Unprecedented Early Start to ‘Perma-Burn’ Fire Season — Deadly Wildfires Rage Through Siberia on April 12

Permafrost. Ground frozen for millennia. An enormous deposit of organic carbon forming a thick, peat-like under-layer.

Forced to warm at an unprecedented rate through the massive burning of heat-trapping gasses by human beings, this layer is now rapidly thawing, providing an amazing source of heat and fuel for wildfire ignition.

Joe Romm over at Climate Progress has long called this region ‘Permamelt.’ But, with a doubling of the number of wildfires for the high Arctic and an extension of the permafrost fire season into early April this year, we may well consider this to be a zone of now, near permanent, burning — Permaburn.

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inside_burning_village_gv

(Massive outbreak of permafrost wildfires in Russia this week have left up to 34 villages in smoldering ruins. Image from Khakassia, Russia via The Siberian Times.)

For Khakassia, Russia the story this week has been one of unprecedented fire disaster.

Khakassia is located along a southern region of Siberia bordering northern Mongolia and Kazakhstan. It is an area that typically experiences cold temperatures — even in summer time. An area of frozen ground representing the southern boundary for Siberian permafrost. There, as with much of Siberia, temperatures have been forced to rapidly warm by human greenhouse gas emissions. And this added heat forcing has contributed to ever-more-powerful and extensive wildfires as the permafrost thawed — providing an ever-increasing volume of fuels for wildfires.

Last year, Siberian wildfires also came far too early — impacting a broad region near Lake Baikal, Russia during late April. But this year, the fires have come near the start of April. An extension of the burning season in Siberia inexorably toward the winter-spring boundary.

Khakassia Fires April 12 2015

(Extensive wildfires burn though Siberian Khakassia on April 12 of 2015. In the image, we can see down through a break in the cloud deck to view smoke plumes from scores of wildfires raging throughout the region. For reference, bottom edge of frame is 120 miles and the largest burn scars range from 3-5 miles across. As Siberian permafrost burn season progresses, we can expect fires that belch smoke plumes across the Northern Hemisphere emitting from burn scars as large as 30 miles or more across. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

This weekend, temperatures in Khakassia soared to 25 degrees Celsius — 15-20 degrees Celsius above average for daytime temperatures in this region even during recent warmer years (1979-2000). A near 80 degree Fahrenheit reading that would be warm in summertime — but one that cropped up in early April as a result of powerful and hot south to north air flows transporting heat across Asia and into the Arctic. These flows wound through Central Asia, warming Khakassia to record temperatures in their inexorable surge toward the pole.

The heat over Khakassia rapidly thawed surface vegetation, extending warmth deep into the thawing permafrost layer. The result was an outbreak of massive wildfires. Beginning this weekend the blazes have, so far, raged through 34 villages and been blamed for 1300 destroyed homes, the loss of nearly 4000 herd animals, 900 human injuries and 20 deaths. Such a fierce and destructive fire outbreak during summer would have been unprecedented. For this kind of event to occur in April, at the edge of Siberian winter, is nothing short of outlandishly strange.

Russian authorities have blamed the fires on a combination of hot weather and human burning. It is a tradition for Russian farmers to burn to clear fields during this time of year. And it is this practice that media is focusing on. However, traditional burning during spring did not historically result in the kinds of massive blazes that ripped through Khakassia earlier this week. Russian farmers, in this case, are unwittingly flinging matches into a tinderbed of rapidly thawing compost. A pile of warming and chemically volatile peat-like perma-burn that is providing more and more fuel for intense fires.

Links:

Siberian Wildfires — 17 Killed and Hundreds Injured as Blazes Sweep Through Siberia

Fire Death Toll Rises to 15 in Khakassia as Republic Mourns

Siberia Ravaged by Forest Fires

Permamelt — Climate Progress

When April is the New July — Siberia’s Epic Wildfires Come Far too Early

LANCE MODIS

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Is This the Compost Bomb’s Smoking Gun? Second Mysterious Hole Found in Yamal Russia

They call it ‘the end of the Earth.’

Yamal, Russia — a stretch of tundra flats and peat bogs stretching as far as the eye can see before terminating into the chill waters of the Kara. A rather stark and desolate place, one that was mostly unknown until a massive and strange hole appeared in the earth there last week. Since that time, the strange hole has been the butt of every kind of wild speculation and controversy.

