Arctic surface warming under greenhouse gas forcing peaks in winter and reaches its minimum during summer in both observations and model projections. Many mechanisms have been proposed to explain this seasonal asymmetry, but disentangling these processes remains a challenge in the interpretation of general circulation model (GCM) experiments. To isolate these mechanisms, we use an idealized single-column sea ice model (SCM) that captures the seasonal pattern of Arctic warming. SCM experiments demonstrate that as sea ice melts and exposes open ocean, the accompanying increase in effective surface heat capacity alone can produce the observed pattern of peak warming in early winter (shifting to late winter under increased forcing) by slowing the seasonal heating rate, thus delaying the phase and reducing the amplitude of the seasonal cycle of surface temperature. To investigate warming seasonality in more complex models, we perform GCM experiments that individually isolate sea ice albedo and thermodynamic effects under CO2forcing. These also show a key role for the effective heat capacity of sea ice in promoting seasonal asymmetry through suppressing summer warming, in addition to precluding summer climatological inversions and a positive summer lapse-rate feedback. Peak winter warming in GCM experiments is further supported by a positive winter lapse-rate feedback, due to cold initial surface temperatures and strong surface-trapped warming that are enabled by the albedo effects of sea ice alone. While many factors contribute to the seasonal pattern of Arctic warming, these results highlight changes in effective surface heat capacity as a central mechanism supporting this seasonality.
Under increasing concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases, the strongest Arctic warming has occurred during early winter, but the reasons for this seasonal pattern of warming are not well understood. We use experiments in both simple and complex models with certain sea ice processes turned on and off to disentangle potential drivers of seasonality in Arctic warming. When sea ice melts and open ocean is exposed, surface temperatures are slower to reach the warm-season maximum and slower to cool back down below freezing in early winter. We find that this process alone can produce the observed pattern of maximum Arctic warming in early winter, highlighting a fundamental mechanism for the seasonality of Arctic warming.