Constant Arctic Heatwave Sends World’s Largest Ice Cap Hurtling Seaward

Svalbard. Until lately, a little-known locale situated between the previously frigid extreme North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean about 500 miles east of Greenland. Typically a frozen island Archipelago, this pristine and sparsely inhabited redoubt has, over the past few years been ground zero for the assaults of an ongoing and extreme polar heat amplification.

During winters, temperatures in Svalbard are generally, well, Arctic. But in recent years abnormal winter warmth featuring temperatures ten, twenty, even thirty degrees above 20th century averages have been experienced with increasing frequency. This year, during one of the warmest winters on record for the Arctic, local Svalbard temperatures rocketed to as much as 40 degrees F above the usual range and for extended periods remained in the range of +20 to +30 F positive anomaly.

For all of February of 2014, the average temperature for this Arctic island chain was -1 C (about 30 F), a full 15 degrees C above average and a period that featured many readings at or above freezing. It was an unprecedented event for an island that features one of the largest ice caps on Earth.

Austfonna, Svalbard’s Ice Giant, Takes a Fall

Austfonna sprawls across the northeast section of Nordaustlandet, one of Svalbard’s many islands. The ice cap covers fully 8,000 square miles and features an ice dome pinnacle looming 750 meters high making it the largest of its ilk. Though not as grand as the great ice sheets of Greenland or West Antarctica, Austfonna still contains an immense amount of water. Less stable than ice sheets, deteriorating ice caps currently contribute to almost 50% of global sea level rise.

Austfonna Sentinel 1 Pace of Outlet

(ESA’s Sentinel provides false-color imagery of the Austfonna Ice Cap sliding into the Barents Sea. Right panel imagery provides observed changes in outlet speed from 1995, 2008, and 2014. Flow rates are indicated by color contour as slow [dark blue] to fast [red]. Image source: ESA via BBC.)

But Austfonna, the largest of these, was thought to be somewhat insulated from the insults plaguing most of the world’s ice caps. Its far northern and previously frigid location at Svalbard made it less vulnerable. But that was before sea ice loss opened the gates to an ongoing and ever-increasing assault of warm winds.

Now, according to findings made by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Sentinel 1 Spacecraft, it appears that the ongoing assault of heat has at last destabilized the great Austfonna. For according to radar altimetry readings, the pace of the ice cap’s motion toward the Barents Sea has, over the past three years, accelerated to an extraordinary speed ten times more rapid than its previous pace (Sentinel’s findings are due to be published soon in a prominent scientific journal).

Lead study author Prof Andy Sheperd of Leeds University notes:

“We’ve observed Austfonna with various satellite radar datasets over the past 20 years, and it hasn’t done very much. But we’ve now looked at it again with the new Sentienl-1a spacecraft, and it’s clear it has speeded up quite considerably in the last two or three years. It is now flowing at least 10 times faster than previously measured.”

Austfonna is just the most recent of many very large ice caps, ice sheets, or glaciers now showing increasing rates of motion toward the world ocean. In many cases, once destabilized, these great bodies of frozen water have reached a point of no return as they lunge toward an inevitable destiny of melt, outflow, and disintegration. The most recent and ongoing rash of destabilizations are likely to have significant implications for global sea level rise due to human caused warming going forward. And with human heat forcing and amplifying Earth System feedbacks still on the rise, the glacial butcher tally isn’t likely to end any time soon.


Sentinel Spies Ice Cap Speed-Up

Arctic Heat in Winter: February 2 Temperature Anomaly Hits + 13 F For Entire Arctic


Warm February Provides Extreme Record on Svalbard

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Leave a comment


  1. Colorado Bob

     /  May 9, 2014

    More Evidence Suggests Honeybees Are Dying en Masse Because of Pesticides

    Honeybees exposed to a certain class of insecticide are more likely to die from Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the name given to whatever is causing a mass decline in the bee population over the past six years, according to a new study.

    The report, which appears today in the Bulletin of Insectology, recreates a 2012 study which first linked the bee-killing disease with neonicotinoids. The same team of researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health who conducted the 2012 study ran this later one, and their findings bolster their earlier findings. According to lead author Chensheng (Alex) Lu, “We demonstrated again in this study that neonicotinoids are highly likely to be responsible for triggering CCD in honey bee hives that were healthy prior to the arrival of winter.”


    • Betting that genetic modification of food so that it can tolerate or produce its own insecticide was the telling blow with this one. Great to see this research.

      • Colorado Bob

         /  May 9, 2014

        Thinking about what “Round-up” ,has done to the Monarchs as well . Our carpet bombing of the natural world has come back to bite us in the ass.

        • A rather bad outcome when a chemical weapons produce becomes a monopolistic interest in world food production.

  2. Colorado Bob

     /  May 9, 2014

    I spent the most of the day trying to remember something that when with this news , about Svalbard.

