From the Bering to Maine, Hot Oceans Are Killing the Puffin

“The Bering Sea has been off-the-charts warm. We’ve never seen anything like this. We’re in uncharted territory. We’re in the midst of an extraordinary time.” Nate Mantua, an ecologist at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in Santa Cruz, California in this National Geographic article.


Some have claimed that the effects of global warming are only gradual and mild. That the impacts to the Earth’s weather systems, its oceans, its lands, its web of life do not now represent a crisis that risks global catastrophe and mass human tragedy. That, somehow, the growing die-offs now inflicted on key species amounts to some kind of pleasantly quiet background noise that we should rationally, coldly, consider, but that should not increase our level of concern or, perish the thought, alarm. And when the very real harms that are now escalating as a result of climate change are realized more fully by human civilization, the fact that these voices did not warn us more strongly, that some of these voices attacked those of us who were rationally concerned, will stand in history as stark evidence to the harms of pandering to the false comfort of an unwarranted reticence.


(Today, sea surfaces in regions surrounding the Arctic are between 2 and 10.5 degrees Celsius above average. These waters are so warm now that they are less able to support a vital food chain. And the impact to Puffins has been considerable. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

If they could speak, a lovable breed of northern bird would tell us their own tale of tragedy and loss at the hand of global heat. And if we could hear the sad tale of their own great plight, our hearts and minds might not be so hard or so cold. For in and near the Arctic there is every indication that winter is dying and along with it, the Puffins.

Mass Puffin Die-Off Underway

Northern waters are rich with life. Or they were, at least, until recently. High oxygen content, cold water, high nutrient content all help to form a basis for the teeming life of this region. However, as atmospheric carbon levels increase and as oceans warm, these waters become less able to support life. They hold less oxygen. They become more acidic. And they tend to become more stratified. The food chain is disrupted and winnowed down. And such a winnowing can have a terrible impact on all kinds of life forms.

For the Puffin, such ocean warming related food losses have become a subject of growing alarm among researchers. In the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia, both National Geographic and Digital Journal have compiled reports of severe loss of life to both adult birds and young. In parts of the Bering sea, adult Puffins are dying at 200 times the normal mortality rate. Nesting rates, normally at 60 percent, have plummeted to 12 percent. And the few chicks that do manage to hatch from eggs are emaciated.

Tufted Puffin

(Charismatic Puffins imperiled by climate change are now subject to an increasing extinction pressure due to this man-made crisis. Image source: NRDC.)

Over on the Atlantic side, a similar mass die off of Puffins has occurred in the Gulf of Maine even while stresses to the birds have been increasing into Scotland, the Barents Sea and Iceland. Die offs further south in Maine began to become widespread during 2014 as the waters off the US East Coast hit extreme levels of warmth. By 2016, the mass mortality had extended to Iceland where more than 80 percent of Puffin chicks were reported dead.

To researchers, there’s no mystery as to what’s killing the birds. They’re starving. But the root cause of the great loss among Puffins is even more disturbing. Julia Parrish, a University of Washington professor who coordinates a West Coast volunteer bird-monitoring network noted to National Geographic:

“Clearly something very weird is going on. It’s basically every year now we’re getting some huge mass-mortality event. It seems that the bottom-up changes provoked by the atmosphere are creating massive, massive changes in marine ecosystems. And the forage fish that everything depends on are taking it in the shorts.” (Emphasis added)

In other words, the fish that Puffins feed on are dying due to global climate change and so the Puffins are dying too.

Conditions in Context — We All Rely on Bountiful Oceans

If we are unable to escape the stresses of our own lives, or step back from our own individual difficulties to take account of the larger trajectory of our race, the plight of Puffins starving in the North Atlantic or Bering Sea may seem a remote or minor concern. However, when one realizes that, like the Puffins, human beings also rely on the bounty of the oceans as a primary food source, the matter strikes much closer to home. And in this case, Puffins join a long list of ocean-dependent wildlife — corals, seals, fish, polar bears, walruses, lobsters and so many more — who are sending us an increasingly loud warning as they perish.

Life in the world’s waters is in peril due to the warming we are causing. And because life on land is ultimately connected to what happens in the waters, not paying attention, not responding to what’s happening by halting the fossil fuel emissions that have created this terrible extinction pressure, is a wretched road to follow.


