Open Climate Question For Next Presidential Debate: How Will You Deal With What NASA Scientists Are Calling a Global Climate Emergency?

This year, James Hansen, head of NASA’s GISS division warned that the world is experiencing a global climate emergency. Around the world, scientists are making increasingly dire warnings about what is happening to our climate. Links between extreme weather and our production of greenhouse gasses have been firmly established. The human driven heating is causing the Arctic sea ice to disappear, perhaps in as soon as a few years. The US has just experienced 12 years of extraordinarily dry conditions and a year of record drought. And the world is teetering on the edge of a climate-change driven food crisis.

Yet this year’s Presidential debates have been stunningly silent on the issue of climate change. In our politics, denial of the events occurring just outside are becoming increasingly loud and shrill. And millions and millions of dollars in oil, gas, and coal campaign contributions are enforcing an unprecedented silence on an issue of growing emergency and immediacy even as they encourage an increased exploitation of the very fuels that are causing our climate nightmare.

Within 10-20 years it is possible that the American grain belt will be well on its way to becoming a desert. Within 10 years, it is likely that the Arctic sea ice will be gone and a very intense period of ice melt will begin for Greenland, greatly accelerating the rate of sea level rise. Within 30 years, it is likely that the world’s oceans will be highly acidic, less likely to produce food for humans, and almost entirely devoid of corals. By the end of this century, it is likely that much of the world will be rendered a wasteland by 1000 ppm CO2. All this if we continue down the path of unmitigated extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

So it is for this reason that I’m submitting a simple, direct question for the prospective leader of the United States for the next four years in the upcoming Presidential Debate:

Please address the issue of what climate scientists have identified as an ongoing, climate change induced US drought and growing prospects for world hunger. Please address the issue of shrinking Arctic sea ice, more than 50% smaller than in the 1980s, record Greenland ice melt, and what appears to be increasing risk of rapid ocean rise. Please explain how you will avoid a devastating rise to 1000 ppm CO2 by the end of this century. Please address how you will deal with what NASA scientists are calling a global climate emergency.

If you agree with this question, please feel free to either copy, paste, and re-post it or to link, share, or re-tweet this blog. If you would like to ask an open climate question of your own, please do so on any social network of your choosing. The idea is to spread the word in the best way possible. So please participate in some way! Please let your voice be heard!

This is a question we are all currently involved in answering. And if we stay silent, then the answer is we will do nothing and the worst events are almost certain to occur. But if we speak up. If we make our voices heard, they still have a chance to make a difference. To stop the worst impacts of a climate change nightmare caused by our ever-increasing burning of fossil fuels.

Please also take part by signing this Petition for a Presidential debate question on climate change:

Best to you all! And please don’t forget to lift your voices and BE HEARD!


The End of Arctic Sea Ice Continues; Sea Ice Area Anomaly Hits New Record Low

This year, Arctic sea ice hit a devastating new record low for the summer creating an enormous zone of open water. This vast open area is making sea ice re-freeze more difficult. As a result, rates of re-freeze are lower and slower than in previous years. The effect is that sea ice area anomaly — the gap between the average sea ice for the years 1979-2008 and today’s value is increasing.

Today, that value hit a new record, breaking the old record of 2.65 million square kilometers below average set in 2007 and touching 2.705 million square kilometers below the average range of 1979-2008.

This new record was driven by a slowing down of re-freeze over the past few days, the result of high temperatures and strong storms hampering re-freeze of Arctic seas. Average refreeze rates fell to around 30,000 square kilometers per day over the past few days during a time when a typical re-freeze would indicate 60,000 to 80,000 square kilometers per day or more.

Since the record low anomaly for 2007 is included in the 1979-2008 average, this new record low anomaly is even more substantial than initial estimates would indicate. Thought the gap between today and the average is 2.705 million square kilometers, the gap between today and this date in 1980, for example, is 3.25 million square kilometers. So sea ice area for today is 46% lower than the same day in 1980.

The longer open water remains in the Arctic, the longer that water can contribute to much warmer than normal conditions there. And we can see this now as temperatures over open water areas of the Arctic are between 10 and 18 degrees Celsius above average:

This feedback is an Arctic response to human caused global warming that is currently resulting in more extreme weather within the US and around the world. And, thus far, NOAA’s climate extremes index shows that 2012 is the worst year on record.



2012’s Realization of the End of Arctic Sea Ice: The Tale of Our Northern Cryosphere’s Last Days in Words, Images and Numbers

(Image Credit: NSIDC)

2012 Sea Ice: A Saga of Violent Loss

2012. It may not be the year the world ended. But it will, likely, be the year we came to terms with the eminent and tragic final days of Arctic sea ice.

It began innocuously enough. Five years after the record losses seen in 2007, there was some cause for hope of a slower, more gradual decline. Most 2007 records had held with 2011 seeing only a slight drop in the sea ice area measurement. Though it was obvious calls for sea ice recovery were entirely unfounded, there was little reason to suspect another season of violent losses like that seen during 2007. The weather was predicted to be unfavorable for a record melt and, at most, minor losses were expected.

What unfolded was a sea ice Armageddon of massive scale. A freakish loss that defied all conventional expectation of weather and climate. For most of the summer, conditions favored a spreading out of the ice sheet. This condition usually enhanced the resiliency of sea ice, keeping the reflective coating over a larger area and, therefore, driving temperatures down.

But, this year, it was apparent the sea ice had spread out too much, had grown too thin. A rotten film filled with holes and encircled by an invading mass of warmer winds and seas. An ice screen vulnerable to the assault of sun, wind, and wave in a way that the Arctic sea ice had never been vulnerable. Not in our history, at least. Not in that thin span measuring our frail and short-sighted civilization.

(Image Credit: NASA)

The sea ice was waiting. Spread out, beleaguered. Grimly expecting a telling blow.

That blow came during late August in the form of a powerful storm. The Great Arctic Cyclone of 2012.

Spawning in the burning Siberian Arctic, this storm formed in a region where massive blazes had, only a month before, belched out enough smoke to cover Canada’s valleys, thousands of miles away. Latent heat and moisture had concentrated there, building and building through an unnaturally long and hot summer season.

Like a hurricane, its clouds towered, marching out with gathering strength to assault the frail and weakened ice. The giant storm howled, sending 65 mile-per-hour winds through the Chukchi Sea, and aiming its fury strait at the Arctic’s heart. It dug deep from heat and moisture reserves to the south, a source of energy only recently made available by human-caused warming. And it spent that new-found might in a mountainous blow against the desperately weakened ice. Waves of 6, 8, 12 feet roared over the thinly frozen sea, breaking it into a slurry and mixing it with the warmer surrounding ocean as if in an enormous blender. When The Great Arctic Cyclone of 2012 finally died out somewhere near the North Pole, hundreds of thousands of square miles of sea ice had been churned up, spit out, melted.

From our perch high above the Earth, from our lookout through the Japanese Space Agency‘s satellite eye, the sea ice just prior to the week-long Great Arctic Cyclone of 2012 looked like this:

And, afterward, most of the ice in the vast Chukchi Sea had been cleared away. Melted in the storm’s fury or pushed deep into the high Arctic, driven against that final buttress for northern ice: Greenland.

But the story of 2012’s deadly melt was far from over. The now thinned and storm-weakened ice continued its daily decline for more than a month after the ravages of The Great Arctic Cyclone of 2012 abated, finally reaching a state far, far weaker than even the terrible year of 2007. It left the Arctic with about half the ice coverage seen during the 1980s. An ice coverage that is now also far, far thinner.

What we can take away from the sea ice’s decline since the 1980s and its telling year of violent and freakish loss in 2012 is a simple message:

The ice will be gone soon. The only question is how soon.

A Tale of Loss By the Numbers

In answering the question of how soon the last small remnant of Arctic sea ice will vanish, victim to the powerful forces our human world has set loose upon it, we should take a look at the numbers, at what we know has come before, and at where the trends are leading.

In taking this final remnant of ice into account, we have three measures. They include sea ice extent, sea ice area, and sea ice volume. Each measurement has its own tale to tell and each tale can give us some idea as to when sea ice will finally fail — first at the end of summer, and last for all time and for all seasons.

The Tale of Sea Ice Extent: Jack Frost’s Shrinking Arm

Sea ice extent is a measure of how far the sea ice edge reaches. If we take the border of the continuous outward edge of the polar ice and draw a line around it, all regions within that circle are counted as part of sea ice extent. Extent does not count holes in the ice. So this measurement may include some open water areas behind the extent border.

Up until 1979, our best observations for sea ice extent came from reports collected by ships. But even these spotty accounts were enough to show a slow, long-term decline in sea ice since the early 20th Century. What satellite measurements did was make sea ice extent and area measures far more accurate.

