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Mike Steele

Senior Principal Oceanographer






Dr. Steele is interested in the large-scale circulation of sea ice and water in the Arctic Ocean. He uses both observed data and numerical model simulations to better understand the average circulation pathways as well as the causes of interannual variations in these pathways. Analysis of ocean observations has focused on the upper layers, which are generally quite cold and fresh.

Dr. Steele has active field programs in which data are collected in the field by his team and others, using aircraft, ships, and autonomous sensors like buoys and profiling floats. He is also involved with efforts to improve computer models of the arctic marine system, via the Arctic Ocean Model Intercomparison Project, AOMIP.

Funding for his research comes from the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA). He is involved with many outreach programs such as lectures to K-12 and college students. Mike Steele began work at the Polar Science Center in 1987.

Department Affiliation

Polar Science Center


B.A. Physics, Reed College, 1981

Ph.D. Geophysical Fluid Dynamics, Princeton University, 1987


North Pole Environmental Observatory

The observatory is staffed by an international research team that establishes a camp at the North Pole each spring to take the pulse of the Arctic Ocean and learn how the world's northernmost sea helps regulate global climate.


Producing an Updated Synthesis of the Arctic's Marine Primary Production Regime and its Controls

The focus of this project is to synthesize existing studies and data relating to Arctic Ocean primary production and its changing physical controls such as light, nutrients, and stratification, and to use this synthesis to better understand how primary production varies in time and space and as a function of climate change.


A Modular Approach to Building an Arctic Observing System for the IPY and Beyond in the Switchyard Region of the Arctic Ocean

This project will provided for the design, development, and implementation of a component of an Arctic Ocean Observing System in the Switchyard region of the Arctic Ocean (north of Greenland and Nares Strait) that will serve the scientific studies developed for the IPY (International Polar Year), SEARCH (Study of Environmental ARctic Change), and related programs. Specifically, the project will continue and expand two aircraft-based sections between Alert and the North Pole for long-term observation of hydrographic properties and a set of tracers aimed at resolving relative age structure and freshwater components in the upper water column.


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Polar Science Weekend @ Pacific Science Center

This annual event at the Pacific Science Center shares polar science with thousands of visitors. APL-UW researchers inspire appreciation and interest in polar science through dozens of live demonstrations and hands-on activities.

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10 Mar 2017

Polar research and technology were presented to thousands of visitors by APL-UW staff during the Polar Science Weekend at Seattle's Pacific Science Center. The goal of is to inspire an appreciation and interest in science through one-on-one, face-to-face interactions between visitors and scientists. Guided by their 'polar passports', over 10,000 visitors learned about the Greenland ice sheet, the diving behavior of narwhals, the difference between sea ice and freshwater ice, how Seagliders work, and much more as they visited dozens of live demonstrations and activities.

The Polar Science Weekend has grown from an annual outreach event to an educational research project funded by NASA, and has become a model for similar activities hosted by the Pacific Science Center. A new program trains scientists and volunteers how to interact with the public and how to design engaging exhibits.

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.

Changing Freshwater Pathways in the Arctic Ocean

Freshening in the Canada Basin of the Arctic Ocean began in the 1990s. Polar scientist Jamie Morison and colleagues report new insights on the freshening based in part on Arctic-wide views from two satellite system.

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5 Jan 2012

The Arctic Ocean is a repository for a tremendous amount of river runoff, especially from several huge Russian rivers. During the spring of 2008, APL-UW oceanographers on a hydrographic survey in the Arctic detected major shifts in the amount and distribution of fresh water. The Canada basin had freshened, but had the entire Arctic Ocean?

Analysis of satellite records shows that salinity increased on the Russian side of the Arctic and decreased in the Beaufort Sea on the Canadian side. With an Arctic-wide view of circulation from satellite sensors, researchers were able to determine that atmospheric forcing had shifted the transpolar drift counterclockwise and driven Russian runoff east to the Canada Basin.

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2000-present and while at APL-UW

Asymmetrically stratified Beaufort Gyre: Mean state and response to decadal forcing

Zhang, J., W. Cheng, M. Steele, and W. Weijer, "Asymmetrically stratified Beaufort Gyre: Mean state and response to decadal forcing," Geophys. Res. Lett., 50, doi:10.1029/2022GL100457, 2023.

