Smashing Through 490 — Fragmenting Prospects for Avoiding 2 C Warming

“The IPCC indicated in its fourth assessment report that achieving a 2 C target would mean stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at around 445 to 490 ppm CO2 equivalent or lower. Higher levels would substantially increase the risks of harmful and irreversible climate change.” –Johan Eliasch

NOAA's Greenhouse Gas Index

(NOAA’s greenhouse gas index shows that CO2e concentration for 2015 averaged 485 ppm. Given recent rates of rise, the 2016 average should be near 490 ppm CO2e. At the latest, this key threshold will be crossed some time during 2017. Image source: NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory.)

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There are a few things we know about climate change that should really keep us up at night. The first is that the world is warming, and this warming of the Earth, in so many ways, is dangerous to human beings and all the other innocent creatures living here.

The second is that, over recent years, this warming has been very rapid. In the three years from 2014 through 2016, the Earth’s atmospheric temperature is likely to have increased by 0.2 degrees Celsius or more to around 1.2 C above 1880s levels. When thinking about this in absolute terms, it doesn’t sound like much. But in geological terms, this is very rapid warming, especially when you consider that, at the end of the last ice age, it took about 400 years to produce a similar amount of atmospheric temperature gain.

What all this boils down to is that as global temperatures have spiked, we’ve rapidly crossed an established climate threshold into a far more geophysically dangerous time.

Surging Levels of Heat-Trapping Gasses

405 parts per million carbon dioxide. That’s about the average level of CO2 accumulation the Earth’s atmosphere will see by the end of 2016, due primarily to fossil-fuel burning. It’s a big number. The Earth hasn’t seen a number like that in millions of years. But 405 ppm CO2 doesn’t tell the whole story of heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere. To do that, we have to look at another number — carbon dioxide equivalent or CO2e.

The Keeling Curve August

(During a typical September and October, daily or weekly values may briefly dip below 400 ppm CO2, as detected at the Mauna Loa Observatory. But after September-October 2016, it’s unlikely that you or I will ever see such low levels of CO2 from that measure again in our lifetimes. Image source: Scripps Institution of Oceanography.)

490 ppm CO2e. That’s about the total amount of CO2-equivalent heat forcing from all the human-added greenhouse gasses like CO2, methane, various nitrogen compounds, and other gaseous chemical waste that the Earth’s atmosphere will see by late 2016 to early 2017.

Why is this a big deal?

Four reasons —

First, hitting 490 CO2e crosses the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change‘s (IPCC) lowest climate threshold. If this were a highway, and climate change were a collision, we’d now be careening through the first guardrail.

Second, 490 CO2e represents significant current and future warming (and there’s good reason to believe that IPCC’s estimates of that warming may be a bit conservative).

Third, it signifies that we have now fully entered the era of catastrophic climate change, with some bad climate outcomes almost certainly locked in as a result. We see a number of these instances now in the form of extreme rainfall events, extreme drought, coral bleaching, sea ice and glacial melt, threatened crops, ocean anoxia and dead zones, widespread harmful algae blooms, ocean acidification, and expanding infectious disease ranges. However, what we are experiencing now is just the tip of the (melting) climate change iceberg if we do not rapidly respond.

Fourth, if we were never really aware before that we very urgently need to get serious about swiftly cutting fossil-fuel emissions, protecting and regrowing forests, and working to help people to adapt to climate change, then this is our wake-up call.

Crossing the First Climate Threshold — 490 ppm CO2e

How did 490 ppm CO2e become a climate milestone? In short, it represents the threshold at which the first of four global-warming scenarios is basically locked in.

To understand this more, we need to take a closer look at these four scenarios, which were established by the IPCC in 2007. The IPCC calls these scenarios Representative Concentration Paths or RCPs. The four potential pathways are informed by the amount of fossil fuels potentially burned through the year 2100, the levels of CO2e heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere as a result, and how much the world consequently warms over this timeframe.

RCPs range from 2.6 to 8.5 watts per meter squared, with these measurements indicating the amount of added heat from the greenhouse gas additions trapped at the top of the atmosphere. A more direct measure is to look at the total greenhouse gas thresholds for each scenario. Broken down, the four RCP pathways represent 490 ppm CO2e (RCP 2.6), 650 ppm CO2e (RCP 4.5), 850 ppm CO2e (RCP 6.0), and 1370 ppm CO2e (RCP 8.5). For reference, atmospheric CO2e levels just prior to the start of large-scale fossil fuel burning were around 300 ppm. By comparison, 1370 ppm CO2e is about equivalent to the levels during some of the worst hothouse mass extinctions the Earth has experienced.

