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Important role for ocean warming and increased ice-shelf melt in Antarctic sea-ice expansion


Changes in sea ice significantly modulate climate change because of its high reflective and strong insulating nature. In contrast to Arctic sea ice, sea ice surrounding Antarctica has expanded1, with record extent2 in 2010. This ice expansion has previously been attributed to dynamical atmospheric changes that induce atmospheric cooling3. Here we show that accelerated basal melting of Antarctic ice shelves is likely to have contributed significantly to sea-ice expansion. Specifically, we present observations indicating that melt water from Antarctica’s ice shelves accumulates in a cool and fresh surface layer that shields the surface ocean from the warmer deeper waters that are melting the ice shelves. Simulating these processes in a coupled climate model we find that cool and fresh surface water from ice-shelf melt indeed leads to expanding sea ice in austral autumn and winter. This powerful negative feedback counteracts Southern Hemispheric atmospheric warming. Although changes in atmospheric dynamics most likely govern regional sea-ice trends4, our analyses indicate that the overall sea-ice trend is dominated by increased ice-shelf melt. We suggest that cool sea surface temperatures around Antarctica could offset projected snowfall increases in Antarctica, with implications for estimates of future sea-level rise.

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Figure 1: Austral winter half-year (April–September) trends in sea-ice extent (total Southern Hemisphere) and SST (averaged over 50°–90° S).
Figure 2: Spatial distributions of Antarctic sea-ice concentration and SST trends over the period 1985–2010.
Figure 3: Austral winter half-year (April–September) zonal mean trends (1985–2010) of observed salinity, vertical density gradient and potential temperature, in the Southern Ocean.
Figure 4: Simulated changes in austral winter (April–September) temperature, salinity and sea-ice cover resulting from a 250 Gt yr−1 increase in Antarctic mass loss (relative to the control run).

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We are grateful to all members of the EC-Earth consortium for their help and support with the development of the EC-Earth climate model, of which the model NEMO is the ocean module.

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G.J.v.O., R.B. and S.D. developed the ideas that led to this paper. G.J.v.O. analysed the observational data. B.W. and R.B. conducted the climate model experiments and analyses. R.B. wrote the main paper, with input from all authors, who discussed the results and implications and commented on the manuscript at all stages.

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Correspondence to R. Bintanja.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Bintanja, R., van Oldenborgh, G., Drijfhout, S. et al. Important role for ocean warming and increased ice-shelf melt in Antarctic sea-ice expansion. Nature Geosci 6, 376–379 (2013).

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