Nav: Home

The Transpolar Drift is faltering -- sea ice is now melting before it can leave the nursery

April 02, 2019

The dramatic loss of ice in the Arctic is influencing sea-ice transport across the Arctic Ocean. As experts from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research report in a new study, today only 20 percent of the sea ice that forms in the shallow Russian marginal seas of the Arctic Ocean actually reaches the Central Arctic, where it joins the Transpolar Drift; the remaining 80 percent of the young ice melts before it has a chance to leave its 'nursery'. Before 2000, that number was only 50 percent. According to the researchers, this development not only takes us one step closer to an ice-free summer in the Arctic; as the sea ice dwindles, the Arctic Ocean stands to lose an important means of transporting nutrients, algae and sediments. The new study will be released as a freely accessible Open Access article in the online journal Scientific Reports on 2 April 2019.

The shallow Russian shelf or marginal seas of the Arctic Ocean are broadly considered to be the 'nursery' of Arctic sea ice: in winter, the Barents Sea, Kara Sea, Laptev Sea and East Siberian Sea constantly produce new sea ice. This is due to extremely low air temperatures down to minus 40 degrees Celsius, and a strong offshore wind that drives the young ice out to the open sea. In the course of the winter, the sea ice is eventually caught up in the Transpolar Drift, one of the two main currents in the Arctic Ocean. In two to three years' time, it transports the ice floes from the Siberian part of the Arctic Ocean, across the Central Arctic, and into the Fram Strait, where it finally melts. Two decades ago, roughly half the ice from Russia's shelf seas made this transarctic journey. Today only 20 percent does; the other 80 percent of the young ice melts before it can become a year old and reach the Central Arctic.

Experts from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) came to this troubling conclusion after monitoring and analysing the sea ice's movements with the aid of satellite data from 1998 to 2017. "Our study shows extreme changes in the Arctic: the melting of sea ice in the Kara Sea, Laptev Sea and East Siberian Sea is now so rapid and widespread that we're seeing a lasting reduction in the amount of new ice for the Transpolar Drift. Now, most of the ice that still reaches the Fram Strait isn't formed in the marginal seas, but comes from the Central Arctic. What we're witnessing is a major transport current faltering, which is bringing the world one major step closer to a sea-ice-free summer in the Arctic," says first author Dr Thomas Krumpen, a sea-ice physicist at the Alfred Wegener Institute.

This trend has been confirmed by the outcomes of sea-ice thickness measurements taken in the Fram Strait, which the AWI sea-ice physicists gather on a regular basis. "The ice now leaving the Arctic through the Fram Strait is, on average, 30 percent thinner than it was 15 years ago. The reasons: on the one hand, rising winter temperatures in the Arctic and a melting season that now begins much earlier; on the other, this ice is no longer formed in the shelf seas, but much farther north. As a result, it has far less time to drift through the Arctic and grow into thicker pack ice," Thomas Krumpen explains.

Those ice floes that the Transpolar Drift still carries to the Fram Strait are for the most part formed in the open sea, i.e., in regions of the Arctic Oceans far from the coasts. Consequently, compared to ice from the shelf seas, they contain significantly fewer particles like algae, sediments and nutrients - because waves, wind and tides stir up far more particles from the seafloor in shallow coastal zones than on the high seas. In addition, rivers like the Lena and the Yenisei carry major quantities of minerals and sediments to coastal areas; when the water freezes, they become trapped in the ice.

Whereas in the past, sea ice from the shelf seas transported this mineral load to the Fram Strait, today the melting floes release it on their way to the Central Arctic; what reaches the Fram Strait is less material, and with a different composition. This finding is a result e.g. of analysis of samples obtained by means of sediment traps that AWI biologists have been conducting in the Fram Strait for about two decades. "Instead of Siberian minerals, we're now finding more remains of dead algae and microorganisms in our sediment traps," says co-author Eva-Maria Nöthig. In the long term, this altered sea-ice-based particle transport is likely to produce lasting changes in the biogeochemical cycles and ecological processes of the central Arctic Ocean.

