Why is Antarctica gaining sea ice?
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Science says: Satellites measure Antarctica is gaining sea ice but losing land ice at an accelerating rate, which has implications for sea level rise.

Skeptic arguments that Antarctica is gaining ice frequently hinge on an error of omission, namely ignoring the difference between land ice and sea ice.

In glaciology, and particularly with respect to Antarctic ice, not all things are created equal. Let us consider the following differences. Antarctic land ice is the ice which has accumulated over thousands of years on the Antarctica landmass itself through snowfall. This land ice therefore is actually stored ocean water that once fell as precipitation. Sea ice in Antarctica is quite different as it is generally considered to be ice which forms in salt water primarily during the winter months.

Estimates of Total Antarctic Land Ice Changes and approximate sea level contributions using many different measurement techniques. Adapted from The Copenhagen Diagnosis. (CH= Chen et al. 2006, WH= Wingham et al. 2006, R= Rignot et al. 2008b, CZ= Cazenave et al. 2009 and V=Velicogna 2009)

In Antarctica, sea ice grows quite extensively during winter but nearly completely melts away during the summer (see above). That is where the important difference between antarctic and arctic sea ice exists. Arctic sea ice lasts all the year round, there are increases during the winter months and decreases during the summer months but an ice cover does in fact remain in the North which includes quite a bit of ice from previous years (Figure 1). Essentially Arctic sea ice is more important for the earth's energy balance because when it melts, more sunlight is absorbed by the oceans whereas Antarctic sea ice normally melts each summer leaving the earth's energy balance largely unchanged.

One must also be careful how you interpret trends in Antarctic sea ice. Currently this ice is increasing and has been for years but is this the smoking gun against climate change? Not quite. Antarctic sea ice is gaining because of many different reasons but the most accepted recent explanations are listed below:

  • Ozone levels over Antarctica have dropped causing stratospheric cooling and increasing winds which lead to more areas of open water that can be frozen (Gillet 2003, Thompson 2002, Turner 2009).
  • The Southern Ocean is freshening because of increased rain, glacial run-off and snowfall. This changes the composition of the different layers in the ocean there causing less mixing between warm and cold layers and thus less melted sea ice (Zhang 2007).

All the sea ice talk aside, it is quite clear that really when it comes to Antarctic ice, sea ice is not the most important thing to measure. In Antarctica, the most important ice mass is the land ice sitting on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Estimates of recent changes in Antarctic land ice (see above) range from losing 100 gigatons/year to over 300 gigatons/year. Because 360 gigatons/year represents an annual sea level rise of 1 mm/year, recent estimates indicate a contribution of between 0.27 mm/year and 0.83 mm/year coming from Antarctica. There is of course uncertainty in the estimations methods but multiple different types of measurement techniques (explained here) all show the same thing, Antarctica is losing land ice as a whole, and these losses are accelerating quickly.

Science says: While the interior of East Antarctica is gaining land ice, overall Antarctica is losing land ice at an accelerating rate. Antarctic sea ice is growing despite a strongly warming Southern Ocean.

It's important to distinguish between Antarctic land ice and sea ice which are two separate phenomena. Reporting on Antarctic ice often fails to recognise the difference between sea ice and land ice. To summarize the situation with Antarctic ice trends:

  • Antarctic land ice is decreasing at an accelerating rate
  • Antarctic sea ice is increasing despite the warming Southern Ocean

Antarctic Land Ice is decreasing

Measuring changes in Antarctic land ice mass has been a difficult process due to the ice sheet's massive size and complexity. However, since 2002 the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites have been able to comprehensively survey the entire ice sheet. The satellites measure changes in gravity to determine mass variations of the entire Antarctic ice sheet. Initial observations found that that most of Antarctic mass loss comes from Western Antarctica (Velicogna 2007). Meanwhile, from 2002 to 2005, East Antarctica was in approximate mass balance. The ice gained in the interior is roughly balanced by the ice loss at the edges. This is illustrated in Figure 1 which contrasts the ice mass changes in West Antarctica (red) compared to East Antarctica (green):

Figure 1. Ice mass changes (solid lines with circles) and their best-fitting linear trends (dashed line) for the West Antarctica Ice Sheet (red) and East Antarctica Ice Sheet (green) for April 2002 to August 2005 (Velicogna 2007).

