Observational determination of albedo decrease caused by vanishing Arctic sea ice

(A) Sea ice concentration and (B) CERES clear-sky albedo
TitleObservational determination of albedo decrease caused by vanishing Arctic sea ice
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2014
AuthorsPistone K., Eisenman I, Ramanathan V
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Date Published2014/03
Type of ArticleArticle
ISBN Number0027-8424
Accession NumberWOS:000332560300039
Keywordsclimate models; cloud; earth; feedback; radiation budget; surface

The decline of Arctic sea ice has been documented in over 30 y of satellite passive microwave observations. The resulting darkening of the Arctic and its amplification of global warming was hypothesized almost 50 y ago but has yet to be verified with direct observations. This study uses satellite radiation budget measurements along with satellite microwave sea ice data to document the Arctic-wide decrease in planetary albedo and its amplifying effect on the warming. The analysis reveals a striking relationship between planetary albedo and sea ice cover, quantities inferred from two independent satellite instruments. We find that the Arctic planetary albedo has decreased from 0.52 to 0.48 between 1979 and 2011, corresponding to an additional 6.4 +/- 0.9 W/m(2) of solar energy input into the Arctic Ocean region since 1979. Averaged over the globe, this albedo decrease corresponds to a forcing that is 25% as large as that due to the change in CO2 during this period, considerably larger than expectations from models and other less direct recent estimates. Changes in cloudiness appear to play a negligible role in observed Arctic darkening, thus reducing the possibility of Arctic cloud albedo feedbacks mitigating future Arctic warming.


The present study shows that the planetary darkening effect of the vanishing sea ice represents a substantial climate forcing that is not offset by cloud albedo feedbacks and other processes. Together, these findings provide direct observational validation of the hypothesis of a positive feedback between sea ice cover, planetary albedo, and global warming.

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