In a nutshell, RCPs represent potential warming scenarios. A middle-range temperature increase estimate by the year 2100 for each scenario can be seen below in this table provided by Skeptical Science:

rcp pathways

Developed at the IPCC’s 2007 meeting, these RCPs also describe a range of potential human civilization responses to global warming. RCP 2.6 allows for fast emissions cuts beginning at the time of the 2007 meeting. These cuts would swiftly level off and then reduce fossil-fuel emissions and ultimately generate one of the milder warming scenarios. The IPCC envisioned that warming would remain near 1.5 C this century under these emissions cuts. Scientists hoped this scenario would allow the avoidance of most of climate change’s bad outcomes.

RCP 4.5 assumes somewhat less aggressive emissions cuts, with fossil-fuel burning and related carbon emissions peaking near 15 billion tons per year by the mid-2040s. Stronger warming is locked in with this scenario — about 2.4 C according to IPCC — and scientists were doubtful that serious climate impacts could be avoided.

emissions-graph-rpc-small

(We’ve pretty much missed the window for the IPCC’s mildest possible climate scenario, RCP 2.6, which would have required strong policies and policy support almost immediately following the IPCC’s 2007 meeting. Image source: Skeptical Science.)

RCP 6.0 shows emissions cuts that are slow to unfold. Global carbon emissions would peak around 19 billion tons per year by 2060 and then rapidly drop off. Warming under this scenario is considerable, hitting 3 C by the end of this century. So much warming and such high levels of greenhouse gasses would result in some seriously bad outcomes.

The final pathway, RCP 8.5, represents an absolute nightmare climate scenario. Under this path, real emissions cuts are not achieved. Despite growth in renewable energy, all energy use continues to grow as well, including fossil fuels. As a result, in this scenario, the IPCC expects the Earth to warm by a catastrophic 4.9 C by 2100.

In the context of understanding climate change, particularly for someone interested and patient enough to read the IPCC reports, the various RCP scenarios were a real help in exploring climate change options and outcomes. They helped many scientists and policymakers provide clear warnings and rewards for action by governments, the public, and business leaders.

projected impacts of climate change

(Climate change produces multiple difficult-to-predict impacts. As temperatures rise, conditions grow ever more extreme. In the graph above, it’s worth noting that sea-level rise is already an issue for many cities and regions including numerous Pacific islands, Bangladesh, the Indus Delta region, South Florida, New Orleans, New York, and the various low-lying coastal and river delta regions around the world. Image source: Federal Highway Administration.)

But despite very clear communication and activism from scientists like Dr. James Hansen, policy bloggers like Joe Romm, and climate activists like Bill McKibben, overall global emissions policy has not moved swiftly enough to stay within the RCP 2.6 pathway in the 9 years since its creation. In fact, decent global emissions reduction policies didn’t begin to universally take hold until recently, in 2014 and 2015, and those implemented were often ardently opposed by fossil fuel-related political interests in countries like Australia, Great Britain, Germany, Canada, and the United States.

As a result, emissions stayed near or just below worst-case pathway ranges (RCP 8.5). As of this year, the window for achieving the RCP 2.6 scenario — or the mildest and most optimistic warming scenario — appears to have closed.

Possibly More Warming From 490 CO2e Than We Feared

Hitting 490 CO2e in 2016 means that the 1.5 C warming IPCC predicted for this amount by 2100 is almost certainly locked in. With the world hitting near 1.2 C above 1880s temperature averages in 2016, some reasonable questions have been raised, the most relevant being if 490 ppm CO2e will result in more warming than IPCC predicted.

To be fair, the 1.5 C figure above is a simplification of model predictions ranging from about 0.9 C to around 2.3 C during this century under a 490 ppm CO2e forcing. However, since we’ve already surpassed the lower portion of this range, and we’re barely into the beginning of this century, it appears that some of the lower sensitivity model runs were rather far off the mark. Moreover, paleoclimate proxy temperature data indicates that 490 ppm CO2 during the Middle Miocene produced warming in the range of 4 C long-term (over hundreds of years). Given this implied long-term impact, and coupled with annual readings that are already in the 1.2 C range, it’s possible to infer an ultimate warming closer to 2 C by 2100 from a maintained 490 ppm CO2e. Hitting such a mark would only require about 0.11 C warming per decade — a rate of decadal warming about 40 percent slower than the temperature rise seen from the late 1970s through the 2010s.

