The Future of Arctic Sea Ice

By: Rebecca Frew

It is well documented in scientific studies and the news (recent example here) that the summer extent of Arctic sea ice has been declining rapidly in response to global warming. As the summer sea ice shrinks and retreats Northward, the summer marginal ice zone (MIZ) has been widening and making up a larger proportion of the summer sea ice cover (Ralph et al. 2020).

The MIZ is typically defined as the area in which sea ice is influenced by waves. A more convenient definition often used in studies is the area where the sea ice concentration is between 15% and 80%. With the area above 80% defined as the ice pack where the sea ice floes are more densely packed together, blocking direct atmosphere-ocean interaction. The MIZ is typically small in the winter and grows to maximum extent in the summer as the ice pack fragments and melts, creating smaller and less densely packed floes.

Figure 1: Sea Ice floes. Image Credit:  Kevin Woods, NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. 

This trend of an increasingly MIZ dominated ice cover is projected to continue (Strong & Rigor 2013, Aksenov et al. 2017), transitioning to sea ice free Arctic summers. The relative rates and importance of sea ice processes in the MIZ differs to those in the ice pack. This has consequences for the exchange of heat and salt between the atmosphere and ocean, and ultimately the date at which the Arctic becomes ice free in summer.

Three processes that differ between the MIZ and ice pack are the lateral melt rate (melting on the side of the floes), basal/bottom melting of the floes and breakup of floes caused by waves. The average floe size in the MIZ is smaller than in the ice pack, which means the increases the perimeter to area ratio and promotes faster lateral melting. Ice thickness also tends to be thinner, which increases the rate of basal ice melting in the summer. Smaller, less densely packed sea ice floes in the MIZ are more susceptible to wave breakup, creating smaller floes which tend to melt at a quicker rate.

Figure 2: Arctic sea ice and MIZ extent in the 1980s and the 2010s, from a sea ice model simulation.

In my research, I am investigating the relative importance of growth and melt processes in the MIZ and whether they might change in the future. As part of this, I am considering how they are currently represented in climate models, whether this is accurate and how sensitive the processes are to parameters that are difficult to constrain from observations. For example, a relatively recent area of development in sea ice models is the inclusion of a floe size distribution (Roach et al. 2018). Previously sea ice floes were all one size or ignored in models, now a distribution floe sizes across a range of sizes is calculated within each grid cell, better representing the variation of cm to 100s of kms that is observed. This is important when modelling the MIZ because floe sizes are smaller, and the floe size influences the lateral melt rate.

How lateral melt rate differs in the MIZ from the ice pack, and how it might change in the future are a couple of the questions I am trying to answer. Answering these questions about processes in the MIZ helps to improve projections of Arctic sea ice, and better represent the response of Arctic sea ice to different future scenarios of warming.


Aksenov, Y., Popova, E. E., Yool, A., Nurser, A. J. G., Williams, T. D., Bertino, L., and Bergh, J., 2017: On the future navigability of Arctic sea routes: High-resolution projections of the Arctic Ocean and sea ice, Mar. Pol., 75, 300–317,,

Roach, L. A., Horvat, C., Dean, S. M., and Bitz, C. M., 2018: An Emergent Sea Ice Floe Size Distribution in a Global Coupled Ocean-Sea Ice Model, J. Geophys. Res.-Ocean, 123, 4322–4337,

Rolph, R. J., Feltham, D. L., and Schröder. D., 2020: Changes of the Arctic marginal ice zone during the satellite era, The Cryosphere, 14, 1971–1984,

Strong, C., and Rigor, I. G., 2013: Arctic marginal ice zone trending wider in summer and narrower in winter, Geophys. Res. Lett., 40, 4864–4868,

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