How does sea ice affect global climate?

Sea ice affects both global ocean temperatures and the global movement of ocean waters.

sea ice in the Arctic Ocean

Sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. While sea ice exists primarily in the polar regions, it influences the global climate.

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Sea ice also affects the movement of ocean waters. The ocean is salty and when sea ice forms, much of the salt is pushed into the ocean water below the ice, although some salt may become trapped in small pockets between ice crystals. Water below sea ice has a higher concentration of salt and is denser than the surrounding ocean water, so it sinks and moves from the surface. In this way, sea ice contributes to the circulation of the global ocean conveyor belt. Cold, dense polar water descends from the surface and circulates along the ocean bottom toward the equator, while warm water from mid-depth to the surface travels from the equator toward the poles.

Sea ice is frozen water that forms, expands, and melts in the ocean. It is different from icebergs, glaciers, ice sheets, and ice shelves, which originate on land. For the most part, sea ice expands during winter months and melts during summer months, but in certain regions, some sea ice remains year-round. About 15 percent of the world's oceans are covered by sea ice during part of the year.

While sea ice exists primarily in the polar regions, it influences the global climate. The bright surface of sea ice reflects a lot of sunlight out into the atmosphere and, importantly, back into space. Because this solar energy "bounces back" and is not absorbed into the ocean, temperatures nearer the poles remain cool relative to the equator.

When warming temperatures gradually melt sea ice over time, fewer bright surfaces are available to reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere. More solar energy is absorbed at the surface and ocean temperatures rise. This begins a cycle of warming and melting. Warmer water temperatures delay ice growth in the fall and winter, and the ice melts faster the following spring, exposing dark ocean waters for a longer period the following summer.

Changes in the amount of sea ice can disrupt normal ocean circulation, thereby leading to changes in global climate.  Even a small increase in temperature can lead to greater warming over time, making the polar regions the most sensitive areas to climate change on Earth.