Yamal Siberia

(MODIS satellite shot of Yamal Siberia — the peninsula located in center frame and recent site of mysterious holes that may have been caused by the catastrophic destabilization of thawing methane gas embedded in the permafrost. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

The hole itself was an alien feature. “We haven’t seen anything like this before,” would be an entirely accurate statement. All about the hole was a large pile of debris — overturned earth, huge chunks of soil piled up in a signature very familiar to the ejecta of a meteor impact crater.

Approaching the hole edge, we came to a gradual slope that proceeded downward for about 40 feet at about a 35 degree incline. Along the surface of this incline, both the unfrozen soil cap and the frozen permafrost were visible.

But it wasn’t until we hit the bottom edge of this incline that we encountered the strangest feature of all — a sheer cliff, rounded in a shape like the smooth bore of a gun, and plunging straight down through icy permafrost for about another hundred and twenty feet before revealing a basement cavern slowly filling with melt.

It’s a combination of features that appears to be one half impact crater and one half sink hole.

Russia Siberia Crater

(The freakish combination of features including apparent ejecta piled around a crater with a sheer tunnel coring 220 feet down. Image source: The Siberian Times)

One theory on the feature is that it might be a pingo — a melting of a permafrost water pocket left over by an ancient lake that was long ago buried by sediment. But a pingo would typically form in a manner similar to a sinkhole and would probably not have apparent ejected material piled around its mouth.

Another theory, advanced by Russian Arctic scientists, is that a pocket of gas beneath the permafrost spontaneously destabilized — either through chemical or physical processes. The destabilized gas then is thought to have violently blown away the surface layer “like the popping of a cork in a champagne bottle.”

The Compost Bomb

Key to the second theory is that thawing permafrost contains vast stores of volatile methane at various depths. The methane is either trapped in pockets encased in ice and soil or locked in a water lattice structure forming what is called methane hydrate. Both forms are unstable, though they are often buried beneath tens to hundreds of meters of permafrost. Researchers have remained unsure how rapidly this methane would release and its rate of release is key to how fast the world will warm this century in response to human-caused greenhouse gas heat forcing.

Over 1,400 gigatons of carbon are sequestered in the permafrost. Much of this immense store is biological material buried over the 2 million year span of below-freezing conditions dominating much of the Arctic region of our planet. During this time, gradual glacial advance and retreat froze and refroze the earth in layers entombing a vast load of the stuff. Now, human warming is beginning to unlock it.

Permafrost spans much of the Arctic, under-girding Siberia, far Northern Europe, the northern tiers of Canada, and most of Alaska. It also rests beneath a flooded zone called the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Initial reports and research from these regions indicate an ongoing release of millions of tons of methane and CO2 annually. Bubbling seabed stores from the shallow East Siberian Arctic Shelf have caused some to speculate that releases of 1 billion tons to 50 billion tons of methane could be possible during the coming years and decades.

Tundra map NASA

(Is a sleeping dragon awakening in the Arctic? Map of wide expanse of permafrost containing 1,400 gigatons of carbon. Image provided by NASA’s CARVE methane research experiment which is now under the aegis of ABOVE.

Peter Wadhams, in an article for Nature last year, attempted to bracket the potential impacts of such large releases. In the article, Wadhams estimated that a 50 gigaton emission from the Arctic methane store over the next two decades would increase global temperatures by about 0.6 C above the current rate of warming and force temperatures through the 2 C barrier by 2035 (ironically, Michael Mann comes to the same conclusion without implicit inclusion of a powerful methane release). The costs in human lives and economic damage from such a release would be immense and it would risk further outbursts from the large and vulnerable carbon store.

And though the potential for such very large releases remain highly controversial among scientists, the massive pile of thawing permafrost carbon is an ominously large and unstable store facing off against an initial human warming that is more than six times faster than at any time during the geological past.

In the shadow of this emerging and hard to gauge threat, a term emerged to encapsulate the vast warming potential stored in permafrost, should it release and hit the atmosphere. The term — compost bomb — alludes to the risk involved in pushing the two-million-year-old Northern Hemisphere permafrost stores into rapid thaw.

Mystery Hole — A Smoking Gun?

With the spontaneous emergence of a strange hole that Russian scientists are linking to destabilized gas pockets within the permafrost due to thaw, it became possible that, yet one more, explosive mechanism for release had presented itself. And now, today, a second and similar hole has been discovered:

According to the Moscow Times:

“Global warming, causing an alarming melt in the ice under the soil, released gas causing an effect like the popping of a Champagne cork,” the news report said, citing an expert at the Subarctic Scientific Research Center.

