NASA Finds Arctic Ice Melt Forms Clouds That Fuel Warming

Melting Arctic ice only fuels planetary warming

Scientists have discovered another vicious cycle that has taken root in our environment due to climate change -- this time, between sea ice and clouds. New NASA research has found that melting arctic ice is exposing the surface of the Arctic ocean, in turn fueling cloud formations that blanket the Arctic and keep it too warm to refreeze. Now, scientists are hypothesizing that this cycle may not be limited to the Arctic.

A simplified visualization showing cloud responses before, during, and after the opening of a large hole surrounded by sea ice known as a polynya. The insulating effect of sea ice is seen, as the opening of the polynya facilitates heat (red) and moisture (yellow) exchanges. Heat emitted by clouds (purple) over the ice hole helps keep the polynya open, and remains after new sea ice closes the ice hole. (Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab / Jenny McElligott.)

Why This Matters

The Arctic is warming 2 to 3 times faster than the rest of the globe, but the consequences are wreaking havoc worldwide. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study in December 2020 found that warming melting sea ice not only increases permafrost erosion and intensifies Arctic wildfires, it harms the environment's ability to heal and regenerate. This new study confirms once again that climate change not only changes temperatures, but can devastate the earth’s natural systems in ways that may not recover in our lifetimes.

NOAA: Arctic Report Card 2020, December 8, 2020.

Ice Under Cover

The research team observed their findings primarily over a large hole in the Arctic ice sheet between Greenland and Canada known as the North Water Polynya. The exposed ocean surface releases heat and moisture previously trapped under the ice, fueling the formation of clouds that cover the region and trap heat. This can have devastating effects, such as preventing new sea ice from freezing. "We're getting more heat and moisture from the ocean going into the atmosphere because the sea ice acts like a cap or a barrier between the relatively warm ocean surface and the cold and dry atmosphere above," said Linette Boisvert, a sea ice scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "This warming and moistening of the atmosphere slows down the vertical growth of the sea ice, meaning that it will not be as thick, so it's more vulnerable to melt in the summer months."

The clouds over the polynya were found to emit more heat and hold up to four times more water than clouds over sea ice. Even when the polyna refroze, these clouds persisted for at least another week. "Just because the sea ice reforms and the polynya closes up, that doesn't mean that conditions go back to normal right away," explained Boisvert.

The team plans to use satellites equipped with sensors that analyze clouds at multiple levels of the atmosphere to evaluate whether other regions where sea ice and open ocean meet are displaying the same phenomenon.

NASA Takes It Further

NASA just launched a high-tech observational satellite into orbit from California. The device will track climate change, urban sprawl, glacial melt, agricultural health, and more. The Landsat 9 is the ninth satellite in the series which began in 1972. "Landsat is our longest-lived remote sensing program," said Dr. Jeff Masek, a research scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "Since 1972, it has amassed over nine million multispectral images of Earth's land in coastal regions."