The Arctic is Getting Rainier

The Arctic is Getting Rainier

The Arctic is known for its cold temperatures, which allow precipitation to fall as snow. But as temperatures warm, that snow is being replaced by rain. These changes can affect sea ice in the Arctic and weather patterns throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

NASA scientists examined rainfall trends over the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans from 1980 to 2016 and found an increase in the frequency of rainy days. They also found that the length of the annual rainy season grew longer. The results were published in the Journal of Climate.

The most dramatic changes took place in the North Atlantic, where it rained on average five more days per decade at the end of the 36-year study period than at the beginning. The rest of the study region—the central Arctic Ocean and its peripheral seas—saw an average of two additional rainy days per decade. This comes as temperatures in the Arctic are warming four times faster than the rest of the planet.

The map above shows the change in number of rainy days per year, which has contributed to this decadal trend toward a rainier Arctic. It is based on the Modern-Era Retrospective analysis for Research and Applications, Version 2 (MERRA-2), a global reanalysis product developed by NASA’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office. The product takes in-situ and satellite observations, including from NASA’s Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) on the Aqua satellite, and uses them to reproduce conditions that have occurred across the globe.

Here, much of the North Atlantic is shown in deep blue, which indicates a larger increase in the number of rainy days per year (between 1980 and 2016) compared with light blue areas. The Barents Sea north of Norway and the Kara Sea north of Siberia are also shown in deep blue.

“One thing to note is that there really is no dark brown anywhere, so in no way are we seeing any significant decreases in the number of rainfall days,” said Chelsea Parker, a weather and climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and co-author of the study.

When temperatures are above freezing, clouds are more likely to contain liquid that drops as rain than ice that falls as snow, said Linette Boisvert, a cryospheric scientist at NASA Goddard and lead author of the study.

When rainfall hits the snow-covered sea ice, it darkens the surface and can amplify melting that in turn leads to more warming—a process known as the ice-albedo feedback loop. Snow on top of sea ice acts as insulation, reflecting solar radiation back to space and keeping the surface cool. Rain eats away at this snowy buffer.

“If it rains during the sunlit months, the surface is going to be a lot darker because the snow is wet compared to a fresh, dry and thick snowpack. This wet snow surface is going to start absorbing more of that incoming solar radiation,” Boisvert said. When the snow melts, it forms ponds on the ice, creating a darker surface and absorbing more solar radiation. This sets off a loop of continued warming and melting.

Meanwhile, water vapor drives its own feedback loop. The atmosphere can hold more water vapor as temperatures rise. As a heat-trapping greenhouse gas, this water vapor warms the Earth’s surface and contributes to melting the snow and ice. This melting exposes open ocean, allowing evaporation to take place, which releases more water vapor into the atmosphere.

Feedback loops in the Arctic impact other parts of the world, too. Changes to the amount of heat in the Arctic can influence weather patterns farther south. For example, Parker pointed to extreme temperature swings in the U.S. and polar air masses that form over the North Pole and move south over North America.

“All of that,” Parker said, “is dependent on the extent to which the Arctic is experiencing climate change.”

NASA Earth Observatory image by Wanmei Liang, using data from Boisvert, L., et al. (2023). Story by Julia Tilton/NASA’s Earth Science News Team.

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