In 1979, sea ice extent measured 7.2 million square kilometers according to the first measurement set collected by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). Final sea ice extent for end of 2012 was 3.6 million square kilometers. A visual graph of this 33 year decline was composed by Larry Hamilton and can be seen here:

As you can see from the graph, sea ice extent slowly retreated through the 1970s and 1980s. The 1990s showed substantial average losses. But the rate of loss was still relatively slow. Even the early 2000s, when looking at extent measures alone, doesn’t give us any clear indication that we are on the verge of a rapid, violent decline. It is not until the period of 2005-2012 that we begin to get a hint that something devastating is afoot with 2012 putting a final full stop on a period of melt that has resulted in the loss of half the Earth’s northern sea ice extent.

Final numbers for sea ice extent losses since 1979:

  • 3.6 Million Square Kilometers of Sea Ice Extent Lost
  • 50% of Arctic Sea Ice Extent Lost

A 50% loss of sea ice in so short a period is a devastating reduction in the reach of the world’s frozen regions. If Jack Frost were to serve as a metaphor for the sea ice, we’d say his arms had been cut in half.

Sea ice extent gives us our least detailed picture of ice loss. Since it only measures the edge of ice, we don’t really know what’s going on behind the ice margin. And that’s where looking at sea ice area comes into play.

The Tale of Sea Ice Area: Frozen Swiss Cheese

If sea ice extent draws a circle around the ice pack’s leading edge, then sea ice area tries to take into account all the visible surface ice as well as open holes behind the ice pack. Area, therefore, is the total measure of all ice as visible from above.

For sea ice area measurement, we also have data compiled by NSIDC and posted on the polar ice observatory Cryosphere Today. From these measurements, we get a picture of sea ice area decline since 1979 when area measured 5.9 million square kilometers at the end of the melt season. Cryosphere Today provides a good graph for sea ice area, measuring the progression of freeze and melt season to season, year to year:

The peaks show maximum annual sea ice area at winter’s end. The dips show the summer sea ice minimum. The red dot is showing today’s measurement.

As with sea ice extent, area remained relatively stable through the 1980s. A very gradual and slow decline began in the 1990s and extended through the mid 2000s. Then, after 2005, the bottom dropped out. A visual of the total loss seen in the graph at end of summer provides a stunning record of how much sea ice area has diminished:

By the numbers, final minimum sea ice area in 1979 was 5.9 million square kilometers. Final minimum sea ice area in 2012 was 2.24 million square kilometers.

Final losses for sea ice area since 1979:

  • 3.66 Million Square Kilometers of Sea Ice Area Lost
  • 62% of Arctic Sea Ice Area Lost

It is important to note that sea ice area is a more exact measurement than sea ice extent. Taking into account the holes in the ice gives us a more complete picture of the sea ice’s health. And in comparing sea ice area and extent, we can see the actual losses are much greater than the initial sea ice extent measure would have indicated. The tale of sea ice area loss since 1979 is this: a 62% drop in sea ice area since 1979 shows the Arctic ice has been reduced to little more than frozen Swiss Cheese.

But the most detailed and devastating measure of sea ice is yet to come: sea ice volume.

The Tale of Sea Ice Volume: Only a Thin Film Left

Just as it was difficult to get an accurate measure of sea ice area and extent before the age of satellites, it has been equally difficult to gain an accurate measure of sea ice volume. That is, until Cryosat data began being used just this year.

Over the past few years, however, a sea ice modeling tool known as PIOMAS (Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System) has taken data observations from the Arctic (ships, planes, submarines, satellites) and plugged it into a model to get a general sense of total sea ice volume. PIOMAS data, until recently, was considered a secondary, less accurate source of Arctic sea ice information. This demotion was due to the fact that PIOMAS was only a model based on direct observations, not a direct observation itself. But the status of PIOMAS changed when an analysis of Cryosat2 data by British scientists validated the PIOMAS findings, proving the model accurate. Cryosat2 used a space-born sensor to plumb the ice and it was these measurements that validated the PIOMAS results.

When the PIOMAS results were validated, a ripple of fear passed out through the Arctic sea ice community. The reason for this dread, if you are not a habitual observer of Arctic sea ice, will grow more clear to you as you read further.

Sea ice volume is a total measurement of the ice. Its length, its width and its depth. The measure is in cubic kilometers, not the flat squares seen above as from a photograph. In short, volume tells the real story of the Arctic sea ice.

And the story is very, very grim.

The above image, provided by Larry Hamilton, takes collected PIOMAS data, and plugs it into a simple graph. If a picture paints a thousand words, then this one paints a million. For my part, I will do my best to summarize.

What the PIOMAS data in the graph reveals is that the gradual declines seen in Arctic sea ice area and extent measures were hiding a much larger trend. A trend of substantial ice loss that has been ongoing since 1979. The 1980s was not the stable decade area and extent would indicate. The 90s showed a period of rather rapid ice loss. And the 21rst century showed a tremendous and increasing pace of decline.

Any child knows that when ice melts in a glass, it grows thin first, then loses most of its surface at the end if its melt. This process is what appears to have happened with Arctic sea ice at the scale of giants.

Final losses for sea ice volume since 1979:

  • 13,300 Cubic Kilometers of Sea Ice Volume Lost
  • 80% of Arctic Sea Ice Volume Lost

Since volume is the most exact measurement, total losses of sea ice in the Arctic are even worse than the satellite pictures would indicate. Much worse, in fact. An 80% loss of sea ice volume since 1979 is a tremendous decline by any account. It shows the ice has grown very, very thin. And more importantly, it shows that we are very close to a time when no sea ice will remain in the Arctic by end of summer.

2012’s Realization of the End of Arctic Sea Ice

How soon? How soon can we expect for there to be no ice left in the Arctic at the end of summer?

And can we expect a total loss of Arctic sea ice at all times of the year within our lifetime? Will the polar sea ice become little more than a myth told at Christmas time? Will the siren song of polar bears and other Arctic creatures, long vanished from the Earth, haunt us in our dreams or the dreams of our children?

The tragic answers to these questions have become ever more clear just this year. The saga of unpredictable violence and melt that occurred during the summer of 2012 combined with Cryosat2 sea ice volume discoveries to paint a picture of Arctic sea ice vanishing far faster than previous models and scientific expectations forecast. In the past, the convention of scientists at the IPCC had expected a nearly ice-free Arctic by the end of this century. That ‘past’ was as near back as 2007.

Now, those expectations are shattered. Now, you would be hard-pressed to find a single climate scientist who predicts the Arctic summer sea ice will last more than 40 years. A new consensus for ice-free conditions seems to be forming around the 10-20 year mark. And a growing number of scientists are predicting ice-free Arctic seas within the next 3-10 years.

This is the radical change that falls out of the consequences of one freakish year.

But, back to our original question: how soon could it happen?

At the absolute worst case? One year.

Yes. There is a slight but not insignificant chance that all the sea ice could melt away next summer. This event isn’t likely but it is possible if weather conditions like those occurring during 2007 repeat. During that year, 2,500 cubic kilometers of sea ice volume melted away. And this is very close to the present sea ice volume minimum of 3,300 cubic kilometers remaining at the end of 2012. So it is possible, though not likely, that there will be no sea ice left by the end of summer next year. The possibility is low, but not so low as to discount entirely. For sake of argument, we’ll say a 10% chance.

10% isn’t too likely, but it’s enough to keep a climate eye on the Arctic just in case.

Now let’s try to answer the question a little more accurately. Let’s rephrase it and ask how soon is it reasonably likely for summer sea ice to be gone? What’s the best date given current trends?

The answer to this question is actually rather easy. We can track current trends by looking at sea ice volume trends and extrapolating those trends over time. And what we find, doing the math, is that if current melt trends continue, the summer sea ice is most likely to have melted out of the Arctic within the next 4-6 years. We can find this number by averaging sea ice volume declines year-over-year since 2007. When we do this, we find that about 640 cubic kilometers are lost each year, on average. Multiplying this figure by 5 gives us 3,200 cubic kilometers of sea ice remaining, just 100 cubic kilometers below the current minimum.

Since past trends aren’t entirely predictive of future results, we can’t be certain that this event will happen accordingly. An anomalous year like 2007 could wipe out all the sea ice next year or the year after. The sea ice could have been so damaged from 2012’s freak season that each year following will result in more and more melt, a kind of amplifying death spiral until there is no ice left three years from now (a trend that bears out on the exponential graph below). Or, more hopefully, the stunning increase in losses over the past five years will abate due to some unforeseen inertia taking hold — perhaps Greenland providing a kind of fortress for the last of the sea ice. But given the stunning loss trends since 2007 and the added effect of increased sea ice fragility, there is a high likelihood, about 50%, that all the sea ice will be gone by 2018.

The gravity of this prediction should be settling in at this point. I’m not predicting the chance of a summer shower here. I’m providing science-based threat analysis for an event that hasn’t happened in the past 2 million years being a coin toss away within six years. Some scientists are also making this assessment. Deniers, are you listening?

