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Hot Blob #2 Takes Aim at Sea Ice — Abnormally Warm Waters Invading the Arctic Through Bering and Chukchi

A lot of attention has been paid to a ‘Blob’ of unusual warmth at the ocean surface in the Northeastern Pacific. And for good reason, for that Blob of human-warmed water has had wide-ranging negative impacts on both weather and sea life. Now there’s a second hot Blob forming in the Bering and Chukchi seas. One that may also have some rather significant effects as the summer of 2015 continues.

Abnormally Warm Waters Running Toward the Sea Ice

Hot Blob #2 is a vast stretch of warm water covering the Bering and Chukchi seas between Alaska and Kamchatka (Neven, in his most recent sea ice summary, touched on this building warm water zone here). It encompasses surface waters in an usually frigid region that now feature temperatures ranging from 3 to 5.5 degrees Celsius above normal. Covering an area roughly 800 miles in diameter, this pool of outlandishly warm ocean waters is being fed by currents running up from the south and by heat bleeding off Alaskan and Siberian land masses. In this case, land masses that are also experiencing record heat.

image

(Hot Blob #2 forms in the Bering as its warm waters are swept north toward the Arctic sea ice pack. The above sea surface temperature anomaly map shows a broad stretch of much hotter than typical surface waters being pulled poleward by prevailing ocean currents. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

Though the abnormal warmth is also likely fed by a powerful albedo switch from white, reflective sea ice, to dark, sunlight absorbing ocean, other factors associated with El Nino and related to the hot blob off the North American West Coast are also likely in play. And of particular interest in this present extreme hot water situation are currents flowing northward out of these warm pools and directly into the Arctic. Currents that have been eating away at the ice since winter.

One warm water bearing current — the Alaskan Coastal Current — runs directly out of the abnormally hot surface zone in the Northeastern Pacific (Blob #1). This current flows along the North American Continental Shelf, out past the Aleutian Island Chain and finally up into the Bering Sea. A second current — the Siberian Coastal Current — feeds into the Bering from the Asian Continental Shelf. These currents then combine and push Bering Sea waters on through the Bering Strait and up into the Chukchi Sea.

Algae bloom hot pool

(Algae blooms, like this one in the Chukchi Sea just south of the ice pack, have been a common feature of the Pacific Ocean hot pools. The warmer waters are a preferred environment for microbes which can see some amazingly rapid population explosions. If the blooms become too numerous they can rob the ocean surface waters of nutrients and die off en masse. The decay of dead masses of algae can then leech away the oceans’ life-giving oxygen, setting off and contributing to a chain of harmful ocean anoxia. In a warming world, this process, combined with disruption of ocean currents and the basic fact that warmer waters bear less oxygen in solution, is a major contributor to mass extinction events. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

Northward propagation of these currents during spring and summer plays a critical role in the rate of sea ice recession in the Bering, Chukchi, Beaufort and East Siberian Seas. Waters warmed by the summer sun and by the more rapidly heating continents amplify in the Bering Strait before making contact with the sea ice and pushing it to melt and recede.

Impacts Already Visible Up the Coast

This year, waters in the Strait are extraordinarily warm — measuring 5.4 degrees above normal surface water temperatures. A plug of 5 C + above average water entering the Chukchi, Bering, Beaufort and East Siberian seas at a time when solar insolation is hitting peak intensity and during a period when nearby Arctic regions like Alaska are experiencing some of their hottest temperatures ever recorded. These waters, at temperatures in the range of 7-8 degrees Celsius, are warm enough to rapidly melt any ice they contact. And they’re flooding directly toward the ice pack.

Barrow Alaska

(Ice rapidly melting off of Barrow, Alaska on June 23, 2015. Ice is seen receding from the near shore zone even as the ice pack further out breaks into dark blue patches of open ocean. Image source: Barrow Ice Cam.)

Unusually warm surface water and air temperature impacts can already be seen further down the coast in places like Barrow, Alaska. Today, near shore sea ice dramatically melted and off-shore sea ice has retreated poleward — revealing the tell-tale blue of open ocean in the distance. An extreme one day change for Barrow sea ice, which only featured melt ponds and some near-shore melt 24 hours before.

Conditions, Model Runs Point Toward Substantial Thinning

Looking northward, we find ice pack conditions showing substantial thinning, significant melt pond formation over the surface ice and increasingly disassociated ice flows in the Beaufort, Chukchi, and East Siberian Seas. Near shore ice in the East Siberian Sea (ESS) has taken on a vivid blue or glassy appearance indicative of melt pond formation. Melt and compaction wedges have formed in the ESS along an axis pointing toward the pole. In the Chukchi, sea ice recession and thinning appear to be proceeding quite rapidly, while dispersing ice in the Beaufort is hitting warmer surface waters, fed by Mackenzie River outflow, and melting.