The first hole is estimated to be about 50 meters wide and 70 meters deep, with water from melting permafrost cascading down its sides into the icy deposit below.

The second hole is “exactly” like the first one, but “much smaller,” local lawmaker Mikhail Lapsui told the Interfax-Ural news agency. “Inside the crater itself, snow can be seen. (emphasis added)”

And so, in the course of just one week, we have two very strange holes that Russian scientists are linking to destabilizing gas pockets beneath the thawing tundra. Smoking barrel of the compost bomb? Or as a commenter here called Colorado Bob puts it:

We’re going to see the tundra breaking out in these things like zits on a teenager.

Let’s hope these are mere sink-holes from collapsing ice pockets in the permafrost. Let’s hope there’s another explanation for what appears to be ejecta piled around these holes. Let’s hope that these ‘zits’ showing up in the Yamal permafrost remain local to the area. And let’s hope we don’t start seeing similar explosive outbursts from tundra in other regions, or worse, along the seabed of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf.

Lastly, let’s hope that any outbursts remain small in size and do not lift very large sections of land or submerged sea bed.

In any case, these initial reports are not promising and it appears we may both have a compost bomb smoking gun and a potential mechanism for rapid destabilization and explosive release of gas pockets deeply embedded in the frozen tundra all wrapped into one. Not very reassuring to say the least.

Links:

Mystery Behind Giant Hole Clearer as Second Hole Discovered

Now There Are Two Weird Holes in Siberia

LANCE-MODIS

The Siberian Times

NASA/CARVE

ABOVE

Impacts of Large Releases from Monstrous Arctic Methane Stores

Far Worse Than Being Beaten With a Hockey Stick

Hat tip to todaysguestis

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

 

 

 

The Monsters of Growth Shock Rise: Conflict in the Ukraine, Global Food Crisis, and Spending 500 Billion Dollars to Permanently Wreck the World’s Climate

nasa_p1089035

(Immense Russian wildfires burning through the thawing tundra’s carbon pool during summer of 2012. The bar on the lower left denotes 50 kilometers. From end to end, the burning zone seen is about 500 miles in length. Image credit: NASA. Image source: Smoke From Massive Siberian Fires Seen in Canada.)

The radio and television today blares with the news but never the causes:

US meat, coffee, almond and milk prices to sky-rocket. Ukraine invaded by the Russian petro-state. Exxon Mobile to partner with Russian Rosneft and invest 500 billion dollars in extracting oil and gas from the increasingly ice-free Arctic.

What has caused all this? In a term — Growth Shock.

What is Growth Shock?

It’s what happens when any system grows outside of the boundaries of its sustainable limits. In the current, human case, its primary elements are overpopulation, renewable and nonrenewable resource depletion, climate change, poisoning the biosphere and wasting livable habitats, and a vicious system of inequality in which an amoral elite loots and pillages the lion’s share of planetary resources while driving increasing numbers of persons into poverty, hunger, and vulnerability to environmental/ecological collapse.

In the more immediate sense, human burning of fossil fuels is now intensifying droughts and extreme weather around the world. This is negatively impacting agricultural production. In addition, military aggression on the part of Russia has destabilized one of the world’s largest food producers — Ukraine. But these causes and effects are all a part of the larger structure of an ongoing Growth Shock crisis. The most recent and more intense iteration of a series of events that began in the 1970s and continues today.

In my own writing, I have described the forces of Growth Shock as four monsters (overpopulation, resource depletion, climate change, institutionalized human greed) and, like the Diakiaju of Pacific Rim, they continue to grow stronger and to devour increasingly large chunks of our world.

In the context of our intensifying Growth Shock, conflicts can rapidly escalate as resources grow scarce and various nations, powerful individuals and corporate entities jockey for dominance in the context of increasing limitation and peril. But it is important to note that unless the underlying condition that caused the crisis — what is now likely the most terrible manifestation of Growth Shock ever witnessed by humans — is addressed, then there are no winners. No dominators that survive to flourish in the end. No remnant that sees a prosperous future. Only an ongoing string of worsening conflicts, disasters and temporary victories leading to a terrible and bitter ultimate defeat.

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The Special Interests of a Corporate Petro-State, its Dictator and its Oligarchs

So many of you are probably wondering why Russia suddenly invaded Ukraine? Why the West is taking an increasing stake in this country that, until recently, rarely showed on the international stage?

