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Axel Schweiger

Chair, Polar Science Center & Senior Principal Scientist





Research Interests

Remote Sensing, Arctic Climatology, Systems Management


Dr. Schweiger is the current chair of the Polar Science Center. His research focuses on sea ice, clouds, and radiation in the Arctic. He is using satellite data, models, and in-situ observations to improve our understanding of sea ice and cloud variability. He has developed the PSC Arctic Ice Volume Page, which provides monthly updated total Arctic Ice Volume estimates based on the PIOMAS model. He has worked on the validation, improvements, and applications of PIOMAS to a variety of problems.

He is a an investigator in the Seasonal Ice Zone Reconnaissance Survey Project (SIZRS) that utilizes US-Coast Guard Arctic Domain Awareness flights make Atmospheric and Oceanographic measurements of the seasonal ice zone of the Beaufort Sea and targets the improved understanding of the changes in the Arctic system as sea ice retreats.

He has worked on algorithm development for the retrieval of clouds and atmospheric profiles and generated the the TOVS Polar Pathfinder data set, a 20-year data set of polar temperature, humidity profiles and cloud information. Previous research includes work on microwave-based sea ice concentration algorithms and the application of artificial intelligence methods to remote sensing problems. Dr. Schweiger has been with the Polar Science Center since 1992.

Department Affiliation

Polar Science Center


B.A. Geography & English, Universitat Erlangen, 1984

M.S. Geography, University of Colorado, Boulder, 1987

Ph.D. Geography, University of Colorado, Boulder, 1992


Arctic Surface Air Temperatures for the Past 100 Years

Accurate fields of Arctic surface air temperature (SAT) are needed for climate studies, but a robust gridded data set of SAT of sufficient length is not available over the entire Arctic. We plan to produce authoritative SAT data sets covering the Arctic Ocean from 1901 to present, which will be used to better understand Arctic climate change.


The Fate of Summertime Arctic Ocean Heating: A Study of Ice-Albedo Feedback on Seasonal to Interannual Time Scales

The main objective of this study is to determine the fate of solar energy absorbed by the arctic seas during summer, with a specific focus on its impact on the sea ice pack. Investigators further seek to understand the fate of this heat during the winter and even beyond to the following summer. Their approach is use a coupled sea ice–ocean model forced by atmospheric reanalysis fields, with and without assimilation of satellite-derived ice and ocean variables. They are also using satellite-derived ocean color data to help determine light absorption in the upper ocean.



Arctic Sea Ice Extent and Volume Follow Long-term Trend

In mid-September Arctic sea ice reached its minimum extent and volume. There are annual fluctuations — 2012 was a record low for both measures — but reports of a recent 'rebound' are short-sighted. Axel Schweiger, Chair of the APL-UW Polar Science Center, shows that the downward long-term trend is clear.

6 Nov 2015

Arctic Sea Ice Extent and Volume Dip to New Lows

By mid-September, the sea ice extent in the Arctic reached the lowest level recorded since 1979 when satellite mapping began.

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15 Oct 2012

APL-UW polar oceanographers and climatologists are probing the complex ice–ocean–atmosphere system through in situ and remote sensing observations and numerical model simulations to learn how and why.

Focus on Arctic Sea Ice: Current and Future States of a Diminished Sea Ice Cover

APL-UW polar scientists are featured in the March edition of the UW TV news magazine UW|360, where they discuss their research on the current and future states of a diminished sea ice cover in the Arctic.

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7 Mar 2012

The dramatic melting of Arctic sea ice over the past several summers has generated great interest and concern in the scientific community and among the public. Here, APL-UW polar scientists present their research on the current state of Arctic sea ice. A long-term, downward trend in sea ice volume is clear.

They also describe how the many observations they gather are used to improve computer simulations of global climate that, in turn, help us to asses the impacts of a future state of diminished sea ice cover in the Arctic.

This movie presentation was first seen on the March 2012 edition of UW|360, the monthly University of Washington Television news magazine.


2000-present and while at APL-UW

Evidence of an increasing role of ocean heat in Arctic winter sea ice growth

Ricker, R., F. Kauker, A. Schweiger, S. Hendricks, J. Zhang, and S. Paul, "Evidence of an increasing role of ocean heat in Arctic winter sea ice growth," J. Clim., EOR, doi:10.1175/JCLI-D-20-0848.1, 2021.

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24 Mar 2021

We investigate how sea ice decline in summer and warmer ocean and surface temperatures in winter affect sea ice growth in the Arctic. Sea ice volume changes are estimated from satellite observations during winter from 2002 to 2019 and partitioned into thermodynamic growth and dynamic volume change. Both components are compared to validated sea ice-ocean models forced by reanalysis data to extend observations back to 1980 and to understand the mechanisms that cause the observed trends and variability. We find that a negative feedback driven by the increasing sea ice retreat in summer yields increasing thermodynamic ice growth during winter in the Arctic marginal seas eastward from the Laptev Sea to the Beaufort Sea. However, in the Barents and Kara Seas, this feedback seems to be overpowered by the impact of increasing oceanic heat flux and air temperatures, resulting in negative trends in thermodynamic ice growth of –2 km3month-1yr-1 on average over 2002–2019 derived from satellite observations.