What is important to note is that even my coin toss and average loss analysis may be too optimistic. According to exponential trends — a curve fit over the past 33 years of volume loss — we reach zero sea ice volume by 2015 with a 95% confidence interval for total loss occurring between 2013 and 2018. So my 50% estimate by 2018 may well be low and late (though it takes into account the inherent problems with curve fitting analysis). In any case, you can see this devastating exponential trend here:

(Image credit: Wipneus)

What’s our best reasonable hope then?

At some point, the 90% marker pops up and we don’t really have much reasonable expectation for sea ice to last beyond that point under the current conditions of human-caused global warming and Arctic ice melt trends. Currently, based on the best trends analysis, it’s about 90% likely that summertime Arctic sea ice will be all or mostly gone by 2035. At that point, the only potential source for sea ice comes from Greenland melt and we would hope that volumes of Greenland melt don’t rise to the point of emitting enough ice to temporarily re-grow the summer sea ice.

And an end to Arctic sea ice year-round?

Going back to the potential for events based on exponential trends, it is important to examine entirely what they indicate. What the exponential volume trends are showing is that all sea ice could be gone, year-round, by 2032. This means that in many of our lifetimes (20 years) there could be no Arctic sea ice left — at all.

(Image credit: Wipneus)

Back in 2007 these exponential trend graphs bearing out didn’t seem so likely. But, now, it appears that sea ice melt in the Arctic is an exponential, nonlinear event. The result is that it is much more likely that these trend models will serve as accurate future predictions. At this point, it appears far more likely, 25-35 percent perhaps, that amplifying feedbacks in the Arctic will result in ice free conditions for the Arctic Ocean, year-round, by the mid 2030s.

And this is the sad legacy of 2012: the realization of an eminent end of Arctic summer sea ice within, at most, 20 years, and of a likely end to all Arctic sea ice during the first half of this century should human greenhouse gas emissions not abate dramatically and soon.


Arctic Sea Ice in Rapid Decline, May Break 2007 Record by Summer’s End

Smoke From Massive Siberian Fires Seen in Canada

Moving Toward a Fire Age


The National Snow and Ice Data Center

Cryosphere Today

The Japanese Space Agency


The Arctic Ice Blog

Pace of Refreeze Keeps Arctic Sea Ice 55-60 Percent Below 1980s Values For This Time of Year

Today, sea ice area continued a moderate rate of advance for this time of year. Overall, values increased by about 60,000 square kilometers to reach 2.82 million square kilometers, which is still below the record low set just last year. JAXA and NSIDC are also showing moderate rates of refreeze, with extent values still below records set in 2007 before they were shattered this year.

Overall, JAXA and most monitors are showing sea ice area and extent at record lows for this date and at 55-60 percent below seasonal values for this day during the 1980s.

Yesterday’s report from NSIDC had numerous interesting highlights. One included an analysis of sea ice age showing that young ice is becoming dominant as Arctic sea ice continues to decline. You can see the difference between 2007 and 2012 sea ice age in the following graph, provided by NSIDC below:

Most telling in these graphs and images is a massive loss of five year or older ice from 2007 to 2012. The result is that Arctic sea ice is even more vulnerable to melt than it was post 2007.

The Arctic has a long way to go to have any reasonable resemblance of recovery for this time of year through winter. And with temperatures beginning to fall throughout the region it does seem likely that rates of freeze will pick up a bit. However, a lot of heat energy remains locked in the water and the Arctic has a severe ice deficit to recover from. So it remains doubtful whether winter refreeze will better the Arctic’s position to endure the summer melt coming in 2013.


After Nearly Two Weeks of Refreeze, Arctic Still in Record Low Territory

Arctic re-freeze officially began on September 19th. Now, twelve days later, all monitors are still showing sea ice area and extent below the record low set in 2007. Overall, departures from the 2007 minimum are still in the range of 150,000 to 250,000 kilometers. At the current pace of refreeze, it will still be a few more days before the lowest extent for 2007 is exceeded in some monitors.

Departures from the ‘average’ sea ice area for the period of 1979-2008 are still very high at 2.48 million square kilometers below the ‘norm.’ Departures from values seen during the 1980s, however, are much greater. In the range of 3.8 million square kilometers below values for the same date. This is a loss of 58% of sea ice for the same period since the 1980s.

As for sea ice extent, you can see from the graph below that we are also currently in the range of about 60% less than the 1980s for the September minimum. Current values tend to be holding this difference. As we go forward into winter we would expect at least some of this gap to erode. We’ll have to see by how much as the season progresses.

(image credit: Neven)

All current measurements for sea ice are showing record low values for this date in history and, as noted above, current values are still below all time records for every year except for 2012.

We are still waiting on a final sea ice volume measurement from PIOMAS to determine yearly volume losses for 2012. So far, losses are in the 400 cubic kilometer range. But this official measurement is as of August and a final number for September is yet to be produced. An excellent visual of sea ice volume losses through August 25, 2012, provided by L. Hamilton, can be seen below.


Arctic Hottest in 1,800 Years, 2 to 2.5 Degrees Hotter Than Medieval Warm Period, Svalbard Study Shows

According to a recent study produced by Columbia University, and funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Keck Geology Consortium, the Arctic is now hotter than at any time during the last 1,800 years. The Medieval Warm Period, often cherry picked as a benchmark for global warming deniers, was 2 to 2.5 degrees Celsius cooler than the current high Arctic environment.

The study observed differences between the content of saturated and unsaturated fats in dead algae in lake sediments to determine temperatures through past ages. During cold periods, algae produce more unsaturated fats. During warm periods, the amount of saturated fats produced is greater. This provided researchers with a biological thermometer for past Arctic ages. You can view a very instructive video of how the differences in these fats is used as a thermometer here.

Earlier studies have shown that areas bordering the Arctic, such as southern Greenland and parts of Canada, were warmer than today. But the new data, coming from a Svalbard lake, show that the high Arctic was cooler. This broader picture shows that the Medieval Warm Period was more of a regional phenomena while, now, the entire Arctic is undergoing a massive heating not seen in ages.

This study is a major validation of others that have shown a regional warming during medieval times. One such study was the famous ‘Hockey Stick’ graph produced by Michael Mann.

1,800 Year Record Warming Put into Context

Natural cycles, often invoked by climate change deniers as a form of pseudo-intellectual argument, would result in the Arctic and the rest of the world cooling long-term. In fact, there is no natural force now acting on the Arctic that is capable of pushing its temperatures into a range not seen since 1,800 years ago. The Svalbard measurements now combine with a number of other sources, including Mann’s now-famous hockey stick graph, to provide solid evidence that the human forcing (greenhouse gas emissions) is pushing world temperatures unnaturally high.

(note that the Mann Graph now lags human-caused warming by about .1 degree Celsius, so the actual slope is even steeper than the one depicted)

As you can see in the graph, average world temperatures decline until major use of fossil fuels begins in the mid-19th century. At that point, temperatures rocket upward along a very steep slope. A very unnatural departure for the relatively stable Holocene epoch.

Response Times to Forcing Lag

What is most concerning is the fact that we are still in the early phases of Arctic and world warming. Because the areas of ice are so vast, because the ocean is so deep, because it takes lots of energy to move the atmosphere around and to heat it up, a huge amount of inertia exists. This inertia is fighting to keep world temperatures static. It is fighting to keep the glaciers and sea ice from melting. It is fighting to keep the weather systems in place.

But the vastly powerful human forcing of greenhouse gas emissions is moving these systems around like so many enormous toys. The fact that we are already seeing so much melt, that we are already seeing temperatures outside the range of nearly 2000 years is cause for serious, deep concern.

Geologists don’t have any kind of clear record for these kinds of changes ever moving along so fast. But they don’t have any kind of record for greenhouse gasses accumulating in the atmosphere at so fast a pace either. The most recent observable corollary occurred about 50 million years ago and happened at a speed 1/10th as fast as the human greenhouse gas accumulation. The related warming caused a mass extinction in the ocean and resulted in severe stresses to land animals whose end result was greatly reduced size and weight as animals concentrated in mountains and near less productive polar regions.

Inertia has already created a major overhang of climate impacts. At around 400 ppm CO2, the amount currently in the Earth’s atmosphere, Greenland and West Antarctica melt, contributing about 75 feet to sea level rise. The problem here is that the current forcing is likely enough to push another 100-200 ppm of CO2 out of the Earth’s oceans, forests, tundras and glaciers, lifting world CO2 into the range that could result in all the ice melting and another mass extinction in the oceans. That risk is current even if we stop producing CO2 today and will likely result in the need for CO2 capture from the atmosphere or possible, and very risky, applications of geo-engineering technologies. Continuing to burn fossil fuels at volumes great enough to increase CO2 concentrations by 2-3 ppm or more per year is nothing short of an exercise in madness and will likely result in a world with near 1000 ppm CO2 by the end of this century. And though a world at 600 ppm CO2 is tremendously difficult to live in, a world at 1000 ppm CO2 is a hellish nightmare.

