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Why is southern sea ice increasing?

What the science says...

Select a level... Basic Intermediate

Antarctic sea ice has grown in recent decades despite the Southern Ocean warming at the same time.

Climate Myth...

Southern sea ice is increasing

'Antarctic sea ice set a new record in October 2007, as photographs distributed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed penguins and other cold-weather creatures able to stand farther north on Southern Hemisphere sea ice than has ever been recorded. The news of expanding Antarctic sea ice stole headlines from global warming alarmists who asserted Arctic sea ice had reached its lowest extent since 1979.' (James Taylor)

First of all, it’s worth remembering that sea ice is not to be confused with land ice. This distinction might seem obvious, but the two are often confused in media reports. Sea ice is frozen seawater floating on the surface, whereas land ice is a layer of snow that has accumulated over time on a landmass. Antarctica is losing land ice at an accelerating rate.

However, it is clear that the extent of sea ice around the coast of the continent is growing. Why? The first explanation which comes to mind is that the Southern Ocean must be cooling. But on the contrary, the Southern Ocean has warmed by around 0.5°C in the three decades since satellites began measuring sea ice trends.

The true reasons for the increasing ice are a complex set of factors. One factor is an increase in precipitation over the Southern Ocean, which means more snowfall. However, this trend is expected to reverse in coming decades as the Antarctic continues to warm.

Finally, southern sea ice is not particularly important to the climate. Unlike land ice, sea ice doesn’t affect sea levels because it’s already displacing water. And unlike the situation in the Arctic, where disappearing sea ice is making the Arctic Ocean less reflective and amplifying Arctic warming, a decline in southern sea ice would not warm the Antarctic climate. For as long as climatologists have studied it, the Southern Ocean has been almost ice-free in summer, the time of year when it would receive enough heat from the Sun to have a large effect. The issue of southern sea ice is really just a distraction which diverts our attention from the more important issue of sea ice melt in the Arctic.

In conclusion, the increase of southern sea ice does not contradict global warming. The Southern Ocean is in fact warming, the increase of sea ice is due to a variety of factors, and sea ice is not as important to the Antarctic climate as it is to the Arctic.

Basic rebuttal written by James Wight

Update July 2015:

Here is a related lecture-video from Denial101x - Making Sense of Climate Science Denial

Last updated on 8 July 2015 by pattimer. View Archives

Printable Version  |  Offline PDF Version  |  Link to this page

Argument Feedback

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Comments 1 to 19:

