Amplifying Feedbacks and the Arctic Heat Scream: Study Finds Polar Albedo Falling at Twice Expected Rate, Added Heat Equal to 25% CO2 Forcing Globally, 4 Times Human Forcing Locally

What’s the difference between a majestic layer of white sea ice and an ominous dark blue open ocean?

For the Arctic, it means about a 30 to 50% loss in reflectivity (or albedo). And when seasonal sea ice states are between 30 and 80 percent below 1979 measures (depending on the method used to gauge remaining sea ice and relative time of year), that means very, very concerning additional heating impacts to an already dangerous human-caused warming.

Arctic Ocean September 1, 2012

(A dark and mostly ice-free Arctic Ocean beneath a tempestuous swirl of clouds on September 1, 2012, a time when sea ice coverage had declined to an area roughly equal to the land mass of Greenland. Image source: Lance-Modis/NASA AQUA.)

How concerning, however, remained somewhat unclear until recently.

In the past, idealized climate simulations and physical model runs had produced about a 2% overall loss in Arctic Albedo based on observed sea ice losses. This decline, though minor sounding, was enough, on its own, to add a little more than a 10% amplifying feedback to the, already powerful, human atmospheric CO2 forcing during recent years. Such an addition was already cause for serious concern and with sea ice totals continuing to fall rapidly, speculation abounded that just this single mechanism could severely tip the scales toward a more rapid warming.

But, as has been the case with a number of Arctic model simulations related to sea ice, these computer projections failed to measure up to direct observation. In this case, direct satellite observation. The situation is, therefore, once more, worse than expected.

A new study produced by University of San Diego Scientists now shows that loss of albedo for the Arctic Ocean due to rapidly declining sea ice was 4% during the period of 1979 to 2011. This amazing loss of reflectivity, on its own, created a powerful enough heat trap to produce an amplifying feedback to human warming equal to 25% of the heat captured by CO2 emitted during that time — when spread out over the entire globe. A feedback double what we were led to expect from climate model simulations. Perhaps more importantly, the local feedback in the Arctic — a region containing gigatons and gigatons of additional carbon waiting to be released during a period of rapid warming — is not 25% greater, but 4 times greater than the total human CO2 forcing since the start of the industrial revolution.

It is important to step back for a moment and consider the implication of this new information. If you took all the emissions from cars in the world, all the buses, all the aircraft, all the land use CO2 emissions, all the agriculture, and all the amazing extra atmospheric heat capture that an emission equal to 160 times that of all the volcanoes on Earth would entail and added it all together, just one insult to our natural world in the form of Arctic sea ice loss has now equaled a 25% addition to that amazing total. Or just add enough extra heat equal to 40 times the CO2 emitted by Earth’s volcanoes (for a total of x 200). And the burden of all that extra heat is directly over a region of the world that contains a number of very large ice sheets which, if rapidly warmed, result in catastrophic land change and sea level rise, and a number of outrageously enormous carbon deposits that, if rapidly warmed and released make the current albedo loss feedback look like child’s play.

In short, the game just got a lot uglier. Such an increase is a very big deal and will have strong implications going forward that affect the overall pace of human caused warming, the pace of Earth and Earth Systems changes, and the degree to which we might contain ultimate temperature rises under a scenario of full mitigation.

From the study contents:

We find that the Arctic planetary albedo has decreased from 0.52 to 0.48 between 1979 and 2011, corresponding to an additional 6.4 ± 0.9 W/m2 of solar energy input into the Arctic Ocean region since 1979. Averaged over the globe, this albedo decrease corresponds to a forcing that is 25% as large as that due to the change in CO2 during this period, considerably larger than expectations from models and other less direct recent estimates.

It is worth noting that the period measured by the study did not include the unprecedented sea ice area, extent and volume losses seen during 2012. So it is likely that albedo loss and related Arctic additions to human warming are somewhat worse than even this study suggests. It is also worth noting that the total additional radiative forcing from all human CO2 emissions since the industrial age began is estimated to be about 1.5 W/m2.

