Powerful Storms in a Warming World — Cook is Strongest Cyclone to Strike New Zealand in Nearly 50 Years

About 12 hours ago, at 18:30 local time (06:30 GMT) on Thursday, Cyclone Cook roared out of an ocean that has now been considerably warmed by human-forced climate change to made landfall in the Bay of Plenty region of New Zealand. Packing wind gusts of up 90 miles per hour and lashing the region with 1/2 to 1 inch per hour rainfall rates, the storm is the most powerful cyclone to strike New Zealand since 1968.

Most Powerful New Zealand Cyclone in Nearly 50 Years

(New Zealand under a swirl of clouds as Cook makes landfall. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

The storm raked a region that had already seen saturating, long-lasting, rainfall from the remnants of Cyclone Debbie just one week before. As a result, trees unable to gain purchase in the weakened soils uprooted en-masse. Power was knocked out in Whakatane and in numerous other locations along Cook’s path — cutting off at least 11,000 residences. Locals described gusts like freight trains as hundreds huddled in evacuation shelters. Flights out of Rotorua, Tauranga, Napier and Hamilton in the North Island, and Nelson and Blenheim in the South Island were all canceled.

The 30 foot swells and a resulting storm surge in the Bay of Plenty region were expected to result in serious coastal flooding and damage to shore-front structures. But the chief worry from the system, after Debbie’s devastating rains, was more precipitation-related flooding.

(GFS 7 day rainfall forecast for New Zealand shows considerably above average precipitation from Cook. See also GFS rainfall model runs.)

GFS model runs indicated the potential for 4-8 inches of rainfall or more near New Zealand population centers along the path of Cyclone Cook. And for many regions, these totals equal about 1-2 months worth of rainfall at this time of year. Last week, 7.5 inches of rainfall over just two days resulted in a levee breach at Edgecumbe on North Island — flooding the entire town and forcing nearly all the residents to evacuate. And there is some concern that Cook’s follow-on to Debbie will produce similar trouble.

Warming Ocean Waters and High Amplitude Waves in the Jet Stream Feed Storm Pattern

Cook is interacting with a trough to the west of New Zealand in a manner that is broadening the storm — spreading its wind field and rainfall over a larger region than a purely tropical system would typically impact. The trough had dipped down from the Southern Ocean through an extended Jet Stream wave before it became cut-off and linked up with Cook.

(Cook is presently centered between New Zealand’s North and South Islands [roughly under the green circle]. The swirl of clouds and wind to the west of Cook is a second low pressure system that was cut off from a trough sweeping south and west of New Zealand on Tuesday and Wednesday. Cook is interacting with this trough in a manner than is broadening its wind field and enhancing rainfall potentials. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

The far northward extent of this trough is indicative of higher amplitude Jet Stream waves that have been associated with warming temperatures at the polar regions due to climate change. And the zone south of New Zealand over Antarctica has featured a strong dipole — with well above normal temperatures facing off against a wall of cold air. This dipole has facilitated troughs and facing ridges that extended well into the middle latitudes.

(Cyclone Cook fed on far warmer than normal waters which enabled it maintain intensity as it moved into higher latitudes. Interaction with a trough remnant left over from a high amplitude wave in the Jet Stream also contributed to this extreme weather event. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

Meanwhile, Cyclone Cook itself fed on 1-2 C warmer than normal sea surface temperatures surrounding New Zealand. These warmer than normal waters allowed Cook to retain strength and to interact with the polar originating trough in a manner that arguably intensified and broadened the scope of this severe weather event.

Links:

Cyclone Cook: Evacuations as Storm Lashes New Zealand

Concerns Increase as Cook’s Path Shifts Toward Population Centers

Cyclone Cook vs Cyclone Debbie

LANCE MODIS

GFS rainfall model runs

Earth Nullschool

Hat tip to LeslieGraham (please stay safe!)

Hat tip to wili

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The Human-Warmed Southern Ocean Threatens Major Melt For East Antarctica

Totten Glacier. A mountainous expanse of ice in the very heart of the greatest accumulation of frozen water on Earth. A bastion of cold containing 11.5 feet worth of sea level rise if it were to melt in total. An accumulation roughly equal to half of all the frozen water in the whole of the Greenland Ice Sheet.

According to a new scientific report out this week, Totten Glacier is under threat of melt. Warm water is swelling up through troughs in the Continental Shelf zone, approaching the ice shelf locking Totten and a vast swath of interior East Antarctic glaciers. As with West Antarctica, this warm water upwelling has the potential to rapidly destabilize an already fast-moving glacier.

