Articles | Volume 12, issue 10
Research article
28 Oct 2016
Research article |  | 28 Oct 2016

Warm Greenland during the last interglacial: the role of regional changes in sea ice cover

Niklaus Merz, Andreas Born, Christoph C. Raible, and Thomas F. Stocker

Abstract. The last interglacial, also known as the Eemian, is characterized by warmer than present conditions at high latitudes. This is implied by various Eemian proxy records as well as by climate model simulations, though the models mostly underestimate the warming with respect to proxies. Simulations of Eemian surface air temperatures (SAT) in the Northern Hemisphere extratropics further show large variations between different climate models, and it has been hypothesized that this model spread relates to diverse representations of the Eemian sea ice cover. Here we use versions 3 and 4 of the Community Climate System Model (CCSM3 and CCSM4) to highlight the crucial role of sea ice and sea surface temperatures changes for the Eemian climate, in particular in the North Atlantic sector and in Greenland. A substantial reduction in sea ice cover results in an amplified atmospheric warming and thus a better agreement with Eemian proxy records. Sensitivity experiments with idealized lower boundary conditions reveal that warming over Greenland is mostly due to a sea ice retreat in the Nordic Seas. In contrast, sea ice changes in the Labrador Sea have a limited local impact. Changes in sea ice cover in either region are transferred to the overlying atmosphere through anomalous surface energy fluxes. The large-scale spread of the warming resulting from a Nordic Seas sea ice retreat is mostly explained by anomalous heat advection rather than by radiation or condensation processes. In addition, the sea ice perturbations lead to changes in the hydrological cycle. Our results consequently imply that both temperature and snow accumulation records from Greenland ice cores are sensitive to sea ice changes in the Nordic Seas but insensitive to sea ice changes in the Labrador Sea. Moreover, the simulations suggest that the uncertainty in the Eemian sea ice cover accounts for 1.6 °C of the Eemian warming at the NEEM ice core site. The estimated Eemian warming of 5 °C above present day based on the NEEM δ15N record can be reconstructed by the CCSM4 model for the scenario of a substantial sea ice retreat in the Nordic Seas combined with a reduced Greenland ice sheet.

Short summary
The last (Eemian) interglacial is studied with a global climate model focusing on Greenland and the adjacent high latitudes. A set of model experiments demonstrates the crucial role of changes in sea ice and sea surface temperatures for the magnitude of Eemian atmospheric warming. Greenland temperatures are found highly sensitive to sea ice changes in the Nordic Seas but rather insensitive to changes in the Labrador Sea. This behavior has important implications for Greenland ice core signals.