Sea Ice Thickness 2012 vs 2013 in Late May

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(May 30, 2013 Sea Ice Thickness vs May 30, 2012 Sea Ice Thickness. Images provided by the US Navy via the CICE Arctic Ice Model)

Arctic sea ice is a complex beast. And the manner in which any melt season progresses is likely to be unique to that particular year. Inherent to this complexity are the vast number of factors that impact the ice. Air temperature, sunlight, clouds, fog, ocean temperature, humidity, wind, precipitation, ocean currents, warm water upwelling and a host of other factors all can enhance or impede melt. And it is in analyzing and drawing conclusions from these various complex details that a debate rages over the fate of the Arctic sea ice for 2013. Will we see new record lows in area, extent, or volume? Will the Arctic be nearly ice free soon? Or will this year be a pause in the record Arctic melt trend that has been ongoing since 1979?

Debates even rage over what specific factors may cause melt or prevent it. Is insolation the primary driver of Arctic ice melt and retreat? How powerful a factor is air temperature? Is warm water upwelling the cause of flash melt events that can happen even when the air temperature is below the -2 C freezing point of saltwater?

And it is very worthwhile to debate these issues. Because losing the Arctic sea ice is a big deal. A very big deal. And, inexorably, slower (by around 2030) or faster (between now and 2020) we are losing it. So figuring out how and why this might happen is pretty important.

And then we have the deniers… Those who, inevitably, will use data to support their previously conceived world-views regardless of actual facts or trends.

In one example, Steve Goddard, who can be counted on to invariably predict that sea ice will ‘recover’ during any given year, has made a tabloid out of cherry picked data via his blog ‘RealScience.’ Any time either sea ice area or extent approaches the average trend line in any graphs, he can be counted on to post it as ‘proof’ without context that ‘sea ice never melted in the first place, so what are we all worried about?’ Party on like it’s 1950!

It’s in out of context and niddling little cherry-picked details that those like Goddard live out their forlorn days of denial. The rest of us, on the other hand, have to deal with facts and context and do our best to honestly work out what’s really happening.

Which brings us to late May, 2013 and the question of what’s really going on with this melt season…

Area and Volume

Since 2012 was the last year that sea ice hit new record lows in all measures, we’ll use 2012 as a comparison with the current melt season. This comparison is important in that if 2013 melt beats out 2012 melt by end of summer, we have a new record and the raging melt trend continues with a vengeance. If 2013’s melt doesn’t beat out 2012, it’s no indication that sea ice is recovering. Instead, it shows a pause in the current melt trend. For an actual recovery to be established you’d have to see year after year of expanding and thickening ice. And we’re not anywhere near that. Quite to the contrary, since 1979 we’ve lost 55% of sea ice area and 80% of sea ice volume.

Area and volume. These two measures are the most important when figuring out the health of ice. Area measures how much ice covers the Arctic. Volume measures the total mass of ice. But between these two measures, volume is most important. A foot thick film of ice covering 3 million square kilometers of the Arctic is many times less ice than a ten meter thick sheet covering the same region.

With this established, let’s look first at area. In 2013, area melt proceeded at about the same pace as 2012, slowly progressing through both April and into early May with measurements in the region of past years. However, in 2013, as the second half of May passed, sea ice became more spread out. A number of storms had churned through the Arctic, pushing ice out toward the fringes. This higher coverage delayed melt at the ice edge even as the thicker, central ice thinned. As a result, May 30 sea ice area is at 10.6 million square kilometers, or about the same as May 30th of 1991.

Now, if I were Steve Goddard, I would proclaim that the sea ice has recovered, global warming is bogus, and that the work of 97% of the world’s climate scientists is moot. But since I am not Steve Goddard, I’ll actually provide you with a little more in the way of in-depth analysis.

Since, as we noted above, sea ice area is only part of the story, and a less important part at that, let’s take a look at the most important measure — sea ice volume. Now, the last official volume number we have is from PIOMAS for end of April 2013. And that number shows sea ice volume at its lowest levels ever for that day by about 100 cubic kilometers. Not a huge divergence from the previous record low, but a record low nonetheless. Since we’ll have to wait for the May numbers to come out at around June 15th, we’ll have to rely on proxy data to give us an idea where sea ice volume currently stands. But the start point, at the beginning of the month, was a new record low.

Moving forward, we will use the CICE images above as a comparison. Looking at these images, it is first important to consider what we know about 2012. First, we know that sea ice volume at this time for 2012 was edging back into record low territory as June approached. So the CICE map on the bottom is a picture of a record low or near record low for that date. And for this comparison, we have a visual base-line.

Looking at the 2012 CICE map we immediately notice a few things. First, a degree of thick ice remained just north of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Second, we have a number of areas of edge melt occurring in the Kara and Laptev seas, in the Bering, near the Mackenzie Delta, in Baffin Bay, and some slight melt occurring in Hudson Bay.

Now let’s compare this map with the 2013 map. Immediately, we notice that edge melt for 2012 is greater than 2013 at this time. The Kara and Laptev seas, especially show more open water in 2012 than in 2013. Baffin Bay and the Beaufort also show more edge melt. 2013 shows a slightly faster rate of melt for the Bering Sea and Hudson Bay, however. So by looking at these two maps we can confirm what we already know by looking at the sea ice area measurements — the sea ice is more widespread in 2013 than it was in 2012.

It is important to note that Cryosphere Today’s sea ice area measurement doesn’t take into account all the little cracks and holes in the central ice. Their analysis is not so finely detailed. Otherwise, area measures would likely be lower for 2013, because the central ice is cracked and riddled as never before. This cracking and riddling also has an impact on overall sea ice volume.

When looking at volume in the central ice pack regions, we find that total amounts of sea ice in 2013 may well be near 2012 amounts. For the 2013 central ice region shows a remarkable lack of ice. Central sea ice thickness on the CICE map for 2013 is far less than that shown for 2012. Furthermore, 2013 CICE maps show an ongoing erosion and jostling of central sea ice where 2012 saw very few such impacts during May.

In the end, what we see is 2012 with more ice edge melt while 2013 shows more central ice volume loss. And where does that put us in total volume measurements? For more certainty, we will have to wait for the June, 2013 PIOMAS update. However, it is more than reasonable to assume, based on the CICE maps, that current Arctic sea ice volume is near to record low levels.

In the end, 2013 ice is overall thinner and more spread out than 2012 ice. And this state makes it vulnerable to rapid melt, opening of holes in the central ice, separation of large sections of the sea ice, and disruption by storms and strong wind events. Overall, the ice pack is less unified than even 2012. So concern levels remain high for new record losses come end of summer. Much higher, in fact, than sea ice area and extent measures would typically lead one to believe.

And as for shouts of ‘recovery,’ they are hollow as the central Arctic’s sea ice.

Links:

US Navy HYCOM/CICE

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The Big Thin Begins: Week-Long Cyclone Chews Away Fragile Arctic Sea Ice

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(Image Source: CICE)

A moderate-strength cyclone that emerged about six days ago and is expected to last at least until Monday is slowly chewing away a large area of Arctic sea ice near the North Pole. Cyclonic action generated by the storm is now resulting in an unprecedented thinning of central Arctic sea ice. It is important to note that should this ice thinning continue, it could have major impacts on end summer sea ice this year.

The low that is causing the trouble moved out of the region of the Beaufort Sea, skirted East Siberia and had transitioned into the central Arctic Ocean by about May 24th. Since then, it has persisted, remaining nearly stationary with a slow drift back toward the Beaufort. Forecast maps show the low remaining in this region until at least Monday before it weakens and moves toward the Mackenzie Delta. Strangely, long-rage forecasts show it re-strengthening even as it returns to the central Arctic.

Arctic cyclone

(Image source: DMI)

Minimum central pressure continues to hover around 990 millibars. This moderate strength compares to the much stronger Great Arctic Cyclone of 2012 which bottomed out around 960 millibars. However, the storm is quite strong for this time of year, when Arctic cyclones tend to be rare and weak, containing enough energy to generate winds that erode sea ice.

This erosion takes place via a pumping process by which the ice is pushed against the ocean surface by the cyclonic wind field. This motion, in turn, stirs up the underlying waters creating a warm, upwelling current. Since the forces occur over broad regions, powerful surface forces allow the upwelling to dredge deep, causing mixing between surface and lower layers. Tendrils and micro-currents of warmer water thus rise to contact the ice. This action can melt the sea ice from below, breaking it into smaller chunks, opening polynas, and riddling the ice with leads. If the storm grows strong enough, large wave action can devour whole sections of ice. But, in this case, the storm does not appear to be powerful enough to generate this kind of wave action.

Since 2012, we have already seen two major upwelling events. One, already mentioned, was the Great Arctic Cyclone of 2012. The second, involved strong off-shore winds during February and March which pushed ice away from shore and, in the region of Barrow Alaska, resulted in near-shore upwelling that temporarily melted ice even as it was pushed out to sea. The combined result was open water during winter.

We can see the storm’s current and projected impacts on the CICE model run posted at the top. CICE is projecting the development of a large area of thin and fractured ice near the North Pole in the storm’s wake even as a region of thick ice north of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago erodes. These projections show average thickness in a wide region falling from about two meters to less than one meter.

That’s very thin ice for North Pole regional waters.

Already, some impacts from the storm are visible in Lance-Modis shots of the region.

Arctic_r04c04.2013150.terra.1km

(Image source: Lance-Modis)

In the above shot, we can see the center of our moderate-strength cyclone near the middle-left portion of the image. To the right of the storm center, we can see down through the clouds to areas where the ice has fractured, revealing the dark blue waters beneath. Below the storm center and near the lower left-hand corner of the image is the North Pole. So what we are seeing is a broad area of leads and fractured ice with gaps measuring up to about 5 km wide within 200 miles of the North Pole. This kind of development is not at all usual for late May, much less late August.

CICE model runs show ice in this region continuing to thin, fracture and weaken as the storm passes.

As the storm moves away, it is expected to pull warm air in behind it, which could further weaken the ice. ECMWF weather forecasts show this warm air influx occurring by about June 4:

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(Image source: ECMWF)

In the above image, we see 5 degree C temperatures plunging directly into the heart of the Arctic. A powerful late spring event should it emerge.

In the past, storms of this kind have had very little impact on sea ice. However, this year the ice is very thin and spread out. Most ice in the Arctic is showing a thickness of two meters or less. Records of past melt seasons show that two meter or thinner ice is unlikely to survive the melt season.

Furthermore, packs of much warmer air are drawn closer to the Arctic center by a wavy pattern in the jet stream. The result is that large north-south swoops draw warmer air up from the south even as they push Arctic air into more southerly regions. Europe, in particular, suffered due to this mangling of the jet stream. Ironically, a growing body of scientific evidence shows that these very changes in the jet stream are a result of loss of sea ice. So it appears that loss of sea ice is resulting in a snow-balling of forces that contribute to its ultimate demise.

The ultimate result is an Arctic-wide ice thinning impacting even the most central and protected areas. Even in this region of the central Arctic, where ice is usually much thicker, large regions of 2 meter or thinner ice dominate. You have to venture closer to Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago to find areas of ice thicker than 2 meters. However, as the recent evacuation of a Russian Arctic Expedition in that region shows, even the thickest ice is far more fragile than before.

