Arctic Climate Change and its Mid-latitude Impacts

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Engineering Computer Science and Maths


The Arctic climate is changing fast and its sea ice is melting at an increasing rate. Since 1979, perennial sea ice cover has shrunk by nearly half. Continuing this trend, 2011 witnessed near record losses of summer sea ice. The last five years have had the five lowest amounts of September sea ice in the modern record. This inexorable retreat of sea ice may have far reaching repercussions for the global climate system. There is an urgent need for scientific projections of future Arctic sea ice conditions to inform policy decisions. The aim of this project is to improve our understanding of Arctic climate change and its impacts on weather and climate in the northern hemisphere mid-latitudes (including the United Kingdom), and of the physical processes that govern these interactions. This objective will be achieved through complementary analyses of observations and state-of-the-art climate model experiments.

Changes in the Arctic sea ice impact the atmosphere above it, and can cause large-scale shifts in weather patterns that "communicate" Arctic change to distant regions. The abnormally cold UK winters of 2009/10 and 2010/11 provide good examples of how the climates of the Arctic and the United Kingdom are connected. In these winters, unusual large-scale weather patterns led to exceptionally warm conditions in the Arctic whereas in the UK there were persistent cold temperatures, heavy snowfall and freezing rain. These resulted in disruptions to transport, energy supply and power transmission, and agricultural damage; all with significant economic costs.

These record-breaking winters were preceded by reductions in summer and autumn Arctic sea ice cover. Whilst a number of studies have proposed possible connections between these, the physical processes that could explain such a connection remain unclear. Furthermore, it is unclear how future projected sea ice loss will effect the UK weather and climate. This research will use climate models to gain insight into these critical issues. In a model setting, the sea ice cover can be manipulated in a controlled manner to reveal how and by what processes it effects the wider climate system. This research aims to provide an improved understanding of the local and remote climate responses to changing sea ice conditions, and the mechanisms that govern these responses. It will shed light on whether the recent winters are relatively isolated and random events, or instead are a consequence of the dwindling Arctic ice cover. Improving our understanding and modeling of the factors affecting the climate system response to Arctic sea ice loss will improve our ability to anticipate, mitigate and adapt to future climate change, and hence the potential environmental, socio-economic and political impacts that may result.

The research will be undertaken at the University of Exeter, in partnership with the UK Meteorological Office Hadley Centre and the US National Center for Atmospheric Research. It complements and extends upon a NERC-funded 5-year intensive programme of Arctic Science within the UK.

Planned Impact

Beneficiaries of the project include:

Academia: the project will inform studies in the physical sciences through knowledge generation and new data resources (see Academic Beneficiaries). This audience will be reached through journal publications, conference presentations and via the Applicant's networks. The Host will benefit from student supervision and occasional lectures undertaken by the Applicant.

Weather and climate services: the project outcomes are relevant to public (e.g., UK Met Office) and private sector actors in the fields of long-term climate change projection and seasonal to decadal weather prediction. By improving our understanding of the ways Arctic sea ice loss effects the wider climate system, and our ability to model these processes, the project will inform predictability studies. For example, improved knowledge of the connections between Arctic sea ice loss and UK winter weather will shed light on whether extreme winter weather (such as that seen in recent winters) is likely to become more common in the future. Ultimately, better prediction will directly impact the ability of society to anticipate, mitigate and adapt to future changes. This audience will be primarily reached through a public sector partnership with the UK Met Office.

Government: Governments are becoming increasingly interested in Arctic climate change because the retreat of sea ice is allowing access to previously ice-bound regions. This has potential implications for governance and policy in a number of areas. At the forefront of these are the governance of and rights to Arctic resources and transportation routes that may become plausible and/or financially viable in future climate states. The project outcomes will inform policy decisions through providing improved projections of future sea ice conditions. This audience will be primarily reached via participation in the IPCC process, and through links between the UK government and the Met Office.

Industry: the project outcomes will be of interest to stakeholders with current or potential future Arctic interests. Specifically, the improved projections of future Arctic sea ice conditions are relevant to, for example, the marine transportation sector for which knowledge of possible future sea ice conditions and therefore, access to the ice-effected northern shipping routes could led to enhanced efficiency and business performance; the oil and natural gas sector because future access to marine resources may inform operational decisions, and financial investment in prospecting and infrastructure. Other stakeholders include the fisheries and tourism sectors. Ultimately, through these impacts the project can contribute to better business performance, wealth creation and economic prosperity.