Puffins are Starving to Death Because of Climate Change

Puffins Starve to Death in High Numbers off the Gulf of Maine

Something is Seriously Wrong on the East Coast and it’s Killing all the Baby Puffins

Huge Puffing Die-Off May Be Linked to Hotter Seas

Global and Regional Food Consumption


Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to marcyincny


From Siberia to British Columbia Arctic Wildfires Begin an Ominous Ignition

It’s abnormally warm today near Great Slave Lake, Northwest Territory. And the smell of smoke from massive fires to the west lingers in the air.

Temperatures there yesterday afternoon read 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Where I sat typing this blog in Gaithersburg, Maryland, it was a somewhat cooler 67. A north-south temperature flip-flop that has become all-too-common in recent years. A warming in the Arctic that sets the stage for gargantuan summer wildfires burning through some of the world’s greatest carbon stores. Vast and thawing permafrost deposits stretching in a great arc from Siberia through Alaska and on into Northern Canada. Immense loads of fuel for a newly forming ring of fire that is now an entirely human invention.


(It was pretty darn hot near Great Slave Lake, NWT territory Wednesday. 80 degree readings in a polar region that, on average, should be in the mid 40s as a daily high for May 13. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

Now, fires are starting to flare around this broad stretch of once-frozen lands rapidly warmed by an unprecedented belching of heat-trapping gasses into the Earth’s atmosphere. Though the fires are not yet widespread, many are rather large — erupting over a smattering of areas. It is not typical for large fires of this kind to appear at all in May. Nor is it usual to find them in regions girding the Arctic at this time.

Lake Baikal Fires Still Burn

The first set of blazes ignited during mid April of 2015 through a permafrost zone in the Lake Baikal region of Russia. Though the fires appear to have backed off from the towns and settlements they threatened at that time, they have continued to burn unabated — fading and flaring more than most of the past month.

Lake Baikal Wildfires

(In the above MODIS satellite shot from NASA we see numerous fires still burning near Lake Baikal in Russia. Note the multiple dark burn scars covering vast stretches of land near upper center frame. For reference, the larger, still burning fires in this shot range from about 3-8 miles wide. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

As the more southerly fires continued to burn through thawing permafrost zones, blazes began to erupt further and further north. As of this week, the fires have marched to the shores of Lake Baikal itself, scorching their black scars in the Earth like some great fire giant’s footprints.

Wildfires in Central Siberia

Leaping over Lake Baikal and moving north and westward we come to the great open spaces of Siberia. Here, in recent years, vast fires have burned through grass, forest and permafrost alike. Few settlements dot the wide expanses. So fire suppression efforts have only rallied when towns and cities were threatened. Meanwhile, the once frozen regions all about have increasingly caught fire. Turning the place into a land of summer flame.

Central Siberian Fires

(Fires igniting along valleys and ridge lines in Central Siberia. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

By Wednesday, a quartet of significant fires had erupted along a hilly region in Central Siberia. Tuesday, there was but a single blaze. Now four rage across a region that has felt an extraordinary warming not only this year, but for a long succession of years now stretching on for many decades.

Beyond these newly emerging fires, we begin a pass over the wide open plains of Siberia. There we note a tell-tale whiff of smoke or three. But no large burn points are visible in the moderate resolution satellite shot. Continuing on to just south of Yamal, Russia where the odd methane blow holes first appeared last summer we find a region still mostly frozen. But thaw is predicted to come quickly — coincident with a rapid warm up forecast for the next week.

Norman Lake Fires British Columbia

Shifting still westward we cross over Northern Europe, the Atlantic, a thawing Hudson Bay and return to where we started our narrative in Northwest Territory Canada. To near 80 degree Fahrenheit temperatures at Great Slave Lake. And to a thick cloud of smoke issuing up from the nearby valleys of Northern British Columbia.

Norman Lake Wildfire

(Norman Lake Fire in the MODIS satellite shot on Wednesday, May 13. Image source: LANCE-MODIS.)

There, near Prince George, at Norman Lake, a massive wildfire erupted earlier this week. Unable to contain it, more than 100 firefighters and numerous helicopter and heavy equipment crews quickly found themselves fighting a defensive battle against a rapidly expanding blaze. By this morning, the Norman Lake fire had more than quadrupled to 80 square kilometers in size. Indications from the above satellite shot are that the fire is still growing.