The result of all this thin and broken ice is that it is much more vulnerable to surface conditions. A storm moving over thin and broken ice is much more likely to churn it up, breaking it and mixing it with the warmer waters underneath. Last year, we saw this process in action during the powerful Great Arctic Cyclone which emerged in August, churning up a large area of the Beaufort Sea, then drawing warm air in behind it, resulting in major sea ice losses.

At times when ice was thicker, moderate or powerful storms would not pose a threat for enhanced melt. But since 1979, the Arctic has suffered an 80% loss of sea ice volume.

This year, sea ice volume is currently at record low levels. Yet the ice pack is very spread out, boasting an area near 2002 values. This combination of wide coverage and low volume leaves the ice very, very thin and fragile. So now, even moderate cyclones like the one hovering near the North Pole can chew away at the ice.

If the CICE projections bear out, we’ll see the central ice pack greatly weakened in the wake of this storm just as solar radiance and warm air build into mid-June. At this point, such injuries to the ice make it more likely that rapid and catastrophic decline in coverage will begin to dramatically ramp up over the next few weeks.

As Neven over at the Arctic Ice Blog notes:

I feel the Arctic sea ice pack could soon go POP under the right conditions.

Let’s see:

  1. Thin, spread-out ice pack.
  2. Persistent storm chewing away the central ice.
  3. Large cracks and areas of open water riddling most of the ice pack.
  4. Large polynas forming behind the ice edge.
  5. Upwelling events eroding the bottom ice.
  6. Loss of Arctic expeditions in the region of the ‘thickest’ ice.
  7. June heat and constant, direct sunlight approaches.

Looks to me like a lot of the ‘right’ conditions are present.

In short, don’t let the high extent and area numbers fool you. The thin, spread out state of the ice leaves it more vulnerable, not less so. The sea ice is weaker and less resilient than it ever was. Only a cold summer and conditions favorable for ice retention are likely to prevent a record melt in either area, volume or extent. On the other hand, very bad conditions could result in near-total melt (under 1 million square kilometers end season area).

UPDATE:

Long-range weather models show the cyclone sweeping down toward the Mackenzie Delta, drifting back toward the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and finally returning to the Central Arctic by mid-June. Such a prolonged storm event would likely have a continuous weakening affect on the ice. Lower temperatures in the storm’s region would be more than countered by active wave energy and tapping of warmer, deeper waters which will have a tendency to erode the ice from beneath. Furthermore, warmer air is shown to follow in the wake of this storm, which may enhance melt through regions of already weakened ice.

In any case, this is a situation that bears close watching. A month-long, or more, storm harrying the Arctic could have quite an impact.

ECMWF weather model forecast for June 9th:

Cyclone june 9

(Image source: ECMWF)

Links:

CICE

DMI

Lance-Modis

The Arctic Ice Blog

Global Warming Induced Drought Set to Re-Expand, Could Cost $200 Billion

Drought May 21 2013

A major drought that began last year, ramped up through last summer and autumn, and lingered through winter and spring of 2013 continues to have major impacts. Western states remain severely impacted with fire risks flaring throughout California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma. Meanwhile, Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico continue to battle over water rights as drought conditions persist.

That said, the drought appeared to be slowly, tortuously abating as rains and record floods swept into various areas and began to provide relief. Now, about 46 percent of the US is currently suffering from some stage of drought. Though still very widespread, area impacted by drought last year surged to over 60 percent.

Now, as it appeared abatement and a slow return to normal conditions would continue, new forecasts show drought re-expanding into the plains states in time to threaten summer corn crops.

A recent report issued by climate experts at Harris-Mann Climatology found that:

“The drought in the Southwest is expected to move and expand eastward over the central and southern Great Plains, as well as at least the western Midwest, by late June or July. Flooded areas near the Missouri River are likely to turn to the opposite extreme of dryness later this summer season.”

For a farming region hoping to recover from the worst drought since 1955, and for a global food system teetering at the edge of insecurity this is a terrible forecast. Further, such a return to drought conditions would have serious monetary impacts. According to reports from AG Professional, a continuance and expansion of this drought could result in as much as $200 billion dollars in damages making the current drought the most costly weather disaster for 2012-2013, beating out even the far-reaching impacts of Hurricane Sandy.

Driving this change is a sudden shift of eastern Pacific Ocean waters toward a cooling phase called La Nina. La Nina tends to result in a heating and drying of the central and western United States. This shift led Harris-Mann to issue its revised forecast. You can see the cooling eastern Pacific on the map provided by NOAA below:

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(Image source: NOAA)

Harris-Mann also seems to note the unprecedented nature of current human-induced weather extremes stating:

“We’re still in a pattern of wild weather ‘extremes,’ the worst in more than 1,000 years, since the days of Leif Ericsson. For example, 2012 was the warmest year ever for the U.S., but on January 22, 2013, there was a record for the most ice and snow across the Northern Hemisphere continent.”

It is also worth noting that the period during which these extreme events occurred was the 8th warmest on record globally.

Links:

Drought Damage Could Top $200 Billion

Drought Conditions Forecast to Return to Central US

NOAA

US Drought Monitor

Human Caused Global Warming: 97 Percent Study Under Attack by Oil Company PR Firms

Earlier this month, John Cook of Skeptical Science published a ground-breaking study in the scientific journal Environmental Research Letters showing that 97% of scientists agreed that global warming is being caused by humans. This study received far-ranging acclaim both in the media and in a number of scientific journals for both its thoroughness and its accuracy. The study is now considered to be the definitive work on scientific consensus on the issue of human-caused climate change.

Over the years, an increasing consensus among scientists that humans are causing an ever more visible and damaging global warming has served as a warning to the world’s public. Sadly, this message has been confused — primarily by monied interests who spend massive amounts to spread doubt on the issue of human caused climate change. The result is that only about half the public believes there is a scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming. In one example, The Heartland Institute, which receives large sums to operate PR campaigns on behalf of oil companies, recently engaged in a campaign to misinform the American public by directly targeting teachers and school children.

The most recent example, however, takes aim at the 97% study itself. According to reports from DeSmogBlog, a non-profit PR firm, which receives most of its money from oil companies like Talisman Energy and operates under the dubious name Friends of Science, has been issuing attack statements directly aimed at creating doubt in the validity of the 97% report. These statements appear to be crafted to generate exactly the kind of misunderstanding the 97% report reveals.

‘Friends of Science’ asserts:

Detailed analysis shows that only 0.5% (65 of the 12,000 abstracts rated) suggest that humans are responsible for more than 50% of the global warming up to 2001, contrary to the alleged 97% consensus amongst scientists in the Cook et al study. Citing fear mongering and faulty methodology Friends of Science reject the study and President Obama’s tweet as careless incitement of a misinformed and frightened public, when in fact the sun is the main driver of climate change; not human activity or carbon dioxide (CO2).

It is important to note that ‘Friends of Science’ did not reveal their methodology to support this statement. Frequent requests for this methodology among the media have been met only with silence. Equally telling is the fact that the statement attempts to politicize the issue by harping on President Obama’s tweet rather than seeking to logically refute the 97% paper. Finally, the organization leans on the typical climate change denier claim that the sun is the primary driver of present warming. A claim that has been dis-proven over and over again in the scientific literature, should ‘Friends of Science’ care to read it. Or they could simply go argue with NASA whose instruments show that though solar irradiance is declining, the Earth is still accumulating more heat than it radiates out into space. Clearly, based on these statements alone, it’s obvious ‘Friends of Science’ doesn’t even know the science they’re purportedly talking about.

On the other hand, the 97% percent study is entirely transparent in its own methodology. In short, John Cook’s survey asked the scientists who authored the papers what the consensus position of those papers were.

From the 97% study methodology:

Nobody is more qualified to judge a paper’s intent than the actual scientists who authored the paper. To provide an independent measure of the level of consensus, we asked the scientists who authored the climate papers to rate the level of endorsement of their own papers. Among all papers that were self-rated as expressing a position on human-caused warming, 97.2% endorsed the consensus. This result is consistent with our abstract ratings, which found a 97.1% consensus.

In addition, the entire database of the 97% study’s methodology is available as part of the study’s publication. So from ‘Friends of Science’ we have a statement issued that is unsupported, that directly goes against the scientific findings of major organizations like NASA, and that directly refutes the claims made by scientists about the papers they authored.

Not very scientific. And not at all friendly to science. But you can bet that the denier blogosphere will go nuts over this ‘Friends of Science’ canard.

Links:

Must Read 97% Study By John Cook

Enemies of Science Shown to Pose as ‘Friends’

Heartland Institute, Which has Worked Directly with ‘Friends of Science’ in the Past, Funds Campaign to Misinform School Children

NASA Report: Greenhouse Gasses, Not Sun, Driving Warming

Worth Reading: May 29, 2013

Our team of citizen science volunteers at Skeptical Science has published a new survey in the journal Environmental Research Letters of over 12,000 peer-reviewed climate science papers, as the Guardian reports today. This is the most comprehensive survey of its kind, and the inspiration of this blog’s name: Climate Consensus – the 97%.

Steven Chu is the 100 Billion Dollar Man, How Much Energy (and Money) Will Secretary Moniz Save?

Economists have shown that Steven Chu’s tenure as energy secretary has resulted in policy changes that will save US consumers, the government, and businesses over $100 billion dollars. These policy changes include support for renewables and incentives pushing increased energy efficiency across the board. So with vicious opposition coming from republicans to any new renewable energy and efficiency increases, will Moniz be able to meet or exceed Chu’s strong track record?

House Republicans Push Bill to Undermine Climate Research Funding, Puts Satellites In Jeopardy

A bill being drafted in the House could potentially undermine the climate science research activities and the oceans programs of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It also would open up the weather satellite sector, which has been a troubled area for NOAA in recent years, to more privatization.

So what are republicans good at again? Wrecking everything.

Mora County New Mexico Bans Oil and Gas Fracking Because “WATER IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN OIL.”

Wells are the Alcons’ only source of water. The same is true for everyone else in Mora County, which is why last month this poor, conservative ranching region of energy-rich New Mexico became the first county in the nation to pass an ordinance banning hydraulic fracturing, the controversial oil and gas extraction technique known as “fracking” that has compromised water quantity and quality in communities around the country.

“I don’t want to destroy our water,” Alcon said. “You can’t drink oil.”

Solar Energy Investment Rebounds

A re-appraisal of the global market for solar PV modules – predictions of higher growth and a rebound in margins – is underpinning massive gains in the stock prices of global manufacturing firms. And some analysts suggest it might be sustainable.

Pace of US Solar Energy Installation Nearly Triple that of Last Year

As of the end of April, 2013, the US has seen the installation of 845 MW of new solar energy capacity, a significant jump over the same period last year — which saw 348 MW installed.

Wind Energy in Cold Climates Set to Expand to 50 Gigawatts by 2017

Wind energy capacity is growing rapidly in the cold climates of the world. According to the latest forecasts, between 45 and 50 gigawatts of wind energy will be built in cold climates by 2017, which would mean an increase of as much as 72 per cent since the end of 2012 and investments amounting to approximately EUR 75 billion.

