The influence of spatial and seasonal variability on the stability of the sea ice cover

Monday, 15 December 2014
Till J.W. Wagner and Ian Eisenman, University of California San Diego, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, CA, United States
Reports of ever new record lows of Arctic sea ice extent are making headlines almost continually in recent years. The change in albedo when sea ice is replaced by open water introduces an important nonlinearity to the system. It is this nonlinearity that has sparked an ongoing debate regarding the stability of the Arctic ice cover and the possibility of an Arctic `tipping point’. In previous studies, instabilities for a shrinking ice cover linked to the ice-albedo feedback have been identified in two different types of idealized models: (i) annual-mean diffusive energy balance models (EBMs) and (ii) seasonally-varying single-column models (SCMs). The incidence of instabilities in these low-order models stands in contrast with results from comprehensive climate models which have been found not to simulate any such instability. In the present study we investigate the stability of the sea ice cover from a theoretical perspective, developing a model that includes both seasonal and latitudinal variability. The model reduces to a standard EBM or SCM as limiting cases in the parameter regime, thus reconciling the two previous lines of research. The simple formulation of this model allows us to investigate the key physical processes that govern the stability of the system. Our results show that the stability of the ice cover vastly increases with the inclusion of additional degrees of freedom associated with a seasonal cycle or horizontal heat transport. The results suggest that the sea ice cover is substantially more stable than has been suggested by previous idealized modeling studies.