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Sea ice and large-scale atmospheric variability around East Antarctica

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posted on 14.09.2021, 03:23 by Florence Isaacs

​​Antarctica’s sea ice cover is an important component in the global climate system. The variability and recent trends of sea ice concentration are, however, not accurately reproduced by models. Evaluating model performance is hampered because the processes that determine sea ice distribution are not yet well understood, particularly in the East Antarctic region. Here I explore the relationships between recent climate variability and sea ice around East Antarctica, the spatial variability in these relationships, and the impacts that these may have on other aspects of the climate and cryosphere. To achieve this, I analysed satellite-derived HadlSST sea ice concentration (SIC) alongside ERA5 atmospheric reanalysis data for the period between 1979-2018.

I found that variability in sea ice coverage around East Antarctica was affected by El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), the Southern Annular Mode (SAM), and Zonal Wave 3 (ZW3). Additionally, I found that the influence of each of these modes varied spatially and temporally, and that sea ice variability affected how regional scale climate responded to changes in large-scale circulation. Summer and autumn SIC around Dronning Maud Land between 10°E and 70°E exhibited a statistically significant negative correlation with the Niño 3.4 index. Analysis of ERA5 data suggests that a southward‐propagating atmospheric wave train triggered by SST anomalies in the tropical Pacific extends into Dronning Maud Land and alters sea ice concentration by encouraging meridional airflow. Shifts in meridional flow in Dronning Maud Land affected sea ice thermodynamically, by altering local heat transport and in turn altering sea ice formation and melt.

Sea ice around the Western Pacific sector (WPS) of East Antarctica showed a significant association with variability in the IOD and the SAM. The IOD was correlated with SIC in all seasons but summer. The IOD-SIC relationship is likely driven by an IOD-associated atmospheric wave-train which propagates polewards from the tropical Indian Ocean to Wilkes Land, altering regional circulation and in turn affecting SIC through changes to local climate and sea ice transport. The correlation between WPS SIC and the SAM shifts from positive in summer and autumn to negative in winter and spring, and is likely due to the influence of the SAM on katabatic winds and coastal polynyas, which in turn affect SIC.

A significant correlation was observed between SIC variability around East Antarctica and precipitation variability across the continent and the near-coastal Southern Ocean. Further analysis showed that SIC affected how continental precipitation responded to large-scale atmospheric circulation, including modes such as ZW3 and the SAM. Specifically, increased southward moisture flux was only associated with increased precipitation in the inland coastal regions of the continent when SIC was anomalously low. These findings suggest that any future decrease in sea ice may result in greater coupling of climate variability with continental precipitation.


Advisor 1

Renwick, James

Advisor 2

Mackintosh, Andrew

Advisor 3

Dadic, Ruzica

Copyright Date


Date of Award



Victoria University of Wellington - Te Herenga Waka

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Physical Geography

Degree Grantor

Victoria University of Wellington - Te Herenga Waka

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Unit

Antarctic Research Centre

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences