There’s a new paper on Antarctic sea-ice in Nature Geoscience so I thought it might be a good time to have a quick look at how this story has developed recently. (The short version: the small increase in Antarctic sea ice is most likely a result of a complicated coruination of: density changes in the surface layer of the Southern Ocean (a result of temperature and salinity changes), which stops warm deep water reaching the surface and melting the sea ice; changing wind patterns (partially a result of ozone depletion) that leads to ice drift increase and increased sea ice extent; and melting from the bottom of ice shelves adding cool water to the ocean surface layer that further reduces deeper warm water reaching the surface and reducing sea ice melt.)
Firstly, though, why does anyone care about Antarctic sea-ice? Well, it’s been increasing a little recently. This isn’t quite what you’d expect in a changing climate where the change is being driven by an increase in energy being retained in the system by an increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
In contrast, we often hear about sea-ice loss in the Arctic, which is often linked with climate change. However, if we compare the Arctic loss with the Antarctic gain you can see that one is clearly more of an issue than the other:
Nonetheless, its still interesting to think about why Antarctic sea ice is increasing.
The best theory around five years ago (Zhang 2007) was that the surface layer of the Southern Ocean was changing density and that this stops the warmer water below getting to the surface and melting the sea ice. The change in density itself is driven by a couple of factors, such as increased evaporation from warmer Southern waters that increases rainfall in the seas around Antarctica and freshens the water and changes in salinity driven by the sea ice changes themselves (sea ice rejects salt as it forms).
Last year, the big advance was the use of satellite observations to show that changing wind patterns in the Southern Hemisphere (which I’ve written about here) were driving the sea ice extent increase via increased ice drift (Holland and Kwok 2012).
The new paper (Bintanja et al. 2013) shows that melting from the bottom of ice shelves – where the Antarctic glaciers flow out over the ocean – produces a layer of cold water that stops warmer water below reaching the surface and slowing sea-ice growth. Although, Holland (of Holland and Kwok) isn’t convinced that the experiments are a good demonstration of the mechanism.
So this is quite a complicated situation to understand. However, the ocean and air temperatures around Antarctica aren’t decreasing so that isn’t the reason for the sea ice increase, even though it may seem like the most obvious. To find out the real reason you need to dig a little deeper.