Putting these things into context, even if we cease all fossil fuel emissions today, we are potentially on a path to conditions not seen in the last 10-30 million years. And, if we continue emitting fossil fuels in a business as usual manner, we are heading toward conditions not seen in the last 50 million years at least and perhaps never seen before.

As such, the current 1800 year warming happening in the Arctic is just another milestone along our current road. And that way, should we choose to continue, is little more than a short, hot road to hell.


Columbia Study

High Arctic Temperatures Pushing Sea Ice Area Anomaly Toward New Record

It is unlikely that the world’s view of Arctic sea ice will ever be the same after the 2012 melt season. What was revealed was a thin film of fragile ice now at the mercy of rising temperatures and an ever-increasing number of forces that could result in ice melt, break-up, and scattering.

So even as seasonal re-freeze begins there is much inherent in this dynamic set of Arctic systems changes to take account of. In fact, it is important that these trends be tracked as we enter an age of uncertainty, instability, and messy transition. Currently, the story in the Arctic is shifting from record lows in sea ice extent and area, to the difference between past ‘mean’ values of sea ice area and what current observations can tell us.

It is important to note that all measures show sea ice area and extent below the past record low set for this date. And the relatively slow re-freeze of the Arctic sea ice combined with this very low value raises the possibility that a new record will be set. That record is defined as sea ice anomaly — a departure from an established average of sea ice area over the period of 1979-2008.

Approaching a New Record Anomaly

The above graph, provided by Cryosphere Today, shows not only the current area of Arctic sea ice, it also shows the difference between now and the 1979-2008 mean. It is important to note that this value is somewhat skewed due to the fact that sea ice has been in continuous decline ever since the satellite record began. So the 1979-2008 ‘mean’ averages not a base-line period of relatively stable sea ice. It instead averages a period of melt.

All that said, departures below this ‘mean’ are currently at 2.482 million square kilometers. This value is very close to the record set in 2007 of 2.635 million square kilometers below the mean. A breaking of this record would be even more significant due to the fact that the current ‘mean’ includes the two very low years of 2007 and 2008.

High Temperatures as Primary Driver

Looking at conditions in the Arctic, weather patterns would tend to indicate a greater spreading out of the sea ice and a faster re-freeze. Checking this value is a cloudy and stormy overall Arctic environment which would tend to trap heat. As this year has shown that traditional weather links to re-freeze have been obliterated by increasing heat energy in the Arctic system, a look at weather patterns alone can’t provide us with much in the way of reasonable assurance. So heat itself and heat retention becomes much more important.

A view of the graph below shows us that Arctic temperatures above the 80th parallel are currently well above normal — in the range of about 10 degrees Fahrenheit above what is considered average for this time of year.

The ‘mean’ averages — shown by the green line — are produced from temperature measurements from 1958-2002. Again, as with sea ice anomaly, this ‘mean’ measures a period of rising temperatures. So it is not a stable base-line. Departures from 1960s values are, therefore, likely 50% higher than the current departure from the ‘mean.’

In any case, a 10 degree F departure from the 1958-2002 mean shows a lot of heat energy still retained in the Arctic and generally failing to bleed off at the typical freezing season’s rate. You can see this delay by looking at the slope of the 2012 temperature line, which is no-where near as steep as the slope of the ‘mean’ temperature line.

Another way to view Arctic temperature is via the surface temperature anomaly map provided by NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Laboratory:

The above map shows that much of the Arctic is currently in the range of 3-11 degrees C (5-19 degrees F) above the 1985-1996 mean. It is worth noting that the 1985-1996 mean, though far warmer than the 1960s, does not include the series of record hot years of 1998-2002.

These very high temperatures show that a massive amount of heat is still being retained in the Arctic. So there is a high potential for the record anomaly set in 2007 to be broken over the next couple of weeks.


Rotten Sea Ice, “The Age of Consequences” and Our Planetary Emergency

“The scientific community realizes that we have a planetary emergency. It’s hard for the public to recognize this because they stick their head out the window and don’t see that much going on.” — NASA Scientist James Hansen.


Rotten Ice

So much has happened, so much keeps happening, that it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of all the accumulating impacts posed by human caused climate change.

Much focus has been placed upon the rapid melt of Arctic sea ice this year. And this visible sign of the damage caused by human greenhouse gas emissions is as good a place to plant our global warning flags as any. Overall losses for this year have been vast and dramatic, averaging at around 700,000 square kilometers between all the agencies reporting sea ice extent and area.

But even this amazing loss does not, entirely, put into context the current condition of Arctic sea ice. David Barber, a veteran Arctic researcher, recently characterized the state of Arctic sea ice by calling it ‘rotten.’ In Barber’s parlance, ‘rotten’ ice means ice flows that are broken and filled with holes or vast expanses of ice speckled with melt ponds that inevitably bore on down through the surface. Thin, fragile ice vulnerable to the action of waves and weather.

And this year, Barber is noting that the ice is rotten almost all the way to the North Pole.

“The multi-year ice, what’s left of it, is so heavily decayed that it’s really no longer a barrier to transportation,” Barber says, describing how melt ponds leave much of the ice looking like Swiss cheese.

“You could have taken a ship right across the North Pole this year,” he concludes.

Barber notes that we are heading to a seasonally ice free Arctic by around 2020, plus or minus five years. Barber goes on to point out that the last time the Arctic was seasonally ice free was millions of years ago and that the current pace of melt is unprecedented in the geological record.

“Now we are getting there in tens of years, not tens of thousands of years,” he says. “And we don’t know how the Earth is going to respond because we have never seen such a rapid change before.”

“The Age of Consequences”

But we are already starting to see Earth’s response. All over the globe, fires and droughts are multiplying, impacts to crops are intensifying, storms are growing stronger, more violent, damage from weather disasters is hitting new records. And the weather patterns themselves are changing.

This year, the jet stream has shifted into a new phase, nearly permanent for the past six months, in which warm air is dredged up out of the sub-tropics and dumped square over the vast ice sheets of Greenland. The result was the most rapid melt ever on record for this great frozen land. The same deviant jet resulted in the worst drought in the US in the last 55 years, a drought that continues to expand gobbling up more farmland. Hope for respite from this drought continues to diminish as the west and heartland revert to conditions of heating and drying.

As amateur Arctic observer and sea ice blogger Neven saliently noted in his devastating assessment of Arctic sea ice loss for 2012:

“But my bubble has burst. I’m already watching past the minimum. As the melting season ends, it feels as if things are only beginning. The age of consequences.”

Neven is right and not just for Arctic sea ice. We have entered the age of consequences in which worsening and far-range impacts from climate change will appear and intensify around the globe. And, given the speed and violence of the human forcing, the pace of change shows potential to exceed anything seen in the geological record.

Our Planetary Emergency

A few weeks ago, NASA scientist James Hansen began calling the current climate state a planetary emergency. This fact, now ever more visible, should be a clarion call to action. And the ever more seeming responsible and salient environmentalists are calling for cuts and curtailments to world carbon emissions.

The time for delay has long past and, even if we respond now, we should be hard put to it, very hard put to it, indeed, to push through this vast and growing crisis. We are likely currently on a very fast track toward a melting Greenland and West Antarctica. And under business as usual carbon emissions, nearly 1,000 ppm CO2 appears likely by the end of this century. Simply put, a human civilization of any rough allegory to our own cannot exist in such a world.

To call the current situation an emergency is a simple statement of fact. It is responsible to identify this emergency and to urgently call for response. It is time to turn away from the voices who have for so long been wrong and to listen instead to those who have an actual window on what is happening. On what is likely to happen. And on what will surely happen if we don’t work to curtail emissions now.

”Our society, our civilization and how we live our lives – it’s all predicated on a stable climate system,” says Barber, who notes that the planet has undergone abrupt climate change in the past and could do so again.

“The take-home message for people is we are running an experiment with Earth’s climate system,” says Barber.

And the experiment is now starting to go haywire.



Scientific Debate Over Arctic Methane Release Emerges: Long Tail Or Large Pulse?

Over the past few years, we have seen a number of conflicting scientific reports analyzing the amplifying methane release currently underway in the Arctic. Since this field of study is relatively new, it has been difficult to develop a consensus between the various studies and observations. But now, a distinct set of camps is beginning to emerge.

With the recent publication of a report headed by Katey Anthony, a scientific view has crystalized around the notion that Arctic methane release will be gradual, linear, and result in a long tail of amplification to human caused global warming over the time-scale of decades to centuries. This view, headed by David Archer at the climate blog Realclimate, has formed one side of the Arctic Methane debate among scientists. The result, according to Archer, would be a long-term increase in atmospheric carbon.