Researchers Find Connection Between Global Warming and Increased Monsoonal Precipitation

New research by scientists at the University of New Mexico suggests that future warming may lead to above average monsoonal moisture. While that sounds like a ray of sunshine especially to farmers in arid regions, the extra moisture is likely to be counterbalanced by increased evaporative loss.

Understanding Storms and Global Warming: A Quaint Parable

Imagine standing next to Parable Creek, an imaginary rocky brook in New England. The water is rushing past you from left to right, around the rocks that emerge tall above the surface of the stream, mounding over the top of those that are lower down. The deepest parts of the steam are relatively flat but show ripples that belie the presence of other rocks and sunken branches that are well below the water line.
It’s no surprise to regular readers I am quite concerned about climate change. My concern on this issue is two-fold: one consists of the actual global consequences of the reality of global warming, and the other is the blatant manipulation of that reality by those who would deny it.

Sea Ice Melt: When 2040 Predictions Could Happen Tomorrow

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(NCAR sea ice predictions for 2040)

The above image shows NCAR’s 2006 prediction for potential sea ice losses by 2040, but current rates of sea ice loss could result in such conditions within 1-6 years.

Sea ice melt. It’s something we should all be concerned about. That protective cap of ice over the northern polar region provides a number of beneficial services. Its white, reflective layer cools the Earth, reflecting sun into space. As such it is a haven for Earth’s cold air stores. It also rests above a shallow sea filled with sequestered carbon. The cold cap locks these stores in, keeping them out of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Such a large cap of cold ice also has powerful regional influences. Over the past 10,000 years, it has ensured the health of adjacent land tundra which also sequesters massive volumes of carbon locked in organic material. Sea ice and tundra form an insulator that protects Greenland’s massive ice sheets from melt even as they establish a regional climate system that benefits Earth’s life by providing stability in temperatures and weather patterns.

They also form a first line of defense against runaway global warming.

Yet this system — its cold air, its glaciers, its tundra, and its sea ice — is in increasing jeopardy. Sea ice, which is a primary insulator keeping cold air in the Arctic, has declined about 55% by area and 80% by volume since 1979. This loss of ice reduces reflectivity during summer months and enables greater ocean heat uptake, further hastening melt. It also results in warmer seas during winter time, which helps to keep air temperatures much warmer during the coldest season. This one, two punch has the net effect of pushing melt at ever more rapid paces. Now, yearly volume losses are enough, if sustained, to bring the Arctic Ocean to a nearly ice-free state by 2016 plus or minus three years.

For context, take a look at the above NCAR picture again and then take a look at this picture of end summer sea ice in 2012.

arctic-seaice-colorsep15

(Image source: Cryosphere Today)

Not too different, are they?

Another single year loss equivalent to 2012 would push sea ice to a state comparable to the NCAR prediction for 2040. And such a loss could happen this year, or next year, or the following. Unless current trends reverse (an unlikely event given an increasing CO2 forcing), then NCAR’s 2040 prediction will almost certainly happen before 2020.

We are losing the northern polar sea ice. And we are losing it far more rapidly than previously anticipated. With it, we are losing all the beneficial services sea ice provides. So as the sea ice recedes more sunlight will be absorbed by the Earth’s northern oceans. As this happens, oceans will warm faster, melting tundra. Together, warmer seas and warmer tundra will release more methane into the atmosphere. Over time, this will produce more warming. All the added heat will push Greenland to melt at an increasing rate. The flushes of fresh, cold water from Greenland together with loss of sea ice will play havoc with northern hemisphere weather as cold and hot air build up and battle in places where they hadn’t before. Europe and portions of North America will see especially severe impacts from this whip-sawing climate. But the impacts of ice melt and polar amplification will be global, creating weather that is likely to make a mess of the world’s growing seasons, resulting in potentially severe impacts to the world’s food security. Lastly, a more rapidly melting Greenland will increase the rate of sea level rise.

This is why sea ice isn’t just an image on a map or a number on a chart. This is why loss of sea ice is much, much more than an opportunity to drill in the Arctic. An ‘opportunity’ that will only serve to make a growing problem worse.

If Earth were a space ship, its captains and crew would consider the sea ice one of its key human life support systems. Its health and stability would be a primary contributor to the safety of passengers and crew members. Loss of sea ice, in this case, would mean a loss of a vital life support and climate stability system. After loss of sea ice, life on space ship Earth becomes more difficult and the risk of harm to its passengers grows.

This is why we should all be concerned about the dramatic sea ice losses we are now witnessing. This is why we should view the cynical Arctic profiteering of the oil companies with dread. And this is why we should do our very best to slow and halt the human-caused changes that are robbing us of that vital, protective layer of ice over our northern oceans.

Links:

The Arctic Ice “Death Spiral”

“Slow Feedbacks,” Paleoclimate Data Show Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity Misses Half of Future Warming

Over the past month or so, there’s been quite a bit of controversy over a scientific measurement called equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS). Among the media, confusion abounds. In a recent instance, The Economist, taking a number of scientific studies out of context, made the dubious claim that a slower pace of temperature increase during the first decade of the 20th century indicated a lower level of climate sensitivity. Other news outlets continue to remark on new climate sensitivity studies without appearing to understand what equilibrium climate sensitivity really means or, more importantly, understanding the inherent limitations of model-based ECS estimates.

Because there’s been such a high level of interest in and confusion over ECS recently, it’s worthwhile taking a closer look at this measurement’s scope and limitations. In an effort to clear up some of the confusion surrounding ECS, this article will attempt to answer these questions:

  • How is ECS defined?
  • How accurate is ECS?
  • And, lastly, does a slower pace of warming over the first decade of the 21rst century mean climate sensitivity is less than previously expected?

Definition of Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity

In its broadest sense, ECS defines the long-term increase in surface air temperatures that results from a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The measure is important because it gives a broad indication of how much climate change and related harm to humans and environments results from a given amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into Earth’s atmosphere.

Under these basic principles, ECS provides a good guideline. However, ECS operates under a major handicap. The measurement does not include the effects of slow climate feedbacks like loss of ice sheets or albedo change to Earth’s surface.

How Accurate is Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity?

Because ECS leaves out slow feedbacks, it isn’t a very accurate measure of potential long-term warming. That said, in the early days of global warming modeling, ECS was seen as the most useful measure because models had difficulty handling complex physical forces that resulted from slow feedbacks. The result was that climate science came to rely on a less accurate measure because it was more expedient to use in modeling.

For these reasons, ECS was developed as a simpler way to model atmospheric temperature increase caused by carbon emissions over the long term. And because it was difficult to model slow feedbacks, they were not included in the measurement. So, though ECS is a useful measurement for the purposes of more easily modeling atmospheric temperature increases, ECS dramatically undershoots long-term global temperature increases.

The reason for this is that slow feedbacks such as albedo change and ice sheet melt have powerful impacts. We know this because ECS models tend to present about half the total sensitivity observed in the paleoclimate data for a doubling of CO2. This second and more accurate, but far more difficult to model, measure of climate sensitivity based on all global feedbacks acting in concert is called Earth System Sensitivity (ESS).

In total, the combined Earth System Sensitivity is far greater than the more model friendly Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity. By how much? Based on paleoclimate data, total long term ESS is probably about double that of current ECS estimates.

Muddling Models

Unfortunately, these different definitions can be very confusing to the layman observer. As an example, the IPCC estimates ECS to be between 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius for each doubling of CO2. From an average of these measures, the IPCC gets its estimate ECS of about 3 degrees Celsius. On the other hand, observations of past Earth climates show temperatures averaging at least 6 degrees Celsius warmer when CO2 levels were around 560 parts per million, or about double what the IPCC estimates for ECS.

Yet ECS is, most often, the official, published estimate for how much the Earth will warm. Yet, as shown above, given our current understanding of past climates, the ECS model estimates are short by half.

When looking at the stunning impact of CO2 on global temperatures in the paleoclimate data, one wonders why ECS is used, so often, without this broader qualification? Why, instead, don’t estimates of ECS provide a broader indication that end temperature increases are likely be double those seen in the climate models?

Lower Climate Sensitivity?

For the most part, scientists are trying to determine if slower atmospheric warming since 2000 indicates that climate sensitivity, in this case an already, short by half, equilibrium climate sensitivity, is less than previously expected.

For context, average atmospheric temperatures increased by about .2 degrees Celsius during the 1990s while atmospheric temperatures during the 2000s increased by about .1 degree Celsius. This apparent slowdown in atmospheric warming has caused some to question whether equilibrium climate sensitivity is less than previously expected.

One paper, published by Alexander Otto in Nature indicated a long-term equilibrium climate sensitivity of about 2 degrees Celsius based on new data from recent decades. This new model estimate is still in the range of 1.5-4.5 degrees Celsius provided by most model runs. Furthermore, the study found almost no significant changes to equilibrium climate sensitivity in the long-term trend.

Another Nature study, conducted by Roger Bodman of Victoria University, also found that model estimates for equilibrium climate sensitivity were not lower than previous estimates.

Conclusions

The conclusions to draw from this information are manifold.

The first is that model estimates for equilibrium climate sensitivity are not the best measure of total, long-term climate change. For that we should take a look at past Earth climates. From these measurements, we can find an Earth System Sensitivity of about 6 degrees Celsius for each doubling of CO2. This measure is consistent with Earth climates 50-65 million years ago when CO2 measured about 580 parts per million and temperatures were more than 6 degrees Celsius warmer.

The second conclusion is that long-term change will likely take many centuries to completely unfold. So long-term climate sensitivity measures like ECS or ESS are not good indicators for how fast Earth temperatures will increase within a given decade. Some decades may see relatively slow increases, some little or no increase, and some remarkably rapid increases. However, the overall trend will be for warming, and probably a more rapid pace of warming than that seen in the geological record due to the fact that the human CO2 forcing is currently so powerful.

Furthermore, the .2 degrees Celsius warming during the 1990s and the .1 degrees Celsius atmospheric warming during the 2000s are not entirely indicative of what the long-term trend will look like. In all likelihood, natural variability favored warming more during the 1990s and less so during the 2000s. This is hinted at in the El Nino/La Nina cycle with many powerful El Ninos (which tend to warm the atmosphere) evident during the 1990s while La Ninas (which tend to cool the atmosphere) were more prevalent during the late 2000s.

The third conclusion is that major Earth system feedbacks are beginning to kick in that are likely to make observations of the climates of past decades less relevant. Loss of albedo, ice sheet melt, ocean heat uptake, and environmental carbon release all have a roll to play in future atmospheric warming. Together with a continued and growing human CO2 forcing, these and other factors will determine the pace of warming over the next century. Under business as usual, worldwide CO2 levels hit somewhere between 800 and 1000 parts per million by the end of this century. Such a strong forcing is likely to have very powerful and damaging effects on Earth’s climate system. Even the models that do not take into account slow feedbacks are showing warming of 5-7 degrees Celsius by the end of this century if business as usual emissions continue. And for such a high degree of warming to take place even without the additional contribution from a number of slow feedbacks would be a terrible result.

Fourth, it should be noted that ‘slow feedbacks’ are already beginning to emerge at a more rapid pace than previously estimated. One example, loss of sea ice, is already reducing the northern polar region’s albedo. Another instance, methane hydrate and tundra methane release, are also already adding a positive amplifying feedback to human-caused warming.