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16 Jan 2023

Recent progress in understanding Beaufort Gyre (BG) dynamics reveals an important role of ice-ocean stress in stabilizing BG freshwater content (FWC) over seasonal to interannual timescales. But how the BG's stratification and FWC respond to surface forcing over decadal timescales has not been fully explored. Using a global ocean-sea ice model, we partition the BG into upper, middle (halocline), and lower (thermocline) layers and perform a volume budget analysis over 1948–2017. We find that the BG's asymmetric geometry (with steep and tight isohalines over continental slopes relative to the deep basin) is key in determining the mean volume transport balance. We further find that a net Ekman suction during 1983–1995 causes the upper and middle layers to deflate isopycnally, while an enhanced Ekman pumping during 1996–2017 causes these layers to inflate both isopycnally and diapycnally, the latter via anomalous flux from the upper to the middle layer.

The role of the Russian Shelf in seasonal and interannual variability of Arctic sea surface salinity and freshwater content

Hall, S.B., B. Subrahmanyam, and M. Steele, "The role of the Russian Shelf in seasonal and interannual variability of Arctic sea surface salinity and freshwater content," J. Geophys. Res., EOR, doi:10.1029/2022JC019247, 2023.

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12 Jan 2023

Fresh water plays a pivotal role in the Arctic Ocean's climate, as salinity governs upper ocean stratification, convection, and the promotion of seasonal sea ice growth or melt. The Beaufort Gyre contains a significant amount of fresh water; however, there is limited understanding of the role that the Russian Arctic Shelf plays in the Arctic Ocean's freshwater content (FWC). Here, we use salinity from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts' (ECMWF) Ocean Reanalysis System 5 (ORAS5) product to first compare with in situ and satellite observations. We then conduct analyses over the years 1979–2018 to examine FWC and salinity on the Russian Shelf (30°E–180°E; shallower than 200 m depth), in the Beaufort Gyre (130°W–170°W, 70.5°N–80.5°N), and over the Arctic Ocean as a whole (northward of 66°N). Our results indicate that the Russian Shelf consists of ~16% of the total freshwater volume (FWV) in the Arctic Ocean (80,7623 km3) and has a negative trend (–15.63 km3/year), primarily influenced by negative trends in the Kara and Laptev Seas. We also find a notable regime shift during the summer of 2007 for both the Beaufort Gyre (increased FWV) and Russian Shelf (decreased FWV). When computing Arctic FWV changes before and after this 2007 regime shift, there is up to a 25% error if the Russian Shelf's FWV is omitted.

Thick and old sea ice in the Beaufort Sea during summer 2020/21 was associated with enhanced transport

Moore, G.W.K., M. Steele, A.J. Schweiger, J.L. Zhang, and K.L. Laidre, "Thick and old sea ice in the Beaufort Sea during summer 2020/21 was associated with enhanced transport," Commun. Earth Environ., 3, doi:10.1038/s43247-022-00530-6, 2022.

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30 Aug 2022

The Arctic Ocean has seen a remarkable reduction in sea ice coverage, thickness and age since the 1980s. These changes are most pronounced in the Beaufort Sea, with a transition around 2007 from a regime dominated by multi-year sea ice to one with large expanses of open water during the summer. Using satellite-based observations of sea ice, an atmospheric reanalysis and a coupled ice-ocean model, we show that during the summers of 2020 and 2021, the Beaufort Sea hosted anomalously large concentrations of thick and old ice. We show that ice advection contributed to these anomalies, with 2020 dominated by eastward transport from the Chukchi Sea, and 2021 dominated by transport from the Last Ice Area to the north of Canada and Greenland. Since 2007, cool season (fall, winter, and spring) ice volume transport into the Beaufort Sea accounts for ~45% of the variability in early summer ice volume — a threefold increase from that associated with conditions prior to 2007. This variability is likely to impact marine infrastructure and ecosystems.

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In The News

Arctic's 'last ice area' may be less resistant to global warming

The New York Times, Henry Fountain

The region, which could provide a last refuge for polar bears and other Arctic wildlife that depends on ice, is not as stable as previously thought, according to a new study.

1 Jul 2021

Arctic's 'last ice area' shows earlier-than-expected melt

Associated Press, Seth Borenstein

Part of the Arctic is nicknamed the 'Last Ice Area,' because floating sea ice there is usually so thick that it’s likely to withstand global warming for decades. So, scientists were shocked last summer when there was suddenly enough open water for a ship to pass through.

1 Jul 2021

Climate change: 'Last refuge' for polar bears is vulnerable to warming

BBC News, Matt McGrath

The region, dubbed the 'last ice area' had been expected to stay frozen far longer than other parts of the Arctic. But new analysis says that this area suffered record melting last summer. The researchers say that high winds allied to a changing climate were behind the unexpected decline.

1 Jul 2021

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