Heat stored in the Earth system: Where does the energy go?

von Schuckmann, K., and 37 others including A. Schweiger, "Heat stored in the Earth system: Where does the energy go?" Earth Syst. Sci. Data, 12, 2012-2041, doi:10.5194/essd-12-2013-2020, 2020.

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7 Sep 2020

Human-induced atmospheric composition changes cause a radiative imbalance at the top of the atmosphere which is driving global warming. This Earth energy imbalance (EEI) is the most critical number defining the prospects for continued global warming and climate change. Understanding the heat gain of the Earth system — and particularly how much and where the heat is distributed — is fundamental to understanding how this affects warming ocean, atmosphere and land; rising surface temperature; sea level; and loss of grounded and floating ice, which are fundamental concerns for society. This study is a Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) concerted international effort to update the Earth heat inventory and presents an updated assessment of ocean warming estimates as well as new and updated estimates of heat gain in the atmosphere, cryosphere and land over the period 1960–2018. The study obtains a consistent long-term Earth system heat gain over the period 1971–2018, with a total heat gain of 358±37 ZJ, which is equivalent to a global heating rate of 0.47±0.1 W m-2. Over the period 1971–2018 (2010–2018), the majority of heat gain is reported for the global ocean with 89 % (90 %), with 52 % for both periods in the upper 700 m depth, 28 % (30 %) for the 700–2000 m depth layer and 9 % (8 %) below 2000 m depth. Heat gain over land amounts to 6 % (5 %) over these periods, 4 % (3 %) is available for the melting of grounded and floating ice, and 1 % (2 %) is available for atmospheric warming. Our results also show that EEI is not only continuing, but also increasing: the EEI amounts to 0.87±0.12 W m-2 during 2010–2018. Stabilization of climate, the goal of the universally agreed United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992 and the Paris Agreement in 2015, requires that EEI be reduced to approximately zero to achieve Earth's system quasi-equilibrium. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere would need to be reduced from 410 to 353 ppm to increase heat radiation to space by 0.87 W m-2, bringing Earth back towards energy balance. This simple number, EEI, is the most fundamental metric that the scientific community and public must be aware of as the measure of how well the world is doing in the task of bringing climate change under control, and we call for an implementation of the EEI into the global stocktake based on best available science. Continued quantification and reduced uncertainties in the Earth heat inventory can be best achieved through the maintenance of the current global climate observing system, its extension into areas of gaps in the sampling, and the establishment of an international framework for concerted multidisciplinary research of the Earth heat inventory as presented in this study. This Earth heat inventory is published at the German Climate Computing Centre.

The effect of atmospheric transmissivity on model and observational estimates of the sea ice albedo feedback

Donohoe, A., E. Blanchard-Wrigglesworth, A. Schweiger, and P.J. Rasch, "The effect of atmospheric transmissivity on model and observational estimates of the sea ice albedo feedback," J. Climate, 33, 5743-5765, doi:10.1175/JCLI-D-19-0674.1, 2020.

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1 Jul 2020

The sea ice-albedo feedback (SIAF) is the product of the ice sensitivity (IS), that is, how much the surface albedo in sea ice regions changes as the planet warms, and the radiative sensitivity (RS), that is, how much the top-of-atmosphere radiation changes as the surface albedo changes. We demonstrate that the RS calculated from radiative kernels in climate models is reproduced from calculations using the “approximate partial radiative perturbation” method that uses the climatological radiative fluxes at the top of the atmosphere and the assumption that the atmosphere is isotropic to shortwave radiation. This method facilitates the comparison of RS from satellite-based estimates of climatological radiative fluxes with RS estimates across a full suite of coupled climate models and, thus, allows model evaluation of a quantity important in characterizing the climate impact of sea ice concentration changes. The satellite-based RS is within the model range of RS that differs by a factor of 2 across climate models in both the Arctic and Southern Ocean. Observed trends in Arctic sea ice are used to estimate IS, which, in conjunction with the satellite-based RS, yields an SIAF of 0.16 ± 0.04 W m-2 K-1. This Arctic SIAF estimate suggests a modest amplification of future global surface temperature change by approximately 14% relative to a climate system with no SIAF. We calculate the global albedo feedback in climate models using model-specific RS and IS and find a model mean feedback parameter of 0.37 W m-2 K-1, which is 40% larger than the IPCC AR5 estimate based on using RS calculated from radiative kernel calculations in a single climate model.

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In The News

Century-old ship logs show how much ice the Arctic has lost

Popular Science, Marlene Cimons

By diving into archives, scientists confirmed that floes are melting faster than ever before.

19 Sep 2019

Century-old ship logs reveal extent of today's drastic Arctic melt

Mashable, Mark Kaufman

The often-frigid, ice-clad Arctic remains a harsh world. But in the early 1900s, there was substantially more ice than there is today. New research used old shipping logs, meticulously kept by mariners often each hour, to extend the Arctic sea ice record back 110 years, over seven decades before satellites began regularly monitoring the high north.

10 Aug 2019

More than 100 years of Arctic sea ice volume reconstructed with help from historic ships’ logbooks

UW News, Hannah Hickey

Our knowledge of the dwindling sea ice coverage in the Arctic Ocean comes mostly through satellites, which since 1979 have imaged the sea ice from above. The University of Washington’s Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean and Modeling System, or PIOMAS, is a leading tool for gauging the thickness of that ice. Until now that system has gone back only as far as 1979.

8 Aug 2019

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