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An overview of Antarctic ice trends

Posted on 8 November 2009 by John Cook

A common error when discussing Antarctic ice trends is to confuse land ice and sea ice. Simply put, land ice is decreasing while sea ice is increasing. I discuss both trends in more detail in Is Antarctica losing or gaining ice? Disappointingly, even after distinguishing between land ice and sea ice, there are still repeated comments confusing the two (eg - here, here and even an accusation of misinformation). Why is this? Perhaps people are not paying attention. Possibly, it's the result of many articles that confuse the two phenomenon. In How to cherry pick your way to Antarctic land ice gain, we see how one article blurs the line between sea ice and land ice to convince people that Antarctica is gaining land ice. Apparently, this technique is all too successful. Or maybe I just didn't explain it clearly enough. As the third possibility is the only one I can do anything about, I've revamped the Antarctic ice page, hopefully clarifying the issue somewhat. I've also added some recent research and simplified the explanation of sea ice trends. To summarise the situation with Antarctic ice trends:

  • Antarctic land ice is decreasing at an accelerating rate
  • Antarctic sea ice is increasing despite the warming Southern Ocean

Antarctic Land Ice is decreasing

Measuring changes in Antarctic land ice mass has been a difficult process due to the ice sheet's massive size and complexity. However, since 2002 the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites have been able to comprehensively survey the entire ice sheet. The satellites measure changes in gravity to determine mass variations of the entire Antarctic ice sheet. Initial observations found that that most of Antarctic mass loss comes from Western Antarctica (Velicogna 2007). Meanwhile, East Antarctica is in approximate mass balance. The ice gained in the interior is roughly balanced by the ice loss at the edges. This is illustrated in Figure 1 which contrasts the ice mass changes in West Antarctica (red) compared to East Antarctica (green):

Figure 1: Ice mass changes (solid lines with circles) and their best-fitting linear trends (dashed line) for the West Antarcica Ice Sheet (red) and East Antarcica Ice Sheet (green) for April 2002 to August 2005 (Velicogna 2007).

As more GRACE data came in, a clearer understanding of the Antarctic ice sheet emerges. Figure 2 shows the ice mass changes in Antarctica for the period April 2002 to February 2009 (Velicogna 2009) . The blue line/crosses show the unfiltered, monthly values. The red crosses have seasonal variability removed. The green line is the best fitting trend.

Figure 2: Ice mass changes for the Antarctic ice sheet from April 2002 to February 2009. Unfiltered data are blue crosses. Data filtered for the seasonal dependence are red crosses. The best-fitting quadratic trend is shown as the green line (Velicogna 2009).

With the longer time series, a statistically significant trend now emerges. Not only is Antarctica losing land ice, the ice loss is accelerating at a rate of 26 Gigatonnes/yr2. The Antarctic ice sheet plays an important role in the total contribution to sea level. That contribution is continuously and rapidly growing.

Antarctic Sea Ice is increasing

Antarctic sea ice has shown long term growth since satellites began measurements in 1979. This is an observation that has been often cited by skeptics as proof against global warming. However, rarely is the question raised: why is Antarctic sea ice increasing? The implicit assumption is that if Antarctic sea ice is growing, it must be cooling around Antarctica. This is decidely not the case. In fact, the Southern Ocean has been warming faster than the rest of the world's oceans. Globally from 1955 to 1995, ocean have been warming at 0.1°C per decade. In contrast, the Southern Ocean has been warming at 0.17°C per decade. Not only is the Southern Ocean warming, it is warming faster than the global trend.

Figure 3: Surface air temperature over the ice-covered areas of the Southern Ocean (top). Sea ice extent, observed by satellite (bottom). (Zhang 2007)

If the Southern Ocean is warming, why is Antarctic sea ice increasing? There are several contributing factors. One is the drop in ozone levels over Antarctica. The hole in the ozone layer above the South Pole has caused cooling in the stratosphere (Gillet 2003). This strengthens the cyclonic winds that circle the Antarctic continent (Thompson 2002). The wind pushes sea ice around, creating areas of open water known as polynyas. More polynyas leads to increased sea ice production (Turner 2009).

Another contributor is changes in ocean circulation. The Southern Ocean consists of a layer of cold water near the surface and a layer of warmer water below. Water from the warmer layer rises up to the surface, melting sea ice. However, as air temperatures warm, the amount of rain and snowfall also increases. This freshens the surface waters. So now you have a surface layer that is less dense than the saltier, warmer water below. The layers become more stratified and mix less. Less heat is transported upwards from the deeper, warmer layer. Hence less sea ice is melted (Zhang 2007).

The bottom line is Antarctic sea ice is a complex and unique phenomenon. The simplistic interpretation that it must be cooling around Antarctica is decidedly not the case. Warming is happening - how it affects specific regions is complicated.

