Scope of activities

Sea Ice

Photo by Ute Kaden (TREC 2005), Courtesy of ARCUS

The Sea Ice Collaboration Team, first created under Arctic Research Plan 2013-2017, will continue operations under Arctic Research Plan 2017-2021. The team's scope of activities will include implementation of Research Objectives and Performance Elements under Research Goal 3, which is described as follows in the Plan:

Arctic sea ice is a geophysical phenomenon within a socio-ecological system, and as such it provides a variety of services (Eicken et al. 2009). They are: regulating services, e.g., the impact of sea ice on the surface energy budget plays a vital role in regulating the global climate; provisioning services, e.g., sea ice yields food for communities that harvest marine mammals for which the ice is a habitat; cultural services, i.e., non-material benefits of a cultural, spiritual, and educational nature contributing to the daily life of communities; and supporting services,e.g.,micro-organisms, although not harvested directly, are an important component of a food web that sustains marine mammals and fish. Viewed from this geophysical/socio-ecological perspective, enhancing understanding and improving predictions of the changing sea ice cover will benefit from cooperation between sea ice researchers and numerous potential collaborators, including northern residents, who have particular Local and Indigenous Knowledge of the ice.

The Arctic sea ice cover is changing dramatically. The end-of-summer minimum sea ice extent (areal coverage) and the end-of-winter maximum sea ice extent have decreased by 40 percent and 9 percent, respectively, over the course of the satellite passive microwave observation period 1979-2015 (Fetterer et al.2002, updated daily).The age and thickness distributions of the ice cover are also decreasing as the area of seasonal ice increases at the expense of the older, thicker perennial ice (Kwok and Rothrock 2009; Perovich et al. 2015). The resultant decrease in sea ice volume contributes to an increase in observed ice drift speeds (Kwok et al. 2013), and is likely responsible for higher deformation and ridging rates (Zhang et al. 2012). Pressure ridges are the thickest sea ice features and result from collisions between moving icefloes.

As the sea ice changes, there are many environmental and socio-ecological consequences. They include: direct effects on marine ecosystems and northern communities (Harwood et al. 2015; Kedra et al. 2015; Pearce et al. 2015; Ray et al. 2016; Tremblay et al. 2015), and indirect effects on terrestrial ecosystems (Bhatt et al. 2013); increasing ocean surface wave height, storm surge intensity, and coastal erosion and inundation (Overeem et al. 2015; Vermaire et al. 2014; Thomson and Rogers 2014) that threaten habitats, northern communities, and civil and defense infrastructure (Gibbs and Richmond 2015); rising sea surface temperatures (Timmermans and Proshutinsky 2015) and ocean primary production (Frey et al. 2015); a reduction in the earth's reflectivity, accounting for about 25 percent of the warming due to increasing atmospheric CO2 (Pistone et al., 2014); and tropospheric warming, which is amplifying global warming in the Arctic (Serreze and Barry 2011), and might be weakening the jet stream and contributing to more extreme weather in mid-latitude regions (e.g., Francis et al. 2014).

The changing sea ice cover, particularly the decreasing minimum extent and associated increase in the area of summer open water, is opening the region to increased ship traffic for cargo and tourism (e.g., Stephenson and Smith, 2015) and extraction of natural resources such as oil and gas, minerals, and fish (e.g., National Petroleum Council, 2015). In turn, growth in such activities has implications for homeland and national security such as search and rescue policy, oil spill preparedness and response, and domain awareness. Current model projections of sea ice extent show that a nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean at the end of summer is a distinct possibility later this century, although there remains considerable uncertainty as to when that will happen (e.g., Stroeve et al. 2012). Agencies responsible for emergency response and security have documented the need for capabilities that are informed by science (USCG 2013; DOD 2013; U.S. Navy 2014).

During the period of consistent satellite passive microwave observations (1979-present), most numerical models have projected a slower rate of ice loss than the observed rate, with the best-performing models typically including more sophisticated ice processes (e.g., Stroeve et al. 2012). Enhancing understanding and improving predictions of the changing sea ice cover over a range of spatial and temporal scales (hourly, daily, weekly, seasonal, annual, decadal) requires research that addresses the physical properties and processes of the ice itself (e.g., ice thickness, topography, and strength; ice motion and deformation; distribution and properties of snow on ice; and melt pond characteristics). These sea ice characteristics, in turn, are strongly influenced by the atmosphere above and the ocean below the ice. Consequently, it is necessary to take a systems approach that accounts for atmospheric and oceanographic conditions and processes and examines the interactions and feedbacks among the sea ice, atmosphere, and ocean.