No Way Out Through Increasing Cloud Cover

The study also found that:

Changes in cloudiness appear to play a negligible role in observed Arctic darkening, thus reducing the possibility of Arctic cloud albedo feedbacks mitigating future Arctic warming.

Though seemingly innocuous, this statement is a death knell for one proposed method of Geo-engineering — namely cloud generation via spray ships deployed throughout the Arctic basin. The proposal had suggested that numerous ships could be spread about the Arctic during summer. These ships would be equipped with large machines that would dip into the ocean and spray sea water into the atmosphere to form clouds. The notion was that this would somehow increase albedo. Proponents of the plan neglected to provide scientific evidence that such a scheme would actually work or wouldn’t make matters worse by increasing atmospheric water vapor content — a substance with known heat-trapping properties.

Arctic Cloud Ship

(Conceptual drawing of an Arctic cloud-producing ship. Image source: Geo-engineering Watch.)

Others had hoped a cloudier Arctic would take care of itself by producing a negative feedback naturally. Numerous studies have found that an Arctic with less sea ice is a much stormier, cloudier Arctic. And a number of specialists and enthusiasts hinted that the extra clouds would provide some cooling.

Not so according to the San Diego study. And this makes sense as clouds, while reflective of direct radiation contain large quantities of heat-trapping water vapor and tend to also trap long-wave radiation — which is more prevalent in the Arctic due to low angle of light or extended periods of darkness.

Extraordinarily Rapid Arctic Amplification

Despite the various hollow conjectures and reassurances, what we have seen over the past seven years or so is an extraordinarily rapid amplification of heat within the Arctic. Arctic sea ice continues its death spiral, hitting new record lows at various times at least once a year. Heat keeps funneling into the Arctic, resulting in heatwaves that bring 90 degree temperatures to Arctic Ocean shores during summer and unprecedented Alaskan melts during January. We have seen freakish fires in regions previously covered by tundra. Fires that are the size of states in the Yakutia region of Russia, Alaska and Canada. Fires in Arctic Norway during winter time. And we see periods during winter when sea ice goes through extended stretches of melt, as we did just last week in the region of Svalbard.

One need only look at the temperature anomaly map for the last 30 days to know that something is dreadfully, dreadfully wrong with the Arctic:

30 day anomaly

(Global temperature anomaly vs the, already warmer than normal, 1981 to 2010 baseline. Image source: NOAA/Earth Systems Research Laboratory.)

And one need only begin to add the number of amplifying feedbacks in the Arctic together to start to understand how much trouble we’ve set for ourselves:

  1. Arctic albedo decrease due to sea ice loss.
  2. Arctic CO2 release due to thawing tundra.
  3. Arctic methane release due to thawing land tundra.
  4. Arctic methane release due to thawing subsea tundra and venting seabed methane.
  5. Arctic albedo loss due to black carbon deposition.
  6. Arctic albedo loss due to land vegetation changes.
  7. Warming Arctic seas due to runoff from warming lands.
  8. Arctic albedo decrease due to land snow and ice sheet melt.
  9. South to north heat transfer to the Arctic due to a weakening, retreating Jet Stream and increasing prevalence of high amplitude atmospheric waves.

We all know, intuitively what an amplifying feedback sounds like. Just hold a microphone closer to a speaker and listen to the rising wail of sound. And it is becoming ever more obvious with each passing day, with each new report that the Arctic is simply screaming to us.

How deaf are we? How deaf are those of us who continue to fail to listen?


Lance-Modis/NASA AQUA

Observational Determination of Albedo Decrease Caused by Vanishing Sea Ice

Warming From Arctic Sea Ice Melt More Dramatic than Thought

NOAA/Earth Systems Research Laboratory

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

The Arctic Ice Blog

Colorado Bob’s Climate Feed

Geo-engineering Watch

Hat Tip to Mikkel

Arctic Methane Monster Continues Ominous Rumbling

Arctic Methane From Tundra Could add .4 to 1.5 Degrees Fahrenheit to Human Caused Warming

Leave a comment


  1. Worst of all though, this is still very early days. People keep talking about a new normal – apparently not typically realising it’s at least decades (if not centuries) away of ever changing (inasmuchas they deviate ever further from norms that applied over human evolutionary history, also implicitly ever worse) – conditions. The train hasn’t even pulled into the entrance to the house of horrors yet…

    • CCG, you’re absolutely right. I keep telling people that the new normal is anomaly. Weirdness. Strangeness. Terrors.

