IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis

9.5.5 Cryosphere Changes Sea Ice

Widespread warming would, in the absence of other countervailing effects, lead to declines in sea ice, snow, and glacier and ice sheet extent and thickness. The annual mean area of arctic sea ice cover has decreased in recent decades, with stronger declines in summer than in winter, and some thinning (Section 4.4). Gregory et al. (2002b) show that a four-member ensemble of HadCM3 integrations with all major anthropogenic and natural forcing factors simulates a decline in arctic sea ice extent of about 2.5% per decade over the period 1970 to 1999, which is close to the observed decline of 2.7% per decade over the satellite period 1978 to 2004. This decline is inconsistent with simulated internal climate variability and the response to natural forcings alone (Vinnikov et al., 1999; Gregory et al., 2002b; Johannssen et al., 2004), indicating that anthropogenic forcing has likely contributed to the trend in NH sea ice extent. Models such as those described by Rothrock et al. (2003) and references therein are able to reproduce the observed interannual variations in ice thickness, at least when averaged over fairly large regions. Simulations of historical arctic ice thickness or volume (Goeberle and Gerdes, 2003; Rothrock et al., 2003) show a marked reduction in ice thickness starting in the late 1980s, but disagree somewhat with respect to trends and/or variations earlier in the century. Although some of the dramatic change inferred may be a consequence of a spatial redistribution of ice volume over time (e.g., Holloway and Sou, 2002), thermodynamic changes are also believed to be important. Low-frequency atmospheric variability (such as interannual changes in circulation connected to the NAM) appears to be important in flushing ice out of the Arctic Basin, thus increasing the amount of summer open water and enhancing thermodynamic thinning through the ice-albedo feedback (e.g., Lindsay and Zhang, 2005). Large-scale modes of variability affect both wind driving and heat transport in the atmosphere, and therefore contribute to interannual variations in ice formation, growth and melt (e.g., Rigor et al., 2002; Dumas et al., 2003). Thus, the decline in arctic sea ice extent and its thinning appears to be largely, but not wholly, due to greenhouse gas forcing.

Unlike in the Arctic, a strong decline in sea ice extent has not been observed in the Antarctic during the period of satellite observations (Section Fichefet et al. (2003) conducted a simulation of Antarctic ice thickness using observationally based atmospheric forcing covering the period 1958 to 1999. They note pronounced decadal variability, with area average ice thickness varying by ±0.1 m (compared to a mean thickness of roughly 0.9 m), but no long-term trend. However, Gregory et al. (2002b) find a decline in antarctic sea ice extent in their model, contrary to observations. They suggest that the lack of consistency between the observed and modelled changes in sea ice extent might reflect an unrealistic simulation of regional warming around Antarctica, rather than a deficiency in the ice model. Holland and Raphael (2006) examine sea ice variability in six MMD 20C3M simulations that include stratospheric ozone depletion. They conclude that the observed weak increase in antarctic sea ice extent is not inconsistent with simulated internal variability, with some simulations reproducing the observed trend over 1979 to 2000, although the models exhibit larger interannual variability in sea ice extent than satellite observations.