Ask a Climatologist: Arctic sea ice drives climate around the globe

Ice floats in Baffin Bay between Canada and Greenland above the Arctic circle on July 10, 2008. (Photo by Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Arctic sea ice extent hit a new record low in March for the third year in a row. That sea ice, or lack of it, drives climate patterns around the globe.

But how?

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We put that question to Brian Brettschneider for the segment, Ask a Climatologist.

Brettschneider said it’s all about energy. Sea ice reflects most of the sun’s energy back into space. Less sea ice means the entire Arctic basin is absorbing a lot more energy.

“So its like having a 60 watt light bulb, taking it out and replacing it with a 70 watt light bulb. Over time, that adds up,” Brettschneider said.

Across the globe, the entire atmospheric circulation pattern is driven by temperature differences between the tropical latitudes and the Arctic. Brettschneider said that’s because the tropics have more warmth than they can handle and the Arctic is in a heat deficit. The winds in the atmosphere are constantly trying to equal that out.

“It’s like pouring hot water into a cold bathtub,” Brettschneider said. “The temperature tries to even itself out, but if you change the temperature of the water, the way that evens out is going to be different.”

Brettschneider said more warmth in the Arctic ocean affects the jet stream, the polar vortex and where big high and low pressure systems set up around the globe.

Annie Feidt is the Managing Editor for Alaska's Energy Desk, a collaboration between Alaska Public Media in Anchorage, KTOO Public Media in Juneau and KUCB in Unalaska. Her reporting has taken her searching for polar bears on the Chukchi Sea ice, out to remote checkpoints on the Iditarod Trail, and up on the Eklutna Glacier with scientists studying its retreat. Her stories have been heard nationally on NPR and Marketplace.
Annie’s career in radio journalism began in 1998 at Minnesota Public Radio, where she produced the regional edition of All Things Considered. She moved to Anchorage in 2004 with her husband, intending to stay in the 49th state just a few years. She has no plans to leave anytime soon.
afeidt (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8443 | About Annie

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