Navy ARCc Model Run

(The ARCc model run shows rapid thinning in the Beaufort, Chukchi and ESS through June 30. Image source: US Navy.)

The Navy’s ARCc historic and forecast model run for May 30 through June 30 shows rapid thinning of sea ice in the affected regions. The forecast run for the next seven days shows extreme thinning continuing through the ESS and Chukchi, with thicker ice in the Beaufort also experiencing substantial reductions (Note that the Navy’s GLBb model runs look even worse).

Overall, given the fact that storms are now ranging through substantial sections of the Arctic, pushing for more sea ice dispersal, losses will tend to show up more in the sea ice area and volume measures first. Dispersal will also tend to mute extent losses for a time. Given the delay in area and volume tracking, it’s likely that overall impacts to sea ice will tend to be muted in the measures over coming days with a clearer signal showing up by late June and early July. But despite these underlying and complicating weather conditions, the fact remains that a lot of unusually warm water is heading northward toward the ice, with likely greater impacts to follow.

Links:

Earth Nullschool

US Navy

Barrow Ice Cam

The Arctic Ice Blog

A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse

Awakening the Horrors of the Ancient Hothouse — Hydrogen Sulfide in the World’s Warming Oceans

Hat Tip to Colorado Bob

Hat Tip to Ouse MD

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“Worst Fire Conditions On Record” — As Heatwaves, Drought Bake North American West, Wildfires Erupt From California to Alaska

There are 146 wildfires burning in Alaska today. A total that is likely to see at least another dozen blazes added to it by midnight. A total that has already absorbed the entire firefighting capacity of the State and has drawn hundreds of firefighters from across the country in places as far away as Pennsylvania.

For Alaska, it’s a case of record heat and dryness generating fuels for wildfires.

Alaska wildfires Sunday

(MODIS satellite shot of wildfires erupting over a sweltering Southwestern Alaska on Sunday, June 21. Wildfires in permafrost regions of the Arctic like Alaska are particularly concerning as they are one mechanism that returns ancient sequestered carbon to the Earth atmosphere. A sign of a feedback set off by human warming that will worsen with continued fossil fuel emissions. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

Deadhorse, at the center of North Slope oil fields above the Arctic Circle set an all time record high of 82 degrees Fahrenheit (28 Celsius) on Sunday. That’s 3 degrees hotter than the previous all time record high of 79 degrees (26 C) set on August 16, 2004. The hottest reading for June at that location was a 68 degree (20 C) measure set in 2007. So, basically, Deadhorse just shattered the all-time record for June by 14 degrees (F) and the globally record hot summer of 2015 has only now gotten started.

Other locations experiencing new records for just Sunday included Kotzebue, which set a new all time record highest low temperature of 62 degrees (17 C). This reading broke the previous all time high minimum mark of 56 degrees (14 C), set in 1987. Bethel and Yakutat both tied their daily high minimum temperature records at 54 and 52 degrees (12 and 11 C), respectively.

And yesterday was just one day in long period of record heat for the State. Last month’s NOAA analysis showed temperatures fully 7 degrees Fahrenheit (4 C) above average. It’s a record heating that is now setting off severe wildfires all over Alaska. According to the state’s Wildland Fire Information Center, the relentless heat and dryness has turned spruce, hardwoods, brush, and tundra into dry fuels vulnerable to any ignition source. Over the past week, ignition has come in the form of lightning — with most of Alaska’s 2015 wildfires set off by nature’s spark.

As a result we are seeing nearly double the number of fires during June compared to a typical year. Fires that have already destroyed 30 structures, forced evacuations, and tapped Alaska’s firefighting resources to its limits.

Wildfires Burning in the Rainforests of Washington as Major Heatwave Approaches

Record hot temperatures and wildfires, unfortunately, are not just an issue for Alaska. They’re a prevalent concern all up and down Western North America. A zone that has seen several years of record hot temperatures and dryness. Extreme weather events fueled by such global warming-linked phenomena as a Ridiculously Resilient high pressure Ridge over the Northeast Pacific that has kept heatwave and drought conditions firmly entrenched throughout much of the region for months and years. An atmospheric condition that is also linked to a hot ocean surface water ‘Blob’ in the Northeast Pacific (which is itself implicated in a growing number of marine species deaths).

Paradise-Fire-June-17

(Paradise Fire burning near a drought-shrunken creek in the rainforests of Olympia National Park, Washington. Image source: NPS and Wildfire Today.)

This week, the added heat also generated wildfires in unusual areas like the rainforests of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. Driest conditions since 1951 have resulted in a great deal of fire resiliency loss for forests in the region (1951 was the year of the historic Five Forks Fire, one of the worst ever to impact Washington State). Already, a rare early summer wildfire (called the Paradise Fire) has burned through 417 acres of forest.

