The past and future of global river ice

More than one-third of Earth’s landmass is drained by rivers that seasonally freeze over. Ice transforms the hydrologic, ecologic, climatic, and socio-economic functions of river corridors. Although river ice extent has been shown to be declining in many regions of the world, the seasonality, historical change and predicted future changes in river ice extent and duration have not yet been quantified globally. Previous studies of river ice, which suggested that declines in extent and duration could be attributed to warming temperatures, were based on data from sparse locations. Furthermore, existing projections of future ice extent are based solely on the location of the 0-°C isotherm. 

In this study, using satellite observations, Xiao Yang and colleagues showed that the global extent of river ice is declining, and we project a mean decrease in seasonal ice duration of 6.10 ± 0.08 days per 1-°C increase in global mean surface air temperature. They tracked the extent of river ice using over 400,000 clear-sky Landsat images spanning 1984–2018 and observed a mean decline of 2.5 percentage points globally in the past three decades. To project future changes in river ice extent, they developed an observationally calibrated and validated model, based on temperature and season, which reduced the mean bias by 87 per cent compared with the 0-degree-Celsius isotherm approach. The research team applied this model to future climate projections for 2080–2100: compared with 2009–2029, the average river ice duration declines by 16.7 days under Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 8.5, whereas under RCP 4.5 it declines on average by 7.3 days. The results show that, globally, river ice is measurably declining and will continue to decline linearly with projected increases in surface air temperature towards the end of this century.

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