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NASA study improves forecasts of summer Arctic sea ice

02 March 2017

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The Arctic has been losing sea ice over the past several decades as Earth warms. However, each year, as the sea ice starts to melt in the spring following its maximum wintertime extent, scientists still struggle to estimate exactly how much ice they expect will disappear through the melt season. Now, a new NASA forecasting model based on satellite measurements is allowing researchers to make better estimates.

Forecasts of how much Arctic sea ice will shrink from spring into fall is valuable information for such communities as shipping companies and native people that depend on sea ice for hunting. Many animal and plant species are impacted directly by changes in the coverage of sea ice across the Arctic. Uncertain weather conditions through spring and summer make the forecasting of Arctic sea ice for a given year extremely challenging.

With data from satellites, which have been measuring sea ice in the Arctic since 1979, scientists can easily calculate the downward trend in Arctic sea ice. To make forecasts of how the Arctic sea ice cover might behave in the upcoming year, researchers have several options. The simplest approach is to assume a continuation of the long-term trend into the current year. The problem with this approach is that it will miss outliers - years when the sea ice cover will be a lot higher or lower than expected. Another option is to analyse the physical characteristics of the sea ice cover as the melt season develops, to try to more precisely estimate if the amount of sea ice come September will be more or less than expected from the long-term trend.

Source: NASA

Image credit: Alek Petty/NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center - Small remnants of thicker ice that has survived the summer float among newly formed, thinner ice in this image taken in the Beaufort Sea on 30 September, 2016, past the end of the melt season in the Arctic.