Totten Glacier basin

(Totten glacier outflow zone covers a massive region of East Antarctica. An area about equivalent in size to the entire US Southeast region. Warm water is starting to encroach upon an ice shelf locking this great ice mass into its Continental Catchment Basin. Image source: Australian Antarctic Division.)

Totten already hosts one of the most rapid thinning rates in East Antarctica. And, in fact, it was a satellite detection of this very thinning that set off a recent scientific investigation of the glacier’s stability. What the new scientific report identified was a threat that enhanced warm water upwelling from a human-heated circumpolar current would collide with an ice structure that is already vulnerable to melt.

The net result would mean a destabilization and acceleration of one of the greatest ice masses on the planet. Such an event would have far-reaching implications, especially relating to the pace and end state of warming-related global sea level rise.

From the abstract of Ocean Access to A Cavity Beneath Totten Glacier:

Totten Glacier… has the largest thinning rate in East Antarctica. Thinning may be driven by enhanced basal meltingWarm modified Circumpolar Deep Water, which has been linked to glacier retreat in West Antarctica, has been observed in summer and winter on the nearby continental shelf beneath 400 to 500 m of cool Antarctic Surface Water…We identify entrances to the ice-shelf cavity below depths of 400 to 500 m that could allow intrusions of warm water if the vertical structure of inflow is similar to nearby observations. Radar sounding reveals a previously unknown inland trough that connects the main ice-shelf cavity to the ocean. If thinning trends continue, a larger water body over the trough could potentially allow more warm water into the cavity, which may, eventually, lead to destabilization of the low-lying region between Totten Glacier and the similarly deep glacier flowing into the Reynolds Trough. (emphasis added)

At issue are two pathways for this upwelling, warm, deep water to follow:

totten_glacier_labeledpaths

(Topographic map of the Totten Glacier outlet region and nearby seabed. Note the vulnerable water inlets [orange lines], the inland troughs and basins [red highlights and blue topographic signature] and the rather advanced inland extent of the grounding line [white line]. Image source: Ocean Access to a Cavity Beneath Totten Glacier.)

The pathways are identified by the orange lines in the topographic image above. The lines identify underwater valleys that run out to the deeper, warmer waters accumulating on the edge of the Antarctic Continental Shelf region. As the waters rise, scientists are concerned that these troughs will act like channels, funneling a flood of much warmer than normal water beneath the belly of the great glacier.

The result is an instance of ‘global consequence.’ The authors note:

We estimate that at least 3.5 m of eustatic sea level potential drains through Totten Glacier, so coastal processes in this area could have global consequences.

Indeed. If we add in all the other destabilized glaciers around the world to Totten, should it destabilize, you end up with about 26 feet of sea level rise locked in. And that has some pretty staggering consequences when you look at impacts to the world’s coastlines.

This is what 20 feet of sea level rise impact looks like for the US Southeast and Gulf Coasts:

NASA six meter sea level rise SE

(Six meters of sea level rise would permanently inundate many of the major cities along the US Gulf and Southeastern coasts. Areas inundated shown in red. Image source: NASA.)

But, perhaps worst of all, is the fact that some of the world’s longest lasting and most stable accumulations of frozen water are now under threat of melt.

In essence, what we are witnessing is possible initiation of the end of the greatest and oldest ice province on Earth. East Antarctica glaciated 35 million years ago, when atmospheric CO2 levels fell below a range of 500-600 parts per million, and has been mostly stable or growing ever since. Now that region of ice, the most ancient remaining in the memory of Earth, is under threat. With human greenhouse gasses in the range of 484 ppm CO2e (CO2 equivalent) and 400 ppm CO2 and rising, it appears that even the oldest glaciers are under existential threat.

To this point, Eric Rignot noted in a recent interview:

“..the stage is set. You have a submarine glacier and a deep trough. The warm water is not too far from that frontal region and we’ve seen some changes in the glaciers that suggest that something is happening at their base.”

Links:

Ocean Access to A Cavity Beneath Totten Glacier

Hidden Channels Beneath East Antarctica Could Cause Massive Melt

Australian Antarctic Division

NASA

A Glacier Area the Size of the Entire South is Melting Away

Starving Sea Lion Pups and Liquified Starfish — How We’ve Turned the Eastern Pacific into A Death Trap for Marine Species

As of late January, the news reports were coming in hot and heavy. Baby sea lions were dying in droves. More than 15,000 of the pups were already lost due to starvation. And with each passing week, more than 100 of the emaciated, beleaguered, hopeless animals were washing up on California shores.

