The Arctic Ocean’s freshwater budget comprises contributions from river runoff, precipitation, evaporation, sea-ice and exchanges with the North Pacific and Atlantic1. More than 70,000 km3 of freshwater2 are stored in the upper layer of the Arctic Ocean, leading to low salinities in upper-layer Arctic sea water, separated by a strong halocline from warm, saline water beneath. Spatially and temporally limited observations show that the Arctic Ocean’s freshwater content has increased over the past few decades, predominantly in the west3,4,5. Models suggest that wind-driven convergence drives freshwater accumulation6. Here we use continuous satellite measurements between 1995 and 2010 to show that the dome in sea surface height associated with the western Arctic Beaufort Gyre has been steepening, indicating spin-up of the gyre. We find that the trend in wind field curl—a measure of spatial gradients in the wind that lead to water convergence or divergence—exhibits a corresponding spatial pattern, suggesting that wind-driven convergence controls freshwater variability. We estimate an increase in freshwater storage of 8,000±2,000 km3 in the western Arctic Ocean, in line with hydrographic observations4,5, and conclude that a reversal in the wind field could lead to a spin-down of the Beaufort Gyre, and release of this freshwater to the Arctic Ocean.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Open Access articles citing this article.
Surveys in Geophysics Open Access 30 March 2023
Climate Dynamics Open Access 26 January 2023
Nature Communications Open Access 21 December 2022
Subscribe to this journal
Receive 12 print issues and online access
$259.00 per year
only $21.58 per issue
Rent or buy this article
Prices vary by article type
Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout
Carmack, E. C. in Freshwater Budget of the Arctic Ocean (ed. Lewis, E. L.) 91–126 (Kluwer, 2000).
Serreze, M. C. et al. The large-scale freshwater cycle of the Arctic. J. Geophys. Res. 111, C11010 (2006).
Proshutinsky, A. et al. Beaufort Gyre freshwater reservoir: State and variability from observations. J. Geophys. Res. 114, C00A10 (2009).
McPhee, M. G., Proshutinsky, A., Morison, J. H., Steele, M. & Alkire, M. B. Rapid change in freshwater content of the Arctic Ocean. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L10602 (2009).
Rabe, B. et al. An assessment of Arctic Ocean freshwater content changes from the 1990s to the 2006–2008 period. Deep-Sea Res. 58, 173–185 (2011).
Proshutinsky, A., Bourke, R. H. & McLaughlin, F. A. The role of the Beaufort Gyre in Arctic climate variability: Seasonal to decadal climate scales. Geophys. Res. Lett. 29, 2100 (2002).
Proshutinsky, A. et al. Secular sea level change in the Russian sector of the Arctic Ocean. J. Geophys. Res. 109, C03042 (2004).
Chambers, D. P. Evaluation of new GRACE time-variable gravity data over the ocean. Geophys. Res. Lett. 33, L17603 (2006).
Rampal, P., Weiss, J. & Marsan, D. Positive trend in the mean speed and deformation rate of Arctic sea ice, 1979–2007. J. Geophys. Res. 114, C05013 (2009).
Spreen, G., Kwok, R. & Menemenlis, D. Trends in Arctic sea ice drift and role of wind forcing: 1992–2009. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L19501 (2011).
Comiso, J. C., Parkinson, C. L., Gersten, R. & Stock, L. Accelerated decline in the Arctic Sea ice cover. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L01703 (2008).
Giles, K. A., Laxon, S. W. & Ridout, A. L. Circumpolar thinning of Arctic sea ice following the 2007 record ice extent minimum. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L22502 (2008).
Kwok, R. & Rothrock, D. A. Decline in Arctic sea ice thickness from submarine and ICESat records: 1958–2008. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L15501 (2009).
Andreas, E. L. et al. Parametrizing turbulent exchange over summer sea ice and the marginal ice zone. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 136, 927–943 (2010).
Andreas, E. L. et al. Parameterizing turbulent exchange over sea ice in winter. J. Hydrometeorol. 11, 87–104 (2010).
Curry, R. & Mauritzen, C. Dilution of the northern North Atlantic Ocean in recent decades. Science 308, 1772–1774 (2005).
Dickson, R., Meincke, J., Malmberg, S-A. & Lee, A. J. The ‘Great Salinity Anomaly’ in the Northern North Atlantic 1968–1982. Prog. Oceanogr. 20, 103–151 (1988).
Bindoff, N. L. et al. IPCC Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (eds Solomon, S. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).
Belkin, I. M. Propagation of the ‘Great Salinity Anomaly’ of the 1990s around the northern North Atlantic. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31, L08306 (2004).
Peacock, N. R. & Laxon, S. W. Sea surface height determination in the Arctic Ocean from ERS altimetry. J. Geophys. Res.-Oceans 109, C07001 (2004).
Kwok, R. & Morison, J. Dynamic topography of the ice-covered Arctic Ocean from ICESat. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L02501 (2011).
Kalnay, E. et al. The NCEP/NCAR 40-year reanalysis project. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 77, 437–471 (1996).
Makshtas, A. et al. Atmospheric forcing validation for modelling the central Arctic. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L20706 (2007).
Bromwich, D. H. & Wang, S. H. Evaluation of the NCEP-NCAR and ECMWF 15- and 40-yr reanalyses using rawinsonde data from two independent Arctic field experiments. Mon. Weath. Rev. 133, 3562–3578 (2005).
Gill, A. E. Atmosphere–Ocean Dynamics Ch. 7 (Academic, 1982).
Toole, J. M. et al. Influences of the ocean surface mixed layer and thermohaline stratification on Arctic Sea ice in the central Canada Basin. J. Geophys. Res.-Oceans 115, C10018 (2010).
Morison, J., Wahr, J., Kwok, R. & Peralta-Ferriz, C. Recent trends in Arctic Ocean mass distribution revealed by GRACE. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L07602 (2007).
Funding for this work was provided by a fellowship from the Natural Environment Research Council and by the National Centre for Earth Observation. Radar altimetry data was provided by the European Space Agency.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Giles, K., Laxon, S., Ridout, A. et al. Western Arctic Ocean freshwater storage increased by wind-driven spin-up of the Beaufort Gyre. Nature Geosci 5, 194–197 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1379
This article is cited by
Nature Geoscience (2023)
Climate Dynamics (2023)
Surveys in Geophysics (2023)
Nature Communications (2022)
Typical and anomalous pathways of surface-floating material in the Northern North Atlantic and Arctic Ocean
Scientific Reports (2022)