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Comments 1 to 13:

  1. Clearly these disparate phenomena (land versus sea ice) are better explained by the Sun than by greenhouse gases because, uh, actually no, it's all because of ocean cycles and stuff and, erm, or really this is all just a case of unreliable data and analyses -- the scientists are just trying to get more funding by producing confusing results!
    More seriously (but perhaps still trivially), has this measurably increased the albedo of Antarctica and thereby provided any negative feedback at all? Or, more generally, are there important impacts (besides effects on sea ice) of warmer salty water being overlaid by a thicker layer of cold fresher water?
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  2. Regarging sea ice increase in Antarctica, there's also a good summary in this NASA note. They also mention that flooded sea ice turns snow to ice.
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  3. I'd also like to add this papers regarding sea ice in Antarctica:
    1) Stratospheric ozone:
    Shindell & Schmidt 2004
    2) Freshening (and stratification) of surface waters:
    Jacobs et al 2002
    3) Snow turned into ice:
    Cavalieri et al 1997, where they say: "The observed hemispheric asymmetry in these trends is consistent with a modeled response to a carbon dioxide-induced climate warming".
    Markus & Cavalieri 2006 (pdf available here
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  4. According to the graph, antartic sea ice has grown in area by some 0.7 x 10E12 m2 in 23 years, so I would expect a measurable increase in albedo.
    Also pertinent is the mass of sea ice. Assuming a mean ice thickness of 62cm this equates to .45 x 10E12 m3 of ice...or 450 Gtonnes...about equal to the land loss from 2002 to 2005. Agreed the rates of growth/loss are not in balance, but would we expect them to be?
    As sea ice extends, so I would expect less snowfall in the interior and thus less replenishment of land-ice melt.
    Are there any longer time series for Antartic ice cover?
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  5. Mizimi,
    this post was actually devoted to clarify the difference between sea and land ice. Mass balance should be done for land ice, being sea ice seasonal and formed by compleately different processes.
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  6. OFF TOPIC (but only just)

    Interesting paper in GRL about artic ice "Extraordinary September Arctic sea ice reductions and their relationships with storm behavior over 1979–2008"

    Interesting because it looks at different mechanisms for ice loss in the artic than temperature. In short they found a relationship between artic ice minimum and cyclone activity (strength). Of course this only shows a relationship in doesn't give cause or effect. Although the authors, as is their right, seculate on this.
    The simple idea that hotter planet=less artic ice maybe too simple to explain reality. An inconvinient truth?
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    Response: Thanks for the link. I've updated the link to a publically accessible version. Simmonds 2009 is an interesting paper - it basically confirms the results of Gascard 2008 who found cyclonic conditions in 2007 transported sea ice out of the Arctic. It also repeats the conclusion of Nghiem 2007 who found that similar cyclonic conditions have occured before but that with the long term trend of thinning Arctic sea ice, the sea ice is much more vulnerable to getting broken up and transported out of the Arctic. I go into more detail elsewhere explaining Arctic sea icemelt - I suggest you post any on-topic comments there.
  7. Riccardo: but the extent of sea ice affects precipitation in the interior, so I do not see that you can realistically separate the two. In addition, sea ice growth affects albedo whereas land ice decline does not ( at least until bedrock is uncovered).
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  8. Mizimi,
    I talked about mass balance not precipitations or whatever.
    As for albedo, given that sea ice grows during winter when there's almost no sun, I doubt it will have any significant effect.
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  9. Very good post. That´s something I occasionally mixed up too.

    As usual, with the relevant references. Thanks John.
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  10. there is an antarctic post on realclimate too.
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    Response: I've updated your URL to directly link to the Antarctic post - it won't be on the RC homepage forever.
  11. Why delete the discussion on GPS data?
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    Response: I haven't deleted the GPS discussion, it can be found at the "official" Antarctic ice page as opposed to this page which is just a blog post. I know it can be a bit confusing, especially when content is duplicated (the website was originally never intended to have a blog - I caved to peer pressure on that point). For the record, the exchange between SNRatio and Chris about Bevis 2009 is the kind of discussion I like to see on this website - poring over the peer reviewed research to gain a clearer picture on what's happening with Antarctic ice.
  12. A skeptic recently showed me that the IPCC 2007 blamed the West Antarctic ice loss on ongoing grounding line retreat since the Last Glacial Maximum:

    "They found [...] a trend in antarctic shrinkage of about 90 Gt yr–1, primarily because of retreat of the West Antarctic grounding line in response to the end of the last ice age" (p 366)

    The references are Huybrechts 2002 (abstract) and Huybrechts et al 2004 (full pdf): "quite large thinning rates up to 30 cm/year over the West Antarctic ice sheet, related to ongoing grounding line retreat since the Last Glacial Maximum".

    I don't know if they are speaking about the same thing...

    He, of course, also pointed that the glaciar rebound was overestimated (Bevis et al 2009 - press) and it may substract around 33 Gt/yr from GRACE estimates. From the linear trend (143 ± 73 Gt /año), that would leave 110 Gt/yr, from which 90 Gt/yr would be natural (according to IPCC-Huybrechts) and just around 20 Gt/yr that might be human-related. :P

    Quite elaborated, I must admit it...
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  13. Is it possible to get data for land ice somewhere easy?
    I would like a longer periode to analyse on.
    For me 5 years isnt really enough to show a trend.
    Because if 5 years was enough for that, you could cherry pick and find data that actually shows that co2 has nothing to do with global warming.

    So a period of 40-50 years of data around land ice would be super, if anyone could help me with finding the right place to look.
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