Scientists Discover a New Driver for Warming Arctic Temperatures

First Posted: Nov 04, 2014 11:06 AM EST

Scientists may have discovered a new mechanism that could be a huge contributor when it comes to warming in the Arctic. They've found that open oceans are far less efficient than sea ice when it comes to emitting in the far-infrared region of the spectrum, which could be contributing to the warming of the polar climate.

It's difficult to measure a surface's effectiveness when it comes to emitting far-infrared energy. In addition, its influence on the planet's climate is not well represented in climate models. In fact, models usually assume that all surfaces are 100 percent efficient in emitting far-infrared energy-something that's clearly not the case.

"Far-infrared surface emissivity is an unexplored topic, but it deserves more attention," said Daniel Feldman, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Our research found that non-frozen surfaces are poor emitters compared to frozen surfaces. And this discrepancy has a much bigger impact on the polar climate than today's models indicate."

This is especially important when looking at the polar environment. Open oceans are much less efficient than sea ice when it comes to emitting in the far-infrared region of the spectrum. This means that the Arctic Ocean traps a lot of energy in far-infrared radiation.

"Based on our findings, we recommend that more efforts be made to measure far-infrared surface emissivity," said Feldman. "These measurements will help climate models better simulate the effects of this phenomenon on Earth's climate."

The scientists conducted simulations that were run on a global atmosphere climate model called the Community Earth System Model. These simulations revealed that far-infrared surface emissions have the biggest impact on the climates of arid high-latitude and high-altitude regions. More specifically, they showed that in the Arctic, far-infrared surface emissions could have a huge impact on warming.

"We found that in very arid areas, the extent to which the surface emits far-infrared energy really matters," said Feldman. "It controls the thermal energy budget for the entire region, so we need to measure and model it better."

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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