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Climate: What if Arctic sea ice doesn’t form in winter?

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Arctic sea ice is on a downward spiral. Visit this NASA Earth Observatory website for information on this image.

New models look at year-round ice-free conditions to find parallels with Pliocene epoch

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — As atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide start to hover around 400 parts per million, climate scientists have been looking back about 3 to 5 million years, to the Pliocene Epoch — the last time heat-trapping greenhouse gases were at a similar level.

But temperatures during the Pliocene were about 3.5 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than today and the sea level was 65 to 80 feet higher. Until now, scientists have assumed that there’s a time lag between atmospheric CO2 levels and the subsequent temperature increases that melt ice and drive ocean levels up.

But new research suggests there’s another element to the equation. Year-round ice-free conditions across the surface of the Arctic Ocean could help explain why the Earth was substantially warmer during the Pliocene Epoch than it is today, University of Colorado-Boulder researchers concluded in their study, published online in the journal Palaeogeography, Paleoclimatology, Palaeoecology.

“When we put 400 ppm carbon dioxide into a model, we don’t get as warm a planet as we see when we look at paleorecords from the Pliocene,” said co-author Jim White, director of CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “That tells us that there may be something missing in the climate models.”

Scientists have proposed several hypotheses in the past to explain the warmer Pliocene climate. One idea, for example, was that the formation of the Isthmus of Panama, the narrow strip of land linking North and South America, could have altered ocean circulations during the Pliocene, forcing warmer waters toward the Arctic. But many of those hypotheses, including the Panama possibility, have not proved viable.

For the new study, led by Ashley Ballantyne, a former CU-Boulder doctoral student who is now an assistant professor of bioclimatology at the University of Montana, the research team decided to see what would happen if they forced the model to assume that the Arctic was free of ice in the winter as well as the summer during the Pliocene. Without these additional parameters, climate models set to emulate atmospheric conditions during the Pliocene show ice-free summers followed by a layer of ice reforming during the sunless winters.

“We tried a simple experiment in which we said, ‘We don’t know why sea ice might be gone all year round, but let’s just make it go away,’ ” said White, who also is a professor of geological sciences. “And what we found was that we got the right kind of temperature change and we got a dampened seasonal cycle, both of which are things we think we see in the Pliocene.”

In the model simulation, year-round ice-free conditions caused warmer conditions in the Arctic because the open water surface allowed for evaporation. Evaporation requires energy, and the water vapor then stored that energy as heat in the atmosphere. The water vapor also created clouds, which trapped heat near the planet’s surface.

“Basically, when you take away the sea ice, the Arctic Ocean responds by creating a blanket of water vapor and clouds that keeps the Arctic warmer,” White said.

White and his colleagues are now trying to understand what types of conditions could bridge the standard model simulations with the simulations in which ice-free conditions in the Arctic are imposed. If they’re successful, computer models would be able to model the transition between a time when ice reformed in the winter to a time when the ocean remained devoid of ice throughout the year.

Such a model also would offer insight into what could happen in our future. Currently, about 70 percent of sea ice disappears during the summertime before reforming in the winter.

“We’re trying to understand what happened in the past but with a very keen eye to the future and the present,” White said. “The piece that we’re looking at in the future is what is going to happen as the Arctic Ocean warms up and becomes more ice-free in the summertime.

“Will we continue to return to an ice-covered Arctic in the wintertime? Or will we start to see some of the feedbacks that now aren’t very well represented in our climate models? If we do, that’s a big game changer.”

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