The Sea Ice Goal focuses on ice and ocean conditions and processes. Progress in the implementation of the Sea Ice Goal will also contribute to and benefit from research undertaken under the Atmosphere, Marine Ecosystems, Coastal, and Environmental Intelligence Goals. The Sea Ice Goal, and its broader connections to these other components of the Arctic environmental system, also addresses the call for policy-driven research that meets fundamental regional and national needs. For example, the changes that are occurring in the Arctic sea ice cover affect the well-being of Arctic residents (Well-being), the functioning of the marine environment (Stewardship), regional and national security (Security), and potentially regions far beyond the Arctic (Arctic-Global System).


Team leaders

Jackie Richter-Menge
US Arctic Research Commission

Janet Intrieri
Earth System Research Laboratory | Physical Sciences Division

Olivia Lee
University of Alaska Fairbanks (Website)

Melinda Webster
Goddard Space Flight Center

Performance elements from the Arctic research plan

3.1 Conduct coordinated/integrated atmosphere-ice-ocean observations and research to understand the processes that determine the spatial and temporal variation of the thickness, extent and volume of sea ice, and their effects on atmosphere-ice-ocean interactions and feedbacks over multiple time scales (daily, weekly, seasonal, inter-annual, decadal).

  • 3.1.1 Support investigator-driven observations and process studies of the pack ice (e.g., ice thickness distribution, topography/surface roughness and strength; ice motion and deformation; snow depth distribution and melt pond characteristics; surface albedo and energy balance) and landfast ice (e.g., extent, stability, and break-up).
  • 3.1.2 Continue to support the U.S. Interagency Arctic Buoy Program (US IABP) to provide meteorological, ice, and oceanographic data for research purposes and to meet real-time operational requirements. US IABP, coordinated by the National Ice Center and the Polar Science Center, Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington, contributes to the International Arctic Buoy Programme.
  • 3.1.3 Continue Operation IceBridge (OIB) to measure sea ice freeboard and thickness and to measure the depth of snow on the ice in late winter 2017, 2018, and 2019 in the western Arctic Ocean.
  • 3.1.4 Launch (1) the NOAA/NASA Joint Polar Satellite System in 2017 to enhance understanding of the sea ice age/thickness, ice concentration, ice surface temperatures, snow cover, and snow water equivalent; and (2) the NASA Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite 2 (ICESat-2) in 2018 to estimate sea ice thickness over the entire Arctic Ocean and adjacent seas.
  • 3.1.5 Use multiple remote sensing data sets to: (1) investigate sea ice properties and processes and atmosphere-ice-ocean interactions; and (2) develop algorithms for automated ice edge detection and delineation of the marginal ice zone, landfast ice extent, ice classification (e.g., age/type of ice, melt ponds, floe size), and ice motion and deformation.
  • 3.1.6 Develop and deploy new technologies that enable persistent data collection on a variety of environmental variables using mobile platforms and sensors operating above, on, in, and under the Arctic sea ice cover to support a framework of observations that will improve forecasting and prediction of sea ice.
  • 3.1.7 Investigate Arctic Ocean processes, interactions and feedbacks that affect the dynamics and thermodynamics of the sea ice cover, including ocean circulation and stratification, turbulence and mixing, horizontal and vertical heat transport, and freshwater transport and storage. The ONR Stratified Ocean Dynamics of the Arctic (SODA) project (FY16-FY20) is an example of a contribution to this Performance Element.

3.2 Improve models for understanding sea ice processes and for enhanced forecasting and prediction of sea ice behavior at a range of spatial and temporal scales.

  • 3.2.1 Support investigator-driven modeling studies designed to understand and parameterize key sea ice properties and processes, including ice thickness distribution, topography, and strength; ice motion, deformation and mechanics; snow depth distribution and melt pond characteristics; surface albedo and energy balance; and biogeochemistry.
  • 3.2.2 Enhance operational sea ice forecasting and research-oriented prediction capabilities through improvements to model physics (explicit and parameterized); initialization techniques; assimilation of observations, model evaluation and verification; evaluation of model skill, post-processing techniques and forecast guidance tools used in operational forecasts and decision support.