Anthony’s study focused on methane seeps at the edge of glaciers and at the boundaries of Arctic permafrost thaw. The primary region of study was Alaska, with some secondary research occurring in Greenland. Given this focus, Anthony found that methane emissions from these sources in the Arctic were double that expected by scientists. Anthony also found that methane emission was most rapid at the leading edge of glacial melt and rapidly tapered off after melting ceased.

The result was that the findings showed that rate of methane release, from glaciers and permafrost at least, is directly tied to the overall rate of melt. So, in the context of this study, your view of the potential for methane release depends the pace of glacial and permafrost thaw.

Analysis of Anthony’s paper by David Archer led him to conclude that: “the general response time of the system is slow, decades to centuries, rather than potentially poised to release a huge pulse of methane within a few years.” This conclusion is consistent with Archer’s view of a relatively gradual and linear melt down in the Arctic glacier and permafrost system. His scientific view, thus far, has been for a gradual contribution of Arctic carbon to the climate system with the ultimate deposition of a substantial portion of the 1200+ gigatons of Arctic carbon into the atmosphere over the relative long-term.

“The 1200 Gton C of Arctic methane hydrates and the permafrost carbon stack up pretty menacingly against our 700 Gton left to go, and the comparison is relevant even if the carbon is emitted slowly, or as CO2 rather than methane, or even if it is released into the ocean rather than into the air.”

Overall, this is not an entirely optimistic view. It is instead the argument for slowly amplifying Arctic methane emissions rather than large pulse emissions. The result being that the Arctic contributes a ‘long tail’ of amplification to an already worsening climate picture. Under Archer’s model, there is more time to change, but the end results of long-term human greenhouse gas emissions are the same.

Unfortunately, there are reasons to doubt some of the premises for Archer’s view. As already noted, Archer implies that glacial and tundra melt will be gradual. Archer also seems to imply that releases from hydrates will also be gradual and not necessarily breach the sea surface. But rates of tundra and glacial melt are already amplifying. Meanwhile, observations from some regions of the Arctic already imply increases in the volume of methane reaching the air with the largest methane emissions structures seen on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Some of these massive structures measured more than a kilometer across.

And while there is some argument as to whether these large methane structures are new or have existed over long periods of time, we have seen satellite data that show an increasing Arctic methane emission over the past 9 years. Heating in the Arctic has been very rapid. And we have already seen nonlinear melt in the Arctic sea ice.

Overall, the context of these conditions is for a very energetic Arctic environment. One that pushes toward non-linear melt, not for a gradual loss of the icy methane cap. The result of these forces have caused some scientists, including Shakhova, to estimate that it is possible for large methane pulses to form in the Arctic during rapid periods of melt and heating. These pulses, Shakhova notes, could be as large as 50 gigatons and could occur during relatively short time-frames. Since the current atmospheric concentration of methane is only 5 gigatons, and since methane is at least 25 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, a 50 gigaton pulse would have serious impacts for amplifying the already powerful forcing of human-caused warming.

The fact that non-linear responses to global warming have already been established in the recent history of Arctic melt would seem to point to a not insignificant potential for Shakhova’s view bearing out. However, this does not mean that Archer paints a rosey picture either. The two views represent a range of possibilities for Arctic melt and methane release from ratcheting long-term harm, to potential devastating releases in the relative near term — years to decades rather than decades to centuries.

Outside of climate change denial, this is the debate we should currently be having about the impacts of human climate change to the Arctic ice-methane system. And this debate, between bad and worse potentials, draws a dramatic line under the need for rapid human carbon emission reductions now.

For the near-term, years to decades, let us hope that Archer is correct and there is more time for the slow-moving human system to respond to the rather dangerous changes we’re already causing to our climate.



Arctic Sea Ice Limping Into Seasonal Refreeze; Extent, Area Still Below Records Set in 2007, 2011

Last week, Arctic Sea began a gradual re-freeze from the extreme record low values set this year. Now, after about a week of re-freeze, values remain below the records for extent and area set in 2007 and 2011.

According to JAXA, sea ice extent is now 3.87 million square kilometers, nearly 400,000 square kilometers below the record low set in 2007. Cryosphere Today is showing sea ice area at 2.57 million square kilometers, about 350,000 square kilometers below the 2011 record. At the current rate of refreeze, it will be sometime in early October before sea ice area and extent begins to surpass the record lows for these years.

In total, sea ice area and extent are tracking nearly 4 million square kilometers below the 1980s average and about 2.4 million square kilometers below the average range for 1979-2008. For the date of September 25, both sea ice area and extent are currently at an all-time record low.

With the seasonal shift, we are currently beginning to see refreeze. But it important to put this refreeze into context — it will likely be mid-November before the Arctic even begins to reach extents usually experienced during late summer as near back as the 1980s. To forget the vast melt of 2012 and continue on as if we are in a state of normalcy would be a vast failure of rational thinking.

Please also watch this fantastic summary of the great sea ice melt experienced this year and over the past 30 years:


After Brief Pause, Arctic Sea Ice Still in Record Decline, Science Begins to Show Human-Caused Arctic Melt is a Primary Driver of Extreme Weather

Today is September 13th. We are two days from a typical melt season’s end. And yet this melt season is anything but typical. After a brief period when weather conditions seemed to favor a stop in sea ice melt, melt has resumed. So, late in the season, we are still reaching new substantial record lows.

Today we’ve seen declines in both sea ice area and extent. JAXA fell 6,000 square kilometers from yesterday’s record to hit a new low of 3.585 million square kilometers. Cryosphere Today, on the other hand, fell by more than 50,000 square kilometers to reach a new record low of 2.262 million square kilometers. NSIDC is holding at near its record low set just yesterday.

Overall rates of decline are still a little steeper than for this time in 2007. So given these decline rates, it seems that yesterday’s call for 1 or 2 new record lows may be premature and that another series of record low days are in store.

Conditions in the Arctic are still dramatically warm for this time of year, though weather patterns have shifted into a phase that should encourage re-freeze. This has been the case over the past week. But melt is still ongoing. The best conclusion is that Arctic heat content and ice fragility are resulting in patterns that do not conform to typical Arctic weather and ice response.

Departures from previous record lows are as follows (last record year in parenthesis):

JAXA Extent: -665,000 square kilometers (2007)

Cryosphere Today Area: -643,000 square kilometers (2011)

PIOMAS Volume: -400 cubic kilometers (2011)

NSIDC Extent: -750,000 square kilometers (2007)

BBC and a number of other news outlets are finally starting to report on this year’s record ice loss. However, reports from these news agencies are using data from back in late August, so their reports do not, as yet, show the full extent of this year’s dramatic ice loss. Regardless, these reports are useful in spreading the word about the highly rapid and volatile decline of Arctic sea ice. You can view the BBC report here.

Of particular note is that news agencies are beginning to report on the groundbreaking work of Jennifer Francis showing how loss of sea ice is affecting the Jet Stream and enhancing extreme weather events around the world. The first major outlet to report on Francis’s findings was Think Progress. But it now appears other outlets are starting to follow suit. Radio ecoshock has an excellent interview with Ms Francis here.

The extreme weather mechanism resulting from Arctic sea ice melt has received a lot of analysis of late. Ms Francis has called a lot of attention to the increasing size of atmospheric wave patterns that result in slower, more powerful weather patterns. An excellent visual of these weather patterns can be viewed here:

Extreme weather resulting from these patterns includes extended cool, wet, and rainy periods resulting in more floods or extreme snowfall events and extreme heat and dryness resulting in more droughts. The march of these weather patterns around the world is likely to result in greater damage to modern infrastructure, in harm to crops likely to result in food scarcity and increasing prices at the grocery store. These are just the kinds of weather patterns that the world has been experiencing with greater and greater frequency since the 1990s. The current loss of sea ice and snowpack in the Arctic is likely to result in even more extreme weather to come.


Some Refreeze Seen in Arctic, Still Too Early to Call End to Record Melt Season

As the Arctic melt season draws to a close, an intensifying battle between melt and freezing can cause values to push higher one day and then lower the next. This appears to be what is happening. Sea ice area showed some refreeze today with Cryosphere today about 40,000 square kilometers above the record low set yesterday. Sea ice extent as measured by JAXA saw both a data revision and a bit of re-freeze push numbers 100,000 square kilometers higher than the previous day.

Since data is preliminary, these revisions can and do happen. The JAXA revision will also change the current record low established by that agency.

NSIDC, on the other hand, after showing a slight re-freeze over the past few days has again pushed down below 3.5 million square kilometers of sea ice extent. So it appears we have some disagreement in the various sea ice monitors which is pretty typical for this time of year.

Looking at the sea ice, we can see expansion in the regions north of Alaska while sea ice still appears to be receding in the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia. Some areas of the Canadian Archipelago are still seeing melt as well.

Weather conditions appear to be favoring refreeze but, as mentioned in previous posts, this year has tended to buck trends. That said, the current bump in both area and extent in some sea ice monitors seem to show a response to this weather pattern. In any case, until a trend establishes itself, it is still too early to call an end to this year’s record and anomalous melt.


