PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A new study led by researchers at Brown offers fresh insights into the forces above and beneath the ocean surface that influence how sea ice moves and disperses in the Arctic Ocean, which is warming at over twice the rate of the global average.
The in-depth analysis reveals how local tidal currents strongly affect the movement of the ice along its journey and provides an unprecedented look at how the makeup of the seafloor is causing some of the most abrupt changes.
Data from the study can be applied to improve complex computer simulations used for forecasting Arctic sea ice conditions, and in the long-term, the results may help clarify how climate change is altering the Arctic and inform future climate predictions.
“The ice is clearly feeling the influence of the bottom of the ocean,” said Daniel Watkins, a postdoctoral researcher at Brown and lead author of the new study published in Geophysical Research Letters. “The landscape at the ocean floor, like canyons and continental shelves, affects tides and other ocean currents. And as it drifts, the sea ice passes over many different undersea features. We see sharp changes in the dynamics of the sea ice as soon as it gets to those undersea features.”
Using data from the largest ever drifting sea-ice buoy array, along with 20 years of satellite images, the researchers examined sea ice motion as it drifted from the Arctic Ocean through a deep-water passage called the Fram Strait and eventually into the Greenland Sea. The analysis revealed the seafloor’s impact on some of the most abrupt changes affecting the sea ice, like dramatic gains in speed or motions that force the ice to pack in close together or even break apart.
“What we see with this dataset is a transition from the central Arctic, where the ice is mostly moving as a whole and following wind patterns, to areas where we’re seeing much stronger impacts of ocean currents,” Watkins said.
The Arctic is the fastest warming part of the globe and it has long been understood that sea ice in the region plays an important role in the planet’s climate. For instance, the ice acts like a reflective surface deflecting how much sunlight is absorbed by the Earth. As it disappears, more sunlight is absorbed, leading to a warmer planet. Many scientists also expect that as Arctic ice vanishes, weather across the Northern Hemisphere will be impacted, producing periods of bitter cold, punishing heat waves and disastrous floods.
With the study, the researchers wanted to delve deeper into the changes happening in this critically important part of the Earth. Much of the data for the study was gathered during the largest polar expedition in history — the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate.
Comprehensive research reveals sudden increases in ice speed
During the expedition, teams of researchers took turns spending a year drifting with the sea ice aboard a massive German icebreaker in the Arctic Ocean. Watkins was there for two weeks in October 2019 to help install a network of autonomous sensors around the base camp. While there, Watkins coordinated helicopter flights to remote patches of sea ice, worked with analysts to find suitable sites for instruments and buoys and deployed them on the ice.