NGOs and Public: these audiences will benefit from increased awareness and understanding of Arctic climate change and its consequences. They will be reached via the website and outreach activities, including public lectures and educational events.

For further details on how these impacts will be achieved, see the Pathways to Impacts document.


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Huntingford C (2014) Potential influences on the United Kingdom's floods of winter 2013/14 in Nature Climate Change
Screen J (2013) Exploring links between Arctic amplification and mid-latitude weather in Geophysical Research Letters
Screen J (2015) Reduced Risk of North American Cold Extremes due to Continued Arctic Sea Ice Loss in Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society
Screen J (2013) Influence of Arctic sea ice on European summer precipitation in Environmental Research Letters
Screen JA (2013) Caution needed when linking weather extremes to amplified planetary waves. in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Description Key results so far include demonstrating a novel mechanism through which Arctic amplification leads to reduced temperature variance and fewer cold days in the mid- to high-latitudes (Screen, 2014; Nature Clim. Change); revealing a causal link between Arctic sea ice cover and European summer rainfall (Screen, 2013; Environ. Res. Lett.); uncovering the types of extreme weather caused by amplified planetary waves and the locations worst affected (Screen & Simmonds, 2014; Nature Clim. Change); simulating the large-scale atmospheric response to observed Arctic sea ice loss (Screen et al., 2013; J. Clim.) quantifying signal-to-noise ratios for the response to Arctic sea ice loss and thereby demonstrating difficulties in attributing observed changes to Arctic sea ice loss (Screen et al., 2014; Clim. Dyn.); and finding that planetary wave amplitude trends are highly sensitive to the choice of metric (Screen & Simmonds, 2013; Geophys Res. Lett.). Despite working on this specific topic for less than 2 years, I have rapidly developed a reputation as a leading expert, as evidenced by invitations to co-author review articles in Nature Geoscience (Cohen et al., 2014) and WIRES Climate Change (Screen & Barnes, in review); and to contribute to a US National Academy of Sciences report on this topic.
Exploitation Route Inform decisions around climate mitigation and adaptation.
Contribute to improved weather and climate forecasts.
Sectors Environment
Description My research is having a wide impact beyond academia. I am regularly engaged with the media (TV, radio, print and new media), including interviews for BBC News at Ten and Sky News, and recently as a science advisor to BBC Horizon. My papers have attracted interest from diverse end-user groups from Public Health England to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Energy,Environment,Healthcare,Other
Impact Types Societal
Description NERC Drivers of variability in atmospheric circulation
Amount £1,300,000 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK)
Start 10/2014 
End 10/2019
Description Met Office 
Organisation Government of the UK
Department Meteorological Office UK
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK) 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Knowledge exchange
Collaborator Contribution Knowledge exchange
Impact Workshop, media briefing
Start Year 2012
Description NCAR 
Organisation NCAR National Center for Atmospheric Research
Country United States of America 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Provision of data, analysis of data, publications
Collaborator Contribution Provision of data, analysis of data, publications
Impact Publications
Start Year 2010
Description University of Melbourne 
Organisation University of Melbourne
Country Australia, Commonwealth of 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Data provision, knowledge exchange, co-authored publications
Collaborator Contribution Knowledge exchange, co-authored publications
Impact Publications
Start Year 2009
Description Multiple interactions with international news media 
Form Of Dissemination A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results Scientific results reported in international news media (print, radio, TV)
Impact Requests for further information.
Year(s) Of Dissemination 2013,2014
Description NRC workshop 
Form Of Dissemination Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Participants in your research and patient groups
Results Workshop report published by US National Academy of Sciences.
Impact Report sent to relevant government/funding agencies.
Year(s) Of Dissemination 2013
Description Press conference 
Form Of Dissemination A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results Press conference following workshop at Met Office.
Impact Appeared on BBC News at Ten and Sky News, and other national media outlets.
Year(s) Of Dissemination 2013
Description Science advisor to BBC Horizon 
Form Of Dissemination Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results Provided scientific guidance and filmed for BBC Horizon "What's wrong with out weather", aired spring 2014.
Impact Unknown.
Year(s) Of Dissemination 2014