Campus Map

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.

More Info

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.

More Info

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

A meteoric water budget for the Arctic Ocean

Alkire, M.B., J. Morison, A. Schweiger, J. Zhang, M. Steele, C. Peralta-Ferriz, and S. Dickinson, "A meteoric water budget for the Arctic Ocean," J. Geophys. Res., EOR, doi:10.1002/2017JC012807, 2017.

More Info

6 Oct 2017

A budget of meteoric water (MW = river runoff, net precipitation minus evaporation, and glacial meltwater) over four regions of the Arctic Ocean is constructed using a simple box model, regional precipitation-evaporation estimates from reanalysis data sets, and estimates of import and export fluxes derived from the literature with a focus on the 2003–2008 period. The budget indicates an approximate/slightly positive balance between MW imports and exports (i.e., no change in storage); thus, the observed total freshwater increase observed during this time period likely resulted primarily from changes in non-MW freshwater components (i.e., increases in sea ice melt or Pacific water and/or a decrease in ice export). Further, our analysis indicates that the MW increase observed in the Canada Basin resulted from a spatial redistribution of MW over the Arctic Ocean. Mean residence times for MW were estimated for the Western Arctic (5–7 years), Eastern Arctic (3–4 years), and Lincoln Sea (1–2 years). The MW content over the Siberian shelves was estimated (~14,000 km3) based on a residence time of 3.5 years. The MW content over the entire Arctic Ocean was estimated to be ≥ 44,000 km3. The MW export through Fram Strait consisted mostly of water from the Eastern Arctic (3237 ± 1370 km3 yr-1) whereas the export through the Canadian Archipelago was nearly equally derived from both the Western Arctic (1182 ± 534 km3 yr-1) and Lincoln Sea (972 ± 391 km3 yr-1).

Influence of high-latitude atmospheric circulation changes on summertime Arctic sea ice

Ding, Q., and 10 others including A. Schweiger, "Influence of high-latitude atmospheric circulation changes on summertime Arctic sea ice," Nat. Clim. Change 7, 289–295, doi:10.1038/nclimate3241, 2017.

More Info

1 Apr 2017

The Arctic has seen rapid sea-ice decline in the past three decades, whilst warming at about twice the global average rate. Yet the relationship between Arctic warming and sea-ice loss is not well understood. Here, we present evidence that trends in summertime atmospheric circulation may have contributed as much as 60% to the September sea-ice extent decline since 1979. A tendency towards a stronger anticyclonic circulation over Greenland and the Arctic Ocean with a barotropic structure in the troposphere increased the downwelling longwave radiation above the ice by warming and moistening the lower troposphere. Model experiments, with reanalysis data constraining atmospheric circulation, replicate the observed thermodynamic response and indicate that the near-surface changes are dominated by circulation changes rather than feedbacks from the changing sea-ice cover. Internal variability dominates the Arctic summer circulation trend and may be responsible for about 30–50% of the overall decline in September sea ice since 1979.

Modeling the seasonal evolution of the Arctic sea ice floe size distribution

Zhang, J., H. Stern, B. Hwang, A. Schweiger, M. Steele, M. Stark, and H.C. Graber, "Modeling the seasonal evolution of the Arctic sea ice floe size distribution," Elem. Sci. Anth., 4, doi:10.12952/journal.elementa.000126, 2016

More Info

13 Sep 2016

To better simulate the seasonal evolution of sea ice in the Arctic, with particular attention to the marginal ice zone, a sea ice model of the distribution of ice thickness, floe size, and enthalpy was implemented into the Pan-arctic IceOcean Modeling and Assimilation System (PIOMAS). Theories on floe size distribution (FSD) and ice thickness distribution (ITD) were coupled in order to explicitly simulate multicategory FSD and ITD distributions simultaneously. The expanded PIOMAS was then used to estimate the seasonal evolution of the Arctic FSD in 2014 when FSD observations are available for model calibration and validation.

Results indicate that the simulated FSD, commonly described equivalently as cumulative floe number distribution (CFND), generally follows a power law across space and time and agrees with the CFND observations derived from TerraSAR-X satellite images. The simulated power-law exponents also correlate with those derived using MODIS images, with a low mean bias of 2%. In the marginal ice zone, the modeled CFND shows a large number of small floes in winter because of stronger winds acting on thin, weak first-year ice in the ice edge region. In mid-spring and summer, the CFND resembles an upper truncated power law, with the largest floes mostly broken into smaller ones; however, the number of small floes is lower than in winter because floes of small sizes or first-year ice are easily melted away. In the ice pack interior there are fewer floes in late fall and winter than in summer because many of the floes are welded together into larger floes in freezing conditions, leading to a relatively flat CFND with low power-law exponents.

The simulated mean floe size averaged over all ice-covered areas shows a clear annual cycle, large in winter and smaller in summer. However, there is no obvious annual cycle of mean floe size averaged over the marginal ice zone. The incorporation of FSD into PIOMAS results in reduced ice thickness, mainly in the marginal ice zone, which improves the simulation of ice extent and yields an earlier ice retreat.

More Publications

In The News

Arctic sea ice dwindles to record low for winter

CBS News

The frigid top of the Earth just set yet another record for low levels of sea ice in what scientists say is just the latest signal of an overheating world.

22 Mar 2017

Up to half of Arctic melting can be explained by natural changes

Christian Science Monitor, Patrick Reilly

While Arctic seas have been melting at a faster-than-expected rate in recent decades, scientists are still debating the degree to which natural and human factors are to blame.

14 Mar 2017

Rapid decline of Arctic sea ice a combination of climate change and natural variability

UW News and Information, Hannah Hickey

Arctic sea ice in recent decades has declined even faster than predicted by most models of climate change. Many scientists have suspected that the trend now underway is a combination of global warming and natural climate variability.

13 Mar 2017

More News Items

Acoustics Air-Sea Interaction & Remote Sensing Center for Environmental & Information Systems Center for Industrial & Medical Ultrasound Electronic & Photonic Systems Ocean Engineering Ocean Physics Polar Science Center