Arctic Sea Ice August 9 2016

(Amplifying feedbacks due to loss of sea ice reflectivity in the Arctic and Antarctic, reduced carbon-store uptake and carbon-store emissions can result in an overall greater sensitivity to an initial heat forcing such as the current 490 ppm CO2e. Paleoclimate proxies hint that these feedbacks may cause the Earth System to be more sensitive than IPCC models currently indicate. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

The paleoclimate-implied warming from the other climate scenarios is likely higher as well. RCP 4.5 probably hits closer to 3 C under such a climate sensitivity range. RCP 6.0 probably sees 4 to 4.5 C warming by 2100. And the worst-case RCP 8.5 probably achieves closer to 6 C warming.

It’s for these and other reasons that some scientists say that avoiding 1.5 C at this time is probably impossible. Meanwhile, it’s pretty reasonable to say that avoiding 2 C presents a huge challenge requiring a very rapid response, a goal that will probably require reducing the atmospheric CO2e levels below their current ranges.

CO2e Increasing by 3 ppm Per Year

Human beings are still dumping massive volumes of carbon into the atmosphere. Carbon emissions are still near record-high levels. As a result, atmospheric CO2e levels are rising by about 3 ppm or more each year. For 2016, CO2 alone may rise by 3.4 ppm or more, and CO2e may jump by more than 4 ppm — to hit near 490 ppm CO2e. This is due in part to the 2015-2016 El Nino’s cyclical warming of the Equatorial oceans, forests, and lands on top of the already-strengthening heat of human warming. And this added heat reduces the ability of these carbon sinks to take in CO2.

Even if this rate of CO2e rise is just maintained, it’s possible that we’ll see 1.5 C warming not by the end of this century, but by the early 2030s. And as the world heats up, it’s likely we’ll see additional emissions coming as carbon sinks become stressed and stop taking in such high volumes of greenhouse gasses or even turn into sources.

The result is that the challenge presented to us now is far greater, far more urgent than that of 2007. We risk, over the next few decades, locking in not just 2 C warming, but 3 C warming or more if we do not act swiftly and seriously. And with 1.5 C warming coming with almost 100 percent certainty, we need to ramp up climate-change mitigation strategies as well as provide aid and succor for the increasing harms, dislocations, and inequalities that will likely emerge.

Links:

NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory

The Keeling Curve

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Hansen and Sato Estimated Paleoclimate Temperatures

Skeptical Science — Beginner’s Guide to RCP Scenarios

Transportation’s Role in Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

LANCE MODIS

Carbon Sinks in Crisis

Climate Change — Financing Global Forests

The Choice Before us is Urgent: Sans a Swift Switch to Renewables, Dangerous Climate Change May Be Imminent

The world right now is facing some very serious challenges.

The first is that the globe will probably rocket well past peak CO2 levels of 405 parts per million by April and May of this year. This jump has been pushed along by a baseline massive human CO2 emission and assisted by a record ocean warming event (El Nino) in the Equatorial Pacific. Overall, this new yearly record will be more than 55 parts per million higher than peak ‘safe’ levels of 350 parts per million recommended by some of the world’s top climate scientists.

405 ppm the Keeling Curve

(Global CO2 levels will cross well above the dangerous 405 parts per million threshold during April and May of 2016. During recent years, record or near record carbon emissions have exaggerated rates of atmospheric greenhouse gas accumulation. But did the world see emissions reductions during 2014 and 2015 and will those reductions be sustained? Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

Such high atmospheric CO2 concentrations likely haven’t been seen in 15 million years. If CO2 levels (and the levels of related heat trapping gasses) remain so high for extended periods or continue to rise, then more and more dangerous and disruptive changes to the geophysical system of the Earth are in store. Global temperatures, the driving force of many of these changes, are already hitting +1.1 C above 1880s averages during 2015 (and +1.57 C during one month of 2016!) and will continue to ramp higher for decades and centuries unless those excessive greenhouse gas concentrations start to fall.

In 2016, we see massive losses in Arctic sea ice, rapid warming in the northern polar regions of the globe, increasing instances of extreme weather, increasing rates of glacial destabilization, increasing rates of sea level rise, increasing instances of mass casualty producing heatwaves, increasingly rapid rates of ocean health decline (ocean anoxia and acidification), increasing stress on ecosystems around the globe, and a number of dangerous tropical viruses spreading up from the lower Latitudes.

This is the world that economic dependence on fossil fuel based energy sources has given us. It’s a more difficult and dangerous one to live in than that represented by the milder 20th Century climates. And, over time, that difficulty and danger grows worse so long as the fossil fuel burning continues and concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gasses do not fall.

Lifting More Than Half the World Out of Poverty With Fossil Fuels Is a Climate Nightmare in the Making

Related to this increasingly difficult challenge of climate change is the fact that much of the world today still lives in poverty — unable to access many of the benefits of modern life. But nations around the world support policies that will lift billions out of this impoverished state. Providing billions with access to the services so many of us in the developed world take for granted. How this transition happens will have a dramatic impact on the health of the climate of our world and the health and safety of so many of the individuals living here. In other words — will the undeveloped and developing world choose to access new, renewable energy sources and deny the use of dangerous fossil fuels even as the developed world makes a responsible energy switch? Or will everyone basically double down on the climate-wrecking fossil fuels and risk wrecking all of human civilization in the process?

