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Unique collaboration works to extend sea ice prediction from days to decades
Monica Allen

Unique collaboration works to extend sea ice prediction from days to decades

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 U.S. Navy and many scientists to predict sea ice got a taste for ice as a child.

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 her family lived near Boston, tracking ice bergs to warn ships of lurking hazards. 

Elizabeth Hunke

Elizabeth Hunke

Department of Energy scientist Elizabeth Hunke has spent more than two decades designing, creating, and improving a sea ice prediction model. She is collaborating across federal and science agencies to extend prediction from days to decades. Credit: Department of Energy

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.

From the beginning, Hunke understood that collaboration was the key to improving this model, called CICE.

The Navy began contributing to the model in the 1990s. Then scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research joined the effort, expanding the community of researchers. More recently NOAA instigated a more formal collaboration process. NASA researchers and the Canadian government also use and contribute to the model.

Increasing ship traffic boosts need for forecasts

As Arctic 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 energy development, shipping and tourism, depend on sea ice forecasts.

New satellite data improve forecasts

Ice prediction and modeling advances rely on satellite observations

Satellite data improve forecasts

Satellite data improve forecasts

This image from NOAA's Satellite System Preparatory Project (Suomi-NPP or SNPP) shows ice, snow, clouds and a open ocean around Alaska on Dec 09 2014 that ships can use to navigate safely. Credit: NOAA

NOAA’s newest satellites have increased the frequency, resolution and information on sea ice used in the CICE model, which also draws on observations from buoys, ships and aircraft. NOAA’s new 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.

NASA will be launching ICESat-2 later this year, a laser altimeter that will allow researchers to monitor sea ice thickness with unprecedented resolution and, for the first time, throughout the year. No other satellite has been able to obtain sea ice thickness during the summer months, which is the most critical season for Arctic shipping.

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

NOAA’s goal is to add sea ice prediction to the next generation Global Forecast System. Improving sea ice prediction is also a priority of the multi-agency federal effort called the National Earth System Prediction Capability, which aims to accelerate the short and long-term prediction of weather, climate, oceans and sea ice, said NOAA’s Jessie Carman, NOAA deputy for the National Earth System Prediction Capability.

Carman brought together a panel for this week’s AAAS Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas, that includes Hunke, Navy CDR Ruth A. Lane who directs the National Ice Center, Penn State professor and former NOAA deputy undersecretary David Titley, and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Chief of the Laboratory for Cryospheric Processes Thorsten Markus, to speak about the future of sea ice prediction. The panel discussion is Saturday, February 17, at 1:30 PM CDT, at the Austin Convention Center.

Please go online for more on NOAA's Joint Polar Satellite System

For more information please contact Monica Allen, director of public affairs for NOAA Research, at or by cell at 202-379-6693.

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Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) - or "NOAA Research" - provides the research foundation for understanding the complex systems that support our planet. Working in partnership with other organizational units of the NOAA, a bureau of the Department of Commerce, NOAA Research enables better forecasts, earlier warnings for natural disasters, and a greater understanding of the Earth. Our role is to provide unbiased science to better manage the environment, nationally, and globally.


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