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Through the Eyes of Satellites, Scientists See Changing Arctic

April 20, 2015

What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic, especially when it comes to atmospheric changes that first occur in the region and are now impacting the environment toward the south in the form of increased severe weather events.

Image of clouds
This image shows the sea ice concentration on September 17, 2014, along with a yellow line indicating the median sea ice extent for 1981-2010. Credit: NOAA

Jeff Key, a NOAA research satellite meteorologist and expert on the climatology of polar regions, said, “The Arctic climate system is so complex when you factor in sea and land ice, snow-free and snow-covered land. Extreme weather also is increasing because of changes in circulation patterns. The sea level is rising partly because of the melting of glaciers and ice sheets.”

Key, who will speak next week at a press conference in D.C., added: The satellites are showing decreasing sea-ice thickness and a decline in the amount of ice sheets, while plant growth is increasing with the shifting atmospheric circulation patterns.

The study of sea ice thickness from space is new, according to Key, and is based on a new NOAA climate data record. While scientists have known that Arctic sea ice is getting thinner, they did not know how this varied across the Arctic Ocean.

“Thanks to satellite data, we have discovered previously unknown relationships within the climate system. For example, the Arctic would be even warmer if cloud cover hadn’t changed the way it did over the last few decades,” Key said.

Strong international and inter-agency satellite partnerships are critical to the continued understanding of changes in the Arctic’s climate. “We need many different types of satellite sensors to fully characterize and quantify what’s going on in the Arctic.”