The massive blaze forced two regional districts to issue evacuation orders or alerts and more than 80 people to evacuate residences. Meanwhile, B.C. has closed its Dahl Lake and Bobtail Mountain provincial parks until further notice.

Conditions in Context

For wide stretches of the Arctic, especially in Central Siberia and Western Canada, winter heat and early spring melt are contributing to a very high risk of wildfires. In addition, the decadal warming forced by human-caused climate change is thawing ever greater portions of permafrost, which also adds near surface fuels to traditional brush and woodlands fires.

The early and intense fires we are seeing now represent just the beginning of what is likely to be an extreme fire event for these regions. At this point, we are looking at a worsening fire potential stretching from now through mid September for these vulnerable Arctic zones.



Earth Nullschool

UPDATE: Wildfire South of Norman Lake Now 8000 Hectares in Size

Siberia’s Road to a Permaburn Hell


Permafrost Thaw Feedback To Blow Carbon Budget ‘Faster Than We Would Expect’

“Permafrost carbon emissions are likely to be felt over decades to centuries as northern regions warm, making climate change happen faster than we would expect based on projected emissions from human activities alone.” — Climate Change and the Permafrost Carbon Feedback

*    *    *    *

Soil Organic Carbon Store

(Extent of Northern Hemisphere 1 meter soil organic carbon store in the now thawing and burning permafrost. At about 1,000 billion tons, it’s more than enough to put a hefty strain on the IPCC’s remaining 275 billion ton carbon budget. Image source: Stockholm University.)

For a moment, let’s consider some rather difficult to deal with numbers —

790 billion tons — that’s the so-called ‘carbon budget’ the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates we need to stay within to prevent 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming in just this Century (note that current stated fossil fuel reserves hold enough carbon to exceed this budget many times over). It’s the level IPCC says we need to stay below to prevent ‘bad outcomes.’ A rate of warming that does not including later temperature increases in following centuries — which would be about double the 21st Century’s amount if global greenhouse gas levels managed to plateau and the global carbon stores remained on good behavior.

515 billion tons — that’s the amount of carbon humans have already emitted into the atmosphere. It leaves us with less than 275 billion tons remaining.

About 24 years — that’s how long it will take for humans to burn enough fossil fuels and emit enough carbon (at current and projected rates) to use up that ‘carbon budget.’ A break-neck pace of burning and dumping of carbon that is now probably about six times faster than at any time in the geological record. Faster than the atmospheric carbon accumulation during the last hothouse extinction — the PETM. Faster than during the worst hothouse mass extinction of all — the Permian.

Hitting Carbon Limits

Sound like we’re up against some hard limits? Well, we are. Because the above basically implies that human emissions would need to start falling dramatically now and get to near zero by 2050 to meet IPCC’s goal. A limit that, by itself, may have built in too much slack and may not have taken into account other responses from the Earth climate system.

Now let’s consider these new numbers from a recent permafrost study released earlier this month in the context of IPCC’s ‘carbon budget…’

0.6 degrees Celsius — that’s the pace at which the Arctic is warming each and every decade. According to the new study:

This is causing normally frozen ground to thaw — exposing substantial quantities of organic carbon to decomposition by soil microbes. This permafrost carbon is the remnant of plants and animals accumulated in perennially frozen soil over thousands of years, and the permafrost region contains twice as much carbon as there is currently in the atmosphere.

This amounts to about 1400 billion tons and around 1,000 billion tons in the shallow carbon store alone. A massive fireplug of carbon stored in thawing (and burning) land-based permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere at a shallow depth of zero to 3 meters. The new study expects 40 to 170 billion tons of this carbon store to release over the next 85 years. A further 120 to 300 billion tons could hit the atmosphere by 2300 if the ongoing thaw in the north continues.

model estimates of potential carbon release from permafrost

(Model estimates of potential carbon release from permafrost. Note that Pg carbon is roughly equivalent to gigatons of carbon. Image source: Climate Change and the Permafrost Carbon Feedback.)

So where does that leave our so-called carbon budget?

Averaging the report’s findings, we can add about 92 gigatons of baked-in feedback from the shallow permafrost zone alone and end up with 607 billion tons of carbon (human + expected permafrost). This leaves us with about 15 years before we are locked in to hit the ‘2 C limit’ of around 450 ppm CO2 by end Century (not considering a current 485 ppm CO2e level or end Century CO2e of 530 to 550 ppm when all other greenhouse gasses are added in).

