Arctic Sea ice thickness loss determined using subsurface, aircraft, and satellite observations

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Ronald W Lindsay, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, United States and Axel J B Schweiger, University of Washington, Polar Science Center, Applied Physics Laboratory, Seattle, WA, United States
Sea ice thickness is a fundamental climate state variable. However, observations of ice thickness have been sparse in time and space making the construction of observation-based time series difficult. Moreover, different groups use a variety of methods and processing procedures to measure ice thickness and each observational source likely has different and poorly characterized measurement and sampling biases. Observational sources include upward looking sonars mounted on submarines or moorings, electromagnetic sensors on helicopters or aircraft, and lidar or radar altimeters on airplanes or satellites. Are these data sources now adequate so that we can construct time series of the mean sea ice thickness with meaningful information about thickness changes? How do the different measurement systems compare in the mean? Are there systematic differences? Very few of the observations provide overlapping measurements of ice of a variety of thickness classes or types for direct comparisons. Error characteristics may vary considerably depending on the presence or thickness of the ridged ice. Here we use a curve-fitting approach to evaluate the systematic differences between eight different observation systems in the Arctic Basin, including ICESat and IceBridge measurements. The approach determines the large-scale spatial and temporal variability of the ice thickness as well as the mean differences between the observation systems using over 3000 estimates of the ice thickness. The thickness estimates are measured over spatial scales of approximately 50 km or time scales of 1 month and the primary time period analyzed is 2000–2013 when the modern mix of observations is available. Good agreement is found between five of the systems, within 0.15 m, while systematic differences of up to 0.5 m are found for three others compare to the five. The annual mean ice thickness for the central Arctic Basin based on observations only has decreased from 3.45 m in 1975 to 1.11 m in 2013, a 68% reduction and there is no indication it may be leveling off as seen in an earlier study of submarine ice drafts by Rothrock et al. (2008). This is nearly double the 36% decline report by them. These results provide additional direct observational confirmation of sea ice losses found in model reanalyses.