Decreasing sea ice and snow cover are reducing the surface albedo and changing the Arctic surface energy balance. How these surface albedo changes influence the planetary albedo is a more complex question, though, that depends critically on the modulating effects of the intervening atmosphere. To answer this question, we partition the observed top of atmosphere (TOA) albedo into contributions from the surface and atmosphere, the latter being heavily dependent on clouds. While the surface albedo predictably declines with lower sea ice and snow cover, the TOA albedo decreases approximately half as much. This weaker response can be directly attributed to the fact that the atmosphere contributes more than 70% of the TOA albedo in the annual mean and is less dependent on surface cover. The surface accounts for a maximum of 30% of the TOA albedo in spring and less than 10% by the end of summer. Reanalyses (ASR versions 1 and 2, ERA-Interim, MERRA-2, and NCEP R2) represent the annual means of surface albedo fairly well, but biases are found in magnitudes of the TOA albedo and its contributions, likely due to their representations of clouds. Reanalyses show a wide range of TOA albedo sensitivity to changing sea ice concentration, 0.04–0.18 in September, compared to 0.11 in observations.
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