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Robust Arctic sea-ice influence on the frequent Eurasian cold winters in past decades

An Addendum to this article was published on 16 January 2015

This article has been updated

Abstract

Over the past decade, severe winters occurred frequently in mid-latitude Eurasia1,2, despite increasing global- and annual-mean surface air temperatures3. Observations suggest that these cold Eurasian winters could have been instigated by Arctic sea-ice decline2,4, through excitation of circulation anomalies similar to the Arctic Oscillation5. In climate simulations, however, a robust atmospheric response to sea-ice decline has not been found, perhaps owing to energetic internal fluctuations in the atmospheric circulation6. Here we use a 100-member ensemble of simulations with an atmospheric general circulation model driven by observation-based sea-ice concentration anomalies to show that as a result of sea-ice reduction in the Barents–Kara Sea, the probability of severe winters has more than doubled in central Eurasia. In our simulations, the atmospheric response to sea-ice decline is approximately independent of the Arctic Oscillation. Both reanalysis data and our simulations suggest that sea-ice decline leads to more frequent Eurasian blocking situations, which in turn favour cold-air advection to Eurasia and hence severe winters. Based on a further analysis of simulations from 22 climate models we conclude that the sea-ice-driven cold winters are unlikely to dominate in a warming future climate, although uncertainty remains, due in part to an insufficient ensemble size.

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Figure 1: Observed and simulated change in winter SAT and atmospheric circulation associated with sea-ice retreat in the Barents–Kara region.
Figure 2: Two leading modes governing winter SAT anomalies over Eurasia.
Figure 3: Robustness and dependence of signal detection on ensemble size.
Figure 4: Modulation of winter blocking frequency associated with the WACE.

Change history

  • 16 January 2015

    We would like to draw attention to the colour scales in Fig. 1. Specifically, we used different colour scales for the panels showing reanalysis data (a,c) and those showing model ensembles (b,d). In a and b only the negative parts of the colour scale (blue shades) differ, by a factor of four. In c and d the entire colour scale is different. This does not imply that the model underestimates observed atmospheric responses to the Arctic sea-ice reduction: owing to small sample size, a and c contain a considerable signal associated with the Arctic Oscillation, which accounts for about half of negative temperature anomalies over central Eurasia (Supplementary Infomation 1, Supplementary Fig. 5); the Arctic Oscillation signal is largely eliminated from the model ensemble mean (Supplementary Fig. 6). In contrast, central Eurasian temperature anomalies associated with the WACE pattern—the robust circulation response to sea-ice loss—were in good agreement between observations (–0.8 K) and model ensemble mean (–0.6 K) (Supplementary Figs 5,6).

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Acknowledgements

We acknowledge the modelling groups, the PCMDI and the WCRP’s WGCM for their efforts in making the CMIP5 multi-model data set available. We thank M. Yoshimori and M. Honda for helpful discussion. This work was supported by the Grant-in-Aid 24241009 and the Program for Risk Information on Climate Change (SOUSEI program) from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), Japan.

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M.W. and M.M. designed the research. M.M. performed the numerical experiments and analysis. M.M. and M.W. wrote the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Masato Mori.

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Mori, M., Watanabe, M., Shiogama, H. et al. Robust Arctic sea-ice influence on the frequent Eurasian cold winters in past decades. Nature Geosci 7, 869–873 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2277

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