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Arctic warming hotspot in the northern Barents Sea linked to declining sea-ice import

Abstract

The Arctic has warmed dramatically in recent decades, with greatest temperature increases observed in the northern Barents Sea. The warming signatures are not constrained to the atmosphere, but extend throughout the water column. Here, using a compilation of hydrographic observations from 1970 to 2016, we investigate the link between changing sea-ice import and this Arctic warming hotspot. A sharp increase in ocean temperature and salinity is apparent from the mid-2000s, which we show can be linked to a recent decline in sea-ice import and a corresponding loss in freshwater, leading to weakened ocean stratification, enhanced vertical mixing and increased upward fluxes of heat and salt that prevent sea-ice formation and increase ocean heat content. Thus, the northern Barents Sea may soon complete the transition from a cold and stratified Arctic to a warm and well-mixed Atlantic-dominated climate regime. Such a shift would have unknown consequences for the Barents Sea ecosystem, including ice-associated marine mammals and commercial fish stocks.

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Fig. 1: Ocean heat content in the northern Barents Sea, observed during 1970–2016.
Fig. 2: Observed water column shift.
Fig. 3: Observed decline in freshwater content and sea-ice import.
Fig. 4: The frontier region’s dependence on sea-ice import from the interior Arctic domain to sustain its stratification and Arctic climate.

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Acknowledgements

The work of S.L. and R.B.I. was supported by the Institute of Marine Research and the Research Council of Norway (RCN 228896). The work of T.F. was supported by the Centre for Climate Dynamics at the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research. We thank the Institute of Marine Research, Norway, and the Nikolai M. Knipovich Polar Research Institute of Marine Fisheries and Oceanography, Russia, for the oceanographic data; the National Snow and Ice Data Center for the sea-ice concentration and sea-ice drift data sets; the Norwegian Meteorological Institute for the Norwegian meteorological observations; and the Research Institute of Hydrometeorology for the Russian meteorological observations. We also thank E. Jones for checking the language of the manuscript and A. Harbitz for statistical discussions.

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The main idea was developed by S.L. in collaboration with T.F. and R.B.I. Most of the text was written by S.L., who also did the data preparations and most of the data analyses and made the figures. The sea-ice area data set was prepared by R.B.I. All authors contributed with ideas, discussed the results and implications and contributed to the text.

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Correspondence to Sigrid Lind.

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Lind, S., Ingvaldsen, R.B. & Furevik, T. Arctic warming hotspot in the northern Barents Sea linked to declining sea-ice import. Nature Clim Change 8, 634–639 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0205-y

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