Towards a marginal Arctic sea ice cover

Lead Research Organisation: National Oceanography Centre
Department Name: Science and Technology


Recent observed changes in the Arctic have become a 'poster child' for global climatic changes, particularly because the summer sea ice extent has shrunk rapidly over the past 35 years. This retreat of the sea ice has led to growth of trans-Arctic shipping and plans to extract minerals and fossil fuels from the ocean floor.

The latest assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that it was likely that the Arctic would become reliably ice-free by 2050 assuming greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase. However, the climate simulations used by the IPCC often fail to realistically capture large scale properties of the Arctic sea ice, such as the extent, variability and recent trends. Therefore, there is a need to improve simulations of Arctic sea ice to provide better understanding of the recent observed changes and credible projections of the future to help assess risks and opportunities and inform important policy decisions about adaptation and mitigation.

Observations of the Arctic have improved in recent years with new satellites measuring sea ice properties from space. These satellites reveal not only that the extent and thickness of the Arctic ice cover is reducing in all seasons but that the Marginal Ice Zone (MIZ), a region of low ice area concentration consisting of a relatively disperse collection of small floes, has grown.

Model projections indicate the MIZ will grow from around 10% to 80% of the summer sea ice cover by 2050, exposing a hitherto relatively quiescent Arctic Ocean to the atmosphere. Nonlinear interactions between the air, ice, and ocean that magnify or diminish change, known as feedbacks, associated with a reduced and marginal sea ice cover will emerge or assume dominance in the coming years. Many of these feedbacks are either entirely absent or inadequately captured in current models. For example, not included is the feedback whereby the creation of smaller floes due to ice melt or breakup under ocean wave stress promotes further lateral melt and propagation of waves deeper into the pack, further enlarging the MIZ. Because existing climate models oversimplify these feedbacks, their utility for understanding and predicting variability and change in the Arctic is compromised. This leads to impairment of climate model accuracy at lower latitudes also, due to errors in meridional atmospheric and oceanic circulations as well as ice export from the Arctic.

We will investigate processes controlling evolution of the MIZ using existing and new observations. We will include physics of wave-ice interaction, ice breakup and melt, and floe collisions into ice, ocean, and climate models. We will use these models, constrained and verified with new observations, to explore feedbacks between the sea ice, ocean, and atmosphere using a series of numerical experiments. We will quantify the impact of the increase in the MIZ on the Arctic physical climate, and explore the processes responsible for the projected loss of Arctic sea ice.

Planned Impact

Arctic sea ice reduction has become a totemic indicator of climate change with impacts on iconic species such as polar bears and the Beluga whale, as well as indigenous human populations. The reduction of Arctic sea ice extent has generated widespread interest with numerous articles in the popular press, radio, television and internet.

Reduction in the sea ice cover is already opening up shipping routes and the potential for oil exploration has generated political statements and actions including, for example, the placement of the Russian flag at the North Pole and Denmark's declaration of sea bed rights up to the North Pole. Lloyd's of London, with Chatham House, published a report called "Arctic Opening" in 2012, with business (including insurance) expansion in mind. In 2014, the PI organised a Royal Society meeting on Arctic sea ice: the evidence, models, and global impacts, which was the Royal Society's most tweeted meeting.

Understanding how and why Arctic sea ice conditions change on decadal timescales is a critical issue facing international governments and business. Improved predictions of Arctic sea ice through scientific research has economic, social and environmental implications. This research brings together broad international expertise in sea ice model development to ensure maximal benefit to sea ice research, modelling and prediction groups.

A major practical impact of this proposal is in the generation of a new sea ice module accounting for marginal ice zone physics in the sea ice component (CICE) of a Global Climate Model (GCM). The CICE sea ice component is used in several GCMs, which include the UK Earth System Model (UKESM), the HadGEM3-GC3 climate model used by the Met Office for contributions to climate projections CMIP6, and the Community Climate System Model (CCSM) at the (US) National Center for Atmospheric Research. The Met Office and Los Alamos National Laboratory are both Project Partners offering in-kind support to help deliver the improvements to sea ice models, and visits are planned for both to ensure maximal usage of the research.

The main direct beneficiaries of the knowledge generated by this project will be:

1. The Met Office and other international modelling groups who will be able to utilise an enhanced and improved sea ice component in their global climate models

2. The international climate research community, including the IPCC, through collaborative analysis of the Arctic system to understand the causes of recent changes

3. Policy makers (such as DECC, DEFRA and FCO) who will have an improved understanding of the risks and opportunities presented by a changing Arctic. This work also has the potential to be used to inform mitigation and adaptation decisions under the UNFCCC climate negotiations.

4. This project will supply part of the physical basis for future prediction systems for the Arctic and Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes, which will have benefits to the stakeholders such as the oil, gas and mineral extraction industry, trans-Arctic shipping, tourism and indigenous communities. The general public and local communities would also benefit from improved forecasts.

