Sea ice floe size: its impact on pan-Arctic and local ice mass and required model complexity

Adam William Bateson, Daniel L. Feltham, David Schröder, Yanan Wang, Byongjun Hwang, Jeff K. Ridley, Yevgeny Aksenov

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Sea ice is composed of discrete units called floes. Observations show that these floes can adopt a range of sizes spanning orders of magnitude, from metres to tens of kilometres. Floe size impacts the nature and magnitude of interactions between the sea ice, ocean, and atmosphere including lateral melt rate and momentum and heat exchange. However, large-scale geophysical sea ice models employ a continuum approach and traditionally either assume floes adopt a constant size or do not include an explicit treatment of floe size. In this study we apply novel observations to analyse two alternative approaches to modelling a floe size distribution (FSD) within the state-of-the-art CICE sea ice model. The first model considered is a prognostic floe size–thickness distribution where the shape of the distribution is an emergent feature of the model and is not assumed a priori. The second model considered, the WIPoFSD (Waves-in-Ice module and Power law Floe Size Distribution) model, assumes floe size follows a power law with a constant exponent. We introduce a parameterisation motivated by idealised models of in-plane brittle fracture to the prognostic model and demonstrate that the inclusion of this scheme enables the prognostic model to achieve a reasonable match against the novel observations for mid-sized floes (100 m–2 km). While neither FSD model results in a significant improvement in the ability of CICE to simulate pan-Arctic metrics in a stand-alone sea ice configuration, larger impacts can be seen over regional scales in sea ice concentration and thickness. We find that the prognostic model particularly enhances sea ice melt in the early melt season, whereas for the WIPoFSD model this melt increase occurs primarily during the late melt season. We then show that these differences between the two FSD models can be explained by considering the effective floe size, a metric used to characterise a given FSD. Finally, we discuss the advantages and disadvantages to these different approaches to modelling the FSD. We note that although the WIPoFSD model is unable to represent potentially important features of annual FSD evolution seen with the prognostic model, it is less computationally expensive and produces a better fit to novel FSD observations derived from 2 m resolution MEDEA imagery, possibly making this a stronger candidate for inclusion in climate models.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2565-2593
Number of pages29
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 28 Jun 2022


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