  1. "Goddard commits this error on several occasions." Sorry to nitpick, but your quote at the top was from James Taylor, not Steve Goddard.
    Response: Please, nitpick away. I've removed the Goddard reference which was a hangover from the original post responding to several Goddard posts at Watts Up With That.
  2. I’m not convinced that this problem is well understood yet. My feeling is that it is dangerous to use data from the sea off Antarctica as evidence either for or against AGW, until there is a consistent model covering the whole area. Unfortunately, it might not be so easy to provide one. I’ve been trying to read the literature, and intend to give my dumbed down version of it below, in the hope that someone with more expertise can correct me. OBSERVATIONS: Much of this depends on the “reanalysis” project, that tries to reconstruct climate data for the period 1957-96. It seems clear from Boning el al that there is a measured warming trend of the water of the Southern Ocean (between 30 and 60 degrees south, down to 2000 meters). The reanalysis of temperature records seem (Zhang) to show that in the interval 1979-2004 the air surface temperature in the much smaller “ice covered area” around Antarctica has been rising. There is also a measured increase in Antarctic sea ice extent (Turner et al and references therein) In addition to this there is also a further measured change, related to the Antarctic Oscillation (also called Southern Annular Mode). There are two modes (Thompson & Solomon): High index means cold polar temperatures, strong western winds, and low index means the opposite. This index has been rising, increasing winds and decreasing polar temperature. There is evidence that this development is driven by the “ozone hole”. All of the above seem to comparatively safe. In particular the simplistic argument “more ice means the South Polar Sea is colder” is nonsense, we do know that the Polar Sea is getting warmer, so that the extent of ice on the Ocean is definitely a bad proxy for temperature, But when it comes to explanations of what we see, things look a lot more murky to me. Two main players seem to be the layering of the Southern Ocean water (less dense water above denser water) and the constant western winds around 60 degree. THE EKMAN SPIRAL: The wind possibly contributes to the mixing of layers in an interesting way: the wind drives an ocean current which runs around the Antarctic moving from West to East. This current extends down into the ocean, with the surface water moving fastest, and deeper water moving in the same direction, but slower, Because of the Coriolis effect, the current will try to veer to the left, which means towards the North. Now, since the surface water moves faster than the deeper water, the net effect is stronger at the surface, So surface water will move to the North, which forces deep water to the south. This creates a down-welling North of the current, and an upwelling South of the current. This whole business is called an Ekman spiral. BONING: The paper by Boning et al. quotes measurements that seem to show that even if the circumpolar winds have been increasing, that “Ekman spiral” has not become stronger. They believe that the reason for this is that the increased wind also produces more eddies, which confuse the whole picture. They note the the models that has been used cannot resolve those eddies (they are too small). If they are right, the lack of enhanced mixing of layers in the ocean is not yet theoretically understood. ZHANG: Zhang’s paper is a pure model study The main point of the article is that he can construct a model of the South Sea that agrees with two important seemingly contradictory measured factS: it has a warming ocean, but an increase in sea ice. I think that the mechanism proposed by Zhang is slightly (but not essentially) different from what John describes. The motor driving various changes is the increase in surface temperature. This initially leads to a decrease in production of new sea ice. The top water gets warmer and less salty. Both these changes work in the same direction, they both make the top layer less dense. The next thing that happens is that since the top layer is gets dense, there is less upwelling of warm water. This means that less ice is melted. So now, both less ice is created and less ice is melted. The model says that the change in melting is bigger than the change in the creation of new ice, so the net effect is that we get less ice. But wait? If less ice melts in the top layer, the salinity will increase, counteracting the previous effect? Zhang says that this is so, but we still have to take the warming of the top layer into account! This warming makes the top layer lighter, decreasing mixing of layers. So now there are lots of things going on: Since the top water gets warmer, less ice is produced. On the other hand, less ice is melted by upwelling deeper warm water. Then there is precipitation, but Zhang does not believe that the increase in precipitation is the decisive effect. And the sum of the three effects "creating less new ice", “destroying less old ice" and "warming the water" is actually that the top layer gets less dense - driving the cycle. This all seems a bit subtle for my taste, taking the big uncertainties into account. For instance, what happened to Boning’s eddies, which were supposed to be important? But at least this is a testable model. TURNER: This paper seems to ignore questions of up and down convection in the oceans, the questions that dominated Boning et al. and al. Instead it focuses on the strengthening of the western wind – the high index of the Antarctic oscillation. Another important point of this paper is that they break down the increase in sea ice into geographical areas and seasons. In particular, the ice in the Ross sea (close to the pole) has been increasing, while the ice in the Bellinghausen-Amundsen sea (father from the pole) has been decreasing. This is clearly important, and the regional differences should be explained. There is some modeling going on, but the upshot seems to be unclear (they conclude that it could all be natural variability). The paper is often cited for explaining increased sea ice by the polynyas in the Ross sea. It seems to me that they only suggest this mechanism, but they don’t give strong arguments for it. Possibly I’m missing something.
