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From research stations drifting on ice floes to high-tech aircraft radar, scientists have been tracking the depth of snow that accumulates on Arctic sea ice for almost a century. Now that people are more concerned than ever about what is happening at the poles, research led by the University of Washington and NASA confirms that snow has thinned significantly in the Arctic, particularly on sea ice in western waters near Alaska.
A new study, now online in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, combines data collected by ice buoys and NASA aircraft with historic data from ice floes staffed by Soviet scientists from the late 1950s through the early 1990s to track changes over decades.
Historically, Soviets on drifting sea ice used meter sticks and handwritten logs to record snow depth. Today, researchers on the ground use an automated probe similar to a ski pole to verify the accuracy of airborne measurements.
“When you stab it into the ground, the basket move up, and it records the distance between the magnet and the end of the probe,” said first author Melinda Webster, a UW graduate student in oceanography. “You can take a lot of measurements very quickly. It’s a pretty big difference from the Soviet field stations.”
Webster verified the accuracy of airborne data taken during a March 15, 2012 NASA flight over the sea ice near Barrow, Alaska. The following day Webster followed the same track in minus 30-degree temperatures while stabbing through the snow every two to three steps.
The authors compared data from NASA airborne surveys, collected between 2009 and 2013, with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers buoys frozen into the sea ice, and earlier data from Soviet drifting ice stations in 1937 and from 1954 through 1991. Results showed that snowpack has thinned from 14 inches to 9 inches (35 cm to 22 cm) in the western Arctic, and from 13 inches to 6 inches (33 cm to 14.5 cm) in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, west and north of Alaska.
That’s a decline in the western Arctic of about a third, and snowpack in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas less than half as thick in spring in recent years compared to the average Soviet-era records for that time of year.
“Knowing exactly the error between the airborne and the ground measurements, we’re able to say with confidence, Yes, the snow is decreasing in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas,” said co-author Ignatius Rigor, an oceanographer at the UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory.