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Sea-ice-free Arctic during the Last Interglacial supports fast future loss

Abstract

The Last Interglacial (LIG), a warmer period 130,000–116,000 years before present, is a potential analogue for future climate change. Stronger LIG summertime insolation at high northern latitudes drove Arctic land summer temperatures 4–5 °C higher than in the pre-industrial era. Climate model simulations have previously failed to capture these elevated temperatures, possibly because they were unable to correctly capture LIG sea-ice changes. Here, we show that the latest version of the fully coupled UK Hadley Center climate model (HadGEM3) simulates a more accurate Arctic LIG climate, including elevated temperatures. Improved model physics, including a sophisticated sea-ice melt-pond scheme, result in a complete simulated loss of Arctic sea ice in summer during the LIG, which has yet to be simulated in past generations of models. This ice-free Arctic yields a compelling solution to the long-standing puzzle of what drove LIG Arctic warmth and supports a fast retreat of future Arctic summer sea ice.

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Fig. 1: Annual cycle and sea-ice concentration maps for the LIG and PI simulations.
Fig. 2: Comparison of observed and simulated temperatures for the LIG.
Fig. 3: LIG minus PI top-of-atmosphere radiative forcing and surface energy balance anomalies.
Fig. 4: ECS and year of September sea-ice disappearance for CMIP3, CMIP5 and CMIP6 models.

Data availability

The CMIP3-6 model data used in this study to compute ECS and ice-free years are available from the Earth System Grid Federation (https://esgf-node.llnl.gov/). The HadCM3 and HadGEM3 model outputs used to support the findings of this study are available from http://gws-access.ceda.ac.uk/public/pmip4/vittoria/CMIP6LIG_HadGEM3_CMIP3_HadCM3/. The HadGEM3 model outputs prepared for CMIP6 can be found at https://doi.org/10.22033/ESGF/CMIP6.419 (ref. 54). The authors declare that all other data are available in the paper and its Supplementary Information.

Code availability

The source code of the HadCM3 model and the HadGEM3 model’s atmospheric component (Unified Model) is available under licence. To apply for a licence, go to http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/research/modelling-systems/unified-model. JULES is available under licence free of charge; see https://jules-lsm.github.io/. The NEMO model code is available from http://www.nemo-ocean.eu. The model code for CICE can be downloaded from https://code.metoffice.gov.uk/trac/cice/browser.

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Acknowledgements

M.-V.G. acknowledges support from NERC research grant no. NE/P013279/1. L.C.S. acknowledges support through grant nos NE/P013279/1, NE/P009271/1 and EU-TiPES. The project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no. 820970. D.S. acknowledges support from the NERC-UKESM program. I.M.-V. acknowledges support from a NERC PhD studentship and EU-TiPES. E.W. is supported by a Royal Society Research Professorship. E.J.S. and C.B. acknowledge support by the US National Science Foundation through NSFGEO-NERC award no. 1602435. This work used the ARCHER UK National Supercomputing Service (http://www.archer.ac.uk) and the JASMIN data analysis platform (http://jasmin.ac.uk/). In addition, we thank S. Belt for helpful discussions on IP25 LIG sea-ice interpretations, B. Otto-Bliesner for providing the published CMIP5 LIG summer temperature observations and NCAS for supporting the LIG model simulations.

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Contributions

L.C.S. oversaw the direction and formulation of the research. M.-V.G. carried out the HadGEM3 simulations and analysed all simulation results. D.S. helped guide the interpretation of the simulation results. I.M.-V. ran the HadCM3 simulations. E.R. helped with the CMIP3-6 projected sea-ice-free analysis. M.R. computed the CMIP6 ECS data. J.R. assisted with the HadGEM3 data post-processing. All authors read the manuscript and provided comments. L.C.S. and M.-V.G. wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Maria-Vittoria Guarino or Louise C. Sime.

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Guarino, MV., Sime, L.C., Schröeder, D. et al. Sea-ice-free Arctic during the Last Interglacial supports fast future loss. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 928–932 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0865-2

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