It’s a critical choice for our near future. Just how critical was recently highlighted in a new paper published by researchers at the Universities of Griffon and Queensland in Australia. This paper shows that if fossil fuels are used to meet projected energy demand growth over even the next 15 years, then 2 C worth of global warming will be locked in by as early as 2030.

Climate Risks IPCC

(Climate risks threat analysis provided by the IPCC shows greatly ramping impacts as human forced warming crosses the 2 C above the late 19th Century threshold. Note that warming above 1 C — a range we are now starting to explore — pushes most risks into moderate and some risks toward high. Image source: IPCC.)

For reference, a 2 C level of warming above 1880s values would place severe and increasing stress on many Earth Systems vital to maintaining a climate state conducive for the functioning and survival of human civilizations. To many scientists, it’s considered a tipping point beyond which catastrophic consequences become much more likely to unfold. To be clear, any warming beyond 1 C this Century is probably unsafe if you want to maintain stable coastlines and prevent serious climate shifts around the world. But we’ve already crossed that threshold and what we’re engaged in now is trying to prevent a growing number of the worst effects of human-forced warming from being realized.

To this point, the new study focused on predicted energy demand growth curves and related global economic growth projections and extrapolated projected emissions based on how growth was achieved — either through renewable energy use, or fossil fuel based energy use. Using these metrics, the study found that industrial CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions would hit a very steep curve unless projected energy demand was filled by renewable sources.

Study co-author Hankamer recently noted to The Guardian:

“When you think about statements like ‘coal is good for humanity’ because we’re pulling people out of poverty, it’s just not true. You would have to burn so much coal in order to get the energy to provide people with a living to get them off $2.50 a day that [temperature rises] would just go through the roof very quickly.”

Study researchers supported a kind of creative destruction that involved a rapid switch away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources. This kind of switch would be precipitated by a removal of the 500 billion dollars in annual global subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and a related transition of those subsidies to renewable energy sources. The authors noted that such a shift in global policy and capital support from fossil fuels to renewables would generate significant and revolutionary change in the energy markets as well as provide real hope of meeting projected demand growth with non fossil fuel energy sources.

Study co-author Wagner noted:

“If we swapped those subsidies globally, of course we could have rapid improvement and deployment of renewables to cover our shift from fossil fuels. You’re pushing a huge amount of capital into a different sector that requires an enormous amount of growth, so you would actually see a great deal more growth from putting it into renewables than providing it for fossil fuels.”

Hankamer also highlighted the need for serious work on batteries and a related full transition to electrified transportation. He noted that tough challenges still existed for aviation, heavy machinery, and shipping. Energy demand sources that may require biofuels, hydrogen or a combination of these with hybrid high efficiency and low weight battery technology to continue functioning and eliminate their portion of emissions. But as a fraction of the global greenhouse gas contribution, these three represent a smaller portion than electricity generation and internal combustion engine based land vehicle transportation.

The key, according to the researchers, was getting the incentives right and that involved a wholesale shift of capital and subsidy support away from fossil fuels. The point being that even if a fraction of increased global energy demand is met by fossil fuels, then the climate situation rapidly worsens. We just have to get off fossil fuels wholesale. But the new study researchers clearly point out — the renewable option is there and we should take it.

Is Global Coal Use Declining? If So, It’s a Trend That Needs To Be Rapidly Reinforced.

To this point, there already appears to be a number of early signs of a structural shift in many of the global markets away from coal — which is one of the highest emitting fossil fuels — as an energy source for base electricity generation.

As such, a current center of gravity for global carbon emissions increases and potentials for reduction is China. Overall, China alone now produces almost 30 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions. And a lion’s share of these greenhouse gas emissions come from China’s more than 2,500 coal fired power plants. But lately, recent reports coming out of China seem to indicate not only a slow down in the rate of emissions growth — but a reduction in the amount of total emissions overall.

China CO2 Emissions per year by source

(A new study by Glen Peters estimates that China’s greenhouse gas emissions may have fallen by 1.9 percent during 2015. This potential reduction is thought to have been precipitated by a shift away from coal use and toward a larger adoption of renewable energy. Image source: Glen Peters via Climate Crocks.)

In part, this reduction in coal use is due to a wholesale shift in China’s growth policies. A shift that focuses more on services and less on heavy industry. Clean air policies have also been put in place aimed at scrubbing up a terrible air quality situation for the country. Policies established to constrain the burning of coal at currently active coal fired plants. As a result, coal-fired facilities are increasingly under-utilized in China. A situation that has resulted in some sources stating that any new coal-fired facility build-out represents a ‘coal bubble’ for China.

But perhaps the most important trend is the fact that rates of renewable energy build-out are faster in China than anywhere in else in the world. In total, more than 17 percent of China’s massive energy infrastructure is now taken up by renewables. And each year these energy sources represent a larger portion of the new added generating capacity. By the end of this year, China is expected to have 120 gigawatts of wind energy installed, 43 gigawatts of solar, and 320 gigawatts of hydro. This total of nearly half a terawatt of installed renewable capacity is expected after a 21 percent or 35 gigawatt addition to China’s already large wind and solar generation fleets.

Finally, China appears to be a leading indicator of a larger global shift away from coal. A recent report out from Carbon Brief found that more coal fired power plants around the world were being cancelled than built. A trend that, if it continues and is coupled with a rapid rate of renewable energy adoption, provides a glimmer of hope that global greenhouse gas emissions will start falling off sooner rather than later.

Emissions Reductions Findings Remain Uncertain. Cutting Coal Use Alone is Not Enough to Prevent Catastrophic Climate Change.

To be very clear — these are very preliminary findings. And there is some recent reason to doubt that current emissions reporting from China is entirely truthful. Any fudging of numbers by China would somewhat alter current greenhouse gas emissions assessments. And any related shift in global policy back toward coal, while continuing to build out oil and gas production and consumption based infrastructure would rapidly re-assert the dangerous rates of atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions growth the world has seen over the past few decades. In addition, all current indicators show use of natural gas and oil continuing to expand. And without coordinate reductions in these other two big carbon emitters, a floor will be set on how far greenhouse gas emissions can fall through the, admittedly positive, apparent shift away from coal alone.

As the Australian scientists note above — you can’t really have much hope of a milder impact from climate change unless you rapidly replace all new growth-based infrastructure with renewables (and related non-carbon emitters). Any new fossil fuel based infrastructure is basically making an already bad problem worse. And continued wholesale reliance on fossil fuels locks in catastrophic climate change over very short time horizons.

Links:

Dangerous Global Warming Will Happen Sooner Than Thought

The Keeling Curve

Entering the Middle Miocene

IPCC

China Coal Use Declined in 2014

China Greenhouse Gasses May Have Already Peaked

China Unveils Low Carbon Growth Plan

China’s Coal Bubble

China to Increase Wind and Solar Capacity by 21 Percent in 2016

China Burns More Coal Than Reported During 2000-2012

Statistics From China Say Coal Consumption is Down

 

 

 

1.06 C Above 1880: Climate Year 2015 Shatters All Previous Records For Hottest Ever

We knew it was going to be a record breaker. We knew that atmospheric greenhouse gasses in the range of 400 parts per million CO2 and 485 parts per million CO2e, when combined with one of the top three strongest El Ninos in the Pacific, would result in new all-time global record high temperatures. But what we didn’t know was how substantial the jump would ultimately be.

Today, the numbers were made public by NASA. And I hate to say it, but it’s a real doozy. Overall, according to NASA, Climate Year 2015 — the 12 month period from December of 2014 through November of 2015 — was 0.84 C hotter than NASA’s 20th Century Baseline. That’s 0.11 C hotter than previous hottest year 2014 and a full 0.21 C hotter than climate change deniers’ favorite cherry — 1998. In other words past record hot years are being left in the dust as the world is heating up to ever more dangerously warm global temperatures.

 

Global temperature increase

(NASA’s global temperature graph through end 2014. Climate year 2015, at 0.84 C above the NASA 20th Century baseline, is quite literally off the chart. Image source: NASA GISS.)

In any case, the current NASA Graph above is going to need some serious adjusting as the new global average for climate year 2015 is simply off the top of the chart. A new jump that gives lie to the increasingly obvious fake claim made by climate change deniers over the past two years that global warming somehow ‘paused.’

But aside from reality once again making the fossil fuel cheerleaders of the world (aka climate change deniers) look increasingly imbecilic, 2015’s new temperature increase is a visible sign of increasing climate danger. This year’s 0.84 C temperature departure above NASA’s 20th Century baseline is 1.06 C hotter than 1880s values. It’s a number just 0.44 C (or two more strong El Ninos) away from crossing the very dangerous 1.5 C threshold that nations of the world recently pledged to attempt to avoid at the Paris Climate Summit. It’s also a number more than halfway toward hitting the catastrophic 2 C warming threshold. Perhaps more ominously, Monthly temperature departures in October of 2015 hit a range of 1.06 C above the 20th Century baseline and 1.28 C above 1880s averages — shorter term ranges that are already coming close to testing the 1.5 C threshold.

Hard Work Ahead to Prevent the Most Dangerous Outcomes

Regardless of arguments about how possible or likely we are to avoid such dangerous and catastrophic warming in the future, we should recognize now that we’ve already locked in enough atmospheric and ocean heat to begin setting off dangerous geophysical changes. A world 1 C hotter than 1880 is a world of increasingly rapid sea level rise, a world of increasingly swiftly declining ocean health, a world where water security in many places is already at risk, a world of worsening droughts and deluges, a world in which the strongest storms are growing ever stronger. A world 1 C hotter than 1880 is a world that is starting to see the dangerous and damaging impacts of human-forced climate change. A place where the worst is still yet to come.

So let’s not mince words. It’s going to be bad and it’s going to get worse. How bad and how much worse depends on how rapidly the world weans itself off fossil fuels and hits net zero or net negative carbon emissions. At more than 50 billion tons of CO2e hitting the atmosphere each year now, we have a long way to go and fast. Let’s hope for everyone’s sake that we’re up to the challenge. It’s getting rough out there. Let’s not tempt nature to unleash upon us the worst of the world’s climate demons. Unfortunately, a few have already slipped the bonds. But there are many more waiting if we continue along this wretched path of burning.

Links:

NASA GISS: Global Temperature Analysis

NASA GISS

Paris Climate Conference ‘At the Limits of Suicide’

UPDATES TO FOLLOW

June Snow Melt Brings July Arctic Sea Ice Drop-off

It’s a pretty well established theory. If snow over the Northern Hemisphere land and sea ice masses substantially melts during May and June, it can tend to set up a general weather pattern that is conducive to large-scale reductions of the Arctic sea ice come July, August and September.

Arctic Sea Ice in ragged condition during mid July

(Arctic sea ice in very ragged condition by July 19, 2015. A situation born of a continuous Greenland and Central Arctic high pressure ridge setting up warm air build-ups and a sea ice-flushing dipole weather pattern. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

Arctic High Pressure, Heat, Collapsing the Sea Ice

And, during June, we saw just this kind of trend emerge. Arctic heatwaves over both the Continental land masses and the Arctic sea ice resulted in a rapid melting of snow cover. Heatwaves fed by massive bulges in the Northern Hemisphere Jet Stream, particularly along the now-famous Ridiculously Resilient Ridge over what is today an amazing (horrific) hot zone of Northeastern Pacific surface waters. El Nino and Positive PDO played their role too, kicking up the hot zones and the ridge to ever greater intensity. An atmospheric and ocean synergy in a 1 C hotter than 1880s context that kept hurling more and more heat into the Arctic environs. Melting more snow and setting the stage for a potential sea ice massacre to come.

By early July there were indications that just such an event may be on the way. A ‘heat dome’ type high pressure system had become well established over the Greenland side of the High Arctic. And for the past three weeks now, this high has remained entrenched. A persistent weather pattern that has allowed more sunlight to hit the sea ice during periods of peak insolation, a pattern that compacts sea ice in the Central Arctic, a pattern that draws storms into the Siberian side of the Arctic to chew away at the ice edge, and a pattern, that overall, drives the ice inexorably toward its Atlantic Ocean flush valve in the Fram Strait.

Arctic Heat

(Hot to record hot conditions have remained in place over the Arctic Ocean throughout July. Image source: NSIDC)

All this extra heat, transport, compaction and storms chewing away at the sea ice edge has finally started to take a very serious toll. As of today, sea ice extent measures had dropped from 7th to 10th lowest on record to 6th to 7th lowest. Area has remained at 4th to 5th lowest on record for the date. Meanwhile volume in the DMI measure has dropped to 2nd lowest on record.

Most charts now are starting to show a steep ‘cliff’ type rate of decline indicative of rapid sea ice collapse. This is particularly true in NSIDC’s Charctic and Cryosphere Today’s sea ice graphs which now show both extent and area lines plunging at rates that will rapidly cross new thresholds if they continue over the coming days.

Sea Ice Concentration in a Rough State

But perhaps most disturbing of all are the indicators that are now showing up in nearly all of the visual concentration monitors. Uni Bremen sea ice concentration continues to look like a massacre on the Pacific side. NSIDC doesn’t appear to be much better. But Cryosphere Today takes the cake for an overall display of sea ice weakness that, on the 19th (updated as the CT measure used earlier ended up being a bit off), looked nearly as bad as on the same day during the record melt year of 2012:

2012 to 2015 Comparison

(Comparison of July 19, 2015 and July 19, 2012 shows 2015 looking nearly as bad as 2012 in the concentration measure. Image source: Cryosphere Today.)

Comparing the left frame image with the MODIS satellite shot at the top of this post, we find confirmation of an overall, very weak sea ice state. Concentration throughout the Arctic appears low. This is especially true on the Beaufort, Chukchi and East Siberian Sea side (see MODIS shot at bottom of post). But extensive weakness and low concentration appears to pervade the entire ice mass. Zooming in on the sea ice surface, we find that some of this low concentration is possible to confirm. The entire Arctic is now full of broken floes, polynya and melt ponds.

Though it is also possible that this extensive melt ponding (also a feature that weakens sea ice) may have kicked the Crysosphere Today concentration sensor a bit into the extreme scale (corrected during the past 24 hours), the 2012-to-2015 comparison above is still apples to apples. And what’s a bit disturbing about this comparison is the fact that much of the concentration in red (55 to 70 percent) in the 2012 measure completely melted out at the ocean surface by mid September of that year. More notably, perhaps, is the fact that the Cryosphere Today concentration measure is, at least in part, confirmed by the US Navy ARCc Concentration model which has now begun to pick up some of the earlier predicted rapid melt in the observational ensemble:

US Navy Concentration

US Navy Concentration Forecast

(Sea ice massacre starting to show up in the US Navy ARCc model daily observations [top frame] and continues to be predicted in the 30 day history and 7 day forecast [bottom frame]. Image source: US Navy.)

Above, we see very low sea ice concentration practically anywhere outside the 80 degree North Latitude line. Most notably, concentration is very thin and rapidly weakening in the Beaufort, Chukchi, East Siberian, and Laptev Seas. And the seven day forecast shows very rapid melt throughout all these regions with the low concentration bulge beginning to invade north of the 80 degree line on the Laptev and ESS side in particularly troubling fashion.

Forecast — Continued Rapid Melt, Some Records May be Threatened

So the question, going forward, is — what next? And it appears that the sea ice is being prepped for continued rapid to accelerating melt over at least the next 7-10 days. Seven day forecasts show the ridge remaining on the Greenland side of the Arctic throughout the period. A position that will continue the current melt, transport and ice weakening regime. Longer range, ten day, ECMWF forecasts find the high shifting more toward a strong ‘heat dome’ located in the Central Arctic with a somewhat weaker high remaining over Greenland — a minor variation of the current ice-weakening state that may slow down ice export but leave compaction, melt ponding, heat build-up, and ice edge weakening due to storms in tact.

Very weak sea ice

(Sea ice throughout the Beaufort, Chukchi, ESS and Laptev is very weak. Can it survive another 10 days of the Greenland/Central Arctic heat dome? Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

Due to this weather forecast and due to some observations beginning to come in line with ARCc model runs, we cannot rule out a very rapid melt and recession of sea ice along a broad arc running all the way from the Canadian side to East-Central Siberia. The sea ice is visibly very weak there. Perhaps the weakest we’ve ever seen it for this time of year. Ice that will continue to be pulled poleward by the highs that are forecast to remain in place. Ice that will run into weakened, melt pond invaded ice — a paltry respite for its retreat. And ice that will continue to be harried by edge storms and an influx of much hotter than normal air and water from the Pacific Ocean side. It’s a rapid melt risk that calls into effect the potential that some old sea ice area, extent, and volume records may be challenged or broken — probably not 2012’s all time low marks, but more possibly 2011 or 2007.

It’s, overall, a very tenuous situation for sea ice, one that is continuing to be fed by a growing El Nino and still firmly entrenched RRR to the south. So the evolution of sea ice melt over the next few weeks will likely be a critical game-maker for the state of Arctic Sea ice melt and the overall story of Arctic Sea Ice decline in this sad age of human-forced climate change.

UPDATED JULY 21, 2015

Links:

LANCE-MODIS

NSIDC

US Navy

Cryosphere Today

Uni Bremen

June Arctic Heatwave Takes Down Northern Hemisphere Snow Cover

Halfway to 2 C

Arctic Heatwave Pummels Sea Ice in Early July

See Beaufort and Northwest Passage Melt Progress Over at The Arctic Sea Ice Blog

(Please support public, non-special interest based science like the work conducted by the national snow and sea ice monitors, NOAA and NASA. Without their ongoing work, this analysis and commentary would not be possible.)

Halfway to 2 C — According to NASA, We Just Blew Past an Ominous Milestone

2 C.

It’s the amount of warming past pre-industrial times that the IPCC says we should try to avoid this Century in order to prevent the worst consequences of human-caused climate change. It’s the so-called safe limit, even though there’s nothing really safe about it and we should probably be aiming more for a below 1.5 C target.

