Scientists have been tracking snow depth on Arctic sea ice for almost a century, using research stations on drifting ice floes and today’s radar-equipped aircraft.
Now that people are more concerned than ever about what is happening at the poles, a new study confirms that snow has thinned significantly in the Arctic, particularly on sea ice in western waters near Alaska.
The new assessment, accepted for publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, a publication of the American Geophysical Union, combines data collected by ice buoys and NASA aircraft with historic data from ice floes staffed by Soviet scientists from the late 1950s through the early 1990s to track changes over decades.
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 moves up, and it records the distance between the magnet and the end of the probe,” said Melinda Webster, a graduate student in oceanography at the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, and first author on the study. “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 authors compared 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 35 centimeters to 22 centimeters (14 inches to 9 inches ) in the western Arctic, and from 33 cm to 14.5 cm (13 in to 6 in) 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 measures 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.
UW and NASA researchers led the study. The authors speculate the reason for the thinner snow, especially in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, may be that the surface freeze-up is 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 study, also led by the University of Washington, 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.
The American Geophysical Union is dedicated to advancing the Earth and space sciences for the benefit of humanity through its scholarly publications, conferences, and outreach programs. AGU is a not-for-profit, professional, scientific organization representing more than 62,000 members in 144 countries. Join our conversation on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media channels.
Notes for Journalists:
Journalists and public information officers (PIOs) of educational and scientific institutions who have registered with AGU can download a PDF copy of this accepted article by clicking on this link: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2014JC009985/abstract
Or, you may order a copy of the final paper by emailing your request to Peter Weiss at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please provide your name, the name of your publication, and your phone number.
Neither the paper nor this press release is under embargo.
“Interdecadal changes in snow depth on Arctic sea ice”
Melinda A. Webster: Polar Science Center, Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA;
Ignatius G. Rigor: Polar Science Center, Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA;
Son V. Nghiem: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, USA;
Nathan T. Kurtz: Hydrospheric and Biospheric Sciences Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, USA;
Sinead L. Farrell: Hydrospheric and Biospheric Sciences Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, USA; and Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, USA;
Donald K. Perovich: US Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research and Development Center, Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, Hanover, New Hampshire, USA;
Matthew Sturm: Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska, USA.
Contact information for authors:
Melinda Webster: email@example.com . Webster is on travel until late August but will have email access at least once a day.
Ignatius Rigor: +1 (206) 685-2571, firstname.lastname@example.org
Peter Weiss | American Geophysical Union
Unexpected information about Earth's climate history from Yellow River sediment
09.10.2015 | Uppsala University
09.10.2015 | Schweizerischer Nationalfonds SNF
Nondestructive material testing (NDT) is a fast and effective way to analyze the quality of a product during the manufacturing process. Because defective materials can lead to malfunctioning finished products, NDT is an essential quality assurance measure, especially in the manufacture of safety-critical components such as automotive B-pillars. NDT examines the quality without damaging the component or modifying the surface of the material. At this year's Blechexpo trade fair in Stuttgart, Fraunhofer IZFP will have an exhibit that demonstrates the nondestructive testing of high-strength automotive body parts using 3MA. The measurement results are available in a matter of seconds.
To minimize vehicle weight and fuel consumption while providing the highest level of crash safety, automotive bodies are reinforced with elements made from...
The MICADO camera, a first light instrument for the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), has entered a new phase in the project: by agreeing to a Memorandum of Understanding, the partners in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria, and Italy, have all confirmed their participation. Following this milestone, the project's transition into its preliminary design phase was approved at a kick-off meeting held in Vienna. Two weeks earlier, on September 18, the consortium and the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which is building the telescope, have signed the corresponding collaboration agreement.
As the first dedicated camera for the E-ELT, MICADO will equip the giant telescope with a capability for diffraction-limited imaging at near-infrared...
Self-driving cars will be on our streets in the foreseeable future. In Graz, research is currently dedicated to an innovative driver assistance system that takes over control if there is a danger of collision. It was nature that inspired Dr Manfred Hartbauer from the Institute of Zoology at the University of Graz: in dangerous traffic situations, migratory locusts react around ten times faster than humans. Working together with an interdisciplinary team, Hartbauer is investigating an affordable collision detector that is equipped with artificial locust eyes and can recognise potential crashes in time, during both day and night.
Inspired by insects
An interdisciplinary team of researchers has built the first prototype of a miniature particle accelerator that uses terahertz radiation instead of radio...
At present, tiny magnetic whirls – so called skyrmions – are discussed as promising candidates for bits in future robust and compact data storage devices. At...
01.10.2015 | Event News
30.09.2015 | Event News
17.09.2015 | Event News
09.10.2015 | Earth Sciences
09.10.2015 | Life Sciences
09.10.2015 | Life Sciences