Is The ENSO Signal Being Over-Ridden by Global Warming?

The periodic switch between warm and cool surface ocean temperatures over the eastern equatorial Pacific has long been a powerful driver of global weather. The reason is that such a large body of water can do major work moving weather patterns depending on its relative cool or warm state. This area of the Pacific is very large — about 9 million square kilometers and it sits directly below the equatorial wind flows. So warming and cooling in this region pushes weather governing winds, changing the direction of storms and the location of droughts, serving as a powerful governor of world weather and climate.

But human caused global warming may be shifting the role of ENSO into a secondary governor of climate. The reason? Large areas of open water in the Arctic and northern oceans are now subject to excess heating.

Take  a look at the map above and you will notice a large region of much warmer than average water located in the polar, Arctic, and high temperate zones. Almost the entire Arctic Ocean, the region of Hudson Bay, the Canadian Archipelago, the sea directly west of Greenland and the North Atlantic are all experiencing sea surface temperatures far exceeding the average range. A large area of the northern Pacific is also experiencing abnormally hot conditions. The abnormally high temperatures in these regions cover ocean areas as much as twice as large as the region typically affected by El Nino.

The change in heat distribution of these waters alters the circumpolar jet stream. It changes the path, location, duration and intensity of storms. It can make cool and wet periods last longer. It can make dry and hot periods also last longer. It is the main element influencing the blocking patterns that have been so prominent in weather events over the past decade and a half. Finally, it may eventually alter the turn of the northern hemisphere seasons. For as it intensifies, it has the ability to change winter into something that may be well unrecognizable from the seasons as they’ve existed over the 20th century.

This heating of the northern hemisphere land and water becomes a periodic event intensifying toward the end of summer. But it is the ability of this latent heat to melt ice, move air masses, cause huge swoops in the jet stream, alter the seasons, and extend the duration of weather events that may result in its over-shadowing the signal coming from El Nino and La Nina.

It is particularly worth noting that, despite La Nina being very strong over the end of 2010 and throughout 2011, 2010 was the hottest year on record and 2011 was the 9th hottest year on record and the hottest La Nina year on record. Usually, a powerful La Nina like the one occurring in 2011 would have pushed world temperatures dramatically down. But we still experienced a record year. Also, strong El Nino years have typically resulted in the world reaching new record high temperatures under global warming. Not so with 2010. That year was a year that transitioned from weak El Nino to strong La Nina. Yet temperatures were still high enough to break a new record.

What appears to be happening is that the global warming signal is becoming large enough to over-ride the signal coming from El Nino and La Nina. If we think of these two forces as wave patterns, the size of the human caused global warming wave is now large enough to confuse and dilute the, now smaller, El Nino, La Nina wave signal. This seems to be true, again, for 2012 where a strong La Nina is transitioning into a very weak El Nino. Yet all the recent months have been much hotter than the climatological average with June and July both being the 4th hottest on record.

And though it is likely that the strong La Nina influenced the Texas drought of 2011 and the 50 year drought of 2012, the fact that La Nina has faded while drought conditions have persisted should be a clear indicator that La Nina is no longer sitting in the driver’s seat.

The fact that human caused global warming is now the primary driver of extreme weather events has now been validated by many scientists. The IPCC, NOAA, and NASA have now all linked extreme weather to human caused global warming. In addition, Jennifer Francis and colleagues have also produced a report showing how loss of sea ice is driving the powerful blocking patterns we’ve seen linked to extreme weather events over the past two decades. So, moving forward, it will be important for weather forecasters to identify atmospheric changes due to human global warming if they are to accurately predict weather over extended periods in the future.



Sea Ice Area Falls Below 2.3 Million Square Kilometers

A tragic, devastating, and mostly ignored in the media, loss of Arctic sea ice is still ongoing. Today, sea ice area fell below the threshold of 2.3 million square kilometers to touch 2.29 million square kilometers today. By comparison, the total land area of Greenland is about 2.1 million square kilometers. Sea ice extent also fell again today reaching 3.59 million square kilometers and breaking the threshold of 3.6 million square kilometers.

The record retreat this year has extended the vast losses seen in 2007. Now, it appears there is dire risk of losing the Arctic ice, its related habitats, and the cooling services it provides. This will have a number of very powerful impacts, not the least of which is economic. A Pew Study recently estimated that added cooling costs alone resulting from the loss of Arctic sea ice could total between 4.8 and 91.3 trillion dollars by 2100. The fact that this study was based on model estimates for sea ice area, which have tended to vastly lag observations, means that the lower range of estimates is far too conservative. Other impacts include far less predictable weather, enhanced Greenland melt, and a potentially devastating erosion of seasonal variability.

With much of the energy from sea ice melt now transferring to the land-bound ice sheets of Greenland and, to a lesser extent, Antarctica, we can expect weather patterns that result in rapidly increasing melt in these regions.

James Hansen has identified a problem in ice melt forecasting. The question involves Greenland’s ice melt’s rate of doubling. Hansen notes that melt rate could double every ten years or as quickly as once every six years. Either melt rate doubling is severe. But a six year doubling rate would have a terrible impact on sea level rise. Likely, even the doubling rates don’t paint the whole picture, with large single melt pulses increasingly likely as heat builds in the region of Greenland.

Recently, changing weather patterns have enhanced melt over Greenland. A discussion of these weather patterns can be found here. Simply put, a strong high pressure system has tended, with greater and greater frequency, to form over Greenland. These events have coincided, in many cases, with large melt events and may well be an emerging pattern of atmospheric heat transfer to the frozen island. Here is a weather map illustrating the pattern in a three decade trend:

Areas of high pressure are indicated in green, yellow and red. Areas of low pressure are indicated in blue and purple. Since 2007, this pattern has been emerging with particular strength.

It is likely that ice loss is a major contributor to the emergence of this new weather pattern.

For this year, record values for sea ice loss show alarming departures from previous records set in 2007 and 2011. Departure values for 2012 are as follows (previous record year in parenthesis):

JAXA Extent: -655,000 square kilometers (2007)

Cryosphere Today Area: -607,000 square kilometers (2011)

PIOMAS Volume: -400 cubic kilometers (2011)

NSIDC Extent: -682,000 square kilometers (2007)

Now all major values for sea ice area and extent are more than 600,000 square kilometers below previous records. Percent losses from the previous record low are: JAXA 15.4%, Cryosphere Today 20.5%, NSIDC 16.3%. For a single year, this is a very high rate of loss. September 15 marks the melt season’s average end date and we are still one week away. However, highly variable Arctic weather has resulted in melt seasons over the past 30 years ending any time from late August to early October.

If you are concerned about the Arctic and wish to put pressure on governments and businesses to protect this key environment, you may be interested in the following petitions:

Biological Diversity

Save the Arctic

Though these petitions are helpful measures, any chance of saving the Arctic from total loss of sea ice within the next generation will require a massive cessation in the use of fossil fuels and, likely, the application of a number of technologies that actively remove carbon from the atmosphere. That is the situation we are now faced with. And we need to raise awareness as rapidly as possible or face even more devastating consequences.


Arctic Sea Ice Continues Inexorable Melt

Today, sea ice in the Arctic continued what is shaping up to be a truly historic melt.

Sea ice area fell to 2.364 million square kilometers as sea ice extent fell to 3.614 million square kilometers. These measures reported by Cryosphere Today and JAXA are the lowest in the satellite record.

Looking at the sea ice, you will notice that many ship passages are open through the Arctic. Most of the Canadian Archipelago is clear of sea ice and a broad swath of ocean north of Russia is also clear.

Though melt trends do appear to be slowing, a daily retreat of ice at this time of year is very unusual. And this is just what we’re still experiencing. Given this inexorable melt, we should entertain the possibility that sea ice will continue to fade past the average cessation date on September 15th. And an extended period of melt this year would exacerbate already staggering losses.

There are a number of factors at play currently enhancing end-season melt. However, these factors are all long-term, and appear to have over-ridden the short-term influence of weather. The conditions that so dramatically enhanced melt in 2007 were not present through most of this year. So it is only possible to blame this year’s melt on increasing long-term Arctic heat content and the current fragility of the sea ice.

In a recent interview with the BBC, sea ice expert and Cambridge Professor Peter Wadhams noted that Arctic sea ice was ‘headed for oblivion’ within ten years and that the added heat absorbed by the darker Arctic Ocean was like adding ’20 years of CO2′ emissions.

Overall departures from previous historic lows are as follows (last record year in parenthesis):

JAXA Extent: -636,000 square kilometers (2007)

Cryosphere Today Area: -541,000 square kilometers (2011)

PIOMAS Volume: -400 cubic kilometers (2011)

NSIDC Extent: -659,000 square kilometers (2007)


Arctic Sea Ice Volume Hits Record Low Third Year in a Row

(Image Credit: L Hamilton, Data Credit: PIOMAS)

According to the most recent update from the Polar Science Center, sea ice volume reached a new record low during August. This is the third consecutive record low since 2009 and the current low is 400 cubic kilometers below the previous record set in 2011. This new low is a 10% fall from the 2011 value. A total of 75% of sea ice volume has been lost since 1979.

