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On thin ice: As Arctic Ocean warms, a scramble to understand its weather

Increasing summer ice melt in the Arctic Ocean could shift global weather patterns and make polar waters more navigable. But scientists say forecasting Arctic ice and weather remains a massive challenge.

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Others had speculated that the impact storms have on melting contribute to sea-ice decline, says Dr. Schweiger, who took part in the study, published last month in the journal Geophysical Research Letters

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"We showed the effect on the ice, and processes like that of course will make a difference for shorter-term forecasts," he says.

The event highlights another factor critical to ice forecasts, notes the National Ice Center's Clemente-Colon.

"To get any improvement in ice forecasting, you really have to improve weather forecasting in the Arctic," he says. Among other things, that means more weather sensors in a sensor-starved part of the world.

To help fill that gap, NOAA inked an agreement last year with the oil industry to share forecast-relevant data from instruments on oil and gas platforms, Clemente-Colon says. The agreement is similar to a pact the two have covering for data from platforms in the Gulf of Mexico gathered above and under water as part of the agency's ocean-observing network

Royal Dutch Shell already has begun exploration activities in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, Clemente-Colon notes, with ConocoPhillips laying out its own exploration plans.

"They're going to go next," he says.

Research into operational ice and weather forecasting for the Arctic Ocean – part of a broader Arctic research effort guided by the federal Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee – is moving along three broad tracks: building a long-term network of instrument packages moored, floating, or installed on autonomous undersea vehicles to measure the processes influencing the ocean, ice, and atmosphere; improving weather and ice-forecasting models and their ability to ingest information gathered by the far-flung sensors; and supporting field experiments that aim to answer focused questions on these key processes.

For instance, the Office of Naval Research is supporting two five-year research projects that deal with some of these issues.

Of particular interest is the so-called marginal-ice zone, a region of broken, mobile ice floes that surrounds the older, thicker ice pack. That zone changes from melt season to melt season. As the zone retreats at the start of the season, it exposes more ocean. This increases the distances wind-driven waves and swells can travel.

"That opens up new possibilities for deterioration of the ice cover as you change floe size, ice-cover concentration," and the water and air temperatures," he says.

The topic is the centerpiece of a six- to seven-month field study the agency is underwriting for 2014 in the Beaufort Sea focused on setting out a range of high-tech instruments, including some on ice floes to track their evolution and motion.

In addition, researchers will specifically study the origins and behavior of waves and swells on the ocean as the ice pack shrinks, and the mechanics of ice break-up as the swells and waves erode the edges of the ice pack to form the marginal-ice zone.

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