      Oh the train’s still in the station, but it’s pulling a pretty amazingly hard head of steam. We have nearly .6 C warming in 50 years and we’ll have 5-9 C under BAU in one century. It took 60,000 years during the Permian for 13 C worth of warming and all the horror that brought. We’ll do it all in 2-3 centuries and then keep going for more at this rate.

      You’re right in that we haven’t seen nothing yet.

      This summer, though. I’m a bit worried about this summer.

      • I see lots of infernos in the tinderboxes of the southwest. Arizona is dry as a bone with spring-like weather in the high mountains.


        …“Last year’s abundant monsoon resulted in a large quantity of carryover fine fuels,” said Heidi Schewel, spokeswoman for the Coronado Forest. The fuels are “grasses and brush which, due to a lack of winter precipitation, are dry and have cured out, leaving contiguous areas of flammable fuels which will burn if an ignition source is introduced.”

        Other factors have helped prime the forest for fires, Schewel said.

        “Lack of snowpack at the higher elevations leaves forested areas more vulnerable to wildfire,” she said. “Weather patterns are anticipated to be warm, dry and windy. The wind plays a major role in wildfire spread.”…

        …The recent warm weather, dry conditions and a spate of brush fires on the outskirts of major cities of Arizona and New Mexico are prompting warnings that the 2014 wildfire season is already underway.

        In Arizona desert areas, Rural/Metro Fire Department spokesman Colin Williams said, conditions are more like those typically seen in May, not February.

        In fact, conditions in some places on the outskirts of the Phoenix area resemble the brush-choked area in western Yavapai County where 19 firefighters perished last year in the Yarnell Hill Fire, Williams said. “There’s a lot of fuel,” he said.

        Williams said a human-caused brush fire near Saguaro Lake on the Phoenix area’s eastern outskirts on Monday was troubling.

        “I was surprised about how hot it burned, how fast it moved and how intense it was,” Williams said.

        The flames jumped part of the Salt River in one spot, which is flowing at a much lower level than normal, also because of the drought….


        “All the animals, the plants, the minerals, even other kinds of men, are being broken and reassembled every day, to preserve an elite few, who are the loudest to theorize on freedom, but the least free of all.” ~ Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, Jr

    • james cole

       /  February 21, 2014

      CCG, I agree totally. There is a mind set that this arctic melting will go on and then we will have ice free summers, and that will be it. They don’t see that this is early days of an exponential curve upwards. We all know what happens to that curve over time! Too many people think today’s weird weather is the worst that will happen. I shudder to think what happens as time passes and that exponential curve begins to accelerate upwards. And to think, mankind’s response to the evidence that we can all see is to mine tar sands on a grand scale, build pipelines to get it to markets, and to frack whole states from one end to another. Huge financial investments in low return energy processes. We literally Mine Tar from hundreds of square miles of forest, cook the tar using natural gas, chemicals and fresh water to produce a thick sludge for further processing. Mining Tar as the world burns down around us. Tell me, can man be rational? Can the right wing lunatics continue to fake the people out with a campaign of lies, via FOX news?

      • I think the curve moves in a rugged fashion, jolting from one phase to the next. Long term, this may end up being an inclining slope. But I don’t think we’ll see a smooth exponential. On the other hand, long-term linear progression is probably out of the question.

        Nature is messy and doesn’t necessarily conform to straight lines. The curves though… Well, the do show up now and then.

        I’m thinking we’re probably looking at breaking the 2 C number above 1880 averages by around 2040 to 2045. So we will probably see double the rate of warming we’re seeing now.

        The sea ice decline probably hits near zero far sooner than expected. This decade or the next unless some strong negative feedback kicks in (Greenland melt?).

