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The Cryosphere An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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Discussion papers
https://doi.org/10.5194/tc-2019-134
© Author(s) 2019. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
https://doi.org/10.5194/tc-2019-134
© Author(s) 2019. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Submitted as: research article 17 Jun 2019

Submitted as: research article | 17 Jun 2019

Review status
This discussion paper is a preprint. It is a manuscript under review for the journal The Cryosphere (TC).

Estimating The Sea Ice Floe Size Distribution Using Satellite Altimetry: Theory, Climatology, and Model Comparison

Christopher Horvat1, Lettie Roach2,3, Rachel Tilling4,5, Cecilia Bitz6, Baylor Fox-Kemper1, Colin Guider7, Kaitlin Hill8, Andy Ridout9, and Andrew Sheperd10 Christopher Horvat et al.
  • 1Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Providence, RI, USA
  • 2National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research, Wellington, NZ
  • 3Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, NZ
  • 4Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, USA
  • 5Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA
  • 6University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA
  • 7University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, USA
  • 8University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA
  • 9Center for Polar Observation and Modelling, University College London, London, UK
  • 10Center for Polar Observation and Modelling, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK

Abstract. In sea-ice-covered areas, the sea ice floe size distribution (FSD) plays an important role in many processes affecting the coupled sea-ice-ocean-atmosphere system. Observations of the FSD are spare – traditionally taken via a pain-staking analysis of ice surface photography – and the seasonal and inter-annual evolution of floe size regionally and globally is largely unknown. Frequently, measured FSDs are assessed using a single number, the scaling exponent of the closest power law fit to the observed floe size data, although in the absence of adequate datasets there have been limited tests of this power-law hypothesis. Here we derive and explain a mathematical technique for deriving statistics of the sea ice FSD from polar-orbiting altimeters, satellites with sub-daily return times to polar regions with high along-track resolutions. Applied to the CryoSat-2 radio altimetric record, covering the period from 2010–2018, and incorporating 11 million individual floe samples, we produce the first climatology and seasonal cycle of sea ice floe size statistics. We then perform the first pan-Arctic test of the power law hypothesis, finding limited support in the range of floe sizes typically analyzed in photographic observational studies. We compare the seasonal variability in observed floe size to fully coupled climate model simulations including a prognostic floe size and thickness distribution and coupled wave model, finding good agreement in regions where modeled ocean surface waves cause sea ice fracture.

Christopher Horvat et al.
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Short summary
Changes in the floe size distribution (FSD) are important for sea ice evolution, but to date largely unobserved and unknown. Climate models, forecast centers, and captains cannot currently obtain statistical information about sea ice floe size on demand. We develop a new method to observe the FSD at global scales and high temporal and spatial resolution. With refinement, this method can provide crucial information for polar ship routing and real-time forecasting.
Changes in the floe size distribution (FSD) are important for sea ice evolution, but to date...
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