The pups staggered across beaches, wandered into vacant lots, or tottered, disoriented, along roadways. Refugees all to some unspeakable disaster. Orphans lost or abandoned by parents unable to provide them with even the most basic of sustenance.

Starving Sea Lion Pups

(Starving sea lion pups taken in by the Marine Mammal Center in San Francisco. Image source: WTSP.)

Marine rescue centers, volunteer centers, and even animal shelters were inundated by a flood of desperate, dying animals. Their organs were shutting down. They could barely breathe or walk. The future generation of the more than 300,000 sea lions living along the US West Coast taking a severe blow from a deadly killer lurking in West Coast waters.

By late February more than 1000 sea lion pups had flooded the California Marine Mammal Center. Hundreds more found their way into local and ad-hoc shelters. The number was so great that all support systems for the animals were overwhelmed. Persons finding and seeking help for the dying pups were, more often than not, turned away due to lack of support and rescue resources.

It was like the scene out of some heart-wrenching sci-fi disaster movie. And everyone kept asking the same question — what could cause this?

Mass Sea Lion Deaths for Three Years Running

This most recent spate of sea lion pup deaths and strandings comes after years of the same. News media currently reports the event in isolation — as if 2015 were the only year for such a thing to happen. But the truth is that this crisis has been ongoing now since at least 2013, with an earlier episode in 2009-2010 preceding the current chain of related events.

The 2013 event was so severe that in the end 70 percent of the 50,000 sea lion pups born that year had died. The 2014 event was rather less severe, accounting for ‘only’ twice the normal loss rate. But 2015 has so far been so deadly that even 2013’s staggering number of sea lion pup losses could be exceeded.

The multi-year event represents such a heavy blow to sea lions that marine organizations have declared the entire current young generation under threat of being wiped out.

Adult Sea Lions, Otters, Starfish, Birds and other Marine Creatures Involved

But the story doesn’t stop at young sea lion deaths alone. From May through August of last summer, reports were flooding in of mass adult sea lion, otter, and bird deaths due to what appeared to be exposure to some form of toxin.

The animals would wash up on the beach or drop out of the sky. They would show signs of convulsions. Autopsies of the deceased animals revealed shrunken hippocampus, brain and heart lesions.

The same marine mammal center that is now taking in over 1,000 baby sea lion pups this summer took in 751 adults suffering from these signs of toxic poisoning. Simply put, the adults died this past summer and now the pups are starving.

Further down the food chain, creatures living in bottom water zones were also suffering and dying. Fishermen off Oregon had to go further and further afield to fill nets. Near shore fishing lines came up empty except for crabs scurrying up the lines as if in an attempt to escape from danger below.

And in 2013, thousands upon thousands of starfish began to turn to white clumps. A freakish instance of mass star fish death that continued inexorably through 2015.

A Victim of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

(A victim of Sea Star Wasting Syndrome. Image source: Crosscut.)

The star fish would succumb to a strange wasting illness. An illness that would ultimately waste whole swaths of multiple starfish species (20 separate starfish species and millions of animals are now thought to be involved). Entire regions saw their starfish populations dwindle to zero. As with the mass sea lion deaths, marine researchers were both stunned and befuddled.

Perhaps even more disturbing is that the various species deaths just keep on coming — with no apparent end in sight.

A Hothouse Serial Killer

Just off shore, a warm wind runs from south to north over the increasingly wasted waters. Warm airs born of warm waters, providing us with clues for the cause of this ongoing mass death event. For the seas off the US West Coast have reached record levels of warmth — a level of ocean surface heat that flared with the most recent El Nino in 2009 and 2010. A warming that has been building steadily ever since mortality events began their incessant march in 2013.

image

(Sea surface temperature anomaly map for February 27, 2015 depicting very large swath of much warmer than average sea surface temperatures running along the West Coast of North America through to the Bering Sea. Such widespread surface warming contributes to numerous detrimental changes to ocean health. Image source: Earth Nullschool. Data Source: Global Forecast System Model.)

Now a broad swath of surface water ranging from 2-5 C above average blankets an entire oceanic zone from Alaska to Mexico.

Such excess heat may seem innocuous at first blush. A little extra warm water may seem pleasant to the casual observer. But what seems pleasant actually conceals a deadly threat.

Warm surface waters spreading over the ocean can serve as a kind of lid. The warm water prevents cooler water from upwelling toward the surface, mixing nutrients and refreshing the water’s oxygen levels. This shut down of overturning is a dangerous oceanic condition called stratification. And it can level a severe blow to almost all creatures along the marine food chain. Plankton become less productive. Low oxygen zones expand, killing the slow-moving bottom creatures all while driving the mobile fish to more productive waters. In the warmer waters, toxic algae blooms become more prevalent. Harmful microbes, which are culled during influxes of cold water, thrive and multiply, posing a disease threat to all marine species. Finally, in the deeper reaches off the coasts of Washington and Oregon, the already oxygen-poor zones, zones rife with methane from hydrate venting, begin producing a deadly seep of hydrogen sulfide gas.

The living sea has now become a killer. And all it took was a little extra added heat to lock west coast waters in an expanding zone of warm water and low oxygen marine mortality.

Low Oxygen Ocean Zones

(The signature of ocean stratification expansion — low oxygen zones. Note the large and expanding region of low oxygen in the Eastern Pacific. For reference, high oxygen is shown in greens, blues and purples, low oxygen shown in oranges, reds and black. Image source: AMOP’s Study of Oxygen Minimum Zones. Image date: 2013.)

As a result we have the proliferation of the sea star wasting illness. An illness that would usually be contained by the seasonal influx of cooler waters. So too do we have instances of sea lion adults consuming fish, mullusks, and shellfish contaminated with domoic acid — a toxin produced by algae blooms in warm waters. And lastly, we have the overall stress on the food chain due to low oxygen and productivity which has driven sea lion food sources so far off shore that females are too exhausted after hunting to feed their pups.

More Dangers to Come

The recent mortality events mirror ocean warming episodes which caused similar die-offs at the end of glacial periods. Then, as now, warming robbed waters of oxygen and productive mixing, causing stress to numerous species.

However, the current pace of human warming is much more rapid than the warming periods that occurred at the ends of the ice ages. In addition, under business as usual human carbon emissions, the deadly, low-oxygen ocean zones are expected to expand, eventually covering the majority of the world ocean system. It’s a transition to a stratified ocean that will make the current west-coast die-off look like a minor prelude by comparison.

Hydrogen Sulfide Eruption off Namibian Coast

(Hydrogen sulfide eruption off Namibian coast on February 15, 2015. In Namibia, anoxic bottom waters host hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. Runoff rich with organic material feeds these bacteria as they produce more toxic hydrogen sulfide gas. During upwelling events, the hydrogen sulfide is brought to the surface where it is visible as a florescent green or black slick. Under stratified and Canfield Oceans, more and more regions are capable of supporting deadly hydrogen sulfide production. Currently, the Baltic Sea, Offshore Namibia, the Chesapeake Bay, and Offshore Oregon are known to host broad regions of hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria in anoxic dead zones. Only in Nambia do these zones occasionally reach the surface waters, so far. Image source: Earth Observatory/NASA.)

Eventually, if CO2e levels exceed 800-1000 parts per million, a transition to an even more deadly state called a Canfield Ocean is increasingly likely. And a Canfield Ocean is a powerful killing machine. Implicated all the previous hothouse extinctions, this killer, during the Permian Extinction, was likely primarily responsible for the deaths of 95 percent of species in the ocean and 70 percent of species on land. For the oceans eventually filled up with deadly toxins (primarily in the form of hydrogen sulfide gas) which then vented into the atmosphere.

It’s a very deadly ocean state we want to avoid at all costs. And we should view these very troubling instances of ocean species mortality along the North American West Coast as a warning to stop warming to oceans as swiftly as possible.

Links:

 Here’s Why Hundreds of Sea Lion Pups are Washing Ashore in California

Researchers Find Warmer Waters Increase Sea Bed Methane Emissions

Surge in Marine Mammal Strandings on US West Coast

On California Coast, Biotoxins Cause of Deadly Sea Lion Siezures, Seafood Scare

Unprecedented Sea Lion Mortality Along California Coast Associated With Anomalous Ocean Conditions

Pelagic Zone: Commons

Global Warming May Boost Dead Zones in Oceans

Eastern Pacific Oxygen Minimum Research

Starving Sea Lion Pup Rescued on San Fransisco Boulevard

Sea Star Wasting Continues: Will King of the Rock Fall?

Pacific Rocky Intertidal Monitoring: Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

When the Stars all Go Out Along the Coast

Hydrogen Sulfide Eruption: Namibia

Earth Nullschool

Global Forecast System Model

Hat Tips:

Colorado Bob

Lief Thurston

Ten Cubic Kilometers of Ice Lost From Jakobshavn Glacier in Less than One Month

How large is a cubic kilometer? Think of something the size of a mountain. Now multiply that by ten and you end up with a veritable mountain range. Think of it. An entire mountain range of ice. That’s a good rough comparison to the volume of ice lost from just a single Greenland glacier over the course of a mere 26 days from May 7 to June 1 of 2014.