Firefighters are doing their best to contain the blaze. But the record heat and dryness are multiplying fuel sources. Fires are enabled by dried lichens growing high up in the trees. When flames touch the lichens they rapidly ignite sending sparks to other lichen-covered tree tops. In this way, flames can leap rapidly from tree to tree under current conditions.

It’s very unusual to see fires in this rainforest zone. And when ignitions have occurred in those very rare cases, they have typically flared during late Summer and early Fall. So this June burning has fire officials very concerned — especially given the nearly unprecedented fire hazard conditions throughout the State. Conditions that are predicted to rapidly worsen as an extreme heatwave is expected to build through the coming weekend.

West Coast Heatwave Saturday

(A major heatwave is predicted to invade the US West and Northwest States this weekend. Washington and Oregon are predicted to experience temperatures more typical of desert sections of California and Arizona. Image source: Climate Reanalyzer.)

Temperatures over large stretches of Washington and Oregon are expected to climb into the 90s and 100s, possibly reaching the 110s (Fahrenheit — Celsius range from 33 to 45) by Sunday. For these typically cool, wet States, this brutal heat blow, should it emerge as predicted, will set off a spate of all time record high temperature readings, deepen drought conditions extending northward from California, and heighten fire conditions that are already in the range of worst ever experienced for sections of these States.

California Experiencing “Worst Fire Conditions On Record”

Moving further south along the U.S. West Coast we come at last to the drought hot zone that is California. A State that is now enduring its fourth year of drought. A drought that tree ring studies show is likely the worst such event in 1,000 years.

These harsh climate conditions were starkly highlighted this weekend as reports from State emergency planning officials now indicate that California is currently experiencing its worst fire conditions on record.

Ken Pimlott, Director of CAL FIRE noted:

We measure the fuel moisture content of all of the vegetation -the brush and the trees and we track that over the course of time and compare it month to month each year. And we put it through formulas and determine how much energy and how much heat it will put out when it’s burning. And we have seen -we saw it last year and we will see it again this year- we’ll be reaching records for potential heat output for times of the year that would normally not be burning in those conditions.

Wildfire nonexistent snowpack

(Large wildfire burns in forests along the slopes of Sierra Nevada Mountains whose peaks are now entirely devoid of snow cover. Note that remaining glaciers are shown turning a dull brown in the June 21 MODIS satellite shot.)

So far this year over 1,100 wildfires have already ignited throughout the State. That’s nearly twice the typical number of 650 blazes popping up by this time of year. Exacerbating this stark context is a state water resource crisis compounded by non-existent Sierra Nevada snowpacks and dead trees that now number in the millions.

This is not Normal, Nor Should We View Widespread, Related Events in Isolation

Record and unusual Alaska, Washington, and California wildfires this season are, thus, not occurring in isolation, but as an inseparable feature of ongoing climate trends related to human-caused global warming. In this case, heatwaves are related to visible and extreme record ocean and atmospheric temperatures that have been ramping both globally and in the regions affected over past years and decades. And the fact that 2015 is continuing as the hottest year on record globally should also not be viewed as separate from the events witnessed all up and down the North American West Coast. Events that were largely predicted in many global climate models assessing the impacts of human based greenhouse gas warming on this vital national and global region.

We’ll end here by considering this thought — it’s only June, yet up and down the North American West Coast we are experiencing some of the worst heat, drought, and fire conditions ever recorded. It’s only June…

*   *   *   *

UPDATE NOON EST, JUNE 23, 2015: Satellite Imagery confirms that, over the past 24-48 hours, the wildfire situation in Alaska has continued to worsen. Widespread and large fires running throughout southwestern, central, northeastern and eastern Alaska today expanded and multiplied:

Wildfires Alaska June 22

(Fires flared to dangerous size across Alaska on June 22nd and 23nd. Image source: LANCE-MODIS)

These rapidly proliferating fires cover a diagonal swath stretching about 800 miles from southwest to northeast across the state. The fires are burning through Alaska’s permafrost zone and current intensity in the satellite image is similar to some of the worst Arctic fires we’ve seen during recent years. A substantial number of these fires feature smoke footprints indicating 5-10 mile active burn fronts. Smoke plume size is now large enough to become caught up in the Jet Stream and impact visual features of skies across the Northern Hemisphere.

Based on these satellite shots, it appears that Alaska is experiencing a heightening and very severe fire emergency — one that shows little sign of abatement over the next few days.

Links:

Deadhorse Sets New All-Time Record High Temperature

NOAA Global Analysis May 2015

Alaska’s Wildland Fire Information Center

More Than 100 New Fires Spring Up Across Alaska

PA Firefighters Heading to Alaska to Battle Wildfires

Wildfires Burn in Olympic Rain Forest

Climate Reanalyzer

LANCE-MODIS

California Fire Says 2015 Fire Conditions are Worst on Record

Die-off of Millions of California Trees Centered in Sierra Nevada

Hat Tip to DT Lange

Hat Tip to Andy in San Diego

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