Finally, it is worth noting that a more rapid than expected melt of polar ice would temporarily keep temperatures lower at the cost of a more rapid pace of sea level rise combined with much more extreme weather. Such higher than expected paces of melt are entirely possible and, in certain regions, appear to be happening now. In one example northern polar sea ice has experienced an 80% loss of volume since 1980. The result is that northern hemisphere sea ice melt is occurring 80 years ahead of model projections.

Greenland Melt Speeding Up; Northern Hemisphere Snow Cover Falling Below Average

greenland_melt_area_plot

(Image source: NSIDC)

Greenland ice sheet melt spiked today, moving into above average territory with nearly five percent of the ice sheet showing surface melt. Influx of warmer air from the south combined with ongoing heat absorption by the ice sheet to push melt levels higher over a broad area of southern Greenland. Temperatures rose above freezing for most of southern Greenland while much colder air remained concentrated to the north.

greenland_melt_nomelt

(Image source: NSIDC)

Over much of the Arctic, warmer air is invading northward. Above freezing temperatures are now common around Hudson Bay, in Northwestern Canada, in Northern Alaska, over sections of the Bering, Beaufort and Kara Seas, and are nearing the coast in East Siberia. Higher temperatures pushing northward have not only set off Greenland melt, but overall Northern Hemisphere snow cover continues to push into lower than average territory.

nhtime-4month

This rapid melt is especially worthy of note considering the massive amount of snow dropped by major storms this winter over much of the Northern Hemisphere. Should pace of snow melt continue, we may be on track for another record year.

Last year, both Greenland surface ice melt and Northern Hemisphere snow melt plunged into record low territory. Greenland melt was particularly exceptional with nearly 100% of the surface area of Greenland showing melt on certain days during July. The last time a similar level of melt occurred on Greenland was more than 100 years ago. A repeat of this kind of melt at any time within the next decade would be unprecedented. However, given current levels of Arctic warming, such melt is certainly possible.

Loss of tundra in certain regions appears to be one of the key drivers of enhanced snow melt during summer time. Arctic warming over the past few decades has continued to push the tundra line northward. As a result, snow is less resilient in northern regions come summer.

Links:

NSIDC

NCEP

Hurricane Season 2013: More Powerful Storms Expected

Sandy_Oct28_2012_GOES13_Image_300

(Hybrid Monster Sandy Bears Down on US East Coast)

According to reports from NOAA, an ‘extremely active’ hurricane season lies on the horizon just one year after an unprecedented and freakish hybrid hurricane Sandy devastated the US East Coast.

Overall, forecasters expect between 13 and 20 named storms with 3-6 major hurricanes potentially in the offing. The average season hosts 12 named storms. So these numbers may well be harbingers for a dangerous year.

“With the devastation of Sandy fresh in our minds, and another active season predicted, everyone at NOAA is committed to providing life-saving forecasts in the face of these storms and ensuring that Americans are prepared and ready ahead of time.” said Kathryn Sullivan, Ph.D., NOAA acting administrator. “As we saw first-hand with Sandy, it’s important to remember that tropical storm and hurricane impacts are not limited to the coastline. Strong winds, torrential rain, flooding, and tornadoes often threaten inland areas far from where the storm first makes landfall.”

This is a dire forecast, especially coming one year after Sandy. Usually, natural variation will bring a pause in activity after years involving powerful storms. However, the Northeast US has suffered two major storms in two years. Now, forecasters are calling for yet another year where powerful storms threaten US shores.

Conditions for powerful storms come from a number of factors. The first is that Atlantic Ocean water temperatures remain well above average in most regions. African dust, which tends to suppress storm development, is less and less prevalent. ENSO conditions in the Pacific remain neutral — La Nina tends to enhance Atlantic storm development while El Nino tends to suppress it. All these conditions point toward a more active year.

One factor not taken into account for current official forecasts is the present state of the polar jet stream. That said, meteorologists and climatologists have been presented with quite a lot to chew on as a new hurricane season emerges under a regime of rapid Arctic changes. Erosion of sea ice has resulted in greater dips in the jet. The result is that polar frontal systems are more likely to encounter tropical systems steaming northward. As such, the formation of storms similar to Sandy becomes more likely. With sea ice values low and going lower, it appears that the next few years will serve as a test to determine if this entirely new atmospheric state will result in a greater number of these powerful hybrid storms.

The atmospheric basis for the formation of such storms, however, is already in evidence with powerful alterations to the polar jet resulting in a severe winter in Europe and abnormal warmth for the US west coast and western Canada. Let’s hope these dips don’t line up in such a way as to make polar and tropical storms meet again as they did last fall.

Links:

NOAA

Thin Ice Forces Arctic Expedition to Evacuate

According to news reports, a devastating loss of Arctic sea ice is now forcing a Russian science expedition to evacuate.

Last year, Russia was forced to look hard for an ice flow sturdy enough to host a 16 man polar science expedition to the rapidly melting Arctic Ocean. The flow, located near the center of the thickest ice, was expected to support this scientific expedition all throughout the summer. Yet, by the middle of May, the ice flow had begun to disintegrate, forcing an emergency evacuation of the researchers.

Spokespersons at the Russian Natural Resources and Ecology Ministry appeared distressed:

“The ice is disintegrating,” a ministry spokeswoman told AFP. “Cracks appeared in the floe.” The station is currently home to 16 personnel.

“The destruction of the ice has put at risk the station’s further work and life of its staff,” the ministry said in the statement.

“A collapse of the station’s ice floe poses a threat to its continued work, the lives of the crew, the environment close to the Canadian Economic Zone and to equipment and supplies”, a note from the minister reads.

An icebreaker had been dispatched to rescue researchers along with heavy equipment used as part of the expedition. But risks remain high that valuable equipment will be lost.

Polar expedition

The above image, provided by A-Team over at the Arctic Ice Blog notes the current position of the expedition.

The expedition had been placed near the center of the remaining thick ice. However, rapid motion of the ice pushed the expedition closer and closer to the Beaufort Sea, a region where powerful currents can often result in sudden ice fracturing.

Conditions in the Arctic over the past year created a high degree of risk for the Russian expedition. Very little thick ice remains to the Arctic. Volume is currently in record low territory and even the thickest remaining ice is increasingly fractured and mobile. Since the 1908s, end summer ice has lost 80 percent of its total volume, putting it at risk of complete melt within the next few years.

This winter, a major sea ice cracking event fractured a large section of sea ice near the expedition. This past week, an influx of warmer air added further stress to the ice. For the region near the expedition, ice stress appeared to pass  a tipping point as melt and break-up resulted in a heightening risk to lives and equipment.

This event is just one more in a long string of uncanny and extraordinarily rapid melt events affecting the Arctic. It is quite possible that major Arctic research expeditions on the sea ice will be rendered more and more difficult and dangerous as the ice continues its rapid disintegration. At this point, all Arctic expeditions on the ice are at increased risk.

Overall, chances for total or near total ice melt remain at around 10% for the end of summer 2013. Though comparatively low, this risk is substantial in that it is the first time in the human record that sea ice has a chance to completely melt out. Overall, sea ice area and extent losses have been about average for May. But the important measure, Volume, won’t come in until June. By that time, it will be more apparent if stresses on the ice are resulting in a terminal or near terminal decline. Major heating and energetic impacts tend to multiply come June.

That said, motion and melt in certain regions appears strange and uncanny. The Beaufort is experiencing cracking, thinning and a kind of wip-lash as weather systems and warmer air rake over the ice. On the other side of the Arctic, a rapid thinning appears to be ongoing in the Kara and Laptev seas. And all over the ice, ripples and cracks are appearing with greater frequency. At the very least, summer is likely to bring a very unstable, mobile and fractured ice state.

Meanwhile, warmer air is advancing. So it appears things are likely to get interesting rather rapidly.

Best hopes to this Russian crew and all those on the ice this year. A destabilizing climate is making it a much more hazardous place to work.

Links:

Russia to Urgently Evacuate Post as Ice Melts

Russia Plans Urgent Evacuation

Russia To Evacuate Arctic Station

Russia Evacuates Drifting Arctic Research Station

Total Measure of Human Warming: Heating Atmosphere, Warming Oceans, and Melting Ice

(Our thoughts and prayers go out to the residents of Moore, Oklahoma and to all the other 30 million people rendered homeless by an expanding series of weather emergencies across the globe.)

Human caused warming is a global impact. It heats the atmosphere, it melts ice, and it warms the oceans. Yet, often, we find ourselves squabbling with an increasingly inane, irate and out of touch set of climate change deniers over one third of this equation: atmosphere. And even though evidence of inexorably increasing atmospheric temperatures, worldwide, is enough to bury any climate change contrarian under a mountain of facts almost as large as the 800 cubic kilometers of ice that melted from Greenland last year, it is still worthwhile to look at all these systems and see how they are responding to human warming.

CO2 Rise

This week, CO2 levels averaged just a hair shy of 400 parts per million, a level not seen since the Pliocene, 2-4.5 million years ago. During this time the atmosphere was much warmer, there was much less ice, and ocean levels were much higher. Long-term, if atmospheric CO2 levels remain at 400 parts per million or higher, the least we can expect is about 3-4 degrees Celsius of warming, almost all Arctic ice gone, and sea levels about 75 feet higher than they are today.

CO2 is the most powerful long-term governor of atmospheric temperature. It has been compared to the control nob on the Earth’s global thermostat by atmospheric scientists. In the past, as CO2 rises, so does global temperature. If CO2 falls, so does temperature. If there’s no CO2 in the atmosphere, all water vapor falls out and freezes, leaving Earth as a snowball. If most of the atmosphere was composed of CO2, Earth would look a lot more like Venus. So, in short, it’s established that rising CO2 means increased warming.

What’s most important to our current exploration is that CO2 levels are rising. And what that means is one thing — the Earth will warm. How will this happen? The atmosphere will heat up, the oceans will warm, and ice will melt.

co2_800k_zoom

(Image source: Keeling Curve)

In the above graph, we can get an idea of how much and how rapidly CO2 has risen over the past 300 years. In the 1700s, human carbon emissions were much less than today. England was one of the only countries involved in wide-scale use of the fossil fuel — coal. So CO2 levels remained about at a level equal to past inter-glacial of around 275 parts per million — a level that had been steady for over 10,000 years. Then, in the 1800s we began to see a gradual rise in world CO2 levels. Over the course of one century, CO2 increased from 275 to 290 parts per million as industrialization began to ramp up and use of fossil fuels became more wide-spread. This increase of about 15 parts per million CO2 over the course of a century was already about as fast as anything that had ever occurred in the geological past. If sustained over centuries, such a rate would be enough to push a powerful warming. But what happened next was catastrophic.

In the 20th century, worldwide CO2 went from about 290 parts per million in 1900 to around 375 parts per million in the year 2000. This rise of 85 parts per million over the course of a century was much faster than any rise in CO2 previously detected by scientists. What it represented was a powerful forcing pushing the world’s atmosphere, oceans, and ice sheets to ever greater levels of warming.

By the turn of the century, this increase in CO2 had already set off at .6 degree Celsius increase in global land and ocean temperatures, pushed the recession of a majority of glaciers around the world, caused sea ice area, volume and extent to begin to fall off, and set Greenland and Antarctica to melting. This initial punch was just the opener for a long age of Earth changes that were a result of human-caused climate change.

In the first 12 years of the new century, world CO2 levels continued to rise at ever-increasing rates. About another 25 parts per million CO2 was added to the global total and we are now poised to break the 400 part per million threshold. At this stage, land and ocean surface temperatures have risen by about .8 degrees Celsius, 9 out of ten glaciers in the world are receding, the rates of ice melt from Greenland and Antarctica are accelerating, and Arctic sea ice volume has declined by more than 80%.

Energy Imbalance

The power of CO2 to govern Earth’s temperature and, by extension, climate, rests in its heat-trapping characteristics. So as CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have dramatically risen, the heat trapping characteristics of the Earth’s atmosphere have also increased. The result is that more of the sun’s radiation is being absorbed by the Earth than is being reflected back into space. This characteristic is called an energy imbalance.

Over time, this imbalance will be resolved by Earth warming, which will result in more radiation being sent out into space and equilibrium will again be achieved once a higher temperature is reached. Currently, the energy imbalance of the Earth is about .6 Watts per meter squared or enough to warm the Earth by about another .5 to .7 degrees Celsius before reaching equilibrium. So, in total, given the current energy state of the Earth’s atmosphere, we have at least another .5 to .7 degrees Celsius locked in over the next couple of decades even without further greenhouse gas emissions or the contribution of a number of amplifying feedbacks.

Heating the Atmosphere and Ocean Surface

The re-balancing of Earth’s energy will result in heating the atmosphere, warming the oceans and melting ice in the form of glaciers, ice sheets, and sea ice.

The first element, a warming atmosphere and a heating of the ocean surface has been well documented. As CO2 concentrations rose, atmospheric and ocean surface temperatures also rose. You can see this dramatic increase in global temperatures by looking at the following graph:

GISSTEMP2012

(Image source: GISS)

In short, rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere continued to force global temperatures higher until they finally reached a .8 degree Celsius increase over the 1880s. This surface temperature increase is a powerful visible sign of global warming caused by human activity.

To wit, an increasing number of climate change deniers and contrarians are trying to argue that human caused global warming has stopped. To support this conclusion, they point to a ‘plateau’ in atmospheric temperature increases occurring over the last five years. To do this, they must ignore the fact that 2010 was the hottest year on record even as they continue to cherry pick data to support some rather obviously skewed conclusions. Others have claimed, using a curve fitting analysis that is unsupported by scientific evidence, that global temperatures will continue to plateau until 2040 when Earth will undergo another step increase to higher atmospheric temperatures. With forcing so high and greenhouse gasses increasing at such a rapid rate, such a conclusion is difficult to support without major ocean heat uptake or extraordinarily rapid melt of glaciers, sea ice, and ice sheets.

Even if such an event, however unlikely, were to happen, it would not signal that the Earth is cooling. A pause in atmospheric warming while the oceans continued to heat up and ice continued to melt does not a cooling world make. In order for the ‘cooling’ contrarians claim to be established, you would have to see a combination of atmospheric cooling, ice increase, and ocean cooling. In truth, what is happening and what continues to happen is exactly the opposite.

The larger fact is that the atmosphere is warming, remains at record high temperatures, and that Earth’s energy system remains out of balance even as CO2 levels increase. The result is that atmospheric temperatures will continue to increase as time moves forward. Most likely, the next El Nino year will break the record set just three years ago in 2010.

Warming Oceans

That said, it is worth noting that the lion’s share of CO2 forcing goes to work warming the world’s oceans and melting the world’s ice. As a result, atmospheric temperature measurements only take account of the tip of the human global warming ice burg.

The reason for this is that interplay between the Earth’s atmosphere and the ocean surface, heat transport of atmospheric heat through the surface and into the middle and deep ocean, and evaporation of water all serve as heat uptake processes that are not accounted for in the atmospheric temperature readings. So if you want to get a better idea of how rapidly the Earth is warming, you also need to take into account ocean heat content.

Until recently, there were very few comprehensive studies of ocean heat content. So most warming studies took into account only atmospheric heating alone. However, recent studies by Magdelena Balmaseda, Kevin Trenberth and others have opened a new field of middle and deep ocean heat measuring providing yet another overwhelming volume of evidence pointing toward a rapidly warming world.

Trenberthstudy

(Image source: Balmaseda/Trenberth Study)

The above graph shows a very rapid ocean heat content uptake occurring in the period of 2000 onward. As a result, a greater portion of the world’s warming ended up in the oceans even as atmospheric temperatures continued to move higher. It shows an increasing pace of transfer of heat from the atmosphere to the ocean — a result of a steadily strengthening CO2 forcing.

When combined with atmospheric warming, these measurements show a powerful warming effect both on the atmosphere and on the ocean. The result is that it appears both are warming in steps.

One interesting point to make is that during the 1990s, the Earth’s atmosphere appeared to warm rapidly while ocean warming slowed. During the 2000s, the pace of atmospheric warming tended to be slower while ocean warming speeded up. It is likely that the pace of ocean heat uptake has a direct impact on the atmosphere and that these systems are involved in a complex dance as Earth warms.

For a long time, ocean turnover has been seen as a system that could slow global atmospheric temperature increases. Yet this inertia comes at the cost of more ocean evaporation. The result is that more water vapor ends up in the atmosphere. And since water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas, the longer term effect would be greater warming. More ominously, warming oceans house a large volume of methane hydrate. In a world of warming oceans, a portion of this gas, now locked in icy formations on the ocean floor, is likely to be liberated. Since methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, its liberation will likely combine with increasing water vapor to push atmospheric warming higher.

Ocean turnover, heat absorption and warming, therefore, should best be seen as an inertia that, over the course of decades, has the potential to slow down human warming. That said, at least two major amplifying feebacks — water vapor and methane hydrates — also emerge to greater and greater degrees as the ocean warms.

So, in summary, what we have witnessed, thus far is both substantial atmospheric and ocean warming as a result of human CO2 increase. Now let’s look at the third system — the world’s ice.

Melting Ice and Evaporating Water

The final measure of human caused global warming impact includes phase changes between water and liquid and liquid and gas. This is an important measure because it takes energy just to change matter from one state to the next. For example, the energy required to melt ice at zero degrees Celsius is 334 kilojoules per kilogram. This extra energy required to melt ice without increasing temperature, represents an invisible barrier to temperature increase. A similar barrier lies between water as a liquid and water as a gas.

So any melting of ice takes up energy that would instead be used to heat the atmosphere or warm the oceans. As such a change in phase from solid ice to liquid water is one more sign that the Earth is warming.

For global ice melt, we have a number of rather comprehensive measurements: glacial melt rate, Greenland melt rate, Antarctic melt rate, and sea ice volume loss. Though no complete measure, as yet, has been assimilated to determine the total volume of ice lost each year, a combination of these measures can give us a good indication.

First, lets start with rates of glacial ice loss. Though no total volume measurement is given for all the world’s glaciers it has now been observed that 9 out of 10 glaciers are losing ice more rapidly than they are gaining ice. In almost all regions around the world, major mountain glaciers are rapidly receding, a sign that global warming is steadily advancing. Average glacier mass balance provides a good catalog of this change.

Glacier_Mass_Balance

(Image source: Commons)

What the above image shows is that the world’s glaciers have lost, on average, about 14 meters of thickness since 1955 and are now losing mass at the rate of around 80 centimeters of thickness each year. Not only does this table show mass loss for glaciers continuing over time, it shows that the rate of mass loss is increasing.

These statistics only involve the world’s continental mountain glaciers. If we want to get an ever-clearer picture of the ice, we need to take a look at Greenland and Antarctic ice mass loss.

For Greenland, satellite measurements have shown an increasing decline in total ice mass over the past decade.

Greenland Ice Mass Loss

What the above image shows is an ongoing loss of ice since 2002 with the rate of loss increasing steadily through the start of 2013. Average rates of loss in recent years have been on the order of 500 cubic kilometers per annum, with a massive loss of about 800 cubic kilometers occurring between 2012 and 2013.

Antarctica has shown a similar rate of decline which, though slower than Greenland is still contributing high and increasing rates of ice melt.

Antarctica_Ice_Mass

(Image source: Skeptical Science)

What has been shown is that this rate of melt for land-bound ice at both poles is rapidly increasing. According to a statement from NASA in November of 2012, the current rate of polar melt from Greenland and Antarctica is now three times the rate of melt during the 1990s (NASA statement here).

Moving on to sea ice, we find similar rates of loss in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere, we have a set of counter-trend circumstances that have resulted in modest sea ice gains.

Northern hemisphere sea ice is perhaps the most dramatic example of human caused warming in the form of ice melt. Sea ice volume has fallen by over 80% since 1980 with the pace of melt accelerating since 2000. The following graph provided by PIOMAS vividly shows this devastating decline.

BPIOMASIceVolumeAnomalyCurrentV2

(Image source: PIOMAS)

Sea ice volume loss graph

What these two graphs show is a loss of, on average, 750 cubic kilometers of sea ice in the northern hemisphere at the end of each summer. This high rate of loss adds to Antarctic land ice mass loss of around 300 cubic kilometers each year and Greenland mass loss of around 500 cubic kilometers each year.

Last of all, let’s take a look at Southern Hemisphere sea ice. Counter to the trend of melt in continental glaciers, Greenland ice, Antarctic ice and Arctic sea ice, sea ice area and extent in the southern hemisphere has been slowly increasing since the 1980s. The rate of increase is small when compared to similar measures of sea ice extent and area in the Arctic — about 1/3.

arc_antarc_1979_2012

(Image source: NSIDC)

That said, it is important to note that air temperatures in the region of increasing Antarctic sea ice are increasing at rates even faster than around the globe. Furthermore, sea ice volume measurements for the Antarctic are sparse and difficult to come by. So we don’t really know if the surface is expanding even though the ice, in total, may be thinning. Furthermore, studies indicate that sea ice area and extent expansion in the Antarctic are driven by the melting of land ice. As the great glaciers of Antarctica have contributed an average of around 300 cubic kilometers of melt each year, this fresh water has extended around the Antarctic continent. The fresh water freezes at higher temperatures. Also, as the water is already near zero degrees Celsius, it takes less energy to freeze. Last of all, this fresh water cap tends to prevent warm water upwelling from the deep ocean. Such upwelling has tended to melt ice in this region and so the ice is somewhat protected from below by a shield of cold, fresh water.

Since we don’t have volume measurements of Antarctic sea ice, we can only assume that the slight increase in Antarctic sea ice extent and area over the past 30 years is also indicative of a small net increase in volume. If this is the case, it is the only area around the globe where ice is seen to be increasing. All other areas show rapid decline. And this larger trend is indicative of a massive amount of heat energy going to melt the ice.

So what we see, in combining the measures of continental glacier mass loss, Greenland glacial melt, Antarctic glacial melt, and Arctic sea ice melt is a rapid changeover of much of the world’s ice from solid to liquid state. This takes a huge amount of energy and is roughly equivalent to the energy that has gone into heating the atmosphere.

No Evidence That Global Warming Has Paused

When taking into account continued atmospheric temperature increases, increasing ocean heat uptake, and increasing rates of global ice melt, there is absolutely zero evidence that human-caused global warming has paused. Instead, we have seen a much more rapid impact on both the world’s oceans and on its ice over the past decade and a half. Further, though atmospheric temperature increase may have slowed somewhat over the same period, such a slow-down has come at the cost of an increasing pace of impact to both the Earth’s oceans and to its ice.

Moving forward, it will be worthwhile for scientists, researchers and environmentalists to continue to keep track of total Earth warming by gaining ever-clearer pictures of ocean heat uptake and worldwide ice melt while also keeping track of atmospheric temperature increases. In total, these provide a much more comprehensive picture of human warming. When taken together we can see that the human impact has been both rapid and powerful, with the pace of impact showing no sign of abating.

Links:

The Keeling Curve

NASA GISS

The Balmaseda/Trenberth Ocean Heat Study

Continental Glacier Mass Loss

PIOMAS Sea Ice Volume Losses

NSIDC

Skeptical Science: Antarctic Mass Loss

Two Mile Wide Tornado Obliterates Moore Oklahoma

Today, a two mile wide tornado touched down just south of Oklahoma City and remained on the ground for nearly an hour. Early reports indicated massive damage with entire neighborhoods reduced to nothing but flinders and at least one local elementary school destroyed. Over 62 people are reported to have suffered injuries with 10 fatalities reported so far.

Initial reports showed the Moore Tornado reaching at least EF4 strength with on the ground assessments likely to upgrade the tornado to an EF5. EF5 is the most powerful rating for tornadoes on the Fujitsu scale. Radar showed a one mile wide tornado wrapped in a two-mile wide debris field remaining on the ground for an extended period of time. Both the size and duration of this event is practically unprecedented in modern meteorology with few events that are easily comparable.

The Moore Tornado was so powerful it flung debris up to 100 miles away. Light debris fall was reported as far away as Tulsa, Oklahoma.

It is likely that damage from the Moore Tornado will exceed 1 billion dollars, ranking it among the top five most damaging tornadoes ever recorded in the United States and being the second tornado in three years to wreck such major damage. Early indications are too premature to determine whether damage from this tornado will exceed that of the 2011 Joplin tornado, which resulted in 2.8 billion in damages — the costliest tornado on record in the US.

Many meteorologists will claim that no one storm is attributable to climate change. That said, the results of climate change — increasing air and water temperatures, increasing atmospheric water vapor, and strange changes to the polar jet stream — make it more likely that severe weather will occur and that severe events will be more powerful. Compared to the 20th century average, the past ten years have hosted twice the number of severe weather events overall.

Echoes of Joplin in an era of continuing severe weather…

(Note: The people suffering from this disaster are likely to need every kind of assistance available, so please think of them and donate generously to help. If you don’t have spare money and still wish to give assistance, please contact your representative in Congress and express your support for FEMA aid to the disaster victims. Also, many disaster relief agencies including the Red Cross and FEMA accept volunteer support during times such as these. In many cases, time and direct assistance is the best kind of aid a person can provide. So please take a moment to consider how you can help the disaster victims.)

UPDATE:

51 now reported dead and at least 120 injured from this terrible tornado.

UPDATE:

“Good” news and bad news. First the “good.” Officials reported Tuesday that the death toll has been reduced to 24 due to double counting. The number of injured, unfortunately, has now increased to 240, however.

For the bad news, Republicans are, just one day after the tornado, seeking to use disaster relief to the victims as a political football, holding funds hostage unless other programs (like medicare, social security, the sciences, and weather satellites used to provide advanced warning for storms like this one) are cut. Among them was Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn who pushed to reduce Hurricane Sandy aid last year. As usual, republicans have put their ideological special interests — primarily providing benefit to the wealthy to the harm of everyone else — before the well being of the American people.

Coburn should be on the ground pledging support to those who were hurt, lost family members or lost their homes, schools, and businesses. Instead, he remains in Washington pandering to his wealthiest donors by, once more, engaging in a game of legislative chicken and threatening to cut the resources needed to heal a gaping wound in the heart of his state. From the point of view of his constituents, many of whom now live in or near a disaster area, Coburn may as well be serving the interests of space aliens for all the good his actions do for the families he is supposed to represent.

Links:

Violent Tornado Devastates Moore, OK

Frequent Updates

The Oklahoma City Tornado

Climate Change Renders 30 Million Homeless in 2012

climate-refugees-bangladesh-thumb

(Image of flooded region in Bangladesh. Source: www.worldculturepictorial.com)

According to the International Displacement Monitoring Group, more than 30 million people were forced to flee their homes as a result of extreme weather during 2012.

Droughts, storms and floods caused this massive displacement, one many times the impact of warfare over the globe. Hardest hit regions included Africa, where 8 million people were forced to flee their homes due to extreme weather. That said, even well developed countries suffered major dislocation events resulting in an unusually high number of displaced persons — topping 1.3 million in 2012. The largest number came as a result of a climate change induced Superstorm Sandy which rendered about half a million people homeless in the US.

Over the past few decades, instances of extreme weather have more than doubled, according to reports from the US National Climate Data Center. This amped up weather is driven by increasing temperatures and rising atmospheric water vapor content brought on by human caused climate change. In addition, erosion of Arctic sea ice has led to a disruption of the northern polar jet stream, resulting in more blocking patterns that enhance the chances for droughts, floods, and blizzards. The large north-south dips in the jet also enhance the possibility for powerful hybrid storms, like Sandy, to emerge with ever-greater frequency.

Global monitoring groups expect the numbers of displaced persons to increase as human-caused climate change intensifies. Recent reports from climate expert Lord Stern highlighted in the Guardian called attention to this risk. Stern warned of high risks that temperatures could rise by 5 degrees Celsius or more by the end of this century. Such heating, Stern noted, would have terrible impacts:

“Hundreds of millions of people will be forced to leave their homelands because their crops and animals will have died. The trouble will come when they try to migrate into new lands, however. That will bring them into armed conflict with people already living there. Nor will it be an occasional occurrence. It could become a permanent feature of life on Earth.”

The news comes as worldwide CO2 levels begin to exceed 400 PPM — a dangerous threshold that could melt most polar ice and increase global temperatures by 3-4 degrees Celsius if fossil fuel emissions aren’t halted soon. Sadly, CO2 emissions are only rising, with the world on track to reach 550 PPM by mid-century and 900+ PPM by 2100. Such CO2 rises would be nothing short of catastrophic.

Through the resulting large temperature increases, wet bulb temperatures will be expected to begin to exceed 35 degrees Celsius over growing regions for increasing periods of time. During such instances, these regions will be rendered practically uninhabitable to mammal life, including humans. Human beings and livestock will be effectively heat-driven, first from isolated regions and then from growing areas of the globe as time moves forward. This impact will over-lap the already powerful and growing impacts that result from climate change induced storms, droughts and floods.

With world CO2 levels at 400 PPM, we are already in the period of time when weather events can be expected to cause increasing instances of dislocation. Depending on the rate of global ice loss and ocean heat uptake and on whether or not fossil fuel emissions are curtailed and eliminated soon, instances of heat lethality are likely to become more prevalent and an ever increasing concern after 2035-2050. At the same time, rising sea levels are also expected to begin to have an increasing affect on low-lying regions, especially in areas most prone to cyclone activity. Under business as usual fossil fuel emissions, by 2100 almost all regions will be severely affected by dislocation events.

Links:

Global Estimates: People Displaced by Disasters

Climate Change Will Make Hundreds of Millions Homeless

30 Million Displaced by Climate and Weather

Lake El’gygytgyn Study Shows Ice-Free Arctic At 400 Parts Per Million CO2

(Presentation on Lake El’gygytgyn Findings Prior to Report Publication in Science)

A new study produced by polar researchers and published in the journal Science confirms a much warmer and mostly ice-free Arctic during periods when Earth’s atmospheric CO2 reached levels equivalent to those seen today.

The study took sediment cores from Russia’s lake El’gygytgyn (pronounced El-Gee-Git-Kin) in order to determine climate conditions north of the Arctic Circle during a period around 3.6-2.2 million years ago. During this time, atmospheric CO2 levels were comparable to those witnessed today. So the study may well be a strong allegory for what we should expect if human CO2 levels remain near the dangerously high 400 PPM level.

Lake El’gygytgyn was formed by an impact crater around 3.6 million years ago. It is a deep lake, so deep it would cover all but the top tip of the Washington Monument. For the first 20,000 years after its formation, there was little evidence of life found in sediment cores from the lake bottom. However, after this period, pollen from local plants began to emerge. Some, like Hemlock and Douglas Fir, tend to crop up in much more southern areas indicating that ice-free conditions predominated this extreme northern region.

Julie Brigham-Grette, a professor in the department of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and lead author of the new study, which was published May 9 notes:

“To get Douglas fir and hemlock that far north of the Arctic Circle — you have to have pretty warm summers and warm winters in order for those trees to establish there… There was probably no sea ice, and the whole Arctic was pretty well forested, so it was a very different world.”

The researchers lead by Julie Brigham-Grette note that for such plants to be established in this region, temperatures would have been about 8 degrees Celsius hotter than today. These temperatures are consistent with a mostly ice-free Arctic environment.

This research, along with a growing body of Paleoclimate science, indicates that climate is much more sensitive to CO2 increase than current climate models may suggest. Overall, Paleoclimate may well be a far better determiner of the end result of human fossil fuel emissions than models which seek to pin down extraordinarily complex processes and are still in the early stages of development. And if past climate indicators do prove to be the best guide, sustained CO2 levels above 400 PPM will push for a long term temperature increase of around 3-4 degrees Celsius globally and 8-10 degrees at the poles. More importantly, these high levels appear to wipe out most ice in the Arctic environment.

Responses to current Paleoclimate research among the scientific community indicate a potential shift to reliance more on this data and less on models for future predictions. Kate Moran, an ocean engineer, notes:

“This new paleoclimate record adds to the growing evidence that Earth’s sensitivity to these levels of greenhouse gases may be higher than previously thought. Understanding Earth’s sensitivity is one of the key parameters for predicting future conditions of the planet under global warming.”

Such arguments aren’t merely academic. Ice loss in the Arctic is proceeding at a pace far exceeding previous predictions. Sea ice has melted by 80% since the early 1980s and rapid glacial melt is occurring in all regions of the Arctic. So we have past Paleoclimate evidence being validated by current Arctic trends which seem to point toward a far more rapid loss of polar ice than previously estimated.

Even more concerning, perhaps, is the fact that the Arctic is responding to CO2 levels of about 2-3 decades ago when CO2 was closer to 350 ppm. Because of natural inertia, the current CO2 levels of 400 ppm won’t begin to have full impact on the Arctic for another 20 years or so. And, in light of recent findings, that is a rather chilling prospect.

Gifford Miller, a professor in the department of geological sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, who conducts research in the Canadian Arctic seems to agree:

“The ice is melting at all elevations,” Miller said. “Even if there is no additional warming, it’s only a matter of time before the ice is all gone.”