        In any case, it’s going to be a very interesting ride.

  2. I have been to Antarctica. I so hate this~

  3. “Looks like we’re in for nasty weather. Hope you are quite prepared to die…” – Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Bad moon rising”.

  4. David Goldstein

     /  February 20, 2014

    I’m not a scientist, just a fairly educated ‘lay person’ when it comes to climate matters and this strikes me as significantly bad news. Do others agree? If feedback loops such as the albedo/ice loss effect are actually several iterations worse than estimated…perhaps the climate (and, as extension….us!!) are much more fragile than we imagine.

    • I think it’s possible that we’ve generally missed a big part of the problem. That being the initial human forcing is what the Earth system responds to. We’ve been dealing with this problem in idealized model simulations that can’t capture the granularity of the Earth System or we’ve been looking at end states in the geological past that do not represent the current dynamic — because we are only dealing with a forcing and not the full response.

      That said, two studies in the past 6 months have put us in the higher range of expected Earth system sensitivity. The first was the cloud study which found that as global warming increases, the cloud feedback is an amplifying one. And the second is the study mentioned above which finds that albedo change is more sensitive to the current human forcing/impact than expected.

      At this point, I think it’s pretty much impossible to avoid 2 C warming long-term. We probably have that locked in and are more likely to hit closer to 3 C even under a cold turkey cessation scenario (which current governments can’t even conceive). Rapid mitigation, at best, could probably get us to 3-4 C so long as we both tackle CO2 and all other human GHG emissions.

      Those still talking about limits to 2 C aren’t really looking at these stronger than expected feedbacks and BAU probably gets us to 5-9 C by end of century (never happened in all of geology) and worse within a few more centuries.

      In answer to your question — do others agree? I think some scientists do but the field of climate science appears to be developing more slowly than the strange conditions that are now emerging. IPCC, for example, seems to lag by about 5 years or so. Some scientists are certainly more concerned. But, in general, I don’t think the higher than expected sensitivity of the Earth System has completely registered. In addition, we can’t entirely discount the suppressive influence of the fossil fuel industry both on media related to climate change and on the science itself.

      So the awareness is a bit muddled.

  5. Really good post, Robert.

    I’ve long had an intuitive sense that the forces involved were much bigger than anyone understood. I am beyond sorry to see my hunch being played out, as stuff keeps changing faster and faster.

  6. Increase in Arctic cyclones is linked to climate change, new study shows

  7. mikkel

     /  February 20, 2014

    I don’t like their framing that it is equal to 25% of the CO2 forcing. There is no sense in averaging it over the whole world when the severity of the impact is specifically because it’s in such a well defined (and important) region for atmospheric/oceanic circulation.

    6.4 W/m2 is insane! They should be saying the increased warming due to albedo loss is almost 4x that of CO2 forcing. I would imagine that albedo will be reduced by at least the same amount in the next 15-20 years. Presented this way, it is unfathomable that Greenland won’t undergo rapid melting at least on par with Hansen’s projections.

    They’re really burying the lede with that framing.

    • mikkel

       /  February 20, 2014

      The analogy I can think of is averaging the force of a bullet over the entire body. It’d look painful but not lethal — but of course this is not reality.

      • It’s a near-perfect analogy. And the heart of the amplifying feedback problem is most certainly the Arctic. Bullet heading right for heart in this case.

    • Very well, then, consider the lede unburied…

    • I certainly agree your point about the limitations of averaging the effects on a global scale when the Arctic is such a small region in time and space terms (I’ve made a similar point before in relation to forcing changes from the Arctic). However the one saving grace of Greenland is that I understand it is somewhat of a basin and hence the geography may ultimately act as somewhat of a limiting factor in how fast it can shed ice. It isn’t quite the same as the Laurentide ice sheet as per the abrupt return to glaciation (within months!) and almost instant shutdown of thermohaline circulation around the time of the Younger Dryas.

