Sudden Reduction of Antarctic Sea Ice Despite Cooling After Nuclear War

Joshua Coupe, Cheryl Harrison, Alan Robock, Alice DuVivier, Elizabeth Maroon, Nicole S. Lovenduski, Scott Bachman, Laura Landrum, Charles Bardeen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A large-scale nuclear war could inject massive amounts of soot into the stratosphere, triggering rapid global climate change. In climate model simulations of nuclear war, global cooling contributes to an expansion of sea ice in the Northern Hemisphere. However, in the Southern Hemisphere (SH), an initial expansion of sea ice shifts suddenly to a 30% loss of sea ice volume over the course of a single melting season in the largest nuclear war simulation. In smaller nuclear war simulations an expansion in sea ice is instead observed which lasts for approximately 15 years. In contrast, in the largest nuclear war simulation, Antarctic sea ice remains below the long term control mean for 15 years, indicating a threshold that must be crossed to cause the response. Declining sea ice in the SH following a global cooling event has been previously attributed to shifts in the zonal winds around Antarctica, which can reduce the strength of the Weddell Gyre. In climate model simulations of nuclear war, the primary mechanisms responsible for Antarctic sea ice loss are: (a) enhanced atmospheric poleward heat transport through teleconnections with a strong nuclear war-driven El Niño, (b) increased upwelling of warm subsurface waters in the Weddell Sea due to changes in wind stress curl, and (c) decreased equatorward Ekman transport due to weakened Southern Ocean westerlies. The prospect of sudden Antarctic sea ice loss after an episode of global cooling may have implications for solar geoengineering and further motivates this study of the underlying mechanisms of change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2022JC018774
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Oceans
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Oceanography
  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


  • Antarctica
  • climate change
  • nuclear winter
  • polynya
  • sea ice


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