G.

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Q.D. led this work with contributions from all authors. Q.D. made the calculations, implemented the general circulation model experiments, created the figures, and led writing of the paper. All authors contributed to the experimental design, interpreting results and writing the paper.

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Correspondence to Qinghua Ding.

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Ding, Q., Schweiger, A., L’Heureux, M. et al. Influence of high-latitude atmospheric circulation changes on summertime Arctic sea ice. Nature Clim Change 7, 289–295 (2017).

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