    Northeast Greenland ice loss accelerating, researchers say
    March 16, 2014
    Ohio State University
    The last remaining stable portion of the Greenland ice sheet is stable no more, an international team of scientists has discovered. The finding will likely boost estimates of expected global sea level rise in the future. The new result focuses on ice loss due to a major retreat of an outlet glacier connected to a long “river” of ice — known as an ice stream — that drains ice from the interior of the ice sheet. The Zachariae ice stream retreated about 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) over the last decade, the researchers concluded. For comparison, one of the fastest moving glaciers, the Jakobshavn ice stream in southwest Greenland, has retreated 35 kilometers (21.7 miles) over the last 150 years.

    • Huge and total destabilization of the Greenland ice sheet. Already emitted ghg is enough to take down both Greenland and West Antarctica. We’ll probably end up losing a chunk of East Antarctica too and that’s if we manage to stop emissions.

      • Colorado Bob

         /  May 10, 2014

        The gap between Norway and Greenland is a blowtorch , that has it’s fuel tank in the Gulf of Mexico. When I watched the the great Indus Valley floods . I looked for “warm rain” at ever higher altitudes , and latitudes. One of the main reasons for the great Indus Valley floods was “warm rain” falling at altitudes we never dreamed of. The great transport of heat is water. Heat seeks a condenser . Warm rain is going change the game.

        • That wide open expanse of what used to be ice covered water is certainly a powerful heat attractor.
          And I definitely agree that warm rain is a huge issue going forward. Most worried about rain over glaciers.

          Worth noting that 2010 was an El Niño year, albeit a weak one.

          Seeing strange things today. Like a river of air that originates at around 40 degrees north lat in the central Pacific, rides all the way up through the Bering and Chukchi Seas, crosses the North Pole, dives south between Greenland and Svalbard and finally gets wrapped up in the low off Ireland. The northern cold air pool has zero integrity.

  3. Colorado Bob

     /  May 9, 2014

    Sorry, I have spent nearly 65 years writing {when), when I wanted to write went .

  4. Colorado Bob

     /  May 10, 2014

    The gap between Norway and Greenland is a blowtorch , that has it’s fuel tank in the Gulf of Mexico.

    The rain we saw in Pensacola was bound for Svalbard.. If a trigger to dump it had not come along , it be there now.

  5. Colorado Bob

     /  May 10, 2014

    As we heat the worlds oceans near the equator , where will those water molecules go , once they have driven from them from the oceans ?

    To the great condensers , heat seeks cold , this why your house can be cooled.

    • Sporadic above freezing temperatures along the frozen western glaciers of Greenland… All around for scores of miles, temps are below freezing. Where does the heat come from? Are the glaciers radiating?

      • Colorado Bob

         /  May 10, 2014

        No, its a pipeline from the Gulf to the North. Zillions of BTU’s being exported North .

        Never forget this , heat seeks cold. Heat seeks a condenser. This rule will govern the 21st century

        • From the atmospheric shot, it’s an island of heat right over the ice. Strange as strange can be.

        • OT, but did you notice the huge dust storm over Eastern China in the MODIS shots today? Another enormous outburst.

  6. chilyb

     /  May 10, 2014

    Keep keeping it together, Robert! Your efforts are much appreciated!

  7. Colorado Bob

     /  May 10, 2014

    OT, but did you notice the huge dust storm over Eastern China in the MODIS shots today? Another enormous outburst.

    No , i watched the one the one that hit Aswan.

  8. Colorado Bob

     /  May 10, 2014

    Record rain in the Levant , howling dust in Cairo.

    As a system nears a tipping point, It moves to the extremes.

  9. Colorado Bob

     /  May 10, 2014

    As a system nears a tipping point, It moves to the extremes.

    Please explain to your readers that this is our map to the future .

  10. Colorado Bob

     /  May 10, 2014

    Just backing up my bulllshit…………

    Severe sandstorm sinks boat, damages museum in Aswan,-damages-museum-in-Asw.aspx

    Heavy rains across Israel, flooding in south
    Haaretz ‎- 1 day ago

    As a system nears a tipping point , it moves to the extremes.

  11. Colorado Bob

     /  May 10, 2014

    Let me out of double link nowhere.

  12. Colorado Bob

     /  May 10, 2014

    This is a wordy mess – My last comment to Joe Romme.

    • Bassman

       /  May 10, 2014

      Robert, How unusual/extreme are the sea surface temps right now for the Climate Reanalyzer site. I know that the surface temp anomalies are based on a more recent baseline average, but I haven’t really followed that site much. I’m just wondering how much influence the current positive PDO is having right now. By the way your Blog is awesome, thanks.

    • Mark from New England

       /  May 10, 2014

      What happened Bob? Just so we don’t do it!

  13. I suspect the cat is out of the bag, and the anomalous effects will begin to take their toll on ecosystems, infrastructure, food chains and social stability.