In addition, the 120 to 300 billion additional tons from the shallow permafrost store expected to keep out-gassing through 2300 would ultimately result in a carbon pool that pushes atmospheric values up to 480-530 ppm CO2 (560 to 600 CO2e) and turns the ‘2 C limit’ into a 4-6 C (7.2 to 10.8 F) long term climate bake.

Carbon Debt With Compound Interest

Looking at the report’s numbers leaves us with the all-too-salient impression that we really don’t have a carbon budget at all. What we have is carbon bankruptcy. A carbon compounded debt shock enough to crack the whole of the Earth System carbon piggy bank and bleed out gigaton-sized carbon pennies for decades and centuries to come. And the new shallow permafrost carbon feedback estimate does not include the approximate 400 gigatons of carbon in the deep permafrost. Nor does it consider ocean carbon stores — which may provide their own carbon debt spiral. Nor does it include Antarctic carbon stores or a number of other possible stores that could be pushed out by heat stress.

Needless to say, some considered the news in the recent Nature Report ‘good.’ At least it didn’t identify a 50 gigaton methane release over one decade from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf as some other recent articles have considered. Some news reports even went so far as to call an approximate 92 gigaton release by 2100 (or a little more than 1 gigaton per year) from permafrost carbon ‘slow.’ The last hothouse extinction, the PETM, also saw similar ‘slow’ rates of release from the global carbon system. So, slow when compared to the raging 10 gigaton per year pace of current human emissions, but fast when compared to about practically anything else in geological history.

What the new report really means is that humans can’t afford to emit any more carbon. And what we need to be looking at now is a way to swiftly transition to a net carbon negative civilization — fast.

“This is not a minor feedback,” Kevin Schaefer, a prominent scientist from the National Snow and Ice Data Center said in a recent report on the new study’s findings. “… If you don’t account for it, you’ll overshoot this 2 degree target.”


Climate Change and the Permafrost Carbon Feedback

Thawing Permafrost — The Arctic’s Giant Carbon Release

Earth’s Natural Fridge is Turning into a Greenhouse Gas Machine

Bacteria Warm up the Permafrost

Stockholm University

Permafrost Feedback Update — Good News or Bad?


Arctic Sea Ice Flirts With New Record Lows Dragging Global Coverage Inexorably Down

It’s another winter of far above average temperatures for the Arctic.

Warm air has risen — south to north — over both the North Atlantic and Pacific. It has ridden through the Bering and Barents seas. And it has invaded an Arctic sea ice pack that is far, far more fragile than it has ever been in modern human reckoning.


(A parade of warm fronts predicted to run up through the North Atlantic and Barents between Greenland and Northern Europe and on up into the Arctic Ocean on Thursday, March 5. The warm fronts are indicated by regions of perpendicular wind flow across the meridional pattern running northward from the Eastern Seaboard of North America and on into the Arctic. It is a pattern we’ve seen frequently throughout the winter of 2014-2015. One that has resulted both in Arctic warming and extreme polar vortex excursions. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data Source: Global Forecast Systems Model.)

The winds have been fed by the warmest ocean surface temperatures ever seen in the aftermath of the hottest year on record (2014). They have pushed against ice packs off Irkutsk in Russia. They have driven ice northward and melted it throughout the Bering. And they have pushed 10-20 foot waves against the ice along the coasts of Greenland, in the Strait near Svalbard, and in the Barents west of Novaya Zemlya.

Near Record Low Arctic Sea Ice

This warm air influx has had a strong effect on the sea ice. Even in the far north near the pole, sea ice has been occasionally observed to thin this winter, reaching 80-90 percent concentration in a broad patch just south of the pole. Marked thinning for an area from which thicker, multi-year ice has undergone an extended retreat and 2 meter thick ice is now the mainstay. A mere shadow of ice for a region that once featured great hills and mounds of stable ice bounded by bridges between the North American and Asian Continents.

Now, over the greatly thinned and reduced ice, periods when temperatures have neared or even exceeded the point at which sea ice melts (28 F) have become more and more common in a broad wedge covering the Arctic Ocean between Novaya and the pole itself. When combined with the warm waters continuing to invade the Arctic Ocean from the flanks and from below, it’s enough to have again pushed sea ice to near record low extents for this time of year:


(Arctic sea ice extent for March 1 of 2015 shown by the purple line sandwiched between the orange line [2011] and the pink line [2006]. Yesterday’s sea ice extent was second lowest in the record with 2006 being the lowest and 2011 running in as third lowest for the date. 2012 [dotted green], 2007 [light blue] and 1979 [dark blue] were added for reference. Image source: NSIDC.)

