The principal finding of the new NASA study
, conducted in conjunction with the British Antarctic Study, relates to a significant growth in Antarctic sea ice drift caused by changes in the wind currents around Antarctica observed over the past twenty years. Changes in wind currents can arise due to an alteration in underlying sea temperatures and it is here that the rapid ice loss seen in the Arctic Ocean may be reconciled with what would appear, at first glance, to be conflicting data from the Antarctic. In mid-October Digital Journal reported on the record ice melt of Arctic sea ice
observed by NASA which now has comparative data on the Arctic polar ice cap dating back almost 35 years.
According to NASA and the British Antarctic Survey
, the expansion of Antarctic sea ice is but another facet of climate change, connected to rather than conflicting with the opposite effect observed in the Arctic.
Using maps created by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) which have been built up from five million individual daily measurements of the flows of sea ice around the Antarctic continent, research scientists Ron Kwok of JPL and Paul Holland of the Natural Environment Research Council's British Antarctic Survey, Cambridge, United Kingdom have constructed a model to illustrate what is happening in the Antarctic. For the first time, researchers have been able to show long term changes in the Antarctic sea ice over a period of almost two decades using data collected by four U.S. Defense Meteorological satellites.
Said Holland, the principal author of the report recently published in Nature Geosciences
“Until now these changes in ice drift were only speculated upon, using computer models of Antarctic winds. This study of direct satellite observations shows the complexity of climate change. The total Antarctic sea-ice cover is increasing slowly, but individual regions are actually experiencing much larger gains and losses that are almost offsetting each other overall. We now know that these regional changes are caused by changes in the winds, which in turn affect the ice cover through changes in both ice drift and air temperature. The changes in ice drift also suggest large changes in the ocean surrounding Antarctica, which is very sensitive to the cold and salty water produced by sea-ice growth.
“Sea ice is constantly on the move; around Antarctica the ice is blown away from the continent by strong northward winds. Since 1992 this ice drift has changed. In some areas the export of ice away from Antarctica has doubled, while in others it has decreased significantly.”
It is significant that whereas the headline figure is reporting a growth in Antarctic sea ice, Holland refers to this being a two-way flow with expansion of sea ice in some areas being offset by losses of ice elsewhere in seas around Antarctica.
The northward drift of sea ice could help explain extremes of sea ice growth in some areas of the Southern Ocean around the Antarctic continent by means of a cooling feedback reaction. Sea ice, being white, is highly reflective of the sun’s rays whilst dark sea water in liquid form absorbs heat from the sun. Thus, expanding sea ice can cause a cooling effect encouraging the formation of more sea ice around itself.
The reflective qualities of sea ice means that it plays a significant role in Earth’s environment, not only reflecting heat from the sun back into space but forming a niche habitat for a variety of marine species. At both the North and South polar regions, sea ice reaches its minimum in late summer after months when the polar regions are bathed in 24 hour sunlight. In the Arctic, however, the trend for these summer sea ice minima
has been inexorably downwards, so much so that scientists now predict that the Arctic Ocean will be free of sea ice during the summer before the end of the 21st century.
During Antarctica’s winter freeze, sea ice generally expands and covers an area of the ocean around the polar continent approximately twice the size of Europe. The sea ice, as well as reflecting sunlight, also acts as a blanket insulating the relatively warm seawater beneath from the sub zero temperatures in the air above. Again, changes in the sea ice, with its reflective and insulating qualities, are likely to have unpredictable consequences for the Antarctic continent and, flowing from that, climate change globally.
JPL/British Antarctic Survey says the new study helps in understanding why there should be such a contrast between the two polar regions when it comes to sea ice. While the Arctic appears to be melting at an accelerating rate, over the period of the study, Antarctic sea ice in toto
has actually increased, albeit slightly. The researchers state, however, that the slight net Antarctic increase in sea ice hides the underlying story of large regional increases and decreases, significant localised changes which are wind-driven. The different topography of the Arctic Ocean and Antarctica also provides some clues as to what is happening, scientists say. Whereas the Arctic Ocean is, to all intends and purposes, surrounded by land so that wind flows cannot cause Arctic ice to expand in the same way, in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, northward winds, blowing off the continent, can force sea ice to ‘flow’ northwards as there are no land or continental barriers to halt the flow.
Highlighting how any localised expansion of Antarctic sea ice cannot be seen in isolation, Ron Kwok of JPL says,
“The Antarctic sea ice cover interacts with the global climate system very differently than that of the Arctic, and these results highlight the sensitivity of the Antarctic ice coverage to changes in the strength of the winds around the continent."
The schematic above shows trends in Antarctic sea ice motion over the 19-year study period. Ice motion is shown by arrows, in meters per second per year. The background colors show the change in northward ice speed, with reds being fastest and blues slowest. The image highlights the tremendous variability in wind-driven ice drift around the Antarctic continent. The animation below was prepared from high altitude photographs taken over the period 2003-2010 and shows the winter and summer variance of Antarctic sea ice.
The NASA/British Antarctic Survey report emphasises that it focused on sea ice flows and formation around the Antarctic which has to be distinguished from the land-based Antarctic Ice Sheet, glacial ice, which continues to lose volume. Although not touched on by the report, the wind induced changes in sea ice formation around the Antarctic could result in some glacial ice which would otherwise be ‘locked-in’ by sea ice, tending to calf icebergs which might not otherwise have floated off from the continental ice sheet. Elsewhere, expansion of sea ice could have as yet unforeseen localised effects on the climate.
As with all climate change studies and models, due to the timescales involved in assembling meaningful data, knowing what may happen is fraught with difficulty whilst unfulfilled predictions merely serve to provide ammunition to those who would hold that climate change is a myth. The NASA/British Antarctic Survey study does not attempt to predict what the future may hold, but, just as it is unnecessary to count the spots on a leopard to identify it as a big cat, the study is yet another indication that climate change is here and now, even if some politicians think it’s a pussycat.