      That is not to say thermohaline circulation is not being affected, it is already being identifiably slowed. I recall a list of factors from Carlos Duarte that included increased freshening within the Arctic (bounded by land as it is) from rainfall, greater sea ice melt and land run off. Both freshening and warming undermine the drivers of thermohaline circulation. I also recall encountering a paper by Wadhams about the retreat of the Odden ice tongue from Greenland (which alone accounted for a not insignificant amount of the driving force for that area of deep water formation).

      What it is to say though, is that I am unsure just how abrupt deglaciation of Greenland can become compared to, say, the breakdown of the Laurentide ice sheet (an instantaneously catastrophic event locally and abruptly over the northern hemisphere – so don’t get hopes up just because I’m not sure it’ll be as strong a signal).

      Anyway, I doubt most people are going to survive to see the main show.

      • Oh there are more than enough outlets for Greenland to go rather rapidly. But you’re right, Laurentide is not an exact corollary. It’s worth noting that this large ice sheet didn’t go all at once and numerous outburst/melt events are seen in the geological history. We should expect something similar for Greenland.

      • mikkel

         /  February 20, 2014

        Here is an overview of arguments against Hansen’s 5m rise before 2100 proposal. They are ridiculously ungrounded.

        • If we get 5-9 C worth of warming, it’s hard to imagine not getting at least 10 feet worth of sea level rise by 2100, if not more. The rate of heat delivery to those ice sheets, at that point is just astronomical. We’re seeing major ice sheet softening, SLR acceleration, and irreversible collapse of large ice shelves now at +.8 C.

  8. Tom

     /  February 20, 2014

    Great post and comments! It’s been apparent to those paying attention that “things” are getting worse each year (now it’s practically every day) for some time now – and many are beginning to notice because of the aberrant weather in their own locale. As more people realize what’s up, they’ll begin demanding change from their governments, who, of course will continue with business as usual (to keep those in power protected and happy). So we see chaotic and violent social situations on the increase in the middle east and parts of eastern europe and spreading elsewhere, not unlike the H7N9 flu. We’re seeing the fragile economics of global capitalism begin to crack under the strain of fiat money based on nothing while climate change is affecting our ability to grow enough food (already coffee is on the rise because of this, and the viniculture industry is already making moves to more hospitable areas to grow their specialty grapes). Infrastructure, including the electrical grid, is woefully neglected as money is shunted to other more immediate purposes. Meanwhile the great die-off of marine and bird species (not to mention pollinators and others) is accelerating. On top of all this is the awakening of volcanos at an unprecedented rate (in the human experience), sinkholes everywhere, constantly rising sea levels, more earthquake activity, greater methane and hydrogen sulfide plumes and novel disease spread, for which we’re completely unprepared.

    Yesterday, on the news, there was a thunderstorm that moved through Philadelphia which produced thunder so loud it shattered multiple windows in neighborhoods like Roxborough.
    I’ve never heard of that happening before. It seems like every day there are new, never happened before, events occurring all over the world. Stay tuned.

    As these (and other factors like Fukushima radiation) interact and converge there will come a tipping point for civilization. I’ve conjectured the year 2019 as the date when it will be patently obvious to everyone that we don’t have very much longer to survive – and that nobody will be left after the 2020 – 2035 span. I sincerely hope i’m wrong.

  9. ,,,,,,,,,, and this list is only about half the amplifying feedback’s identified set in motion. People don’t understand the difference between linear increase and exponential growth. Therein lies one of the greater misunderstandings of how a small anomaly becomes inherently larger and more significant.

    Great post keep up the good work.

  10. Mark Archambault

     /  February 20, 2014

    Looking at the most recent global temperature anomaly map above, I must say that ‘Mother Nature’ isn’t helping her cause by pushing the frigid, normally arctic bound air into the eastern US and Canada, where the headquarters of our respective PetroStates are located.

    Now the global warming deniers are pointing to this wicked cold (I’m from New England) and snowy winter as proof that it isn’t happening. I think we should send Senator Inofe to Nome, Alaska where he can work on his tan. Or maybe Oklahoma will dry up and blow away this summer, though that’d probably not cause him to change his tune either.