Jakobshavn Ibrae Ice loss 2014

(Massive ice loss from Jakobsbavn glacier captured by Espen Olsen. Image source: The Arctic Ice Blog.)

For according to reports from expert sea ice observer Espen over at the scientist and ice researcher camp that is Neven’s Arctic Ice Blog, about 7.5 square kilometers over an ice face about 1,300 meters tall (when including the above and below sea level ice front) shoved off from the great Jakobshavn Ibrae glacier during the past month. It was a period of time well before peak Greenland warming and one that featured a collapse of ice into the heating ocean even larger than the epic event caught on film during the seminal documentary Chasing Ice.

The Fastest Glacier in Greenland

Flowing at a speed of 46 meters per day, Jakobshavn is currently Greenland’s fastest glacier. Containing enough ice to raise global sea levels by 1.5 feet all by itself, the glacier is one of many of the Earth’s ice giants currently in the throes of irreversible decline.

Human-warmed subtropical Atlantic waters are funneled by ocean currents to the great glacier’s base. There, the high heat capacity does serious harm to the its weak underbelly, resulting in what is now an unprecedented seaward surge.

Since the 1990s, Jakobshavn’s forward rate of motion has tripled. But according to recent scientific reports, the glacier may just be at the start of an exponential spike in velocity. For as the glacier retreats it falls into a deepening chasm that exposes its front to greater and greater volumes of the warming ocean’s waters. The warm waters deliver more heat over the glacial face as it deepens even as a multiplication of melt lakes on the surface of the inland ice provide added lubrication and buoyancy to the ice base flowing into the chasm.

Greenland Bedrock Map

(Greenland map showing location of the Jakobshavn Glacier with close view of a deep channel in the bedrock. This channel was likely carved by previous discharge and at its deepest point is now more than 1,000 meters below sea level. Image source: NASA’s Earth Observatory.)

Estimates of energy transfer from the warming ocean show that Jakobshavn could reach a speed ten times 1990s values over the coming years. Ominously, the past two month’s immense calving event has shoved a large section of glacier closer to what could best be described as a high velocity melt chamber.

Greenland — An Archipelago Covered in Ice

Unfortunately, Jakobshavn is just one of Greenland’s many giant glaciers fronting deep and long chasms stretching far into the ice interior. Recent research from NASA’s Ice Bridge project revealed numerous deep rifts plunging for scores of miles into the ice sheet. The overall picture portrayed by the new study was that of an archipelago island system locked in the grip of two mile high ice mountains and riddled with deep bedrock canyons that join in a low-lying interior basin. A geography in which there is almost nowhere for ice to hide from the severe melting stress of Earth’s human-warmed oceans.

Due to this uniquely vulnerable topography lead Ice Bridge researcher Mathieu Morlighem, a UC Irvine associate project scientist concluded that:

“The glaciers of Greenland are likely to retreat faster and farther inland than anticipated – and for much longer – according to this very different topography we’ve discovered beneath the ice. This has major implications, because the glacier melt will contribute much more to rising seas around the globe.”

Human Warming Holds Numerous Large Glacial Collapses in Store

Under the current regime of human-caused climate change, the past month’s massive glacial release is likely only to be one of many. A single event of immense scale that defies imagining. Just one in an ongoing series of violent outbursts we’ve already set lose on our world.

An event of smaller, though still enormous, size was captured on film here:

(Largest glacial calving event captured on film as excerpted from the ground-breaking documentary ‘Chasing Ice.’)

It is a film that gives us some small measure of understanding of what we’ve done and what we continue to to do. For Greenland’s entire ice edge, a region unlocking ice twenty times the volume of Jakobshavn, is now in the process of deformation and collapse all while the massive glaciers of West Antarctica are also falling into irreversible release.

Links:

(Hat-tip to Colorado Bob)

The Arctic Ice Blog

Chasing Ice

NASA’s Earth Observatory

Greenland Will Be Far Greater Contributor to Sea Level Rise Than Expected

Greenland’s Jakobshavn Glacier Revs-up With Climate Change

Nature: Human Warming Now Pushing Entire Greenland Ice Sheet into the Ocean

Grim News From NASA: West Antartica’s Entire Flank Collapsing into Southern Ocean

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