National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2010

Large-scale atmospheric circulation changes are associated with the recent loss of Arctic sea ice

Overland, J.E., and M. Wang

Tellus, 62A, 1–9, doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0870.2009.00421.x (2010)

Recent loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic is directly connected to shifts in northern wind patterns in the following autumn, which has the potential of altering the heat budget at the cold end of the global heat engine. With continuing loss of summer sea ice to less than 20% of its climatological mean over the next decades, we anticipate increased modification of atmospheric circulation patterns. While a shift to a more meridional atmospheric climate pattern, the Arctic Dipole (AD), over the last decade contributed to recent reductions in summer Arctic sea ice extent, the increase in late summer open water area is, in turn, directly contributing to a modification of large scale atmospheric circulation patterns through the additional heat stored in the Arctic Ocean and released to the atmosphere during the autumn season. Extensive regions in the Arctic during late autumn beginning in 2002 have surface air temperature anomalies of greater than 3°C and temperature anomalies above 850 hPa of 1°C. These temperatures contribute to an increase in the 1000–500 hPa thickness field in every recent year with reduced sea ice cover. While gradients in this thickness field can be considered a baroclinic contribution to the flow field from loss of sea ice, atmospheric circulation also has a more variable barotropic contribution. Thus, reduction in sea ice has a direct connection to increased thickness fields in every year, but not necessarily to the sea level pressure (SLP) fields. Compositing wind fields for late autumn 2002–2008 helps to highlight the baroclinic contribution; for the years with diminished sea ice cover there were composite anomalous tropospheric easterly winds of ∼1.4 m s–1, relative to climatological easterly winds near the surface and upper tropospheric westerlies of ∼3 m s–1. Loss of summer sea ice is supported by decadal shifts in atmospheric climate patterns. A persistent positive Arctic Oscillation pattern in late autumn (OND) during 1988–1994 and in winter (JFM) during 1989–1997 shifted to more interannual variability in the following years. An anomalous meridional wind pattern with high SLP on the North American side of the Arctic—the AD pattern, shifted from primarily small interannual variability to a persistent phase during spring (AMJ) beginning in 1997 (except for 2006) and extending to summer (JAS) beginning in 2005.

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