The new insights come during a time when Arctic sea ice appears to have hit its annual minimum extent after waning during the warmer months in 2021.

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Clouds are one of the biggest wildcards in predictions of how much and how fast the Arctic will continue to warm in the future. Depending on the time of the year and the changing environment in which they form and exist, clouds can both act to warm and cool the surface below them.

For decades, scientists have assumed that losses in Arctic sea ice cover allow for the formation of more clouds near the ocean’s surface. Now, new NASA research shows that by releasing heat and moisture through a large hole in sea ice known as a polynya, the exposed ocean fuels the formation of more clouds that trap heat in the atmosphere and hinder the refreezing of new sea ice.

The findings come from a study over a section of northern Baffin Bay between Greenland and Canada known as the North Water Polynya. The research is among the first to probe the interactions between the polynya and clouds with active sensors on satellites, which allowed scientists to analyze clouds vertically at lower and higher levels in the atmosphere.

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