Independent Media Centre Ireland

Why climate models underestimate Arctic sea ice retreat?

category international | environment | other press author Sunday October 09, 2011 18:23author by P. Rampal - CNRS

The discussion continues as to why climate modelling may underestimate Arctic sea ice loss.

In recent decades, Arctic sea ice has suffered a dramatic decline that exceeds climate model predictions. The unexpected rate of ice shrinkage has now been explained by researchers at CNRS, Université Joseph Fourier and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They argue that climate models underestimate the rate of ice thinning, which is actually about four times faster than calculations. This model bias is due to the poor representation of the sea ice southward drift out of the Arctic basin through the Fram Strait. When this mechanism was taken into account to correct the discrepancy between simulations and observations, results from the new model suggested that there will be no Arctic sea ice in summer by the end of the century. This work was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research on 29 September 2011.

The Arctic has been losing about 10% of its permanent ice layer every ten years since 1980. Melting of Arctic sea ice has also reached record heights: in mid-September 2007, at the point when sea ice reaches its annual minimum extent, perennial ice covered an area of 4.14 million km˛(1). This record low level was nearly reached again in September 2011 (4.34 million km2). Climate simulations conducted for the IPCC(2) simulate the decline in Arctic sea ice resulting from global warming. They predict that summer ice will disappear altogether at the end of this century. However, when compared with 30 years of detailed satellite observations, these models appear optimistic. Arctic sea ice has thinned on average four times faster over the period 1979-2008 than in the climate simulations. True observations are therefore not correctly reproduced by these climate models, which were mainly calibrated using global variables, such as world average rather than “regional” temperature.

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