The reasons currently given by US officials certainly appear noble. We should not allow one country to simply invade, bully and rig the electoral process for another. We should not allow a single nation to flaunt international law and behave in a manner that better fits an age of anarchy and brutality. We should not permit these things from the member of the international community with broad responsibilities and obligations that is Russia.

These are moral and, indeed, appropriate frames for the current conflict. As they are appropriate rhetorical responses to international bullying. But we would also be wise not to ignore the underlying drivers — food crisis and overwhelming political power of fossil fuel special interests.

If anything Russia is now little more than a dictatorial, nuclear-armed petro-state, run by corporate oligarchs and a brutish strong man in the form of Vladimir Putin. A man who has ruled this country for a period now going on two decades through a combination of bullying, trickery, and poll fixing. The kind of character many conservatives these days seem to appreciate…

At 2.2 trillion dollars in GDP each year, its economy is comparable to that of the UK — sizable, but not an equal to economic powerhouses US, China, Germany or Japan. But what the Russian petro-state lacks in economic girth, it more than compensates for in two very destructive and destabilizing items — nuclear weapons and fossil fuels. It also retains a rather sizable and effective military — one whose forces are capable of projecting power and toppling governments throughout both Europe and Asia. One that retains its ability to rain nuclear Armageddon on any nation of peoples around the globe.

And this set of powers is increasingly being used to advance the special interests of the corporate, dictatorial state that is today’s Russia.

But it is Russia’s vast oil and natural gas wealth, the single-minded and narrow interests of its rulers, and the dark impetus that is global climate change that have likely combined to spur Russian’s current aggression.

Food, Fossil Fuels and the Compost Bomb

Burning Rings of Fire

(The tundra compost bomb explodes into burning rings of fire that illuminate the Russian night during 2012. The fire rings seen here are each between 10 and 100 kilometers across. Image credit: NASA. Image source: Burning Rings of Fire.)

For the very natural gas, oil and coal that Russia uses as a mainstay for its economy are now in the process of wrecking its future prospects and propelling it to ever more desperate and violent action.

To understand why, one simply has to think a little bit about permafrost and frozen ground.

A majority of Russia’s land mass sits on a pile of permafrost ranging from 1 to more than 10 meters in depth. In the past, this frozen substrata underlay many of Russia’s fields, cities and towns, forming a kind of frozen bedrock. But over the past few decades, the permafrost began to rapidly thaw under the radical and violent force that is human-caused warming. At first, this event was thought to weigh in Russia’s favor. The newly thawed permafrost would become more productive farmland, many assumed, and the added warmth would extend Russia’s growing season.

But few apparently accounted for the speed and violence of human-caused climate change. What happened instead was literally a firestorm. For the thawing peat retained a combustibility roughly equivalent to brown coal. Even worse, it contained pockets of highly flammable liquified organic carbon and methane. Over top this volatile layer were the great boreal forests and the vast grasslands of the Russian land mass. During the periods of summer drought that emerged as human caused climate change amplified at the end of the 2000s, these forests and grasses were, increasingly, simply piles of kindling growing atop a meters thick layer of volatile fuel.

By 2010, climate change brought on a series of record droughts and heatwaves extending far into the Arctic that set both permafrost thaw and lower latitude regions ablaze. As a result, Russia suffered agricultural losses unlike anything seen in its past. Fields and towns burned. The productive regions burned. Russia was forced to close its agricultural market for exports. World food prices hit all time record highs and the food riots that followed were enough to topple regimes and alight civil wars throughout the world’s most vulnerable states.

Through the summers of 2013, Russia suffered amazing fires in its thawing tundra lands. These blazes were, at times, intense enough to require the calling up of its military and the mobilization of up to 200,000 people simply to fight the fires. Heat and moisture from the thawing tundra spilled out into the Jet Stream and amplified the storm track. By 2013, record drying and burning in the tundra lands turned to record floods in the Amur region of both China and Russia. A tragic song of flood and fire.

Song of Flood and Fire

(Massive wildfires burn over Yakutia as an immense rainstorm begins to form over the Amur region of Russia and China. The fires and deluge would together ruin millions of acres of crops during 2014. Image credit: Lance-Modis. Image source: A Song of Flood and Fire.)

It was a string of climate change induced disasters that produced blow after telling blow to Russian agricultural production.

Meanwhile, around the world, similar droughts, floods and severe wind storms were ripping through the world’s croplands. By early 2014, the world food price index was again on the rise. By February, the index had climbed to 208, a very high level that would put those countries and populations at the margins at risk of increasing poverty and hunger all while potentially destabilizing any number of nations.