At the current measure of 14,450,000 square kilometers, that’s well less than what we’ve seen during previous decades. More than 2,000,000 square kilometers, or about an area the size of Greenland, less than 1979’s extent for March 1, for example.

And the total could well go lower — testing new record ranges for early March. For the Arctic is about to see another major influx of warm air.

Starting tomorrow and through Saturday, warm southerly winds will ride up into both the Bering and through the Barents side of the Arctic Ocean east of Novaya Zemlya. The warm air influx will be strongest through the Barents region, pushing temperatures as warm as 30 F to withing 200 miles of the North Pole:

image image

(Forecast for Wednesday finds 30 F temperatures riding up through the Barents and deep into the Arctic Ocean to within 200 miles of the North Pole. Note that similar temperatures appear in Ohio on the same day in the second frame. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data source: Global Forecast Systems Model.)

For comparison Ohio, many hundreds of miles to the south and well outside the Arctic, will see the same reading at the same time. It’s another major warm air influx that will again drive against the ice pack. A continuation of a decades long assault that will bring with it further threat of record lows in Arctic sea ice. One that could set the 2015 melt season up for a rather low launching pad if the major gains seen during this time of year in 2012, 2013, and 2014 don’t manage to materialize.

NASA Study Finds 35,000 Square Kilometers of Sea Ice Lost Each Year Globally

As Arctic sea ice faces the potential for new all-time lows, a recently released NASA study puts these losses in a global context.

This important broader assessment shows that both Arctic sea ice loss and global sea ice loss since 1979 has followed an unequivocal trend of thinning and recession. This ongoing loss is despite the fact that Antarctica has seen some minor gains in sea ice extent during that same period.

Claire Parkinson, author of the study, noted:

“Even though Antarctic sea ice reached a new record maximum this past September, global sea ice is still decreasing. That’s because the decreases in Arctic sea ice far exceed the increases in Antarctic sea ice.”

A graphic illustration of sea ice trends shows how rates of global and Arctic decline compare when adding in the slight and far more gradual sea ice gains occurring near Antarctica:


(NASA Polar Trend Graph shows Arctic, Antarctic, and combined global sea ice trends. Note the slight gain for Antarctica as compared to a precipitous fall for the Arctic even as the global trend shows a marked downswing. Image source: NASA.)

Massive losses in the Arctic are likely due to the fact that the sea ice there sits upon a warming ocean surrounded by warming continents. By contrast, Antarctic sea ice sits in the Southern Ocean whose surface waters are often cooled both by winds and by an increasing outflow of cold, fresh water from the melting Antarctic glaciers. Factors that serve as a minor surface counter-trend to the larger warming signal. A signal, that for Antarctica, is driving an assault of warm water at the ice sheets from the depth of hundreds of feet below the ocean surface.

Overall, the Arctic has lost of an average of 2 million square kilometers since 1979. Antarctic gains of about 700,000 square kilometers are enough to result in a global loss of around 1.3 million square kilometers over the period. That’s equal to about 35,000 square kilometers lost each year or an area the size of the State of Maryland.

Finally, it’s important to note that recent studies have shown (as hinted at above) that sea ice gain around Antarctica is being driven by cold water and ice berg outflows ramping up as the great glaciers of Antarctica increase their melt rates. The melt, which is driven by a pool of warm water expanding hundreds of feet beneath the ocean surface and at the base of ice sheets and ice shelves is creating a kind of heat conveyor which spreads cool water along the surface even as it pulls more warm water in from underneath.

So it appears even the slight ice gain for Antarctica has a connection to human caused warming. One that is even more ominously linked to an exponentially ramping rate of land ice loss from Antarctica itself.



NASA: Global Sea Ice Diminishing, Despite Antarctic Gains

Earth Nullschool

Global Forecast Systems Model

Expanding Arctic Sea Ice is Flooding Warning Bell

Cryosat Shows Rate of Antarctic Land Ice Loss Doubled During Last Decade

Hat Tips:

The Arctic Sea Ice Blog



%d bloggers like this: