The Arctic Amplification Debate
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Rises in surface air temperature (SAT) in response to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are expected to be amplified in northern high latitudes, with warming most pronounced over the Arctic Ocean owing to the loss of sea ice. Observations document recent warming, but an enhanced Arctic Ocean signal is not readily evident. This disparity, combined with varying model projections of SAT change, and large variability in observed SAT over the 20th century, may lead one to question the concept of Arctic amplification. Disparity is greatly reduced, however, if one compares observed trajectories to near-future simulations (2010–2029), rather than to the doubled-CO2 or late 21st century conditions that are typically cited. These near-future simulations document a preconditioning phase of Arctic amplification, characterized by the initial retreat and thinning of sea ice, with imprints of low-frequency variability. Observations show these same basic features, but with SATs over the Arctic Ocean still largely constrained by the insulating effects of the ice cover and thermal inertia of the upper ocean. Given the general consistency with model projections, we are likely near the threshold when absorption of solar radiation during summer limits ice growth the following autumn and winter, initiating a feedback leading to a substantial increase in Arctic Ocean SATs.
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