Text Size
Snow Cover on Arctic Sea Ice Has Thinned 30 to 50 Percent
August 15, 2014


New research led by NASA and the University of Washington, Seattle, confirms that springtime snow on sea ice in the Arctic has thinned significantly in the last 50 years, by about a third in the Western Hemisphere and by half near Alaska.

The new study, published this month in the Journal of Geophysical Research, tracks changes in snow depth over decades. It combines data from NASA’s Bromide, Ozone, and Mercury Experiment (BROMEX) field campaign, NASA’s Operation IceBridge flights, and instrumented buoys and ice floes staffed by Soviet scientists from the 1950s through the 1990s.

“The snow cover is like a shield that can insulate sea ice,” said Son Nghiem of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, principal investigator for BROMEX and a coauthor of the new study. “In this study, we had thousands of measurements of snow depth on sea ice to thoroughly validate NASA’s aircraft observations. We knew Arctic sea ice was decreasing, but the snow cover has become so thin that its shield has become a veil.”

The researchers found that, since the Soviet period, the spring snowpack has thinned from 14 inches to 9 inches (35 centimeters to 22 centimeters) in the western Arctic and from 13 inches to 6 inches (33 centimeters to 14.5 centimeters) in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, north and west of Alaska, despite notable uncertainty in the historical estimates. The authors speculate that delayed freezing of the sea surface may contribute to the thinning trend, as heavy snowfalls in September and October now fall into the open ocean.

What thinner snow cover will mean for sea ice is not certain. “The delay in sea ice freeze-up could be changing the way that heat is transported in the Arctic, which would, in turn, affect precipitation patterns. That’s going to be a very interesting question in the future,” said first author Melinda Webster, an oceanography graduate student at the University of Washington.

The research was supported by NASA and the U.S. Interagency Arctic Buoy Program.

For more information, visit:


The full paper is online at:


For more information about NASA’s BROMEX field campaign, visit:


For more information about NASA’s Operation IceBridge, visit:


NASA monitors Earth's vital signs from land, air and space with a fleet of satellites and ambitious airborne and ground-based observation campaigns. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth's interconnected natural systems with long-term data records and computer analysis tools to better see how our planet is changing. The agency shares this unique knowledge with the global community and works with institutions in the United States and around the world that contribute to understanding and protecting our home planet.

For more information about NASA's Earth science activities in 2014, visit:


Alan Buis
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California

Hannah Hickey
University of Washington, Seattle


Image Token: 
Matthew Sturm of the University of Alaska Fairbanks takes a snow measurement
Matthew Sturm of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a co-author of this study, takes a snow measurement on sea ice in the Beaufort Sea in March 2012 during the BROMEX field campaign.
Image Credit: 
U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory
Image Token: 
Image Token: 
Page Last Updated: August 15th, 2014
Page Editor: Tony Greicius