  3. John, I swear it was somewhere on this site, but I can't find it ... There's a paper from the early 1990s where the GCM the authors were using predicted increasing antarctic ice, which puzzled them, and they found it was the increased precipitation (lowering surface salinity) that was doing it (in the model). It's really quite a coup to have predicted the increase and to have attributed it to one of the mechanisms now believed to underlie the observed increase. If you know what paper I'm talking about, it deserves a shout-out from this page. Thanks!
    Response: I think you must've seen that paper somewhere else - the only papers I include on Antarctic sea ice analyse the trends after the event. But if you do track down this paper, please do post the URL here, thanks!
  4. GFW at 08:16 AM on 25 May, 2010 GFW, this isn't exactly what you're asking for. However many early models of the 80's/90's showed greatly delayed Antarctic warming compared to rapid Arctic warming. This is due (a) to the very large Southern hemisphere oceans and (b) different S and N polar ocean circulation which gives more efficient mixing of surface and deeper waters in the deep S hemisphere, transferring heat from the surface. So, quoting from a recent review of ocean circulation modelling in which the mechanisms for hemispheric warming asymmetry are described illustrates that highly delayed Antarctic Circumpolar ocean warming has been predicted since the early 1980’s. Here’s a bit of a summary from (direct excerpts are in blockquotes): S. Manabe and R. J. Stouffer (2007) Role of Ocean in Global Warming J. Meterolog. Soc. Jpn. 85B 385-403. General point about ocean modulation of surface warming:
    “In response to the increase in greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, the positive temperature anomaly initially appears in the well-mixed surface layer of the ocean called the “mixed layer”. Gradually, the anomaly spreads from the mixed-layer to the deeper layers of the ocean, thereby increasing the effective heat capacity of the oceans. The increase of effective heat capacity, in turn, results in the reduction of the rate of increase in surface temperature, reducing and delaying the warming as shown by Hoffert et al (1980) and Hansen et al. (1984).”
    Discussing the early models of Schneider and Thompson (1981) to evaluate the delay in the response of the sea surface temperature to gradual increase in CO2, Manabe and Stouffer say:
    "Their study shows that the time-dependent response of zonal mean surface temperature differs significantly from its equilibrium response particularly in those latitude belts, where the fraction of ocean-covered area is relatively large. Based upon the study, they conjectured that the response in the Southern Hemisphere should be delayed as compared to that in the Northern Hemisphere because of the inter-hemisphere difference in the fraction of the area covered by the oceans.”
    In a later model Bryan et al (1988) made the same sort of analysis, investigating the role of the oceans in modulating the response of surface warming to enhanced greenhouse gases.
    "They found that the increase in surface temperature is very small in the Circumpolar Ocean of the Southern Hemisphere in contrast to high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere where the increase is relatively large.”
    It’s not just the oceans per so of course. It’s also ocean and air currents, and particularly the mechanisms governing the efficiency of surface heat transfer into the deeper oceans. If this is efficient, the deep oceans will absorb heat and there might be little measured surface warming, at least for a while. So (speaking of Bryan et al (1988)) again:
    "However, the detailed analysis of the numerical experiment reveals that the absence of substantial surface warming in the Circumpolar Ocean is attributable not only to the large fraction of the area covered by the oceans but also to the deep penetration of positive temperature anomaly into the oceans.”
    Later models predict the same hemispherical asymmetry that is seen in the real world. e.g. discussing the simulations of Manabe et al (1992):
    “Figure 3 also reveals that there is a large asymmetry in surface warming between the two hemispheres. In the Northern Hemisphere, the surface warming increases with increasing latitude, and is particularly large in the Arctic Ocean. This is in sharp contrast to the Southern Hemisphere, where warming is relatively large in low latitudes and decreases with increasing latitudes. It becomes small in the Circumpolar Ocean of the Southern Hemisphere, particularly in the immediate vicinity of Antarctic Continent.”
    Why is this, one might ask?! Here’s what Manabe and Stouffer say:
    "One can ask: why the polar amplification of warming does not occur in the Southern Hemisphere, despite the existence of extensive sea ice which has a positive albedo feedback? As discussed in the following section, the absence of significant warming in the Circumpolar Ocean of the Southern hemisphere is attributable mainly to the large thermal inertia of the ocean, which results from very effective mixing between the surface layer and the deeper layers of ocean in this region. This is in sharp contrast to the Arctic Ocean, where very stable layer of halocline prevents mixing between the surface layer and the deeper layer of the ocean" ......."In view of the absence of significant surface warming, it is not surprising that the area coverage of sea ice hardly changes in the Circumpolar Ocean despite the CO2-doubling.”
    n.b. remember this is a prediction from a model involving the response to [CO2] doubling; we’re nowhere near CO2 doubling yet. However these early models predicted what we're seeing in the real world today.
  5. Hi John, found it! (partly thanks to Chris, partly to Stoat (William C.)) Chris, thanks - Manabe et al (1992) is exactly the paper I was remembering, and I finally found the place I saw it described. Bob Grumbine! Now we have Liu & Curry (2010) that seems to be saying very much what Manabe et al said in 1992. Which I'd say is quite a coup for the latter.
  6. Manabe et al. 1991, 1992 Transient responses of a coupled ocean-atmosphere model to gradual changes of atmospheric CO2. Part I: Annual mean response Transient responses of a coupled ocean-atmosphere model to gradual changes of atmospheric CO2 Part II: Seasonal response Want more?
  7. How do the explanations in this article correspond to the 2008 paper by Corr and Vaughn in Nature Geoscience about volcanism affecting the Pine Island Glacier?

