Arctic Heatwaves Rise to Threaten Sea Ice as Lake Baikal Wildfires Re-Ignite

According to model forecasts, Arctic heatwaves are forming that will, throughout this coming week, bring 50-70 degree (F) temperatures to the shores of the East Siberian and Laptev Seas, the estuaries of the Kara and on through Arctic Eastern Russia to Coastal Scandinavia. These heat pulses will push a series of wedges of above-freezing temperatures across the Arctic Ocean zones of the Chukchi, East Siberian, Laptev and Kara Seas to within a few hundred miles of the North Pole, creating conditions that set up the potential for a severe early-season weakening of sea ice.

They are the most recent in a long train of severe warming events arising out of a wide region of Northwest North America and Eastern Asia since at least late last fall. The heat waves have continued to ride up weaknesses in the Jet Stream and deliver warmth to the High Arctic, creating havoc for Arctic climes. During Winter, the heat pulses collapsed the Polar Vortex and sent Arctic temperature anomalies spiking to 5-6+ degrees Celsius or greater above the already hotter than normal 1979 to 2000 average even as they set off a series of heat-related weather emergencies for Alaska.

Triple Arctic Heatwaves

With the emergence of late spring, high temperature anomalies typically cool in the Arctic as polar amplification seasonally fades. However, the two Jet Stream weaknesses have continued to provide heat transport and push Arctic temperatures above normal and into ice-threatening ranges. Now, a third hot ridge, this one over Western Russia and Eastern Europe, has emerged and strengthened to provide yet one more Arctic heat delivery engine:

Dual Arctic Heat Waves

(Triple Arctic Heatwaves — one over the East Siberian Region of extreme northern Yakutia, one over Western Russia and Eastern Europe, and a final one that, in this May 24 forecast, is centered in Canada west of Hudson Bay and extending toward the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Note the long tongue of above freezing temperatures extending into the Arctic Ocean from the East Siberian and Laptev Seas. In the current picture, it is night over Alaska and Canada, day over Russia. Information Source: Global Forecast System Model. Image source: University of Maine.)

This combination of gathering heat waves has frequently pushed late-spring Arctic temperature anomalies into the range of 1 to 2 C above average with local areas forecast to see between 10-20 C or higher departures. It is extraordinary heat for late spring. A gathering event that appears to be setting up for a major blow to Arctic sea ice.

Smoke on the Waters of Lake Baikal

The formation of what is now a growing and broad-ranging Arctic heatwave was, this weekend, heralded by a return to extreme and anomalous wildfires in the region of Lake Baikal, Russia. Ever since April, immense fires have been springing up in this region requiring massive response from an Army of Russian firefighters. Over the past two weeks, the fires have been held at bay by a combination of Russian emergency response efforts and cloudier, rainier conditions.

But, over the past two days, extreme seasonal heat has returned to this vulnerable region, an area where winter warmth, early melt, and thawing tundra have provided ample and excessive heat and fuel sources for the ignition of extreme wildfires. By today, the fires near Lake Baikal in Yakutia were both massive and intense featuring numerous blazes with 20 mile or greater fire fronts as the entire burning region cast off a tail of dark and heavy smoke stretching more than 1,500 miles west and north toward the Pacific Ocean:

Lake Baikal Fires May 18

(Lake Baikal Fires May 18, 2014. Lake Biakal is in the lower center frame. Width of frame is about 2,000 miles. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

This early proliferation of fires, as hinted at above, is the continuation of a massive event that began very early this spring and is likely to continue to show intensification and emergence in the three Arctic heatwave zones.

Fires of this immense scope pose their own threat to ice in the form of delivery of very high volumes of black soot that darken sea ice and glacial ice sheets alike. This darkening is, yet one more, amplifying feedback to climate change in the Arctic and remains a suspected factor in the acceleration of Greenland ice sheet melt (See Dark Snow). With so many fires so early, the risk of a long, summer-period snow and ice darkening is well on the rise, potentially playing a role in what is now also a spiking risk of rapid melt pond formation.

Disposition of Melt Ponds

A recent study found that a proliferation of melt ponds during late spring and early summer has preceded record melt seasons in all instances between 2007 and now. With current heat pulses and Arctic wildfires setting in place conditions that may well result in the ignition of widespread very early season melt pond formation in mid-to-late May, risks for end season melt spikes are on the rise. Regions impacted by these heat pulses and related early season albedo loss are similar to areas showing widespread melt pond formation prior to the massive 2012 sea ice collapse event (there has been educated speculation over at the Arctic Ice Blog that the location of these melt ponds on the Russian side may have played a key role in 2012’s massive melt).

The Role of El Nino and Upping the Chances for a Near Zero Sea Ice Event

The rise of El Nino in the Eastern Pacific is also likely playing a part in these building heat waves. El Nino typically enhances high amplitude Jet Stream ridge formation over Alaska and Canada. Furthermore, in recent years, we’ve seen the tendency for ridge and heat dome formation over Eastern Europe and Western Russia during El Nino. So at least two of the three observed Arctic heat delivery zones are likely getting a kick from what appears to be a strong El Nino gathering in the Pacific.

If El Nino arises and continues to increase atmospheric heat transfer to the Arctic, to proliferate extreme wildfires, and to enhance early loss of albedo, this year will, indeed, be a very bad one for Arctic ice. Given observed and ongoing trends along these lines, we are increasing our risk for a near-zero sea ice event by end of this summer to 30%. Eyes turn to Greenland as well, since both loss of sea ice cooling and a proliferation of early season fires can result in compounding risks to the increasingly unstable glaciers of that thawing land.


NOAA’s Global Forecast System Model

The University of Maine


September Ice Minimum Predicted by Melt Pond Formation

Dark Snow

The Arctic Ice Blog

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