3.3 Support collaborative networks of researchers to advance knowledge, understanding, and prediction of the sea ice system.

  • 3.3.1 Support the Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH) Sea Ice Action Team to synthesize the results of multiple agencies’ and other stakeholders’ investments in sea ice observations and process studies and communicate results, information, and the societal implications of sea ice change to broader audiences
  • 3.3.2 Support a collaborative network of scientists and stakeholders to advance research on sea ice predictability and prediction at a variety of time and space scales and communicate new knowledge, understanding, and tools to broader audiences.


Sea Ice

Photo by Lollie Garay (PolarTREC 2007/2008), Courtesy of ARCUS

The Sea Ice Collaboration Team accomplished much in FY2016 under Arctic Research Plan 2013-2017. The annual minimum Arctic sea ice extent in 2016—4.1 million square kilometers (km2)—tied with 2007 for the second-lowest ice extent in the satellite record of 1979-present. The ten lowest minimum ice extent values have occurred during the last ten summers, 2007-2016. The dramatic change in the annual minimum sea ice extent is the focus of the Sea Ice Outlook, an activity of the Sea Ice Prediction Network (SIPN). Co-funded by the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Office of Naval Research (ONR), with in-kind support from National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, SIPN uses the Sea Ice Outlook to assess the predictability of sea ice as part of its broader effort to inform improvements in seasonal sea ice prediction. In August 2016, the Sea Ice Outlook received 39 contributions, also known as outlooks, for the September, pan-Arctic minimum ice extent. The outlook values ranged from 3.7 to 5.2 million km2, with a median value of 4.4 million (km2). Five (13%) of the outlooks correctly anticipated the actual minimum extent of 4.1 million square km2. Of those five outlooks, one was the outcome of an heuristic approach, three were from statistical models, and one was from a dynamical model.

Models are essential for sea ice prediction and they depend on observations for initialization, calibration, improving the representation of processes, and evaluating model skill. In another approach to improving sea ice prediction, NSF supported a summer camp in late May 2016 in Barrow, Alaska, to promote integration between the sea ice observational and modeling communities. The 25 participants were a diverse group of early-, mid- and later-career observationalists and modelers who engaged in indoor classroom activities to learn about modeling and remote sensing, and outdoor classroom activities to learn about essential sea ice variables such as albedo, snow depth, ice thickness and morphology, and ice salinity and temperature.  

Arctic sea ice thickness and the depth of snow on the ice are the subject of the annual NASA Operation IceBridge campaigns that have taken place since 2010. Operation IceBridge is an airborne remote sensing project that measures snow depth and ice thickness to aid the development of algorithms to derive ice thickness from ICESat-2 ice surface elevation measurements; ICESat-2 is a satellite scheduled for launch in late 2017. There were two Operation IceBridge sea ice campaigns in 2016, both over the western Arctic Ocean adjacent to Canada and the United States (Alaska). The first mission, in April-May, focused on snow depth and ice thickness before the onset of melting, and the second mission, in July, focused on the extent, frequency and depth of melt ponds, the pools of melt water that form on sea ice during spring and summer. 

Operation IceBridge is literally bridging a gap between the shutdown of ICESat-1 in 2010 and the launch of ICESat-2 in 2017 or 2018, and providing data that are useful for testing the skill of predictive models as part of the continuing effort to improve sea ice predictions. A complementary approach is to conduct process studies to increase scientific understanding that contributes to improved explicit representation or parameterization of processes in models. To that end, the ONR "Sea State and Boundary Layer Physics of the Emerging Arctic ocean” project is, among other things, investigating the interactions and feedbacks between ocean surface waves and the sea ice cover in order to improve wave and sea ice models and forecasting in the Arctic. In 2016, the highlight of the 5-year project was a 33-day field experiment involving 25 scientists aboard the research vessel “Sikuliaq’ as the ice cover advanced during freeze-up in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

Priorities for 2017

NASA will continue Operation IceBridge sea ice measurement campaigns, and continue preparing for the launch of the ICESat-2 satellite in 2017 or 2018. ONR will conduct pilot projects to test equipment and procedures in advance of the main field experiment in 2018 of the 5-year “Stratified Ocean Dynamics in the Arctic (SODA)” project. The SICT will begin implementing the sea ice goal in Arctic Research Plan 2017-2021. 

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