Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Paleoclimate Records: Providing context and understanding of current Arctic change

August 1, 2018

At present, the Arctic Ocean is experiencing changes in ocean surface temperature and sea ice extent that are unprecedented in the era of satellite observations, which extend from the 1980s to the present (see sections 5c,d). To provide context for current changes, scientists turn to paleoclimate records to document and study anthropogenic influence and natural decadal and multidecadal climate variability in the Arctic system. Paleoceanographic records extend limited Arctic instrumental measurements back in time and are central to improving our understanding of climate dynamics and the predictive capability of climate models. By comparing paleoceanographic records with modern observations, scientists can place the rates and magnitudes of modern Arctic change in the context of those inferred from the geological record.

Over geological time, paleoceanographic reconstructions using, for instance, marine sediment cores indicate that the Arctic has experienced huge sea ice fluctuations. These fluctuations range from nearly completely ice-free to totally ice-covered conditions. The appearance of ice-rafted debris and sea ice-dependent diatoms in Arctic marine sediments indicate that the first Arctic sea ice formed approxi-mately 47 million years ago (St. John 2008; Stickley et al. 2009; Fig. SB5.1), coincident with an interval of declining atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration, global climate cooling, and expansion of Earths cryosphere during the middle Eocene. The development of year-round (i.e., perennial) sea ice in the central Arctic Ocean, similar to conditions that exist today, is evident in sediment records as early as 1418 million years ago (Darby 2008). These records suggest that transitions in sea ice cover occur over many millennia and often vary in concert with the waxing and waning of circum-Arctic land ice sheets, ice shelves, and long-term fluctuations in ocean and atmospheric temperature and atmospheric CO2 concentrations (Stein et al. 2012; Jakobsson et al. 2014). Over shorter time scales, shallow sediment records from Arctic Ocean continental shelves allow more detailed, higher-resolution (hundreds of years resolution) reconstructions of sea ice history extending through the Holocene (11 700 years ago to present), the most recent interglacial period.
A notable feature of these records is an early Holocene sea ice minimum, corresponding to a thermal maximum (warm) period from 11 000 to 5000 years ago, when the Arctic may have been warmer and had less summertime sea ice than today (Kaufman et al. 2004). However, it is not clear that the Arctic was ice-free at any point during the Holocene (Polyak et al. 2010). High-resolution paleosea ice records from the western Arctic in the Chukchi and East Siberian Seas indicate that sea ice concentrations increased through the Holocene in concert with decreasing summer solar insolation (sunlight). Sea ice extent in this region also varied in response to the volume of Pacific water delivered via the Bering Strait into the Arctic Basin (Stein et al. 2017; Polyak et al. 2016). Records from the Fram Strait (Mller et al. 2012), Laptev Sea (Hrner et al. 2016), and Canadian Arctic Archipelago (Vare et al. 2009) also indicate a similar long-term expansion of sea ice and suggest sea ice extent in these regions is modulated by the varying influx of warm Atlantic water into the Arctic Basin (e.g., Werner et al. 2013). Taken together, available records support a circum-Arctic sea ice expansion during the late Holocene.

A notably high-resolution summer sea ice history (<5-year resolution) has been established for the last 1450 years using a network of terrestrial records (tree ring , lake sediment, and ice core records) located around the margins of the Arctic Ocean (Kinnard et al. 2011). Results summarized in Fig. SB5.2 indicate a pronounced decline in summer sea ice extent beginning in the 20th century, with exceptionally low ice extent recorded since the mid-1990s, consistent with the satellite record (see section 5d). While several episodes of reduced and expanded sea ice extent occur in association with climate anomalies such as the Medieval Climate Warm Period (AD 8001300) and the Little Ice Age (AD 14501850), the magnitude and pace of the modern decline in sea ice is outside of the range of natural variability and unprecedented in the 1450-year reconstruction (Kinnard et al. 2011). A radiocarbon-dated driftwood record of the Ellesmere ice shelf in the Canadian High Arctic, the oldest landfast ice in the Northern Hemisphere, also demonstrates a substantial reduction in ice extents over the 20th century (England et al. 2017). A supporting sediment record indicates that inflowing Atlantic water in Fram Strait has warmed by 2C since 1900, driving break up and melt of sea ice (Spielhagen et al. 2011). Complementary mooring and satellite observations show the Atlantification of the eastern Arctic due to enhanced inflow of warm saline water through Fram Strait (Nilsen et al. 2016) and nutrient-rich Pacific water via the Bering has increased by more than 50% (Woodgate et al. 2012), further driving sea ice melt and warming seas. Similar high-resolution proxy records from Arctic regions also indicate that the modern rate of increasing annual surface air temperatures has not been observed over at least the last 2000 years (McKay and Kaufman 2014). Scientists conclude that broad-scale sea ice variations recorded in the paleo record were dominantly driven by changes in basin-scale changes in atmospheric circulation patterns, fluctuations in air temperature, strength of incoming solar radiation, and changes in the inflow of warm water via Pacific and Atlantic inflows (Polyak et al. 2010).

There is general consensus that ice-free Arctic summers are likely before the end of the 21st century (e.g., Stroeve et al. 2007; Massonnet et al. 2012), while some climate model projections suggest ice-free Arctic summers as early as 2030 (Wang and Overland 2009). Paleoclimate studies and observational time series attribute the decline in sea ice extent and thickness over the last decade to both enhanced greenhouse warming and natural climate variability. While understanding the interplay of these factors is critical for future projections of Arctic sea ice and ecosystems, most observational time series records cover only a few decades. This highlights the need for additional paleoceanographic reconstructions across multiple spatial and temporal domains to better understand the drivers and implications of present and future Arctic Ocean change.

Publication Year 2018
Title Paleoclimate Records: Providing context and understanding of current Arctic change
DOI 10.1175/2018BAMSStateoftheClimate.1
Authors Emily Osborne, Thomas M. Cronin, Jesse Farmer
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Bulletin American Meteorological Society
Index ID 70228742
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Florence Bascom Geoscience Center