Article image

Melting Arctic ice weakens the strength of El Niño events

In recent times, the global climate has changed in unprecedented ways. We’ve seen extreme events such as intense hurricanes, prolonged droughts, record-breaking heatwaves and significant Arctic ice melt. Among these phenomena, El Niño has garnered significant attention.

This climate pattern, characterized by warm waters in the eastern Pacific, leads to hotter weather worldwide. It plays a key role in causing prolonged periods of heat and heavy precipitation.

Interestingly, as the latest El Niño event begins to wane, a study sheds light on an unexpected player in this complex climate system: the melting Arctic sea ice.

Arctic ice melt to weaken El Niño

Researchers from the University at Albany and the Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology in China have embarked on an exploratory journey.

Their study underscores a critical connection between the melting Arctic sea ice and the intensification of El Niño events.

Consequently, through a meticulous analysis involving climate model simulations and observational data, the study reveals a stark revelation.

The ongoing interaction between melting Arctic sea ice and the atmosphere plays a pivotal role – reducing the strength of El Niño events by up to 17 percent.

Impact of Arctic ice melt on El Niño Events

This discovery is particularly alarming given the rapid decline of Arctic sea ice, which has been decreasing by 12.2% per decade since the late 1970s.

With projections indicating the potential for the Arctic to experience its first ice-free summer by 2040, the implications are profound. This situation could significantly affect future El Niño events.

Aiguo Dai, a distinguished professor at UAlbany’s Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences and co-author of the study, emphasizes the significance of these findings.

“Climate models are already projecting a strengthened El Niño in the upcoming decades due to global warming. Our study suggests that the current climate’s sea ice-air interactions significantly dampen the amplitude of El Niño events, unveiling a new facet of Arctic sea ice’s impact on our climate,” said Professor Dai.

Role of Arctic ice in El Niño dynamics

The research team embarked on an ambitious project, utilizing the Community Earth System Model from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) to simulate global climate conditions over 500 years. These simulations, hosted by the UAlbany Data Center, differed only in the Arctic’s sea ice-air interactions.

The comparison between these simulations was revealing. It showed that the presence of sea ice-air interactions reduces El Niño-related variations in the tropical Pacific Ocean’s climate by about 12 to 17%.

This reduction is attributed to the asymmetric impacts of positive and negative sea-ice anomalies on surface fluxes. Essentially, this refers to the exchange of heat between the ocean and the atmosphere.

Jiechun Deng is an associate professor at Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology and the study’s lead author.

“Our findings illuminate the critical role of sea ice-air interactions in regulating El Niño activity. This underscores the necessity for climate models to more accurately represent these interactions to better predict El Niño and its impacts in a warming world,” said Professor Deng.

Broader climate implications

The study is part of a series of research efforts led by Professor Dai, focusing on the changing Arctic climate. Previous studies have explored the causes of Arctic amplification and how Arctic sea ice changes affect Atlantic temperatures.

“The main takeaway is that shrinking Arctic sea ice has many far-reaching climate impacts,” said Professor Dai. “Understanding these consequences is crucial for grasping the full scope of global warming’s impact on our planet.”

Furthermore, adding to the body of knowledge, Dai’s research echoes the findings of a 2022 study published in Nature Communications. This study predicted an increase in the frequency of strong El Niño events as a direct consequence of future Arctic sea ice loss.

Future directions

The intricate relationship between Arctic sea ice loss and El Niño events presents a compelling facet of climate science. Moreover, it highlights the interconnectedness of our planet’s climate systems.

As our understanding of these dynamics grows, the need to incorporate these interactions into climate models becomes more evident. Only through comprehensive and accurate models can we hope to predict and mitigate the impacts of global warming.

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day