    All, I have put up a first attempt at a blog. It is not a duplicate of the efforts here, and Colorado Bobs etc… as they know vastly more than I and do a tremendous job of presenting great information. Rather, I am looking at the signal under the noise as it were, and divining the knock on effects.

    Your review and recommendations would be graciously accepted.

    The location is:



    • Cheers Andy and thanks for the excellent post. Tried to comment, but it didn’t go through. In any case, I’d love to see an assessment of Arctic ecosystem impacts due to the very rapid temperature change that is now ongoing. Might be a good addition to your initial food web post.

  14. james cole

     /  May 11, 2014

    These sort of statements have been appearing in the media lately. I also followed some main stream media for awhile and they have been going out of the way to get climate science deniers air time. I maintain, as I have before, that this is all part of a well funded denial program that traces back to fossil fuel industry funding and hired Public Relations firms. Denial is all very professional and all very well funded. And leave it to American politicians to step up and add their weight to denial. “Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) dismissed the dire warnings in the White House’s latest climate change report, saying flatly that humans were not to blame for the warming planet.

    “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it,”
    This goes on in a time where science produced all the evidence to turn theory into science fact. The world has raced ahead into a scale of climate change well in advance of what most rational science predicted just a couple years ago. The more this fact of global warming becomes undeniable by the rational people, the more the paid denial campaign pushes it’s false agenda.

  15. Phil

     /  May 12, 2014

    Robert, do you have any views on whether the expected blocking patterns and weather patterns developing now in the Arctic will mirror those of last year which I have heard involved cyclonesclouds and cooler period which adversely impacted on the melt season.

    A few people on the Arctic sea ice forum have mentioned recently that the pattern seems to be emerging in a similar way to this time last year especially with cloudy conditions that would affect the melt seaon if that prevailed for a length of time.

    However, others have also stated that the storms could also enhance the melt if they occurred in summer when winds are hot and not cold.

    Do you have any information on how things are travelling for the next week or two relative to the same time last year?

    Your last couple of blogs have been really good and very informative.

    • Am working on an ice blog now.

      My general view is that the Arctic is moving to a stormier state in summer time. This change is directly linked to increased atmospheric and ocean temps in the region.

      Recent studies show that clouds do not inhibit overall melt in the Arctic, recent studies also link melt pond formation to record melt seasons during recent years. These two sets of conclusions would seem contradictory as direct sunlight, in the past, has been a major driver of melt pond formation.

      My view is that the Arctic is moving toward a different state in which assumptions based on past observations are not likely to hold sway.

      As for the current situation being like 2013…

      During 2013 we had cold, slow melt in Alaska in May and melt in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort were much less advanced than now. Temperature anomalies were generally less than what we are seeing now and conditions for this May are probably stormier than last year for the same period.

      June was a very stormy month for 2013, so we’ll have to see how conditions evolve.

      As for the warm wind folks … Warm, moisture laden air can rapidly melt ice through release of latent heat via condensation. The result is a kind of snow and ice eating fog.

      More thoughts in the upcoming blog.

    • Phil —

      Just wanted to let you know I’m still working on my sea ice analysis. A beastly thing if there ever was one. Lots of factors ongoing at the moment.

  16. pintada

     /  May 12, 2014

    I can’t figure out how to ask Tomino (O mind) this question directly, and so I’m asking you to ask him for me (an imposition I know, but maybe you will get an article out of it):

    Is the trend shown in this study statistically relevant given the data available, for example here

    It is easy to read the study to say that the AMOC is in fact stopping as we speak, and that it will be completely stopped before the end of the century.

    • Good question. I’ll be happy to see if I can get Tamino to comment. We have seen numerous studies showing erosion of Gulf Stream strength. We have extreme cold water anomalies east of Newfoundland and diversion of the warm water NAC south and east. We have new circulations developing in the North Atlantic and the Bering and we have an expanding fresh water wedge due to greater glacier and ice sheet outflows in the Arctic.

      The statistics seem to indicate a step change during the 1970s then slow erosion since.



      • pintada

         /  May 12, 2014

        An end to the AMOC by 2040 as suggested by (my reading of) the article would be … well … (you’re the talented writer, you think of the adjective). LOL


        100% / 2.5% per year = 40 years.
        or looking at it another way … 2.7Sv (decline) / ~20 Sv (historical flow) = 13% slowing in only 4 years => 30 years of flow.

        But that 30 years apparently started in 2004 …

        Thanks for passing on the question. I’m a big fan.

        • It would be equivalent to ripping an arm off the world ocean system. A major step toward mass extinction in the world’s seas and a great leap toward the stratified/Canfield Ocean state we most certainly do not want.

  1. Grim News From NASA: West Antarctica’s Entire Flank Collapsing Toward Southern Ocean, At Least 15 Feet of Sea Level Rise Already Locked-in Worldwide | robertscribbler
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