As more GRACE data came in, a clearer understanding of the Antarctic ice sheet emerges. Figure 2 shows the ice mass changes in Antarctica for the period April 2002 to February 2009 (Velicogna 2009) . The blue line/crosses show the unfiltered, monthly values. The red crosses have seasonal variability removed. The green line is the best fitting trend.

Figure 2. Ice mass changes for the Antarctic ice sheet from April 2002 to February 2009. Unfiltered data are blue crosses. Data filtered for the seasonal dependence are red crosses. The best-fitting quadratic trend is shown as the green line (Velicogna 2009).

With the longer time series, a statistically significant trend now emerges. Not only is Antarctica losing land ice, the ice loss is accelerating at a rate of 26 Gigatons per year (in other words, every year, the rate of ice loss is increasing by 26 Gigatons per year) It turns out that since 2006, East Antarctica has no longer been in mass balance but is in fact, losing ice mass (Chen 2009). This is a surprising result as East Antarctica has been considered stable because the region is so cold. This indicates the East Antarctic ice sheet is more dynamic than previously thought.

This is significant because East Antarctica contains much more ice than West Antarctica. East Antarctica contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by 50 to 60 meters while West Antarctica would contribute around 6 to 7 meters. The Antarctic ice sheet plays an important role in the total contribution to sea level. That contribution is continuously and rapidly growing.

Antarctic Sea Ice is increasing

Antarctic sea ice has shown long term growth since satellites began measurements in 1979. This is an observation that has been often cited as proof against global warming. However, rarely is the question raised: why is Antarctic sea ice increasing? The implicit assumption is it must be cooling around Antarctica. This is decidedly not the case. In fact, the Southern Ocean has been warming faster than the rest of the world's oceans. Globally from 1955 to 1995, oceans have been warming at 0.1°C per decade. In contrast, the Southern Ocean has been warming at 0.17°C per decade. Not only is the Southern Ocean warming, it is warming faster than the global trend.

Figure 3. Surface air temperature over the ice-covered areas of the Southern Ocean (top). Sea ice extent, observed by satellite (bottom). (Zhang 2007).

If the Southern Ocean is warming, why is Antarctic sea ice increasing? There are several contributing factors. One is the drop in ozone levels over Antarctica. The hole in the ozone layer above the South Pole has caused cooling in the stratosphere (Gillet 2003). This strengthens the cyclonic winds that circle the Antarctic continent (Thompson 2002). The wind pushes sea ice around, creating areas of open water known as polynyas. More polynyas lead to increased sea ice production (Turner 2009).

Another contributor is changes in ocean circulation. The Southern Ocean consists of a layer of cold water near the surface and a layer of warmer water below. Water from the warmer layer rises up to the surface, melting sea ice. However, as air temperatures warm, the amount of rain and snowfall also increases. This freshens the surface waters, leading to a surface layer less dense than the saltier, warmer water below. The layers become more stratified and mix less. Less heat is transported upwards from the deeper, warmer layer. Hence less sea ice is melted (Zhang 2007).

In summary, Antarctic sea ice is a complex and unique phenomenon. The simplistic interpretation that it must be cooling around Antarctica is decidedly not the case. Warming is happening - how it affects specific regions is complicated.

The myth:

"[Ice] is expanding in much of Antarctica, contrary to the widespread public belief that global warming is melting the continental ice cap."

Greg Roberts, The Australian

About Skeptical Science

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John Cook is the Climate Change Communication Fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland. He created and runs skepticalscience.com. His efforts have concentrated on making climate science accessible to the general public, releasing smartphone apps for the iPhone and Android phones. He has produced climate communication resources adopted by organizations such as NOAA and the U.S. Navy, and co-authored the book Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand with environmental scientist Haydn Washington.