By: Danny Feltham
As the winter night descends on the polar oceans, the surface mixed layer cools and begins to freeze, forming a floating layer of sea ice. Sea ice is a complex and dynamic component of the climate system; it is strongly influenced by, and in turn influences, air and ocean temperatures, winds and ocean currents, and undergoes large seasonal changes, growing in extent and thickness in winter, and receding to a minimum in late summer.
The planet is warming at ~1oC per century, and amplification processes have roughly doubled the Arctic regional warming rate in recent decades. The strong decline of Arctic sea ice is a striking indicator of climate change, with the last 15 years (2005—2019) seeing the 15 lowest September Arctic ice extents in the satellite record. This decline has been a wake-up call to scientists, policy-makers, and the general public. Studies show that the loss of sea ice has already contributed to Arctic amplification of global warming, has influenced biological productivity, species interactions and disease transmission, and is impacting indigenous peoples, trade, and oil exploration, including the promotion of a growing polar ecotourism industry.
Figure 1: Schematic cartoon of the Arctic sea ice food web. Credit to Hugo Ahlenius.
The sea ice cover, of either pole, features a dense inner pack ice zone surrounded by a marginal ice zone (MIZ) in which the sea ice properties are modified by interaction with the ice-free open ocean, particularly ocean wave-ice interaction that can break up the ice cover. (See Figure 1.) The MIZ is some 100 km or so wide and is a region of low ice area concentration consisting of a disperse collection of small sea ice floes: the reduced sea ice cover exposes greater areas of the ocean to the atmosphere, and intensifies and prolongs air-ocean exchanges of heat, moisture, and momentum, altering the circulation and properties of air, ocean, and ice, air-sea gas exchange, and carbon exchange across the air-sea interface.
The conspicuous reduction of Arctic sea ice extent, combined with the observations that the MIZ is getting wider over the last decade, has often led to the impression that the MIZ is getting larger and, in the science journalism literature (and quite a few scientific papers also), one often comes across the assumption (assertion) that the “MIZ is increasing”, often in conjunction with comments on what this will mean for the future. (I will not mention names here to spare some blushes, except to note that I have sometimes found myself guilty of such woolly thinking and found myself in good company.)
Figure 2: Arctic sea ice extent (solid line) and MIZ extent (dashed line) from model and four remote sensing products (see legend). MIZ extent is defined as the area of ocean with sea ice area fraction of between 15 and 80%. Sea ice extent is the area of ocean with ice area fraction above 80%. An error bar of 10% has been applied to all observational products.
A recent study by Rolph et al  has analysed sea ice concentration data from a range of sources and, using a commonly-used definition of the MIZ extent as the area of that region of the ocean with ice area fraction between 15 and 80%, analysed changes in the Arctic MIZ extent for the first time. While there are some significant caveats concerning the accuracy of ice concentration data, particularly in the summer, a conclusion from this study is that there is little evidence that the MIZ extent is increasing or decreasing and, in fact, appears to be fairly constant over the last three to four decades. You can see this from the top panel of Figure 2 which shows Arctic sea ice extent as estimated from various means (solid lines) and the MIZ extent (dashed lines).
What appears to have been happening is that, on a monthly average basis (to average over wind-induced fluctuations of the ice cover) there has been a decadal trend for the central pack ice of the Arctic Ocean to recede and move north and the MIZ has moved north with the pack. While the MIZ region has widened at a rate of ~1.5 km/year, its extent has remaining roughly constant. This is possible because the perimeter of the MIZ has, on average, decreased in proportion to the increase in width. (This is further evidence, should one need it, that the Earth really is round!)
So, the MIZ has been migrating north but not changing in area. Does this matter? As indicated above, the MIZ is a region of enhanced air-ocean heat, moisture and momentum exchanges and the location of these exchanges is relevant to local weather and oceanography. But, perhaps more dramatically, the MIZ is also a region of marine primary production, delivery of nutrients to the euphotic zone, and a hunting platform for polar bears and indigenous communities (Figure 1). Movement of the ice edge northwards is transforming the lives of local peoples and wildlife.
While the MIZ extent may not have been changing in recent times, the fraction of the Arctic ice cover that is the MIZ has been increasing, see the bottom panel of Figure 2. So, among other things, it seems the processes that dominate in the MIZ, such as wave-ice interaction, are becoming increasing important for the remaining Arctic ice cover whereas they have in the past been of only marginal significance (pun intended).
Figure 3: Left: current and projected changes in the MIZ [Strong and Rigor, 2013; Aksenov et al, 2017]. Right: projected MIZ in the 2030s in summer (June-August) [Aksenov et al, 2017].
If the increasing trend of MIZ fraction were to continue, one may expect the entire Arctic Ocean to eventually become marginal (before being eliminated entirely). Figure 3 shows a projection of Arctic MIZ area fraction and a snap-shot map in 2030. The implications of loss of Arctic sea ice cover are still being worked out in climate modelling and field studies (notably the recent US Office of Naval Research MIZ field program) but, likely as not, there will be as many unknown unknowns as known unknowns. One thing, however, seems fairly clear: the nature of air-sea ice-ocean exchanges and feedbacks will alter in the coming decades and these interactions will depend on physical representations of MIZ sea ice processes that have never needed to be included in models before.