September usually marks the lowest volume measure for the year. So it is possible that the 2012 record is only preliminary and will fall lower as the melt season reaches its peak.

As for this year, all measures of sea ice area, extent, and volume are in record territory. Current rates of loss show that ice-free or nearly ice free conditions are possible within the next ten years.

(Image Credit: PIOMAS)

How Arctic Sea Ice Melt is Amplifying the Problem of Human-Caused Warming


We are getting ourselves into a rather severe fix. Arctic sea ice is melting at a very rapid rate and changes are happening to the Arctic environment at a pace much faster than that expected by many scientists. These observable changes to the world’s climate were predicted. It is just the rate at which they are happening which is so startling.

The most conservative, early, predictions estimated sea ice would average around 8 million square kilometers by the end of the melt season in 2012. Even the later, more aggressive, models showed an average of about 5.5 million square kilometers by this year. In the record, according to the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA), we are currently sitting at less than 4 million square kilometers of sea ice — with more than two weeks still remaining in the melt season. This is twice the average melt predicted as near back as a year ago. And the current model predictions are still woefully behind.

This lagging of prediction behind the pace of change is a simple underestimation, by mainstream climate scientists, of how sensitive the Earth is to the force of human greenhouse gas emissions. It is also a broader failure of society to encourage scientists to do the work necessary to protect the long-term interests of our civilizations. Instead, we have allowed monied interests to engage in vicious, politically-driven attacks on the scientists who should be the watch-dogs against the harm caused by human global warming.

In short, based on current observations, the climate system in the Arctic appears to be extremely sensitive to the human greenhouse forcing. And, as such, it is rapidly changing, altering in ways that will further worsen the already serious impact of human-caused climate change.

This foreseen impact could have been prevented had we received a more immediate and widely trumpeted warning, had we gathered the political will to act, and had the monied interests not decided to wage a war on the future for a few temporary and transient gains. Instead, we are now injected into a world where constant change is becoming the norm. Instead, we must fend off powerful, entrenched interests in order to have an inkling of hope to prevent the worst impacts even as we expect strong impacts for some time to come.

Loss of Sea Ice Reflectivity

The first impact of drastically smaller sea ice coverage is a loss of reflectivity or albedo. The sun is almost always in the Arctic sky during the summer months. This 24-hour shine beams down on all surfaces of the Arctic. And the darker surface of water absorbs much more of that solar energy than the white, reflective surfaces of an ice sheet.

Research has found that water is, on average, five degrees Celsius hotter under open ocean than under the white, reflective covering of an ice sheet. As more and more areas open up, they absorb more and more of the sun’s energy creating a much hotter Arctic environment. And, currently, we have about half the ice cover we enjoyed during the 1980s.

Loss of Late Season Snow Cover

As the Arctic Ocean warms, more air is warmed above the waters. These hotter airs then blow over land, warming it as well. The result is that snow cover in the high Arctic is reduced. 2012 saw the lowest level of snow cover on record.

Snow produces an effect similar to that of Arctic sea ice. It reflects the sun’s rays resulting in much cooler temperatures in regions of high snow cover. It also keeps the ground beneath it much colder. And ground beneath snows in the Arctic tend to be methane-trapping permafrost.

Land without snow cover is also darker than snow. So areas where high snow melt occurs will heat faster, having higher than average temperatures and breaking down the permafrost layer beneath.

Changing Weather Patterns

Recent research has found that the change in wind patterns brought about by melting sea ice and a warmer Arctic drastically alter the Jet Stream. The result is a tendency of the Jet Stream to travel in larger waves from north to south. In addition to creating ‘blocking patterns’ in the mid latitudes, these elongated atmospheric waves dig deeper into the temperate zones, sometimes touching the tropics. And when they do they create a powerful transport mechanism for moving hot air into the Arctic. The result is an even greater degree of amplification in Arctic heating.


(Image credit: Geophysical Research Letters)

Permafrost Methane Release

All this new hot air swirling about in the Arctic drastically increases the rate of melting both in the sea ice and on land. Eventually, the heat sinks into the soil where it does work melting permafrost.

All around the Arctic circle we have seen the effects of melting permafrost. Structures have crumbled as the soil beneath becomes softer. Coastlines, once hard as stone, are now just mud and are eaten away by a freshly churning Arctic sea. Throughout the wild Arctic, permafrost melt lakes have formed and these lakes seep high volumes of methane.


(Image credit: Energy BC)

The added methane throughout the Arctic increases fire hazards. High concentrations of methane are very flammable and may combust due to a lightning strike or as a result of the spontaneous heating of a balmy day. And throughout the Arctic we have seen a drastic increase in the rate of fires. Just this year, Siberia saw massive blazes devour miles and miles of tundra and Arctic wilderness.


(Image credit: NASA)

A vast amount of carbon is stored in the Arctic permafrost as well as in the forests and tundras above. A National Snow and Ice Data Center study conducted in 2008 found that from 1400-1700 gigatons of carbon were locked in frozen soils worldwide and that much of these soils were in the Arctic. NSIDC estimates that warming could result in carbon releases from Arctic soil equal to 15-35 percent of human greenhouse gas emissions. In 2011, China emitted about 29% of the world’s greenhouse gasses. The human forcing in the Arctic could, in the case of frozen permafrost alone, add another China worth of greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere every year.

Yet a large portion of this carbon emission would come from methane. And methane is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO2. So even if a third of this added emission were methane, it could easily double the human forcing.

Clathrate Methane Release

Sadly, the permafrost, soils, and forests in the Arctic aren’t the only source of methane in the region. Large deposits of a substance called clathrates or methane hydrates rest upon or just beneath the Arctic sea bed. The clathrates are essentially frozen formations of methane combined with water. They tend to be rather unstable and sensitive to heating. In an Arctic ocean that is increasingly ice-free during the summer months, the water column can warm by as much as five degrees Celsius. This extra heating has the potential to destabilize clathrate formations.

About 1400 gigatons of methane is stored in clathrates. This is roughly equal to the amount stored in permafrost worldwide. So this potential added forcing combines with methane and carbon releases from the Arctic tundra.

Evidence of Amplifying Methane Release

Over the past four years, researchers have found a wealth of evidence pointing toward an amplified methane release in the Arctic. Atmospheric methane levels are on the rise.


(Image credit: NOAA)

A proliferating number of methane emitting ponds have been found throughout the Arctic. Large areas of ocean, especially in the East Siberian Sea, are emitting high volumes of methane. Underwater plumes of methane as large as one kilometer across have been discovered. And recent satellite research conducted by the University of Maryland shows that the amount of methane released from the Arctic is amplifying year-on-year.

The Next Domino to Fall: Greenland

The Arctic amplification described above is likely to have another non-linear affect — increasing direct impacts to Greenland ice melt. Loss of sea ice substantially reduces a buffer surrounding Greenland. In the past, sea ice served to block the flow of warm air masses and to protect Greenland from pulses of heat coming from the south. This was clearly not the case this summer when a very warm air mass repeatedly formed over Greenland, drastically increasing melt there.


(Image credit: NOAA)

Blocking patterns also have a tendency to park over Greenland, consistently funneling in warmer air from the south. Loss of permafrost and snow cover along with increased atmospheric methane create a witch’s brew of heat that could all result in a state-change in Greenland.

It is important to consider that loss of sea ice, though an important and devastating loss, results in relatively moderate impacts to human society when compared with Greenland ice loss. Imagine, for a moment, the loss of fifty percent of Greenland ice in a few decades. The result would be an 11 foot sea level rise. Now there are no scientific models or observations saying this will happen. But there were no models that estimated sea ice loss would be this rapid either. And though the mile-high glaciers of Greenland aren’t as likely to suffer from the same widely varied set of forces affecting sea ice, they are certainly not impenetrable. The issue here is that the risk to Greenland is high and the impacts, should the worst risks bear out, are very high.

It is worth re-emphasizing that after sea ice, should human greenhouse gas emissions not be vastly curtailed, Greenland will be the next domino to fall. And when it does, it will be almost impossible for the world to ignore.

Arctic Cooling Cycle Changing to Arctic Heating Cycle

The net effect of all these changes: Arctic sea ice melt, permafrost melt, methane release, and Greenland melt is that the cooling mechanism of the Arctic is being transformed into a warming mechanism. As we added greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere we relied on these cooling mechanisms to help maintain a stable climate and to prevent the worst impacts of human greenhouse gas heating. Now, these mechanisms have been forced by human climate change to a new a phase. A phase where they increasingly add to the problem, resulting in a powerful amplifying feedback, that will be more and more difficult to reign in should we continue to fail to respond.

