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The Arctic dipole: The atmospheric pattern shaping our future climate

In a recent study published in the journal Science, an international team of scientists has shed new light on the “Atlantification” of the Arctic Ocean. 

This phenomenon explains the trend in Arctic Ocean sea ice loss that seems to have plateaued since 2007. But beneath this apparent lull hides a complex connection between atmospheric forces, ocean currents, and environmental impacts.

Arctic dipole 

The research team was led by Professor Igor Polyakov of the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Natural Science and Mathematics, who is also affiliated with the International Arctic Research Center at UAF. 

The study delves into the multifaceted influence of the Arctic dipole on the Arctic Ocean climate.

“This is a multidisciplinary view on what’s going on in the Arctic and beyond,” said Professor Polyakov. “Our analysis covered the atmosphere, ocean, ice, changing continents and changing biology in response to climate change.”

The research was conducted by a diverse team of co-authors, including Andrey V. Pnyushkov, Uma S. Bhatt, and experts from Massachusetts, Washington, Norway, and Germany.

What the researchers learned 

Through a comprehensive evaluation of decades-worth of data – including direct instrumental observations, reanalysis products, and satellite information – the researchers discovered that the Arctic dipole follows an approximately 15-year cycle. They surmise that we’re nearing the end of the present regime.

When broken down, the current “positive” regime of the Arctic dipole, which has persisted since 2007, is characterized by high pressure centered over the Canadian sector of the Arctic producing clockwise winds, and low pressure over the Siberian Arctic, with counterclockwise winds. 

This specific wind configuration affects upper ocean currents and has a wide-ranging influence, from air temperatures to sea-ice drift, heat exchanges, and even ecological implications.

“Water exchanges between the Nordic seas and the Arctic Ocean are critically important for the state of the Arctic climate system,” explained the researchers, noting that sea ice decline stands as “a true indicator of climate change.”

Switchgear mechanism 

The research also unveils a “switchgear mechanism” responsible for the alternating changes in the Fram Strait and the Barents Sea. These alterations, triggered by the Arctic dipole mechanisms, have profound effects. 

Since 2007, a decrease in flow from the Atlantic Ocean into the Arctic Ocean was observed, alongside an increased flow into the Barents Sea.

Influx of freshwater 

Further observations indicated that the positive Arctic dipole regime’s counterclockwise winds drove freshwater from Siberian rivers into the Canadian sector of the Arctic Ocean from 2007 to 2021. 

This influx of freshwater acted as a mitigating factor in sea ice loss, with the freshwater layer becoming too thick to mix with the saltier, heavier water below. This essentially acts as a barrier, preventing the warmer saltwater from melting sea ice at the base.

Study implications 

Beyond its effects on the ice, the switchgear mechanism has a significant impact on marine life. The changes in water flow patterns could make certain parts of the Eurasian Basin more conducive for sub-Arctic boreal species compared to others.

Professor Polyakov further warns, “We are beyond the peak of the currently positive Arctic dipole regime, and at any moment it could switch back again.” The potential repercussions of this could include an accelerated loss of sea ice across the Arctic and alterations to sub-Arctic climate systems.

This pivotal research was made possible through the support of the U.S. National Science Foundation and the U.S. Office of Naval Research. The findings not only shed light on current Arctic conditions but also offer a glimpse into potential future scenarios, emphasizing the need for continued monitoring and research in the region.

More about the Arctic dipole 

The Arctic dipole, also known as the Dipole Anomaly, is a relatively recent climate pattern characterized by atmospheric pressure variations in the Arctic region. 

It has garnered increased attention due to its pronounced impact on the sea ice extent and its potential linkage with mid-latitude weather patterns. 


At its core, the Arctic dipole consists of two opposing pressure patterns. In its positive phase, there’s high pressure over the Arctic region near Canada and low pressure over the Siberian region. This pressure gradient results in anomalous wind patterns.

Impact on sea ice

The wind patterns associated with the positive phase of the Arctic dipole drive sea ice from the central Arctic Ocean towards the Atlantic, passing through the Fram Strait. This results in decreased sea ice within the Arctic region and an increased export of ice into the northern Atlantic.


Beyond the movement of sea ice, the Arctic dipole has other environmental implications. The wind patterns can influence the pathways of pollutants and aerosols into the Arctic, potentially affecting air quality and cloud properties. 

The dipole can also change the pathways of migratory birds and influence marine ecosystems through altered sea ice and ocean conditions.

Mid-latitude weather

There’s growing evidence suggesting that the Arctic dipole can influence weather patterns in mid-latitudes. For instance, certain phases of the dipole have been linked to cold air outbreaks in parts of North America and Asia.

Climate change

As global temperatures rise and Arctic sea ice continues to shrink, there is a greater need for understanding how the Arctic dipole might evolve. 

Some research suggests that as the Arctic warms, the dipole may become more pronounced, leading to more frequent and intense impacts on sea ice and mid-latitude weather patterns.

Historical perspective

Historically, the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) was the primary mode of variability affecting the Arctic. But since the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Arctic dipole has become more dominant, with stronger and more frequent positive phases.

In essence, the Arctic dipole is a vivid demonstration of the interconnectedness of our planet’s atmospheric systems. As the Earth’s climate continues to change, understanding patterns like the Arctic dipole becomes crucial not only for predicting changes in the Arctic environment but also for forecasting weather patterns in more populated regions of the world.

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