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
NE/R000085/1 16/11/2017 31/10/2019 £214,968
NE/R000085/2 Transfer NE/R000085/1 01/11/2019 16/11/2020 £64,942
Description Sea ice retreat and opens large, previously ice-covered areas of the Arctic Ocean, to the wind and ocean waves. This necessitates climate and forecasting models that can simulate fragmented sea ice and impacts on the ocean with a greater fidelity for climate predictions, along with growing economic activity in the Polar Oceans. We found that the waves have a substantial effect on sea ice and ocean in the Arctic and the Southern Oceans increasing downward trends in Arctic sea ice cover.

Reduction in the Arctic sea ice affects surface ocean with more than two-fold increase in the speed of the ocean currents. The forward projections of the sea ice and waves demonstrated that combined risks to the off-shore industries from the sea ice and waves become large as soon as in 2030s.
Exploitation Route Changes in the Arctic natural environment are occurring faster than elsewhere in the world and require combining expertise in different areas, cross-subject international collaboration and close links between science, engineering and industry. The project findings are important for forecasting, climate modeling, sea ice, oceanographic and atmospheric observational and modeling communities in order to establish requirements for environmental data and forecasts. This will help assess the potential benefits and risks of Arctic maritime operations and improve their safety.

The results form the project were presented at the Cryosphere Pavilion at the UN Climate Change Conference 2019 (COP25, Madrid). (https:// and informed the report for H2020 Blue Action on the
environmental and policy decisions in the Yamal region.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Energy,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Security and Diplomacy,Transport

Description 1. The initial fundings on the marginal ice zone dynamics contributed to the Year of Polar Prediction Arctic Science Workshop 2019 ( Stefanie Rynders has delivered a talk "Predicting ocean waves and sea ice and the Polar Oceans" at the meeting held in Helsinki (Finland) in January 2019. 2. Aksenov and Rynders have visited the EU Maritime College ABOA MARE ( in Turku (Finland) in January 2019 and discussed the requirement for the environmental data for maritime training using ship bridge simulators, including ice fragmentation and wave information in the Marginal Ice Zones. 3.Contibuted to the MCCIP report card: Hwang, B., Aksenov, Y., Blockley, E., Tsamados, M.,. Browne, T., Landy, J.,Stevens, D., Wilkinson, J., Impacts of climate change on Arctic sea ice, The United Kingdom Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership (MCCIP) 2020.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Environment,Transport
Impact Types Economic,Policy & public services

Description Citation in "Chokepoints and Vulnerabilities in Global Food Trade" by Bailey, R., and Wellesley, L., Chatham House Report Energy, Environment and Resources Department, June 2017
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
Impact Influenced assessment of trends and changes in the transport sector and food technology, how a shift in the nature of trade and transport, and the advancement of disruptive technologies, could change the outlook for food production and trade via emerging routes and a new transport chokepoints.
Description Citation in "Future of the Sea: Implications from Opening Arctic Sea Routes" by Melia et al., commissioned by the UK Government Office for Science, Foresight Future of the Sea project.
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
Impact Impacted review "Future of the Sea: Implications from Opening Arctic Sea Routes" commissioned by the UK Government Office for Science, Foresight Future of the Sea project, which assesses projections and scenarios for the Arctic maritime transport and industries for the next two decades.
Description (IMMERSE) - Improving Models for Marine EnviRonment SErvices
Amount € 4,998,942 (EUR)
Funding ID 821926 
Organisation European Commission 
Sector Public
Country European Union (EU)
Start 12/2018 
End 11/2022
Description Advective pathways of nutrients and key ecological substances in the Arctic (APEAR)
Amount £430,173 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/R012865/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2018 
End 06/2021
Title Combined MIZ and pack sea ice rheology code 
Description The model code which includes the implemented combined granular rheology of Marginal Ice Zone sea ice and pack sea ice rheology. 
Type Of Material Computer model/algorithm 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Improved sea ice rheology which include granular behaviour of sea ice to be used in the next generation climate models. 
Description Interview for BBC Radio 4 Arctic special "Today" programme 
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 Aksenov has been interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 Arctic special for the "Today" programme aired Thur the 14 Mar on the changes in the Artic and links with the industrial applications.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Presentation at the EGU 2018: Aksenov, Y., Rynders, S., Hosekova, L., Feltham, D., Nurser, A. J., Madec, G., ... & Coward, A. (2018, April). Waves, Ice and Ocean in future projections of the Arctic and Southern Ocean. In EGU General Assembly Conference Abstracts (Vol. 20, p. 14180). 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation delivered at the EGU General Assembly Conference Abstracts (Vol. 20, p. 14180). New data and results made available for the professionals and media. discussion followed the presentation helped to shape science directions.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018