What Does a World at 400 Parts Per Million CO2 Look Like Long-Term?

In the give and take of the current global warming debate, it’s easy to lose track of context. Thankfully, we have a geological history to use as a window to our past. And by using that window we can see what the world will look like if CO2 levels stay where they are for long periods of time. In this first exploration, we’ll look at current CO2 levels — around 400 parts per million to give a decent idea of how the world will change if we don’t undertake the challenge of reducing these high levels of greenhouse gasses.

When Was the Last Time CO2 Levels Were This High?

It is important to note that relatively small changes in CO2 can lead to ample warming. During the last ice age, more than 10,000 years ago, CO2 levels were stable in a range between 180 and 210 parts per million. At the ice age’s cessation, CO2 levels rose to 280 parts per million. This relatively small rise of about 70 parts per million had dramatic consequences. Temperatures rose by about 5.5 degrees Celcius (10 degrees Fahrenheit).

Today, industrial activity and fossil fuel consumption has resulted in nearly 120 parts per million of additional CO2 added to the atmosphere. This addition has occurred over a very short time-scale when compared to past changes in CO2 levels and additions of 2-3 parts per million continue each year.

However, assuming CO2 were to stabilize. Assuming that, somehow, the world is able to reign in emissions enough to keep CO2 levels steady at 400 parts per million, what would happen?

As mentioned above, geological history gives us a basic notion. Long ago, about 3 million years ago, CO2 levels were steady in a range of 365-410 parts per million. This geological era was called the Pliocene.

What Did the Pliocene Look Like?

What would seem like a rather small difference in CO2 levels had dramatic effects. The first was that sea levels were 75 feet higher than they are currently today. The second was that average temperatures around the world were 3-4 degrees Celsius warmer (5.4-7.2 degrees Fahrenheit). Greenland and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet were ice free at CO2 levels of 400 parts per million and temperatures 3 degrees Celsius warmer than today. Arctic temperatures were much warmer — 8-16 degrees Celsius warmer than today.

This is the kind of world we can expect if CO2 levels are sustained at 400 parts per million.

Why Do Climate Models Under-predict Sea Level and Temperature Rise?

These historic temperature increases are much greater than those predicted by current climate models. The reason is that these models have not been able to take into account all the feedbacks to CO2 forcing that are intrinsic to the climate system. Models, by their nature, are simplifications and are only as good as the data that goes into them. But looking at geological history, it is quite clear that current climate models underestimate temperature and sea level rise given current levels of CO2.

How Fast Will Climate Change at a Constant 400 Parts Per Million CO2?

If, somehow, the world were able to stabilize CO2 at 400 parts per million, how fast would the world see 75 foot sea levels and 3-4 degree Celsius temperature increases? In short, this is the one million dollar question. Fossil fuel special interests would like us to believe that these changes would be gradual and slow to happen. In fact, many fossil fuel interests would have us believe that climate change isn’t happening at all, or, if it is, that its impacts will be far milder than the geological record would indicate. Sadly, the fossil fuel companies are misguiding themselves and the rest of us for their own short-term economic gain.

Paleoclimate data points to rapid, non-linear, responses to increases in CO2 levels. In some cases, temperatures have rebalanced over the course of decades and normally during periods of centuries or less. In some of the most radical cases, the changes have occurred on time scales measuring as few as ten years. Given the rapid rise of CO2 to its current state and likely feedbacks to result, we could expect to see a majority of that 75 feet in 300-600 years. That means severe consequences could ramp up before the end of this century pushing sea levels by ten to fifteen feet or more. You won’t see the IPCC posting a report that makes this kind of a statement, but it certainly is a potential, even if CO2 levels stabilize at ‘only’ 400 parts per million.

Most likely, current predictions of 1-2 meters of sea level rise by the end of this century is still a conservative forecast even for what would happen in a world where CO2 levels remain stable at 400 ppm. Even at constant CO2 levels of 400 ppm, we are looking at sea level rises in the range of 1.5-4.6 meters per century or more.

Business As Usual Estimates Place CO2 at Around 1000 Parts Per Million By the End of This Century; What Would That World Look Like?

Unfortunately, the world has yet to adopt serious policies that curtail greenhouse gas emission or reduce the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. And, even more concerning, world carbon sinks are beginning to contribute their own greenhouse gasses to the world climate system. Unless very rapid emissions reduction regimes are put into place, the world of the Pliocene, as strange and radically different as it may seem, will look like paradise compared to a world that reaches 600, 800, 0r 1000 parts per million CO2. And it is this increasing likelihood that we will explore in another blog.

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Arctic Cyclone Hangs On, Record 2012 Sea Ice Loss Continues, Large Areas of Sea Ice Detached From Main Ice Flow

(Weather Report Credit: DMI)

An immense cyclone that has ravaged the Arctic continues its powerful blow today.

The cyclone, which formed over East Siberian and then ripped through the Arctic has left a wave of chaos in its wake. First, it pushed 10-12 foot seas through a region that rarely sees powerful storms of this type. Then, it enhanced sea ice melt in the regions it impacted. Now, it hangs on as a 970 millibar storm system — a pressure level usually seen in tropical cyclones.

It is difficult to emphasize how rare this event is. Though summer cyclones do occur, most tend to be weak and have little effect. Usually, the strongest events occur during winter time. The last powerful summer Arctic cyclone was observed in 2006, but this 2012 event is much more powerful. If these strong summer storm events become more common-place, they are likely to represent another threat to Arctic sea ice.

As the storm continued, so has rapid melt. Since August 3rd, more than 360,000 square kilometers of sea ice has been lost — an average rate of more than 70,000 square kilometers each day. Currently, Cryosphere Today is showing a total sea ice area of 3,425,000 square kilometers, a mere 450,000 square kilometers above the record low set in 2007, with more than one month of melt left in this season. For this date, Cryosphere Today is showing sea ice area levels more than 430,000 square kilometers below the previous record low set just last year.

Furthermore, something entirely unprecedented is happening to the ice sheet. Driven by storm winds, it appears that a large section of sea ice has detached from the main flow and is now stranded in the East Siberian Sea. This is an event that is without precedent in the satellite record.


For years, Arctic researchers have speculated that weakened Arctic sea ice would be vulnerable to detachment from major storm or wind events. Now that speculation is reality. A large area of ice is now detached from the main flow and, due to that detachment, remains vulnerable to enhanced melting around its edges and at its center. In particular, this detachment shows that Arctic sea ice has become even more vulnerable to rapid melt due to another powerful feedback mechanism acting on it.

It is difficult to emphasize how important an event this is. In short, it is another powerful and glaring sign that Arctic Sea ice may be in terminal decline.

Sea ice extent measurements also continue to show rapid melt with both the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) and the NSIDC showing current day melt below the record lows set for this date:

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Sea Ice Model Predictions Still Well Behind Rapid Arctic Melt Trend

As we cover the current record Arctic melt season and its potential to break the record low set in 2007, it is important to put this event and the events of the past five years into context. In short: no one expected the melt to happen so rapidly. The scientists, who relied on model systems for guidance, found that the models they were using were entirely too conservative and that they consistently under-predicted the great volumes of sea ice melt that kept coming up again and again in observation.

Models, in general, are only as good as the information you feed into them. In this case, the rule of garbage-in, garbage-out reigns. If a model is fed false assumptions or incomplete information, it is more likely to put out an erroneous conclusion. And, in general, researchers have been having a beast of a time getting the sea ice melt prediction models right.

This image shows both past and current model runs (red and blue lines and shades) predicting loss of sea ice extent due to global warming compared with observations (black line):


The blue line represents the average combination of model runs used in the IPCC’s 4th assessment report in 2007 (CMIP3). The information fed into the models was based on the assumed forcing effects caused by business as usual greenhouse gas emissions (business as usual assumes all the fossil fuels will be burned). The blue and purple shaded areas reflect the standard deviation for these model runs. As you can see, the black line representing current Arctic sea ice melt is well outside even the lowest standard deviation range for these first model runs.

Recently, a second set of model runs was made in an attempt to more accurately predict Arctic sea ice melt. The average for these model runs is shown by the red line. And the standard deviation for these runs is shown by the pink and purple shaded areas. As you can see, the second set of runs (CMIP5), though more accurate, just barely manages to catch current Arctic Melt within its lower standard deviation.

Getting into the data a little, it seems likely that the models are missing a number of feedbacks that are currently impacting the Arctic. Another issue is that models tend to be very bad at managing tipping point events. In short, models tend to make smooth curves, but a tipping point is a jagged turn. Needless to say, climate researchers should be applauded for their efforts as current policy regarding climate change is in dire need of a clear predictive capacity and current efforts to refine these models are likely to increase understanding of how the Arctic is most likely to respond to human-caused global warming.

Meanwhile, this year’s current Arctic sea ice melt remains on track the break the record set in 2007…

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