Antarctic sea ice

testing equipment on ice in Antarctica

Targeted observation and process-informed modelling of Antarctic sea ice

Antarctic sea ice plays a major role in the global climate system. Its presence maintains cold conditions that help sustain Antarctica’s ice sheets, and it affects the rate of global warming by changing heat uptake in the Southern Ocean. Antarctic sea ice has a significant influence on both the ocean and atmospheric components of the climate system, and sea ice extent is closely linked with weather systems over New Zealand.

Project duration:  2015-2019

Project Funding: $1.9m

While the rapid retreat of Arctic sea ice is alarming researchers worldwide, satellite observations show that sea ice extent has actually been increasing in the Antarctic over the past 37 years. This behaviour is seemingly at odds with global warming. The truth is that current earth system models can’t faithfully reproduce the trends in sea ice coverage, and a lack of observations has meant that the drivers of these trends are poorly understood.

(In late 2016–early 2017, total Antarctic sea ice extent actually reduced. We still don’t know if this is a reversal of the pattern or just natural variability. Regardless, it’s important we understand what is going on.)

Antarctic sea ice grows and recedes fastest at the margins. The movement of the ocean surface waves break up ice on the outer edges, while extremely cold water causes sea ice to grow closer to the continent. This project involves field experiments on sea ice around Antarctica, and modelling work, to better understand the drivers of sea ice growth and decay. Our goal is to understand these processes well enough to ensure the NZ Earth System Model (NZESM) accurately reproduces the behaviour we’re seeing in Antarctic sea ice.

Primary Contact and Principle Investigator:

  • Professor Pat Langhorne, University of Otago,

Pat’s main research focus is in the ice-ocean interaction in the ice shelf basal cavity. Understanding the relation of this interaction to the properties of the sea ice cover is an interest of her group.   From this understanding, models are created that are used to explore the influence of this process over large spatial and temporal scales. This project is interlinked with Far from Frozen (a project funded through Curious Minds) that can be found at the Otago Ice Mass Balance Station website.

Read about this project - Stuff article 15 December 2015

Listen to Oceanographer Dr Craig Stevens talk about this project on Radio New Zealand Beneath the Ross Ice Shelf 23 January 2017


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