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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

Circulation of Pacific Winter Water in the western Arctic Ocean

Zhong, W., M. Steele, J. Zhang, and S.T. Cole, "Circulation of Pacific Winter Water in the western Arctic Ocean," J. Geophys. Res., EOR, doi:10.1029/2018JC014604, 2019.

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16 Jan 2019

Pacific Winter Water (PWW) enters the western Arctic Ocean from the Chukchi Sea; however, the physical mechanisms that regulate its circulation within the deep basin are still not clear. Here, we investigate the interannual variability of PWW with a comprehensive data set over a decade. We quantify the thickening and expansion of the PWW layer during 2002–2016, as well as its changing pathway. The total volume of PWW in the Beaufort Gyre (BG) region is estimated to have increased from 3.48 ± 0.04 x 1014 m3 during 2002–2006 to 4.11 ± 0.02 x 1014 m3 during 2011–2016, an increase of 18%. We find that the deepening rate of the lower bound of PWW is almost double that of its upper bound in the northern Canada Basin, a result of lateral flux convergence of PWW (via lateral advection of PWW from the Chukchi Borderland) in addition to the Ekman pumping. In particular, of the 70‐m deepening of PWW at its lower bound observed over 2003–2011 in the northwestern basin, 43% resulted from lateral flux convergence. We also find a redistribution of PWW in recent years toward the Chukchi Borderland associated with the wind‐driven spin‐up and westward shift of the BG. Finally, we hypothesize that a recently observed increase of lower halocline eddies in the BG might be explained by this redistribution, through a compression mechanism over the Chukchi Borderland.

What caused the remarkable February 2018 North Greenland polynya?

Moore, G.W.K., A. Schweiger, J. Zhang, and M. Steele, "What caused the remarkable February 2018 North Greenland polynya?" Geophys. Res. Lett., 45, 13,342-13,350, doi:10.1029/2018GL080902, 2018.

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28 Dec 2018

During late February and early March 2018, an unusual polynya was observed off the north coast of Greenland. This period was also notable for the occurrence of a sudden stratospheric warming. Here we use satellite and in situ data, a reanalysis and an ice‐ocean model to document the evolution of the polynya and its synoptic forcing. We show that its magnitude was unprecedented and that it was associated with the transient response to the sudden stratospheric warming leading to anomalous warm southerly flow in north Greenland. Indeed, regional wind speeds and temperatures were the highest during February going back to the 1960s. There is evidence that the thinning sea ice has increased its wind‐driven mobility. However, we show that the polynya would have developed under thicker ice conditions representative of the late 1970s and that even with the predicted trend toward thinner sea ice, it will only open during enhanced southerly flow.

Assessing phytoplankton activities in the seasonal ice zone of the Greenland Sea over an annual cycle

Mayot, N., P. Matrai, I.H. Ellingsen, M. Steele, K. Johnson, S.C. Riser, and D. Swift, "Assessing phytoplankton activities in the seasonal ice zone of the Greenland Sea over an annual cycle," J. Geophys. Res., 123, 8004-8025, doi:10.1029/2018JC014271, 2018.

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1 Nov 2018

In seasonal ice zones (SIZs), such as the one of the Greenland Sea, the sea ice growth in winter and subsequent melting in summer influence the phytoplankton activity. However, studies assessing phytoplankton activities over complete annual cycles and at a fine temporal resolution are lacking in this environment. Biogeochemical‐Argo floats, which are able to sample under the ice, were used to collect physical and biogeochemical data along vertical profiles and at 5‐day resolution during two complete annual cycles in the Greenland Sea SIZ. Three phytoplankton activity phases were distinct within an annual cycle: one under ice, a second at the ice edge, and a third one around an open‐water subsurface chlorophyll maximum. As expected, the light and nitrate availabilities controlled the phytoplankton activity and the establishment of these phases. On average, most of the annual net community production occurred equally under ice and at the ice edge. The open‐water subsurface chlorophyll maximum phase contribution, on the other hand, was much smaller. Phytoplankton biomass accumulation and production thus occur over a longer period than might be assumed if under ice blooms were neglected. This also means that satellite‐based estimates of phytoplankton biomass and production in this SIZ are likely underestimated. Simulations with the Arctic‐based physical‐biologically coupled SINMOD model suggest that most of the annual net community production in this SIZ results from local processes rather than due to advection of nitrate from the East Greenland and Jan Mayen Currents.

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In The News

February's big patch of open water off Greenland? Not global warming, says new analysis

UW News, Hannah Hickey

In February 2018, a vast expanse of open water appeared in the sea ice above Greenland, a region that normally has sea ice well into the spring. The big pool of open water in the middle of the ice, known as a polynya, was a scientific puzzle.

18 Dec 2018

Seattle climate scientists spread word on warming, skip politics

The Seattle Times, Jerry Large

Climate scientists at the University of Washington want to talk more about their work because it and public policy are intertwined. They stick to the science side of the equation, which they want the rest of us to understand better so that we can make informed decisions about climate change.

12 Jan 2017

Cyclone did not cause 2012 record low for Arctic sea ice

UW News and Information, Hannah Hickey

"The Great Arctic Cyclone of August 2012," is thought by some to have led to the historic sea ice minimum reached in mid-September 2013. UW research suggests otherwise.

31 Jan 2013

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