February 15 2018

Unique Collaboration Works to Extend Sea Ice Prediction from Days to Decades

The US Coast Guard Cutter Healy relied on sea ice model-driven forecasts to clear a path for a fuel oil delivery to Nome, Alaska, in January 2012. NOAA’s polar-orbiting satellites provide critical data to sea ice prediction models. (Credit: NOAA Research).

You might say that ice runs in Elizabeth Hunke’s blood.

The U.S. Department of Energy scientist who created the nation’s premier model used by NOAA, the Navy and many scientists to predict sea ice got a taste for ice as a child.

Department of Energy scientist Elizabeth Hunke has spent more than two decades designing, creating, and improving a sea ice prediction model. (Credit: Department of Energy)
The daughter of a Coast Guard officer, Hunke grew up around sea ice in Cordova, Alaska, where her father tended buoys in the chilly waters of Prince Edward Sound. Her father was also part of the Coast Guard ice patrol when they lived near Boston, tracking ice bergs to warn ships of lurking hazards.

For more than two decades, Hunke has worked at the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory to design, create and improve a model used to predict sea ice extent, thickness and movement in both the Arctic and Antarctica.

Declining sea ice, more ship traffic boosts need for forecasts

As sea ice declines more rapidly, the demand for improved prediction is increasing.

“During this period when ice is fluctuating a lot, there are many more attempts to get ships through it,” said Hunke. “This also presents more challenges for search and rescue.”

Arctic communities depend on sea ice as a platform for hunting, a roadway for transportation and a buffer for severe coastal storms. The military needs accurate prediction for today’s mission and to plan for building and operating the ships and submarines of the future. More industries working in the Arctic, including shipping, tourism and energy development, depend on sea ice forecasts.

New satellite data improve forecasts

Prediction and modeling advances rely on satellite observations.

This image from NOAA's Satellite System Preparatory Project (Suomi-NPP or SNPP) shows ice, snow, clouds and open ocean around Alaska on Dec 09 2014. Ships rely on such imagery to navigate the region safely. Credit: NOAA

NOAA’s newest satellites have increased the frequency, resolution and information on sea ice used in the Los Alamos sea ice (or CICE) model, which also draws on observations from buoys, ships and aircraft. NOAA’s newest polar-orbiting satellite, NOAA-20, observes sea ice almost continually down to less than a quarter mile resolution. It uses moonlight to observe ice at night, so important in a region where it is dark a large part of the year.

The National Ice Center, operated by the Navy, Coast Guard and NOAA, uses the CICE model to help put out daily sea ice forecasts for the Arctic, Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, and Long Island Sound.

NOAA’s goal is to add sea ice prediction to the next generation Global Forecast System.

To learn more about sea ice prediction, efforts to enhance the CICE model and what’s in store for the future of sea ice prediction, visit NOAA’s Office of Research.

For more information on why NOAA’s polar-orbiting satellites are so important to weather forecasting and environmental monitoring in Alaska and the Polar Regions, visit the Joint Polar Satellite System website.

Note: This article appears courtesy of NOAA’s Office of Research. To learn more about the office’s work, visit its website.