The Environment of the Arctic: Climate, Ocean and Sea Ice (TEA-COSI)

Lead Research Organisation: British Antarctic Survey
Department Name: Science Programmes


Look at a map of the world and find the Shetland Islands. Follow the 60 degrees north latitude circle eastwards. You pass through St. Petersburg, the Ural Mountains, Siberia, the Bering Sea, Alaska, northern Canada, the southern tip of Greenland, then back to the Shetlands. All these places are cold, harsh environments, particularly in winter, except the Shetlands, which is wet and windy but quite mild all year. This is because in the UK we benefit from heat brought northwards by the Atlantic Ocean in a current called the Conveyor Belt. This current is driven by surface water being made to sink by the extreme cold in and around the Arctic. It returns southwards through the Atlantic at great depths. Scientists think it is possible that the Conveyor Belt could slow down or stop, and if it did, the UK would get much colder.

We know the planet has been warming for the last century or more, and we think this is due to the Greenhouse Effect. Burning fossil fuels puts a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which stops heat from leaving the Earth, like the glass in a greenhouse. In a warming world, ice melts faster, and there is a lot of ice on the Earth: ice caps on Greenland and Antarctica, sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans, glaciers in high mountains. And we know that the Arctic is the fastest-warming part of the planet. This causes extra amounts of fresh water to flow into the oceans. Now this fresh water can affect the Conveyor Belt by acting like a lid of water too light to sink, so the Conveyor Belt stops.

What is the chance of this happening? We do not know, because there is much we do not understand about how the Arctic Ocean works. You need a powerful icebreaker to get into the Arctic Ocean, and that's only really possible in the summer, because in winter the sea ice thickens and the weather is bad. Scientists all over the world agree that the Arctic Ocean is important because it contains a lot of freshwater, which is why, although it is difficult to make measurements in the Arctic, the UK's Natural Environment Research Council has decided to fund a programme of scientific research in the Arctic.

We want to be able to make better predictions of how the Arctic climate will change during the 21st century, so this project will help improve our ability to make these predictions. We will do this by improving the way that computer models of the Earth's climate represent the Arctic. We are going to treat the Arctic Ocean as a box, with a top, a bottom, sides and an interior, and we're going to examine all these parts of the box using measurements from space, from ships, from instruments moored to the sea bed, and from robotic sensors attached to drifting sea ice. We'll use all these measurements together to improve the scientific equations within the computer models, and then we'll run the models into the future to create better predictions not just of the Arctic, but of how changes in the Arctic might influence UK, European and global climate. With better predictions, we can make better plans for the future.

Planned Impact

The academic beneficiaries will be UK, Arctic and global climate scientists. We specifically included the UK Meteorological Office's Hadley Centre early in the planning for this project, and, as major project collaborators, we will fund part of their work in order to help keep the Hadley Centre at the forefront of the global climate modelling community.

The UK government departments that will benefit directly from this project are the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and the Department of Transport (DfT). DECC are responsible for advising the UK government on climate risks and developing mitigation strategies at UK, European and international scales and for international adaptation. DEFRA is responsible for advising on UK adaptation strategies. The FCO are responsible for developing and shaping the UK's relationship with Arctic-rim nations and the forward look of this strategy. The DfT are tasked with ensuring that the UK's shipping/ports are operated in an efficient manner, and that UK shipping remains a globally competitive industry in the future. All these government departments will benefit directly from an improvement in UK capability to predict Arctic climate through the 21st century.

We will maximise the project's impact and achieve the project's goals for knowledge exchange through early and continued stakeholder engagement in consultation with the NERC Arctic Office, the Arctic programme management, and via planned activities within the project itself.

As measures of success, we will attend international science meetings (as normal). We will also catalogue the use of the Project's science findings in assisting government decisions and policy, in collaboration with nominated contacts in the relevant departments, and we will record the utilisation of project results in adjustments and modifications to Hadley Centre models and modelling approaches. We plan an open end-project meeting aimed at the scientific and stakeholder communities. Its success will be measured by the extent to which it attracts informed and wide user and scientist attendance.


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Boland E (2016) Assessment of sea ice-atmosphere links in CMIP5 models in Climate Dynamics

Description Arctic sea ice influence on UK weather Preliminary studies have been conducted to investigate whether Arctic sea ice decline has an influence on the North Atlantic Oscillation and hence on UK winter weather. This work has considered the output of climate models submitted to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The results have been written up and a paper was published in January 2017 and informed the development of a PhD studentship to build on the research.
Exploitation Route Final results will be of interest to the IPCC community.
Sectors Environment

Description The findings have been discussed in media interviews.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Impact Types Societal

Description Media briefing on sea ice 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact In March 2017 Emily Shuckburgh co-ordinated the production of a briefing note on sea ice and participated in a press briefing which focused on the impact of Arctic sea ice loss on midlatitude weather.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Studio interview for Channel 4 News 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact The postdoc working on this project was interviewed on Channel 4 News about her research associated with the project and the broader context of changes in the Arctic.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016