The evolution of sea ice and the ecological processes in the Arctic Ocean are also key research questions that will be addressed during the MOSAiC expedition, which will begin this September. The German research icebreaker Polarstern will journey to the Arctic and drift with the Transpolar Drift through the Arctic Ocean for an entire year, intentionally trapped in the ice. 600 people from 17 countries will take part in the expedition, which will be regularly resupplied by aircraft and other icebreakers; moreover, many times that number of experts will use the resulting data to take climate and ecosystem research to a new level. MOSAiC, the greatest Arctic research expedition in history, will be spearheaded by the Alfred Wegener Institute.
Original Publication: Thomas Krumpen, H. Jakob Belter, Antje Boetius, Ellen Damm, Christian Haas, Stefan Hendricks, Marcel Nicolaus, Eva-Maria Nöthig, Stephan Paul, Ilka Peeken, Robert Ricker, Rüdiger Stein: Arctic warming interrupts the Transpolar Drift and affects longrange transport of sea ice and ice-rafted matter, Scientific Reports, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-41456-y

Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research

Related Sea Ice Articles:

2020 Arctic sea ice minimum at second lowest on record
NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado Boulder shows that the 2020 minimum extent, which was likely reached on Sept.
Sea ice triggered the Little Ice Age, finds a new study
A new study finds a trigger for the Little Ice Age that cooled Europe from the 1300s through mid-1800s, and supports surprising model results suggesting that under the right conditions sudden climate changes can occur spontaneously, without external forcing.
How much will polar ice sheets add to sea level rise?
Over 99% of terrestrial ice is bound up in the ice sheets covering Antarctic and Greenland.
A snapshot of melting Arctic sea ice during the summer of 2018
A study appearing July 29 in the journal Heliyon details the changes that occurred in the Arctic in September of 2018, a year when nearly 10 million kilometers of sea ice were lost throughout the summer.
Antarctic penguins happier with less sea ice
Researchers have been surprised to find that Adélie penguins in Antarctica prefer reduced sea-ice conditions, not just a little bit, but a lot.
Seasonal sea ice changes hold clues to controlling CO2 levels, ancient ice shows
New research has shed light on the role sea ice plays in managing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.
Artificial intelligence could revolutionize sea ice warnings
Today, large resources are used to provide vessels in the polar seas with warnings about the spread of sea ice.
Antarctic sea ice loss explained in new study
Scientists have discovered that the summer sea ice in the Weddell Sea sector of Antarctica has decreased by one million square kilometres -- an area twice the size of Spain -- in the last five years, with implications for the marine ecosystem.
Antarctic sea-ice models improve for the next IPCC report
All the new coupled climate models project that the area of sea ice around Antarctica will decline by 2100, but the amount of loss varies considerably between the emissions scenarios.
Earth's glacial cycles enhanced by Antarctic sea-ice
A 784,000 year climate simulation suggests that Southern Ocean sea ice significantly reduces deep ocean ventilation to the atmosphere during glacial periods by reducing both atmospheric exposure of surface waters and vertical mixing of deep ocean waters; in a global carbon cycle model, these effects led to a 40 ppm reduction in atmospheric CO2 during glacial periods relative to pre-industrial level, suggesting how sea ice can drive carbon sequestration early within a glacial cycle.
More Sea Ice News and Sea Ice Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: The Power Of Spaces
How do spaces shape the human experience? In what ways do our rooms, homes, and buildings give us meaning and purpose? This hour, TED speakers explore the power of the spaces we make and inhabit. Guests include architect Michael Murphy, musician David Byrne, artist Es Devlin, and architect Siamak Hariri.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#576 Science Communication in Creative Places
When you think of science communication, you might think of TED talks or museum talks or video talks, or... people giving lectures. It's a lot of people talking. But there's more to sci comm than that. This week host Bethany Brookshire talks to three people who have looked at science communication in places you might not expect it. We'll speak with Mauna Dasari, a graduate student at Notre Dame, about making mammals into a March Madness match. We'll talk with Sarah Garner, director of the Pathologists Assistant Program at Tulane University School of Medicine, who takes pathology instruction out of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

What If?
There's plenty of speculation about what Donald Trump might do in the wake of the election. Would he dispute the results if he loses? Would he simply refuse to leave office, or even try to use the military to maintain control? Last summer, Rosa Brooks got together a team of experts and political operatives from both sides of the aisle to ask a slightly different question. Rather than arguing about whether he'd do those things, they dug into what exactly would happen if he did. Part war game part choose your own adventure, Rosa's Transition Integrity Project doesn't give us any predictions, and it isn't a referendum on Trump. Instead, it's a deeply illuminating stress test on our laws, our institutions, and on the commitment to democracy written into the constitution. This episode was reported by Bethel Habte, with help from Tracie Hunte, and produced by Bethel Habte. Jeremy Bloom provided original music. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at     You can read The Transition Integrity Project's report here.