Causes and evolution of winter polynyas north of Greenland
During the 42-year period (1979–2020) of satellite measurements, four major winter (December–March) polynyas have been observed north of Greenland: one in December 1986 and three in the last decade, i.e., February of 2011, 2017, and 2018. The 2018 polynya was unparalleled in its magnitude and duration compared to the three previous events. Given the apparent recent increase in the occurrence of these extreme events, this study aims to examine their evolution and causality, in terms of forced versus natural variability. The limited weather station and remotely sensed sea ice data are analyzed combining with output from the fully coupled Regional Arctic System Model (RASM), including one hindcast and two ensemble simulations. We found that neither the accompanying anomalous warm surface air intrusion nor the ocean below had an impact (i.e., no significant ice melting) on the evolution of the observed winter open-water episodes in the region. Instead, the extreme atmospheric wind forcing resulted in greater sea ice deformation and transport offshore, accounting for the majority of sea ice loss in all four polynyas. Our analysis suggests that strong southerly winds (i.e., northward wind with speeds greater than 10 m s−1) blowing persistently over the study region for at least 2 d or more were required over the study region to mechanically redistribute some of the thickest Arctic sea ice out of the region and thus to create open-water areas (i.e., a latent heat polynya). To assess the role of internal variability versus external forcing of such events, we carried out and examined results from the two RASM ensembles dynamically downscaled with output from the Community Earth System Model (CESM) Decadal Prediction Large Ensemble (DPLE) simulations. Out of 100 winters in each of the two ensembles (initialized 30 years apart: one in December 1985 and another in December 2015), 17 and 16 winter polynyas were produced north of Greenland, respectively. The frequency of polynya occurrence had no apparent sensitivity to the initial sea ice thickness in the study area pointing to internal variability of atmospheric forcing as a dominant cause of winter polynyas north of Greenland. We assert that dynamical downscaling using a high-resolution regional climate model offers a robust tool for process-level examination in space and time, synthesis with limited observations, and probabilistic forecasts of Arctic events, such as the ones being investigated here and elsewhere.