Expert Report

Seasonal-to-Decadal Predictions of Arctic Sea Ice: Challenges and Strategies (2012)

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Recent well documented reductions in the thickness and extent of Arctic sea ice cover, which can be linked to the warming climate, are affecting the global climate system and are also affecting the global economic system as marine access to the Arctic region and natural resource development increase. Satellite data show that during each of the past six summers, sea ice cover has shrunk to its smallest in three decades. The composition of the ice is also changing, now containing a higher fraction of thin first-year ice instead of thicker multi-year ice.

Understanding and projecting future sea ice conditions is important to a growing number of stakeholders, including local populations, natural resource industries, fishing communities, commercial shippers, marine tourism operators, national security organizations, regulatory agencies, and the scientific research community. However, gaps in understanding the interactions between Arctic sea ice, oceans, and the atmosphere, along with an increasing rate of change in the nature and quantity of sea ice, is hampering accurate predictions. Although modeling has steadily improved, projections by every major modeling group failed to predict the record breaking drop in summer sea ice extent in September 2012. Establishing sustained communication between the user, modeling, and observation communities could help reveal gaps in understanding, help balance the needs and expectations of different stakeholders, and ensure that resources are allocated to address the most pressing sea ice data needs.

Key Messages

  • Satellite data show that during each of the past six summers, sea ice cover has shrunk to its smallest in three decades. The composition of the ice is also changing, now containing a higher fraction of thin first-year ice instead of thicker multi-year ice.
  • Although steady progress has been made in understanding Arctic sea ice, many climate models still simulate an Arctic ice pack that is at odds with observations. On average, seasonal forecasts from 21 different research groups underestimated the record loss of Arctic sea ice extent that occurred in September 2012 by more than 1 million square kilometers.
  • Recognizing that there are limitations in current modeling and observational techniques, strategies can be employed to significantly enhance our understanding and predictions of Arctic sea ice cover over seasonal-to-decadal time scales.
  • The most important step to advance sea ice prediction over seasonal to decadal time scales is to establish sustained and coordinated collaboration among the sea ice data user, modeling, and observation communities. A commitment to establishing better communication could help reveal further gaps in understanding of the Arctic environment, and inform effective research activities to generate more accurate, timely, and useful sea ice forecasts.
  • An evaluation of the different methods used to forecast sea ice on a seasonal basis could help scientists understand each method's weaknesses and strengths and select the methods best suited to different stakeholder needs.
  • A highly coordinated process-based study of seasonal sea ice would aid in understanding the impact of the increasing predominance of younger, first-year ice on sea ice predictions and also offer an opportunity to identify, develop, and test observational instruments.
  • Model sensitivity studies can help scientists understand how much specific variables impact model predictions and can also help them prioritize observational needs (e.g., observation types, locations, and coverage).
  • A coordinated experiment with multiple numerical models can help to (a) identify which model components are critical to simulating realistic ice cover and (b) guide decisions regarding model development and expansion to include capabilities and variables of interest to stakeholders.