    • NASA shows January as third hottest on record, NOAA 4th. The deniers are living in their own hologram.

      And even though it seems cold for the US, it’s not when compared to the overall record. From the NCDC:

      “The average temperature for the contiguous United States during January was 30.3°F, or 0.1°F below the 20th century average. The January 2014 temperature ranked near the middle of the 120-year period of record, and was the coldest January since 2011. Despite some of the coldest Arctic air outbreaks to impact the East in several years, no state had their coldest January on record.”

      In contrast, large regions of the Arctic saw their hottest January temperatures ever recorded.

  11. Mark Archambault

     /  February 20, 2014

    Robert, your statement above (copied below) is a good frame / meme to put forward:

    “In answer to your question — do others agree? I think some scientists do but the field of climate science appears to be developing more slowly than the strange conditions that are now emerging”. – !

  12. Just a minor detail – but can you expand upon #7 in our list of amplifying feedbacks? My understanding is that ocean currents are transporting less heat to the Arctic as thermohaline circulation is tending to weaken. Unfortunately this is nowhere near strong enough to balance Arctic amplification and just tends to mean that the equatorial regions from which the heat is transported retain more heat (ie it doesn’t help at all globally as the equatorial regions are rather more sensitive to change than the polar ones as they typically have less variation for species to need to adapt to).

    • Surface warm water transport is reduced. Deep warm water transport/upwelling is increased. Much of the warmer water is more local. But the warmth pools at the bottom and expands upwards in places.

      • Isn’t that heat that already got into the system locally as a result of local effects though (eg albedo change)? If so one should avoid double counting the effects. To my knowledge as the Arctic warms heat transport from the rest of the planet slows? If you take the big picture view the heat engine that drives the global circulation systems (atmospheric and oceanic) is breaking down.

        • In the large picture, the surface warming transport slows and cools relative to the deep ocean which warms and expands. In the Arctic, you end up with a cooler surface layer expanding southward. In the tropics, you end up with hot water sinking under the weight of salt and evaporation before expanding north and south along the ocean bottoms. A bit of a reverse of what we have today in broad brush.

          You’re right, though, the particular bullet is misleading and probably needs an edit.

  13. David Wasdell has a very good video on Arctic dynamics – he does not hesitate to tell it like it is (and will be).

    Nobody listens, of course…


    • Is this David? These are excellent presentations and I’ve enjoyed watching them over the past couple of years.

      • Hi – I’m a David, but not the David – just an intelligent layman who grasps what is going on (doesn’t really take a rocket scientist) – and struggles with depression over the obvious consequences.

    • Nobody, or nobody much? Some few people were paying attention since before any of this stuff was common knowledge. That said I have seen his video and it was quite well presented.

      • CCG makes a good point. The entire ASIB blog community has been on this for some time. For my part, I’ve written extensively since 2012 and had researched and written more sporadically since 2007. I’d say there’s a good number like myself and CCG here who’ve kept a weather eye out for some time. At least since 2007 and many since 2005.

        They don’t get much press. But that doesn’t mean they’re not present.

  14. I’m gettin’ bugged driving up and down this same old strip
    I gotta finda new place where the kids are hip

  15. All that as been found is an oil slick, and some debris.

  16. Now that it’s been demonstrated that the radiation leak at WIPP got out briefly, I’m seeing a lot of speculation about ceiling collapse and airborne plutonium. From what I can gather plutonium is primarily a risk when inhaled, and tends to fall to the ground because it’s heavy, so it doesn’t tend to blow around a lot.

    It would be interesting to see anything about any unusual seismic activity there.

    I’m also of course seeing a lot of hysteria and claims of coverup and that the whole situation is entirely out of control. Or maybe it’s not hysteria. Someone even offered to evacuate me, which was thoughtful.

  17. Here’s a link somebody sent me.

    I’m wondering about that “area of maximum alert” map.

  1. robertscribbler
  2. Climate Change Pushing World to Brink of Food Crisis as FAO Price Index Jumps to 208.1 in February | robertscribbler

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