1 C.

It’s the amount of warming between pre-industrial times and, according to the latest data from NASA, the first half of 2015. In other words, temperatures during the first six months of 2015 are now at least halfway toward freeing some of the nastiest climate monsters in the closet.

*   *   *   *   *

According to NASA GISS, June of 2015 was tied with 1998 as the hottest of any June in the entire 135 year global climate record. Coming in at +0.76 C above NASA’s 20th Century average, June follows May at +0.73 C (4th hottest), April at +0.71 C (tied for 3rd hottest), March at +0.91 C (second hottest), February at + 0.89 C (hottest), and January at +0.81 C (2nd hottest).

Combined, these average out for a +0.80 C departure from the 20th Century in the NASA measure. That’s an extraordinary amount of heat — +0.18 C above 1998 levels and +0.05 C above 2014, which was the previous hottest year on record.

But, perhaps most importantly, this reading is the first consistent break at 1 C above 1880s levels. An ominous benchmark and halfway to the catastrophic 2 C warming we really, really want to avoid.

June Takes On El Nino-Type Temperature Pattern

June 2015 hottest on record NASA

(NASA’s geographic temperature anomalies for a record hot June in 2015. Image source: NASA GISS.)

Looking at the June temperature anomaly map, we find very large zones of 2-4 C above average readings running up toward the Northern Hemisphere Pole. The first of these zones rides up over Western Asia. Covering most of the region from the Caspian Sea on northward, this area features two anomalously hot zones ranging to as high as a +4.7 C anomaly in intensity. The second of these zones issues from the developing El Nino in the Eastern Pacific, rides up over the hot ‘Blob’ of ocean water in the Northeastern Pacific, invades Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, and then enters the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. This zone also features large expanses of +2 to +4 C above average temperatures.

Overall, most of the globe saw above average readings with only the region just south of Greenland, a small zone just west of the hot ‘Blob,’ and an area of somewhat cooler readings over West Antarctic showing below average readings.

Zonal anomalies June 2015

(Zonal anomalies began to pick up the El Nino signal during June. Note that equatorial heat gain nearly matches that of the Northern Hemisphere pole. Image source: NASA GISS.)

Under El Nino —  a climate condition the globe is steadily transitioning toward — we would expect to see relative warming near the Equator and relative cooling near the poles. During June, we begin to see this signature with the Equator warming up to a substantial +1.2 C positive anomaly. Antarctica also followed this trend as that polar zone dipped into the -0.4 to -1.2 C negative anomaly range (60 to 90 South). Meanwhile, the Northern Hemisphere Polar zone (60 to 90 North) showed significant hot readings in the range of +0.9 to +1.4 C anomalies.

Overall, the entire globe from 50 South on northward experienced above average to much hotter than average temperatures in the zonal measure. A clear and powerful heat signal for June of 2015.

Building El Nino Likely Means More Heat to Come

With the first six months of 2015 finished and with El Nino still strengthening in the Pacific, it appears that a record hot year may already be a lock. In addition, further warming may be in store.

The current El Nino appears to be roughly on a similar development track, as far as timing and possible intensity, to the 1997-1998 El Nino. Given this rough allegory, we are approximately at the same place, climatologically speaking, as July of 1997. During that event, global temperatures didn’t really start taking off into severe record high ranges until Fall of 1997 through Summer of 1998. If the ocean to atmosphere heat loading for the current event proceeds in similar fashion, we could expect to see even more extreme temperatures than we are currently experiencing by Fall and running on through at least the first season or two of 2016.

Extreme El Nino By October

(Record-breaking El Nino by October? NOAA CFSv2 models have been spitting out some pretty extreme results. If we see anywhere near this level of sea surface warming the Central Pacific, the heat records thus far for months during 2014 and 2015 may soon be left in the dust. Image source: NOAA CPC.)

Looking toward July’s forecast, there is a bit of a caveat. That month is typically cooler globally due to a lessed impact of the greenhouse gas heat forcing. This is due to the fact that greenhouse gasses are concentrated most heavily in the Northern Hemisphere and such greenhouse gasses are most efficient at heat trapping during night time and winter. As such, we may see a bit of a dip in the July readings below June. But if this current El Nino gets involved as the models predict, it’s likely to be record-breaking heat that pushes some very ominous global temperature thresholds all the way through from August 2015 to at least early 2016.

Let’s just hope we don’t close too much more of the gap to 2 C. It’s really starting to get scary out there.

Links:

NASA GISS

GISTEMP

NOAA CPC

Hat tip to Wili

(Please support public, non-special interest based, science like the fantastic work written about here and conducted by the experts at NASA and NOAA.)

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