Ukraine — The Breadbasket of Europe

Perhaps the irony is lost on Russia that the very fuels — oil, gas and coal — that it views as an economic strength are also the source of its increasingly marginal food security and the ongoing and growing devastation of its lands. But Russia, its strongman, and its corporate oligarchs likely haven’t overlooked the fact that Ukraine is one of the world’s largest food producers. In a world where food is becoming increasingly costly and scarce, this particular commodity may well be more important than even oil, gas, or coal.

Ukraine possesses 30% of the world’s remaining richest black soil. It regularly ranks within the top ten producers of both wheat and corn. It is the world’s top producer of sunflower oil. The reach of its agricultural exports extends to the UK, Europe, Japan, China and into Russia itself. If Russia has a food crisis, it will be to the Ukraine that it turns to first. Moreover, the current Russian dictator must see an imperative not to rely overmuch on the US or its other economic rivals for food.

So it is in this context — a one in which climate change is causing Russia to flood and burn, in which climate change is now beginning to take down global agricultural productivity, and in which the Ukraine could well be seen as the Iraq of world food production (one of the only countries with the ability to radically increase production) — that we must also view both the Ukrainian revolution for independence and the Russian armed invasion as a response.

Russia Already Taking Hold of Some of Ukraine’s Most Productive Farmland

Centuries ago, during the dark ages, bad winters drove waves of tribes out of the frigid northern lands and into the then fertile fields of Rome and Europe. History, it seems, is not without its rhymes. For now, a fiery human-driven thaw and climate change appears to be having a similar impact on the Russia and Ukraine of today.

For the lands already under Russian occupation and threat of invasion (Eastern Ukraine primarily) are also some of Ukraine’s most productive wheat and corn growing zones. These lands under threat of additional Russian incursion, if added to the already occupied and planned to be annexed Crimea would compose the bulk of Ukraine’s agriculture.

Russia’s invasion, thus, must be seen as a direct looting of Ukraine’s lands and productive capacity for Russian and, by extension, Putin’s self interest. A set of interests likely inflamed by Russia’s own declining state of food security.

Climate Change and Why This Fight Must Be Against Fossil Energy, Not for It

Unfortunately, this conflict, like so many others, falls under the ominous shadow of the global fossil fuel trade. A shadow that grows ever darker as the crises imposed by human-caused climate change become more and more dire.

In the context of what could cynically be termed American interests, the fossil fuel giant Exxon recently partnered with Rosneft, an oil corporation Putin and his oligarchs essentially looted from a political rival, to invest 500 billion dollars in drilling and exploration in the Russian Arctic. The zones included in the deal involve the highly unstable clathrate and natural gas stores of the Arctic Ocean. And considering the massive sum invested, one cannot overlook the likelihood that the ESAS’s store of up to 1400 gigatons of natural gas clathrate have now been targeted by global fossil fuel interests for burning. Such an exploitation would result in the near tripling of the current human atmospheric carbon loading — all by itself and without the added inputs from coal, tar sands, or other oil and gas reserves. In other words — corporate insanity in the mad pursuit of profits for a few supremely wealthy and powerful individuals. In this case, a breed of greed-driven insanity that falls under the specter of an increasingly violent and expansionist Russia. One driven to hunger for resources by the land and crops destroying influences of the fossil fuels it continues to seek to exploit.

Here is Growth Shock in its most brazen form when wealthy oligarchs, dictators and corporations collude to profit while ruining the productivity of the lands upon which even they rely. And it is this terrible state that cannot be allowed to continue.

The US, therefore, could strike a blow against both Russian aggression and climate change game over by sanctioning Russian-backed Rosneft, disallowing any American corporation from conducting business with them or any other Russian petroleum entity and going further to say that they will sanction any other global corporation with ties to Rosneft. Use of the power of the dollar and of the global monetary system, in this way, could strike a blow against both the greed that underlies the current Growth Shock crisis and against the maniacal continued and expanding exploitation of extraordinarily destructive fuels.

If the US wishes to continue to bring Russia to heel, it will also use the carrot of access to US grain and food shipments as well as providing partnership arrangements with US alternative energy and sustainability-based corporations in exchange for a peaceful withdrawal from the Ukraine. To help Russia save face, it could provide these offers in a less public fashion or in a way that is not personally insulting to Putin.

