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Global warming: Arctic snow cover shrinking steadily

Snow up to 50 percent thinner in some parts of Arctic

Ignatius Rigor

A detailed study shows dramatic thinning of the Arctic snow cover in recent decades, especially on the sea ice west of Alaska, Photo courtesy Ignatius Rigor.

Staff Report

FRISCO — Arctic snow cover has thinned significantly in recent decades, especially on sea ice off the west coast of Alaska, with some as-yet unknown consequences for the environment, researchers said this week in a new study accepted for publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans.

In the study, led by scientists with NASA and the University of Washington, the scientists compared and analyzed data from  NASA airborne surveys, collected between 2009 and 2013, with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers buoys frozen into the sea ice, and earlier data from Soviet drifting ice stations in 1937 and from 1954 through 1991.

Results showed that snowpack has thinned from 14 inches to 9 inches (35 cm to 22 cm) in the western Arctic, and from 13 inches to 6 inches (33 cm to 14.5 cm) in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, west and north of Alaska.

That’s a decline in the western Arctic of about a third, and snowpack in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas less than half as thick in spring in recent years compared to the average Soviet-era records for that time of year.

“Knowing exactly the error between the airborne and the ground measurements, we’re able to say with confidence, Yes, the snow is decreasing in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas,” said co-author Ignatius Rigor, an oceanographer at the UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

Historically, Soviets on drifting sea ice used meter sticks and handwritten logs to record snow depth. Today, researchers on the ground use an automated probe similar to a ski pole to verify the accuracy of airborne measurements.

“When you stab it into the ground, the basket move up, and it records the distance between the magnet and the end of the probe,” said first author Melinda Webster, a UW graduate student in oceanography. “You can take a lot of measurements very quickly. It’s a pretty big difference from the Soviet field stations.”

Webster verified the accuracy of airborne data taken during a March 15, 2012 NASA flight over the sea ice near Barrow, Alaska. The following day Webster followed the same track in minus 30-degree temperatures while stabbing through the snow every two to three steps.

The scientists said that the thinner snow cover, especially in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, may be the result of the surface freeze-up happening later in the fall, so the year’s heaviest snowfalls, in September and October, mostly fall into the open ocean.

What thinner snow will mean for the ice is not certain. Deeper snow actually shields ice from cold air, so a thinner blanket may allow the ice to grow thicker during the winter. On the other hand, thinner snow cover may allow the ice to melt earlier in the springtime.

Thinner snow has other effects, Webster said, for animals that use the snow to make dens, and for low-light microscopic plants that grow underneath the sea ice and form the base of the Arctic food web.

The new results support a 15-year-old UW-led study in which Russian and American scientists first analyzed the historic Arctic Ocean snow measurements. That paper detected a slight decline in spring snow depth that the authors believed, even then, was due to a shorter ice-covered season.

“This confirms and extends the results of that earlier work, showing that we continue to see thinning snow on the Arctic sea ice,” said Rigor, who was also a co-author on the earlier paper.

The recent fieldwork was part of NASA’s Operation IceBridge program, which is using aircraft to track changes while NASA prepares to launch a new ice-monitoring satellite in 2017. The team conducted research flights in spring 2012 as part of a larger program to monitor changes in the Arctic.

The research was supported by NASA and the U.S. Interagency Arctic Buoy Program. Co-authors are Son Nghiem at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Nathan Kurtz at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Sinead Farrell at the University of Maryland, Don Perovich at the federal Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory and Matthew Sturm at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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