Science Goal and Objectives


Photo by Bill Schmoker (PolarTREC 2010)Photo by Bill Schmoker (PolarTREC 2010)

Arctic sea ice extent has been well below normal since 2007. Climate models suggest that this trend signifies a transition towards an Arctic Ocean with greatly diminished or absent summer ice cover by mid-century or earlier. Significant reduction in summer sea ice will have substantial repercussions, including extended open-water seasons fostering offshore resource development and increased maritime activity, changes in the behavior and health of marine mammals, and impacts on arctic and sub-arctic weather patterns. Predictions of sea ice changes will have large uncertainties without sustained observations; improved understanding of ice, ocean, land, and atmospheric processes; and advances in coupled and system models.

This goal addresses urgent and timely needs for improved sea ice information and will help resolve the following questions:

  • Why the sea-ice is diminishing and what processes determine the rate of change?
  • What are the linkages between a changing polar region and lower latitudes?
  • When can a seasonally ice-free or greatly ice-diminished Arctic Ocean be expected?
  • What are the most important impacts of sea ice loss on social-ecological systems?

The scientific and societal relevance of improved understanding and response to a changing arctic ice cover has been underscored by a variety of planning documents. In focusing a set of SEARCH activities on sea ice, we build on past interagency activities such as the SEARCH Sea Ice Outlook, as well as:

In keeping with the SEARCH vision and mission, the objectives listed below focus on areas where interagency approaches will improve understanding and prediction of arctic sea-ice change and its consequences.

Objectives (5-year time frame)

1. Improve the understanding of atmosphere, sea-ice, and ocean system interactions through a combination of enhanced observations and process-based modeling studies

1.1. Develop suitable observational and modeling frameworks to identify and quantify the causes of sea ice variability and long-term decline.

1.2. Develop interagency and international support for year-round, coordinated atmosphere, sea-ice, and ocean observations in the sea-ice environment of the central Arctic Basin.

1.3. Identify and assess the impact of model uncertainties in key disciplinary and interdisciplinary processes on simulated intra- and inter-annual sea-ice variability. These processes include arctic clouds and their radiative impacts, sea-ice albedo changes, surface energy fluxes, vertical momentum transfer, and ocean vertical heat transport.

1.4. Develop and facilitate community efforts to incorporate advances made via observational and process-based modeling studies into larger-scale models.

2. Improve sea ice prediction from daily to decadal timescales

2.1. Develop interagency and international support for the SEARCH Sea Ice Outlook to expand contributor base, incorporate and advocate for needed multi-disciplinary observations, conduct assessments of predictive success, improve forecasts through synthesis of methodologies, and develop additional products.

2.2. Define a cross-agency Arctic Observing Network (AON) implementation plan that identifies critical gaps, ensures optimal observation deployment, enhances understanding of sea-ice change, and facilitates sea ice predictions across time and space scales. Identify research gaps and needs, including multidisciplinary studies and the integration of observations and modeling perspectives to improve forecast products; work with agencies to implement activities to fill research gaps.

2.3. Develop interagency and international support for enhanced observations of the arctic atmosphere via buoys, soundings, etc. in order to constrain, evaluate, and improve operational model performance in the central Arctic.

2.4. Integrate AON sea-ice measurements into global observational networks and data assimilation efforts through national and international mechanisms, e.g., SAON, CliC Arctic Sea Ice Working Group, an Arctic Observing Summit.

2.5. Contribute to national and international activities on sea ice forecasting and science needs (e.g., NAS 2012).

2.6. Assess the present and evolving state of the ice cover, examine overall predictability of the sea ice system, and improve and evaluate predictive methods and success across timescales. Develop cross-disciplinary scenarios to explore trajectories towards a seasonally ice-free Arctic Ocean.

2.7. Support a sea ice forecasting "Community of Practice" that addresses all forecast scales.

3. Explore the breadth of consequences of a seasonally ice-free Arctic Ocean across human and natural systems.

3.1. Develop the capability to link sea ice prediction products to measures of change in marine ecosystems and impacts on arctic communities across temporal and spatial scales—from local to regional to basin scales.

3.2. Build on the Sea Ice for Walrus Outlook to determine specific information needs of stakeholders and modify standard ice prediction products where possible to address these needs.

3.3. Prioritize observational sites for investigating linkages between sea ice, marine ecosystems, and impacts.

3.4. Develop suitable measures of marine ecosystem change; identify at-risk infrastructures and ecosystem services.

3.5. Advance research on the interactions between arctic sea ice and societal aspects, such as energy and large-scale resource development, transportation, territorial issues, and impacts on ecosystems and living conditions of arctic residents.

4. Assess how arctic sea-ice changes interact with mid-latitude weather and climate

4.1. Identify the impacts of a changing climate on sea ice loss; sea ice loss on patterns of atmospheric circulation and precipitation; oceanic circulation both within and beyond the Arctic, including the meridional overturning circulation in the Atlantic Ocean; and weather patterns in middle latitudes.

4.2. Communicate the importance of uncertainties and potential surprises and develop a probabilistic framework for use by decision-makers.

4.3. Advance research on the interactions between arctic sea ice and global physical systems such snow cover extent, ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, and mid-latitude effects.

Science Steering Committee Contacts: Hajo Eicken (hajo.eicken [at], Janet Intrieri (janet.intrieri [at]

Version: October 2012