Resolving the Paradox of the Antarctic Sea Ice

While Arctic sea ice has been diminishing in recent decades, the Antarctic sea ice extent has been increasing slightly.  Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology provide an explanation for the seeming paradox of increasing Antarctic sea ice in a warming climate. The paper appears in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science the week of August 16, 2010.

“We wanted to understand this apparent paradox so that we can better understand what might happen to the Antarctic sea ice in the coming century with increased greenhouse warming,” said Jiping Liu, a research scientist in Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

For the last half of the 20th Century, as the atmosphere warmed, the hydrological cycle accelerated and there was more precipitation in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica.  This increased precipitation, mostly in the form of snow, stabilized the upper ocean and insulated it from the ocean heat below. This insulating effect reduced the amount of melting occurring below the sea ice. In addition, snow has a tendency to reflect atmospheric heat away from the sea ice, which reduced melting from above.

However, the climate models predict an accelerated warming exceeding natural variability with increased loading of greenhouse gases in the 21st century. This will likely result in the sea ice melting at a faster rate from both above and below. Here’s how it works. Increased warming of the atmosphere is expected to heat the upper ocean, which will increase the melting of the sea ice from below. In addition, increased warming will also result in a reduced level of snowfall, but more rain.  Because rain doesn’t reflect heat back the way snow does, this will enhance the melting of the Antarctic sea ice from above.

“Our finding raises some interesting possibilities about what we might see in the future. We may see, on a time scale of decades, a switch in the Antarctic, where the sea ice extent begins to decrease,” said Judith A. Curry, chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech.

The Georgia Institute of Technology is one of the world's premier research universities. Ranked seventh among U.S. News & World Report's top public universities and the eighth best engineering and information technology university in the world by Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities, Georgia Tech’s more than 20,000 students are enrolled in its Colleges of Architecture, Computing, Engineering, Liberal Arts, Management and Sciences. Tech is among the nation's top producers of women and minority engineers. The Institute offers research opportunities to both undergraduate and graduate students and is home to more than 100 interdisciplinary units plus the Georgia Tech Research Institute.