Abstract

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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Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Geography, University of California, Santa Barbara, California 93106, USA

    • Qinghua Ding
  2. Earth Research Institute, University of California, Santa Barbara, California 93106, USA

    • Qinghua Ding
  3. Polar Science Center, Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

    • Qinghua Ding
    •  & Axel Schweiger
  4. NOAA Climate Prediction Center, College Park, Maryland 20740, USA

    • Michelle L’Heureux
    • , Kirstin Harnos
    •  & Qin Zhang
  5. Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

    • David S. Battisti
    • , Stephen Po-Chedley
    • , Eduardo Blanchard-Wrigglesworth
    • , Ryan Eastman
    •  & Eric J. Steig
  6. Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

    • David S. Battisti
    •  & Eric J. Steig
  7. Cooperative Institute for Climate Science, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08540, USA

    • Nathaniel C. Johnson

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Contributions

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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Qinghua Ding.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3241

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