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Antarctic sea-ice expansion between 2000 and 2014 driven by tropical Pacific decadal climate variability


Antarctic sea-ice extent has been slowly increasing in the satellite record that began in 19791,2. Since the late 1990s, the increase has accelerated, but the average of all climate models shows a decline3. Meanwhile, the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation, an internally generated mode of climate variability4, transitioned from positive to negative5, with an average cooling of tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures5, a slowdown of the global warming trend6,7,8 and a deepening of the Amundsen Sea Low near Antarctica1,9,10,11,12 that has contributed to regional circulation changes in the Ross Sea region and expansion of sea ice10. Here we show that the negative phase of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation in global coupled climate models is characterized by anomalies similar to the observed sea-level pressure and near-surface 850 hPa wind changes near Antarctica since 2000 that are conducive to expanding Antarctic sea-ice extent, particularly in the Ross Sea region in all seasons, involving a deepening of the Amundsen Sea Low. These atmospheric circulation changes are shown to be mainly driven by precipitation and convective heating anomalies related to the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation in the equatorial eastern Pacific, with additional contributions from convective heating anomalies in the South Pacific convergence zone and tropical Atlantic regions.

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Figure 1: IPO connection to tropical precipitation, Antarctic sea-ice trends and 850 hPa wind trends.
Figure 2: Observed trends of SLP, sea-ice concentration and 850 hPa winds.
Figure 3: SLP and 850 hPa wind anomalies for the eastern equatorial Pacific negative heating experiment at 135° W, Equator.

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Portions of this study were supported by the Regional and Global Climate Modeling Program (RGCM) of the US Department of Energy’s Office of Biological & Environmental Research (BER) Cooperative Agreement no. DE-FC02-97ER62402, and the National Science Foundation. C.M.B. is grateful for funding from the National Science Foundation through grant PLR-1341497. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making available their model output. Parts of this research used resources of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, which is supported by the Office of Science of the US Department of Energy under Contract No. DE-AC02-05CH11231. For CMIP, the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. The National Center for Atmospheric Research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

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G.A.M. directed this work with contributions from all authors. G.A.M., J.M.A., C.M.B., C.T.Y.C. and H.T. performed the analyses. All of the authors discussed the results and contributed to writing the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Gerald A. Meehl.

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Meehl, G., Arblaster, J., Bitz, C. et al. Antarctic sea-ice expansion between 2000 and 2014 driven by tropical Pacific decadal climate variability. Nature Geosci 9, 590–595 (2016).

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