Little to No Time Left, But the Crisis Presents a Fleeting Opportunity

In broader context, the deteriorating global food situation, the deteriorating global climate situation and the maniacal quest by fossil fuel companies to access and burn an ever-growing volume of oil, coal and natural gas has reached a critical stage that simply cannot continue for much longer without entirely ruining the prospects for human civilization and, likely, much of life on Earth. The Russia and Ukraine conflict is an opportunity to begin a full attempt to change course and to bring the, now very large and growing, forces of our Growth Shock crisis to bay. If we do not, the window of opportunity may well be closed and we may well have consigned ourselves to ever-worsening conflict under a situation of ongoing resource destruction, destruction of modern civilization’s food base, a situation where the powerful are ever more enabled to take from the weak, and a situation in which a hothouse extinction eventually snuffs out most or all of those that survive the ensuing collapse.

Links:

Growth Shock

Smoke From Massive Siberian Fires Seen in Canada

Burning Rings of Fire

Climate and Frozen Ground

Lance-Modis

A Song of Flood and Fire.

World Food Security in the Cross-hairs of Human-caused Climate Change

Climate Change Pushes FAO Food Price Index to 208 in February

The Economy of the Ukraine

Rosneft Warns West over Crimean Sanctions Woos Japan

Rosneft

Putin — the New Global Shah of Oil

Amplifying Feedbacks: Climate Model to Test Projections of Zero Sea Ice By Summer 2016, Stark Predictions by Wadhams, Duarte

Ever since 1995 and especially since 2007 Arctic sea ice area, volume and extent have been in rapid free-fall. By 2012 both sea ice area and extent had suffered losses greater than 55% when compared to end summer measures in 1979. Sea ice volume, meanwhile had shown a stunning loss of nearly 80% from 1979 volume observations. This staggering trend of losses means that any melt year comparable to 2007, 2010 (volume) or 2012 would result in the total or near total loss of all sea ice within the Arctic by end of summer.

The summer of 2013 was exceptional in that it was the first year that statistical averages indicated a potential for total summer sea ice loss. The risk at the time was considered to be low, only 10%. But the figure was historic in that, never before, had a statistical risk of total sea ice loss been identified. Following more typical trends, the 2013 melt season showed a bounce-back from 2012’s record melt year with levels roughly correlating with those seen in 2009. That said, even 2013’s pseudo-recovery did little to disturb an extraordinarily powerful melt trend:

Sea Ice Volume Exponential Trend Wipneus

(Sea Ice Volume Measurements For All Months as Observed By PIOMAS With Exponential Trend. Image source: Wipneus. Note that the exponential trend shows monthly volume measures for July, August, September and October reach zero sea ice volume all before 2019.)

Taken into context, the 2013 melt season was little more than a counter-trend year in a period of ongoing and apparently inexorable decline. In context to these massive losses, the heat forcing in the Arctic continues to grow with most regions showing at least a doubled rate of temperature increase when compared to the global norm. Total temperature change in the Arctic is now about 2 degrees Celsius hotter than the 1950 to 1980 global average. A recent study of the regions around Baffin Island showed temperatures are now hotter than at any time within at least the last 44,000 years and probably the last 120,000 years. And with temperatures rising by about .4 degrees Celsius each decade, the Arctic continues to rapidly transition toward ever more hot and unfamiliar territory.

A High Resolution Climate Model For An Arctic in Rapid Transition

These rapid and massive changes appear to have left conventional global climate models (GCMs) in the dust. Earlier global climate model runs of the Arctic assumed slow responses to temperature increases by the world’s ice sheets resulting in predictions for ice free Arctic Ocean conditions at much higher temperatures than those currently being observed. The result of these assumptions that Arctic sea ice generated high inertia and was more resilient to human caused climate change were predictions for ice free Arctic summers to hold off until at least 2100.

But, as we have seen in the above analysis, recent events have put the possibility for ice free Arctic conditions on a much shorter time-scale. And, until recently, only statistical analysis, exponential trends fitting, and direct observation were able to provide any direct guide that more closely fit the stark and ongoing changes in the Arctic. In a world where simulative models seemed to take precedence over even observed reality, the dearth of models describing what all could plainly see was a catastrophic and rapid melt trend cast doubt on the all-too-stark observations.

Now, a new tool to place these much more rapid than expected melt conditions into context appears to be coming together. The high resolution Regional Arctic Systems Model (RASM) constructed by US Navy Scientist Professor Wieslaw Maslowski finds its basis in a 2012 paper showing the potential for the Arctic to be ice free come 2016 +/- 3 years. This new model takes into account a more detailed summary of Arctic conditions including a more highly resolved interpretation of the impacts of warming-driven changes to:

“… sea ice deformation, ocean eddies, and associated ice-ocean boundary layer mixing, multiphase clouds as well as land-atmosphere-ice-ocean interactions.”

Dr. Maslowski notes that while no climate model simulation is perfectly accurate, the RASM simulation is likely to be much closer to what is actually happening in the Arctic environment. Maslowski notes:

“Given the estimated trend and the volume estimate for October–November of 2007 at less than 9,000 km3, one can project that at this rate it would take only 9 more years or until 2016 ± 3 years to reach a nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean in summer. Regardless of high uncertainty associated with such an estimate, it does provide a lower bound of the time range for projections of seasonal sea ice cover.”

It is important to note that RASM hasn’t yet run or provided projections. But the fact that it is taking into account the visibly rapid loss of sea ice as well as a more refined view of the Arctic environs means that such a tool could well generate more accurate measures or at least help explain the apparently very rapid melt trend. According to Maslowski:

“We do expect to compare sea ice volume results [from the RASM model] with our earlier model for the same period … possibly next year or so…”

Confirmation of the Most Pessimistic Predictions?

2012 and 2007 record minimum overlay

(2007 and 2012 record sea ice minimums — overlay. Image source: NSIDC)

Dr. Maslowki’s paper and RASM model runs may provide single source confirmation for some of the most pessimistic predictions by Arctic sea ice experts. Dr. Peter Wadhams, a world renown sea ice expert who has spent about 30 years monitoring the state of sea ice aboard British Navy submarines has projected that the Arctic could reach an ice-free state by the end of summer during 2015 or 2016.

Another climate expert, Dr. Carlos Duarte, head of the Ocean Institute at the University of Australia, has projected that the Arctic will reach an ice free state by 2015.

More moderate projections place total sea ice loss during summer at between 2025 and 2040.

IPCC Global Climate Model Sea Ice Melt Projections For Extent (Trend in Black)

(IPCC Global Climate Model Sea Ice Melt Projections. Figures are in Sea Ice Extent (not Volume as seen Above). It is worth noting that the Volume and Area melt trends are much more pronounced than the extent measure that fails to count holes in the ice (area) or add in the measure of ice thickness (volume). The above image, produced by Overland and Wang, also appears to be off the 2012 minimum extent measure by about 200,000 square kilometers.)

Meanwhile, global climate models (GCMs), provided above, continue to lag real time observation, and projections by noted experts. Even taking into account models that have gotten the current trend mostly correct show ice free conditions by around 2050 (mean). Meanwhile, the GCM overall mean continues to show near ice-free conditions by 2100.

These projections are questionable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that they only take into account the very low resolution of sea ice extent and not the higher resolution figures of sea ice area or volume. Sea ice area, for example, fell to a stunning record low of 2.1 million square kilometers during 2012, a total loss of about 3.6 million square kilometers since 1979 and a loss of about 1 million square kilometers off the previous record low (area) set in 2011. Such a low figure could already, arguably, be called ‘nearly ice free when compared to average area lows of nearly 6 million square kilometers during summers four decades ago.

sea ice area

(Sea Ice Area Measures Provided by NSIDC via Cryosphere Today. Note the extreme record low set in 2012, a measure well below comparable sea ice extent figures which fail to account for holes in the ice. See also: Arctic Ice Graphs.)

It is this lack of GCM resolution, combined with an ongoing trend of stunning losses that has resulted in serious changes in predictions by even somewhat conservative scientists from the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Professor Mark Serreze of Colorado’s branch of NSIDC, who is skeptical that ice free conditions could be reached as early as 2016, notes:

“I am on record stating that we may lose the summer ice cover as early as 2030, and I stand behind that statement. This is in itself much earlier than projections from nearly all climate model simulations. I would agree with Dr. Maslowski that the IPCC models have shortcomings.”

The question, then, is will higher resolution climate models like Maslowski’s RASM provide a better understanding of what appear to be chaotic, powerful and rapid changes to the Arctic environment well ahead of the previously predicted time-frame?

Loss of Summer Sea Ice to Unleash Amplifying Feedbacks

Because it covers such a large stretch of ocean with a white, reflective surface, sea ice is a primary governor of Arctic and global weather. It keeps the Arctic cool by insulating millions of square kilometers of dark Arctic Ocean waters from the near constant radiation of the polar summer sun.