In the context of current business as usual fossil fuel emissions, these are substantial statements. If no additional warming is necessary to melt all the Arctic ice long-term, then what happens if CO2 levels increase to 1,000 PPM and temperatures rise to 6 degrees Celsius above average by the end of this Century? One can expect that under such extreme conditions, Arctic changes will be extraordinarily rapid and chaotic.

Links:

Ice-free Arctic May be Near

When the Arctic was 8 C Colder

CO2 Breaks 400 PPM Daily Average on May 13, Exceeding An Extraordinarily Dangerous Level

Mauna Loa 400 ppm Daily

(Image source: Keeling Curve)

Back in early March we began to warn that CO2 levels could break 400 PPM in 2013. In April, the Mauna Loa Observatory recorded hourly CO2 levels above 400 PPM for the first time in more than 4 million years. Then, two days ago, daily averages for 400 PPM CO2 were breached.

Whether May averages just below or slightly above 400 PPM CO2 remains to be seen. But it is certainly possible that weekly and even monthly averages of CO2 break this severely high threshold this year. Almost certainly, a month or two of 2014 will see CO2 averages over 400 PPM. By 2015 or 2016, yearly averages for CO2 will exceed that extraordinarily dangerous level.

This massive jump to 400 PPM CO2 from pre-industrial averages is disturbing and alarming for many reasons. The first of which is the heating impact CO2 has on the Earth’s atmosphere. According to Paleoclimate data, a world at 400 PPM CO2 is, on average, between 3 and 4 degrees Celsius hotter. Even worse, temperatures in the Arctic average about 14 degrees Fahrenheit hotter. This increase in temperatures results in radical alterations to the world’s climate, pushes major sea level rises, and results in massive volumes of ice melted. It is doubtful that most of the world’s glaciers and ice sheets could survive such a long-term assault of extreme high temperatures. And it is worth noting that human beings as we know them have never occupied a world without ice.

But even as bad as maintaining CO2 levels at 400 parts per million may sound, worse are the potential feedbacks such a high initial spike of atmospheric carbon may kick off. Vast stores of methane lay locked in the world’s tundra and oceans. Even a small fraction of these gasses liberated by human-caused warming would serve to add more greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, further increasing the warming already in store. In addition, as the ice sheets recede, more dark ocean and land features are exposed to sunlight. This loss of albedo results in increased solar heat absorption, further increasing global temperatures. So past climate may not be a perfect analogue to what we may be setting in place. Instead, it may be the launching point for even worse changes.

At 400 parts per million there is the danger that such terrible consequences may well become permanent features of the world in the coming decades and centuries. The current danger is somewhat low due to the fact that, if we were to rapidly reduce emissions now, we might be able to secure a livable climate and let the Earth’s natural processes reduce CO2 levels to 350 PPM or lower over the course of about a century. However, there is risk that the current human forcing is enough, even now, to generate a powerful response from the Earth’s climate and environment. One strong enough to result in CO2 levels stabilizing at the current level or even increasing somewhat due to these natural feedbacks. In order for this to happen, global climate would have to be much more sensitive than scientists currently estimate. But the fact is that, at current CO2 levels, such a dangerous feedback is possible, if not likely.

What is even more maddening, though, is the fact that human CO2 emissions and global CO2 levels are rising at a break-neck pace. Just last year, May CO2 levels peaked at an average of 396.8 PPM. This year’s levels are likely to be 3 PPM+ higher than last year. Global averages have been rising at a rate of 2.2 PPM per year or more. So at the current rate of CO2 rise and factoring in the rate of increased CO2 emissions, it is likely that 450 PPM could be breached in about 20 years. This pace of increase is faster than at any time visible in the geological past by at least a factor of 5. In short, it is likely that Earth has never undergone such a radically rapid increase of CO2.

At 450 PPM CO2, the world is far more likely to experience the kind of powerful global feedbacks noted above. And with world CO2 emissions continuing to increase, it is fair to say that we are in the era of this dangerous climate change now. Which it is why it is very important to recognize that with each passing year of CO2 emission increases and failure to reduce overall world carbon emissions, we pass deeper and deeper into an extraordinarily dangerous territory. Pushes to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels to the ‘safe range’ of 350 PPM must be pursued with great speed and effort if we are to preserve hope of a livable climate for human beings beyond the first half of this century.

Links:

350.org

Keeling Curve

The Dawn of The EV: Model S, Volt, Leaf Send Shock-Wave Through Auto Markets

Model S

(Image link: here)

10,000. That’s the best estimate for the number of electric vehicles and plug in electric hybrid vehicles that sold in April. And at that pace the US electric vehicle market will have surged to break the 100,000 mark by year end. This healthy sea change allowing access to growing numbers of no carbon and very low carbon vehicles comes just as the world enters a dangerous age of increasing risks due to world climate change. An age where devastating levels of CO2 at 400 ppm and greater are likely to be the norm going forward. And if we are to prevent jumps to 500, 600, or even 1000 ppm by the end of this century, a rapid transition to EVs must remain a keystone to any mitigation and prevention strategy.

So you can imagine why I’m calling for cautious optimism upon seeing Tesla’s Model S fly off sales lots at the rate of 2,000+ vehicles per month over the course of 2013. Not to say that these sales weren’t earned. The vehicle recently received the highest consumer reports rating ever for any vehicle and was recently named motor trend car of the year. This makes both the Tesla S and the Volt extraordinarily high-quality offerings, beating out nearly all gasoline based vehicles on the measure of quality alone (take that EV haters!).

In other words, the Model S is one beast of a great vehicle. It gets 300 miles per charge of electricity, a range that is even the envy of a number of gas guzzlers. And its speed is a warp-like shift from 0 to 60 in 4.4 (you can barely count them) seconds. The Model S is as luxuriant as it is sleek. Its smooth shape and high class features — the very picture of elegance.

I don’t usually brag about material goods. But you have to give Tesla credit. They’re doing the right thing and they’re doing it the right way.

The Model S’s rocket to stardom has set stocks of Tesla to soaring. Earlier this year, Tesla traded at 30 dollars per share. Today, Tesla stocks spiked at 93 dollars. Speculative interest remains high and it appears possible that Tesla may do to the US auto industry what Google did to the internet — result in its rapid transformation.

As a new technology, the future for electric vehicles is anything but certain. However, in the long run, it can confidently be said that if there is any future for the auto industry, it is in EVs and other alternative vehicles. Oil is a depleting and ever more expensive fuel. Combine that factor with the devastating climate change that oil contributes to and what you end up with is the fuel being nothing more than a costly and dangerous dinosaur. So the stakes for Tesla, GM, Nissan, other EV producers and the rest of us couldn’t be higher. If we want to see the automobile survive we’d better hope they succeed.

And success will mean a very long, tough slog. Over 800 million vehicles are currently in operation worldwide. To replace them all with EVs would require that all new vehicles sold be EVs for a period of 20+ years. Current sales are just a tiny fraction of total sales. With gas guzzlers still holding the bulk of the market captive, it will take a massive rate of sales increase for EVs to make a serious dent in the fleet of carbon emitting autos. It’s a tough challenge, but one we will have to undertake if we are to preserve a climate hospitable to human beings and keep the automobile too. And to do this we will not only need to have an increased availability of EVs like the Model S, Volt, and Leaf, we will also need an ever-increasing price on carbon emissions to speed a transition to low or no carbon technologies. Unfortunately, we are still in a position where alternative vehicles have a small but growing market share and where government policy on the part of transition to non-carbon energy technology has been manic at best. So we will need to see these changes to have much hope for the kind of progress we desperately need.

In the mean-time we should all bask in the minor, though hopeful, success of the EV. It has endured many slings and arrows from an pleathora of well-funded and politically well-connected enemies who fought as hard as they could to make certain this day never came. But, it appears, they have failed. And failed grandly at that. Not only are viable EVs now available to consumers, many of these EVs are now among the best cars ever made. These are innovations that have happened on American soil and as a result of American ingenuity. And, as noted above, they represent a hope for transformation to a less damaging form of automobile that, though it should have come sooner, is certainly welcome today.

Links:

The Tesla Model S

Green Car Reports

Sea Ice Volume Edging Back Into Record Low Territory

PIOMASapr2013

(Image source: PIOMAS)

Despite an ongoing and precipitous trend of sea ice loss, it still happens now and then. As cold air invades and re-freeze sets in, pace of new ice formation spikes and we get the potential for a bit of ‘recovery’ in sea ice area and extent by March-April following record summer losses. The trend for sea ice area and extent for these months is still down, however. According to NSIDC, extent is falling at a pace of about 2.5% per decade during March and April. This pace of loss is quite modest when compared to summer losses, even though the long-term trend is still down.

Sea ice volume, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. The measure of total ice area + ice thickness as determined by PIOMAS has crept steadily and rapidly downward during both winter and summer months. Though the total loss below the 1979-2012 average is slightly greater for summer (approx. 9,000 cubic kilometers) it does not greatly exceed the loss seen during winter months (about 7,000 cubic kilometers) since 1979. (Percent losses for summer exceed 25% per decade while percent losses for winter are about 13% per decade. So the pace of summer volume loss in this measure is still much greater.)

There is, however, one small wrinkle in this observation. Winter sea ice volume measurements have tended to cluster in a given range before taking large steps down during certain years. Summer, on the other hand, has shown more steady and consistent melt with large step years spaced out by many years of more moderate melt.

So it was little surprise when sea ice volume tied and slightly exceeded March 2011 and 2012 measurements for brief periods during the winter of 2013, edging above the record low value by about 70 cubic kilometers on certain days.

Now, PIOMAS shows pace of volume melt rapidly increasing through mid April. And this new melt has brought Arctic sea ice volume back into record low territory, edging about 80 cubic kilometers below the record set in 2011 for that time.

Sea ice volume is the critical measure now that validation from satellite instruments has clarified the accuracy of PIOMAS modeling. Area and extent only measure the surface as visible from above. But the total proportion of remaining ice is captured by current volume measurements. And what PIOMAS is showing, at this point, is that sea ice volume in the Arctic is currently lower than it has ever been in modern reckoning.

Links:

PIOMAS

NO KXL: No New Pipelines Without Comprehensive Climate Policy

In some ways, watching the current debate over the Keystone XL Pipeline is amusing. The State Department publishes a clearly misleading assessment. Environmentalists cry foul. The EPA suggests carbon off-sets in exchange for approval. TransCanada says suggestions by the EPA are a violation of Canadian sovereignty. Obama is criticized for climate policy weaknesses. His advisers say ‘the pipeline is no big deal.’ And Al Gore and Canadian government officials get into what could be best termed a media bar-room brawl.

But the context of this, sometimes comical, debate is entirely terrifying. As atmospheric CO2 levels speed past the dangerous 400 PPM threshold, Canada is poised to expand extraction of one of the highest emitting fossil fuels on the planet. Ripping up America’s heartland, slapping eminent domain notices on privately held land across the country, they are going through all this expense, effort, and arm-twisting to set a fuse to what NASA scientist James Hansen calls one of the ‘biggest carbon bombs on the planet.’

Tar sands are far dirtier than any other form of oil — nearly as dirty as coal. They represent a vast, if extraordinarily damaging and costly, resource. With oil at 100 dollars per barrel the Canadian government and business community is desperate to sell their polluting and energy-poor goop while many around the world are equally desperate to buy it. A pipeline or two or three (the Canadians have already built one, KXL is number two, and they are now in the process of approving a third) would make access to that oil via the international market much easier while rapidly expanding extraction. Such actions would dramatically increase the rate of carbon emission at a time when world CO2 levels are growing ever-more dangerous.

