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UAF scientists seek to further improve sea ice forecasts

Sea Ice Prediction Network heads into a new phase
Published: Jan. 24, 2022 at 8:45 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - As the amount of sea ice in the Arctic region shrinks, accurate forecasting has become increasingly vital for various industries from fishing and shipping to coastal management. Here in Alaska, and for nearly 15 years, a team of scientists from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute have been working to improve these forecasts.

It’s called the Sea Ice Prediction Network, and it started shortly after the then-record Arctic sea ice minimum in 2007.

“This is a network that developed organically. It’s like, ‘oh, let’s collect some forecasts,’ and people started coming, and that’s when, you know, all the ideas evolved over time,” joked Uma Bhatt, Ph.D. and professor of atmospheric sciences.

Over the next 10 years, those relatively spontaneous ideas and forecasts grew into an international network of scientists learning more about sea ice coverage and behavior, then using that knowledge to improve their seasonal forecasts year after year.

“We realized that our forecasts do a good job when the observed (value) is close to the trend, but if it’s far from the trend, we’re missing it,” Bhatt said. She named three factors that usually play a part in whether the observed ice matches what was forecast.

No. 1:

“It could be mid-latitude weather that comes in in the summer,” she said. “And you get a storm, right, that can change the sea ice very quickly.”

For No. 2, Bhatt might then ask: “How good is the sea ice initialized at? How good is the sea ice thickness that we’re using to start, or the sea ice concentration?”

Then finally:

“How is our ocean doing,” she said. “Because we know the oceanic heat has a strong bearing on sea ice. Ocean heat can melt the sea ice quickly.”

So, in 2018 what they call “Phase 2″ of the project was born to take a closer look at these factors. Already, the team is seeing notable decreases in error percentage in all forecast methods, and current indications suggest that these low errors will continue in the future. The additional studies have led to better improved sea ice maps as well as methods in which to communicate direct impacts of the seasonal ice to residents living along Alaska’s coastline.

John Walsh, chief scientist of the International Arctic Research Center at UAF and contributing member of the project team, is excited about getting these forecasts communicated in a manner that relates to individuals in their own backyard. He cites “land fast ice” or “shore ice” as an example.

“That land fast ice tends to form earlier in the year than the ice offshore, and it often persists longer, because it’s locked in, it’s stuck to the bottom. It can’t drift away over warmer water, so it can persist longer,” Walsh said. “So this land fast or shore fast ice has different characteristics that make it tougher to predict. But it is what affects the coastal communities.”

Such impacts are especially felt in the coastal villages as this ice is part of their wintertime transportation infrastructure. In the spring, the melting, break up and movement of the ice can also cause significant flooding and erosion of the delicate shoreline.

Both Bhatt and Walsh mention that Bering Sea crabbers, which are a vital part of Alaska’s multi-million dollar seafood industry, have been asking for and will greatly benefit from enhanced seasonal forecasts of sea ice location, extent, direction and concentration.

The greatest benefit by far, however, will be how the forecasts aid in safety, route planning, navigation, resupplying and fueling of vessels using the Arctic waterways.

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