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Pockets of warm water may be speeding up sea ice melt

Updated: Jun. 14, 2021 at 4:57 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - When Harper Simmons, associate professor of ocean sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, took part in a research mission to the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean in 2018, the team expected to find warm water from the Pacific Ocean.

“In fact, that’s what we were looking for,” Simmons said. “But what we were surprised by was how warm the water is.”

They were also surprised by where the warm water was located. Instead of being spread out in a diffuse layer, they “found that in these kind of isolated pockets we were seeing very, very warm, extraordinarily warm water of Pacific origin.”

Water from the northern Pacific travels from the Gulf of Alaska, through the Aleutian Islands, Bering Sea, Chukchi Sea and into the Beaufort Sea every summer. According to a paper co-authored by Simmons based on this research, the mixing of these “sub-surface heat pockets is likely accelerating sea ice melt in the region.”

He said sea ice melt comes from a mixture of conditions.

“About half that is the result of the atmospheric conditions, the growth or melting from above,” Simmons said. “And about half of that is the result of the oceanic conditions below — how warm that water is below and how much heat is being brought up.”

Researchers participate in a study of sea ice in 2018 in the Beaufort Sea, part of the Arctic...
Researchers participate in a study of sea ice in 2018 in the Beaufort Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean.(NguyenSan Photography | Photo courtesy San Nguyen)

For Simmons, it wasn’t just the findings that captured his attention.

“For me, one of the things I think is really interesting is this remote connection, how things like sea ice are not just affected by the local environment but by the global or hemispheric scales,” he said.

Modeling the future of Arctic Ocean ice is difficult, but Simmons says data from this kind of research can help make the models more accurate.

“It’s really important because we need to have better models and we need to be better informed about the why’s to make better models, to make better predictions and make better policy,” Simmons said.

Though this research project is completed, Simmons said he is exploring options for future research in this area.

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