Scientists question if a world with CO2 much higher than 400 PPM can support 7 billion humans. And a group of similarly concerned scientists recently advised the White House on a growing Arctic emergency in which sea ice may completely melt by end of summer 2015.

The world is rapidly changing. These changes are the result of the fossil fuels we have already burned. But the newer, far dirtier oil Canada wishes to produce will make the situation far, far worse. Already facing serious and difficult challenges resulting from the greenhouse gasses we’ve emitted, we’ll end up facing increasingly harsh adaptive difficulties should we not begin to reduce worldwide CO2 emissions soon — spiking damage to a world and climate humans have uniquely evolved to inhabit. The question at this point, is how much worse will we make our, already dangerous, situation? Do we, in the end, decide to push our climate into a mode so harsh that it would be almost impossible for human civilization to endure?

Whether or not we tap Canada’s tar sands is central to this question. It involves a basic choice. Do we begin to turn away from fossil fuels with an ever-increasing urgency by adopting aggressive climate policies and by refusing to increase extraction of the world’s most damaging form of oil? Or do we shift into high gear in our race to a fast-approaching climate cliff?

Make no mistake. Tapping the tar sands is a huge deal. As James Hansen said, accessing the vast volumes of the world’s dirtiest oil is tantamount to lighting a fuse to one of the biggest carbon bombs on the planet. Environmentalists know it. Hansen knows it. Most scientists know it. But the State Department and Obama Administration officials have continued to make blasé statements regarding this key issue, calling the pipeline moot, or inevitable. Even worse, the US Congress pushes for the pipeline full bore.

That said, one statement from Obama officials did seem to carry a little bit of backward relevance:

“In the absence of a more meaningful energy-policy discussion, Keystone has become a symbolic referendum for a much larger set of issues,” noted Jason Grummet, a bi-partisan policy adviser to the Obama Administration, in a recent interview.

Mr. Grummet’s mention of energy (note the shameful absence of the word ‘climate’) policy hones in on the crux of the whole pipeline/climate conflict — because a complete lack of comprehensive climate and energy policy aimed at reducing carbon emissions long-term spurred the Keystone XL protests in the first place. Keystone carried so much weight and tied in so many monied and powerful special interests, that targeting it remains an effective way to attempt to force needed changes to US climate policy. Such changes — like the adoption of a national carbon tax and transfer, as proposed by James Hansen, — would result in a wide-scale reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by spurring a rapid adoption of alternative energy systems like wind, solar, storage, smart grid, and vehicle to grid technology. Comprehensive climate policy on the part of the US would also push other countries to provide similar agendas. Instead, climate policy lies almost dead on the steps of Congress. It lurches along as EPA still battles for the authority to regulate CO2, as republican members of federal and state legislatures fight to undermine renewable energy and efficiency standards even as they continue to deny even the existence of human caused climate change.

Mr Grummet  is definitely correct. We certainly do need a comprehensive energy and climate policy. And those of us concerned about climate security will keep fighting these dirty tar sands pipelines until we get one that actually puts us on a path toward a safer future. A policy that is strong enough to bend the emissions curve permanently down and put the US on a path toward zero-emissions and all alternative energy sources by 2050 or earlier. This is a matter of morality. It is a matter of preventing and reducing future harm. It is a matter of preserving the prospects for future generations. For us not to act on this issue is unconscionable. For us not to protest these pipelines bearing dirty, dangerous, and depleting oil in the absence of such comprehensive climate policy would render us beings unworthy of honor.

Links:

350.org

Some Obama Advisers Rather Blasé About Keystone Pipeline (Yes, It’s National Journal. So Take it With a Grain of Salt.)

Keystone Uses Eminent Domain to Seize Land in Texas

Al Gore Isn’t Pleased With Canada

Canadian Official Proposes Yet Another Tar Sands Pipeline

Emergency Climate Meeting: White House Officials Told Arctic Ocean Could Be Ice Free Within Two Years

Emergency Climate Meeting: White House Officials Told Arctic Ocean Could Be Ice-Free Within Two Years

PIOMASexponential 2012

This week, a number of top scientists, experts, DoD and Homeland Security Department notables are convening an emergency meeting warning White House officials that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free during summertime within two years.

This A-Team (A for Arctic) includes NASA’s chief scientist Gale Allen, National Science Foundation Director Cora Marett, Director of the Oceans Institute of the University of Western Australia marine scientist Prof Carlos Duarte, and nine other top Arctic specialists together with key representatives from the US Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon.

The Washington meeting is the second major climate emergency meeting of its kind to occur within the past month. Just a few weeks ago, the UK held its own climate meeting in response to severe and unprecedented weather occurring throughout Europe this winter and spring.

Scientists and specialists descending on the White House are now echoing increasingly urgent warnings coming from Arctic experts such as Peter Wadhams and Dr. Wieslaw Maslowski that the Arctic Ocean could be essentially ice free by 2016 plus or minus three years. Trends analysis confirms these scientists’ predictions showing that current average volume melt rates put the Arctic in an ice-free state sometime around 2016. Even worse, an outlier melt year similar to 2007 or 2010 would result in ice-free conditions this year (2013) or in any year following. The result is that the two year warning, in the extreme worst case, could be too late.

We are in the zone of Maslowki’s melt. So any year from now to 2019, according to observed melt trends, could result in ice-free conditions at end of summer.

One of the current set of White House advisors, Prof Carlos Duarte, warned in early April that the ice was melting far faster than predicted and the Arctic could see ice free ocean conditions during summer by 2015. According to reports from The Guardian, Duarte noted:

“The Arctic situation is snowballing: dangerous changes in the Arctic derived from accumulated anthropogenic greenhouse gases lead to more activities conducive to further greenhouse gas emissions. This situation has the momentum of a runaway train.”

Duarte is also the lead author of a paper examining Arctic tipping points and how they are rapidly being passed, resulting in an ever-increasing polar warming. The three primary drivers of these changes include loss of ice reflectivity or albedo, increased release of greenhouse gasses from the Arctic geography and oceans as they warm, and increased release of biologically generated greenhouse gasses as new micro-organisms are able to enter the Arctic environment.

Duarte’s observations are similar to those of other scientists who have warned of amplifying feedbacks in the Arctic. Just last year, NOAA issued a warning that a number of key tipping points had been reached and would result in jarring changes to climates and weather around the globe. In 2011, a group of Russian and US scientists observed massive releases of climate change enhancing methane from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. NASA scientist James Hansen warned of the potential for a powerful Arctic methane release as a result of human forcing in his 2008 book “Storms of My Grandchildren.” And in 2012, NSIDC issued a paper showing that methane release from tundra could amplify human-caused global warming by an additions .4 to 1.5 degrees.

It was the sum total of these warnings and observations that lead to the formation by a group of scientists of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG). AMEG is headed by Peter Wadhams, a noted polar researcher, and is composed of a number of scientists very concerned that Arctic conditions could rapidly deteriorate as an amplifying pulse of methane emerges.

A simple explanation of these system changes can be found here.

Among other things, AMEG is very concerned about the implications of Arctic sea ice melt and methane release for global food security. According to AMEG:

“The weather extremes from last year are causing real problems for farmers, not only in the UK, but in the US and many grain-producing countries. World food production can be expected to decline, with mass starvation inevitable. The price of food will rise inexorably, producing global unrest and making food security even more of an issue.”

AMEG’s observations are consistent with the biology inherent to many grains used for food. These grains evolved in conditions over the past 5 million years or so that required large ice sheets to stabilize the climate. Alterations to weather patterns causing extremes outside of these food crops biological thresholds put them at risk. And the current loss of sea ice is just beginning to kick off such unpredictable and difficult to adapt to extremes.

The sum total of this growing list of scientific observation is that warming and, therefore, sea ice loss in the Arctic kicking into very high gear results in serious and severe consequences.

A Catastrophic Decline

Overall, the Arctic has lost 80% of its sea ice by volume since 1979 and the rate of losses over the past ten years has been accelerating. In addition, strange and dangerous events are cropping up with increasing frequency. The polar jet stream is mangled — a result Dr. Jennifer Francis of Rutgers attributes to loss of Arctic sea ice.

According to Francis:

“The loss of Arctic summer sea ice and the rapid warming of the Far North are altering the jet stream over North America, Europe, and Russia. Scientists are now just beginning to understand how these profound shifts may be increasing the likelihood of more persistent and extreme weather.”

In addition, this winter hosted a freakish and massive sea ice breakup throughout the Beaufort Sea during February and March, two of the Arctic’s coldest months. To say that such an event was unprecedented is almost an understatement. Never before had such a large cracking event been observed during winter. The event was kicked off by strong winds blowing over the Beaufort sea ice. The ice was so thin it couldn’t retain integrity and broke in a spectacular and disturbing series of massive cracks.

You can view this break-up sequence in the below series of images provided by NASA:

A wide and varying range of events can now be shown to have been amplified and worsened by Arctic sea ice loss. These include last year’s drought, 2011’s flooding, the Texas drought of 2011, Hurricane Sandy, this year’s extreme European winter, massive outbreaks of wildfires in the northern hemisphere since 2006, and record summer heatwaves and floods occurring throughout the northern hemisphere over the same period. It is the fact that these blocking pattern generated extreme weather events are now clearly linked to sea ice loss, that constitutes an ongoing and worsening weather emergency.

This past February, the US Department of Defense issued its own concerns. In its Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, the DOD warned of:

“… significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to greater competition for more limited and critical life-sustaining resources like food and water.”

… and that the impacts of climate change could:

“Act as accelerants of instability or conflict in parts of the world… [and] may also lead to increased demands for defense support to civil authorities for humanitarian assistance or disaster response, both within the United States and overseas … DoD will need to adjust to the impacts of climate change on its facilities, infrastructure, training and testing activities, and military capabilities.”

Cause for Serious Response

Now, as this summer’s melt season proceeds, many scientists are increasingly concerned that ice free conditions will appear this summer, next summer, or sometime before 2020. As noted above, such events will have very serious implications for world-wide climate  and food security. And it is these results that the White House is in serious need of addressing. Given such a context, one would hope that US government officials take the clear warnings given by scientists and members of the defense community and begin the policy responses needed to start reigning in human greenhouse gas emissions. It is high time such efforts began. And we are in serious and urgent need that they ramp up rapidly.

According to Duarte, “We are facing the first clear evidence of dangerous climate change.” From here on, things only grow worse.

Links:

White House Warned of Imminent Arctic Ice Death Spiral

Public Statement by Arctic Methane Emergency Group

Professor Joins Fight to Save the Arctic

The Arctic is Already Suffering Dangerous Climate Change

Extreme Weather Events Are Driven By Arctic Melt

Arctic Sea Ice Melt, Methane Release Shows Amplifying Feedbacks from Human Caused Climate Change

DoD’s Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap

For Central US, Climate Change and a Mangled Jet Stream Means Drought Follows Flood Follows Drought

Human Climate Change is Wrecking the Jet Stream: UK Met Office Calls Emergency Meeting

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