  8. newtja, Corr & Vaughan (2008) does not attempt to assess or quantify the effect of volcanic venting on the Pine Island glacier.  The eruption discussed occurred roughly 2k years ago.  It's possible that venting is helping the break up of PI glacier, but as you can see from the article above, and from Shepherd et al. (2013), there are greater factors involved.  You might also check out Vaughan & Corr (2012).  Here are the last lines of their abstract:

    "We conclude that ice-shelf basal melting plays a role in determining patterns of surface and basal crevassing. Increased delivery of warm ocean water into the sub-ice shelf cavity may therefore cause not only thinning but also structural weakening of the ice shelf, perhaps, as a prelude to eventual collapse."

  9. For anybody who likes a relaxing assimilation of some information there's a lecture by Dr. Sarah Gille on the Antartctic ocean, apparently her specialty, on the web at time of my comment. Discusses the contraction that's happened causing cooler oceans near South Pole but warmer at slightly higher lataitudes. Also, a polar atmosphere lecture by Dr. Dan Lubin.

  10. One connection is missing here.  As the westerly winds increase, increasing the push on the sea ice, it increases the speed with which the ice is moving clockwise around the Antarctic.  In the southern hemisphere, moving objects veer to the left.  In a clockwise rotating system, left is away from the centre.  This may be part of the explanation of why the ice is spreading outwards.  We see this in the Bearfort gyre.  It normally rotates clockwise and in the norther hemisphere, moving objects veer to the right.  In a clockwise rotating system in the northern hemisphere, right is toward the centre and indeed, the centre of the Beaufort gyre, contary to one would think at first thought, is higer than the edges.  Ocean garbage patches are also an example of this phenomenon.

  11. Exactly why do we need this page when we already have one called "Antarctica is gaining ice"? It seems like that page covers pretty much the same topic as this one does.


    [DB] This article deals specifically with sea ice in the vicinity of Antarctica.  The other rebuttal deals with both land and sea-based ice.

  12. Southern Ocean: Sea Ice Concentration and Sea Surface Temperature
    Recently there has been a discussion about the link between SST and SIC in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. It is claimed that there has been a drop in temperature in the Southern Ocean with a consequent increase in ice concentration. This is contrary to what you can read on the SKS. However, there are conflicting data.

    If you use data from GISS, HADLEY or Berkeley, it seems that SST is growing in the Southern Ocean. If you are use data from NOAA you arrive at the opposite conclusion, namely that the SST is decreasing.

    So there is a reconciliation issue between the different data sources. At present I have not found any discussions that shed light on the causes of this. NOAA, however, stresses a possible cause:

    “The optimum interpolation (OI) sea surface temperature (SST) analysis is produced weekly on a one-degree grid. The analysis uses in situ and satellite SST's plus SST's simulated by sea-ice cover. Before the analysis is computed, the satellite data is adjusted for biases using the method of Reynolds (1988) and Reynolds and Marsico (1993).”

    This means that you start with ice cover and then you simulate the SST and let this go into calculating the SST. In this way there will be a strong correlation between SST and SIC.

    The following graph shows the development of SST around Antarctica (60S-90S) using data from NOAA monthy sst and sic



    There is at strong correlation beween SST and SIC

    My questions are:
    Is the NOAA data a fact or an artifact?
    Is this in general a story of bad data?

  13. Klaus Flemløse @12.

    What exactly is it you are hoping your last graph demonstrates? I recognise the first three of your graphs. I am not sure of the purpose of the fourth, which appears to be some spectral analysis.

    But the last graph, and I may be mistaken, is plotting Antarctic SIA against SST (90S-60S) and in my book simply demonstrates that ice cover around Antarctica is greater when SST is lower, ie during the Antarctic winter.

  14.  Antarctica
    I have a good question with respect to sea temperature and sea ice: Who leads who?
    It is commonly accepted that there is a feedback between temperature and sea ice. It can go both ways:
    1) Lower temperature causes more sea ice
    2) More sea ice causes lower temperature.
    In the skeptical sphere they believe that 1) is valid.

    However, it is a little more complicated, which is explained in the following article from 1991 by John W. Weatherly :

    Antarctic Sea ice variations and seasonal air temperature relationships

    ABSTRACT Data through 1987 are used to determine the regional and seasonal dependencies of recent trends of Antarctic temperature and sea ice. Lead-lag relationships involving regional sea ice and air temperature are systematically evaluated, with an eye toward the ice-temperature feedbacks that may influence climatic change. Over the 1958-1087 period the temperature trends are positive in all seasons. For the 15 years (l973-l987) for which ice data are available, the trends are predominantly positive only in winter and summer, and are most strongly positive over the Antarctic Peninsula. The spatially aggregated trend of temperature for this latter period is small but positive, while the corresponding trend of ice coverage is small but negative. Lag correlations between seasonal anomalies of the two variables are generally stronger with ice lagging the summer temperatures and with ice leading the winter temperatures. The implication is that summer temperatures predispose the near-surface waters to above-or below-normal ice coverage in the following fall and winter.

    This means that in the summer the temperature leads the sea ice and in the winter the sea ice leads the temperature.

    Question: Does there exist an updated confirmation of this?


  15. @12

    I have tried to include a discontinuity at September 2006 in the sea surface temperature(sst):

    SST at Antartica  jump in data at sep 2006

    In this case the fit is better and the SST is increasing, but not significantly. Is the discontinuity comming from an error in sea ice cover data?

    Can someone tell me if there is a know error in NOAA data around 2005-2010 ? 

    What am I going to believe?



    [RH] Need to keep the width of the images limited or they break the page formatting. I added a zoom so you can see the details (or at least I thought I did). Edit: Okay, next best thing is an added link to the full sized image. ;-)

  16. Klaus Flemløse @15.

    If you look at narrower bands of latitude, the "step function" you have identified occurs between 70ºS and 55ºS. Another feature of such analysis is the decreasing interannual variation with increasing latitude. The variation is strongly linked to ENSO.  I would guess most of the "step function" is actually those high southern latitudes reacting to ENSO which has generally been a lot more negative since 2007 than the period 1981-2006.

  17. Another factor may be at play in the increasing sea ice.  At dept, the melting temperature of fresh water ice is about minus 3C.  The water from the melting ice mixes with the salt water and flows upward under the sloping ice.  It pours out on the surface, fresher than full salinity sea water and super cooled with respect to the freezing temperature at the surface.  This out-flow of water from under the ice pulls in more deep water to melt more ice from the bottom of the ice shelf. 

  18. Argus, you commented that the antarctic has only had low sea ice last year in 2017, and this doesn't constitute  a trend. Fair enough, however the drop in sea ice last year was so dramatic it should count for something, and could be the start of a trend. Only time will confrm this of course.

    Have a look at this graph.

    As you can see in the article above, there are theories on why antarctic sea ice has increased that are compatible with a generally warming climate. Its a sort of anomaly.

    Another example. We also see a few glaciers advancing while most are retreating globally, according to the IPPC. Sceptics somehow bizarely claim this means the climate isn't warming. Surely the obvious rational conclusion is the climate is generally warming, but local weather conditions in a few countries cause some glaciers to advance for a few years. And this is exactly what the science also says.

    Most things point to global warming such as melting ice in the arctic and antarctic continent, global sea level rise, and global temperatures. There are localised exceptions, but there are good explanations for these things.


    [DB] Please note that Argus has recused himself from further participation here, due to frequent violations of the Commenting Policy here and for running a sock puppet user here in addition to his own.

  19. Sea ice in Antarctica was increasing until around 2015 while the temperature was warming up, and then in 2016, the ice started to decrease and reached its lowest record in 2017 as it is said in Ice plays an important role on global warming issue. If we knew the factors which drive the sea ice to changes and how it works, we could understand more about climate change.

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