As the sea ice retreats, more of this dark water becomes exposed to the sun’s rays. Because the ocean surface is dark, it traps most of this light. The result is far greater warming of the Arctic during the summer time.

The loss of sea ice and related ocean warming has a number of knock-on effects. The first is that increasing ocean heat delivers far more energy to the sea bed. In the case of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, the warming shallow sea is one filled with carbon deposits from a massive expanse of submerged tundra. An estimated 1500 gigatons of methane lay sequestered in thawing permafrost beneath this rapidly warming sea. According to Wadhams, loss of sea ice can add up to 7 degrees Celsius of additional warming to this vulnerable sea bed.

Current estimates provided by Dr. Natalia Shakhova show that around 17 megatons of methane are being released from the ESAS each year. This emission is more than twice that of the entire global ocean system and accounts for about 2.8 percent of the current global methane emission. Given the massive volume of methane stored in the ESAS and the rapid pace of sea ice loss and related ocean warming, this region of the world is more than capable of providing significant additional volumes of this potent greenhouse gas.

ESAS methane froth and sea ice

(A frothy mixture of methane and sea ice near the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Image source: Igor Semiletov, The University of Alaska)

Meanwhile, ship based observations show that methane levels at the surface of ESAS waters are a stunning 3800 ppb, about twice the global average:

“Ship-based observations show that methane concentrations in the air above the East Siberian Sea Shelf are nearly twice as high as the global average… Layers of sediment below the permafrost slowly emit methane gas, and this gas has been trapped for millennia beneath the permafrost. As sea levels rose at the end of the ice age, the shelf was once again covered by relatively warm ocean water, thawing the permafrost and releasing the trapped methane… In the short-term… methane has a global warming potential 86 times that of carbon dioxide. (NSIDC)”

More rapid Arctic Ocean warming during summer times also results in more rapid warming of nearby land masses. And recent years have seen a number of extraordinary Arctic heatwaves driving 80+ degree temperatures all the way to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Rapid warming of this region also results in a rapid thaw of massive volumes of permafrost. The permafrost stores organic material that breaks down into both CO2 and methane, providing additional emissions that enhance an already very rapid human warming. Current emissions from the Arctic tundra system are estimated to be around 17 megatons of methane and hundreds of megatons of CO2. Like the emissions coming from the ESAS, these emissions provide a significant added contributor to the human GHG forcing and will likely continue to provide increasing emissions as the sea ice retreats further.

In addition to the combined amplifying feedback of loss of sea ice albedo and amplifying greenhouse gas emissions from the Arctic, sea ice erosion has now also been shown to have profound effects on the circumpolar Jet Stream. Research by Dr. Jennifer Francis, Dr. Quihang Tang, a number of other scientists, and confirming analysis by Dr. Jeff Masters, has noted a weakening in the Jet Stream caused by a lowering of the temperature differential between the lower latitudes and the poles. The Jet is driven by such high temperature extremes between north and south. But as the higher latitudes warm faster than the temperate zones this temperature differential drops and the Jet Stream weakens. The end result is higher amplitude Jet Stream waves that tend to get stuck, resulting in more persistent, extreme weather. Dr Quihang, in a recent paper, notes:

“As the high latitudes warm faster than the mid-latitudes because of amplifying effects of melting ice, the west-to-east jet-stream wind is weakened. Consequently, the atmospheric circulation change tends to favour more persistent weather systems and a higher likelihood of summer weather extremes.”

The end result of these alterations brought on by a very rapid loss of Arctic sea ice are chaotic changes to the Arctic Ocean and surrounding lands along with a severe disruption to Northern Hemisphere weather patterns. These changes also combine in a self-reinforcing pattern to further amplify the pace of human caused warming both in the Arctic and around the globe. And should the summer Arctic sea ice completely melt in the time-frame of now to 2019 as Maslowski, Wadhams and Duarte have projected as a ‘most rapid’ estimate, then the already stark changes we are seeing will become much more extreme and pronounced.

Links:

The Future of Sea Ice

US Navy Predicts Summer Ice Free Arctic by 2016 (Note, the Guardian article appears to be somewhat misinformed, conflating a 2012 paper by Maslowski with RASM model runs.)

NSIDC

Extreme Summer Weather Linked To Vanishing Cryosphere

Colorado Bob’s Climate Feed

Wipneus

Could Arctic Summers be Ice-Free Within Three Year’s Time?

When Will the Arctic Summer be Nearly Ice Free?

Arctic Sea Ice Graphs

Hat Tip to Aaron

(Updated December 17)

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