Fall in San Francisco: Jim Renwick’s AGU report

Jim RenwickI took part in the 2015 AGU Fall Meeting, held at the vast Moscone Center in San Francisco, 14-18 December. As always, it was an absolute cornucopia of everything to do with the Geo/Earth Sciences, from exoplanets to the earth’s core to climate change and science policy, delivered by over 20,000 geoscientists. The Fall Meeting is always a blast, a real mind-expander.

This year, I was committed to chairing sessions first thing on Monday morning and then again on Friday. Monday’s session was “Evaluating Reanalysis: What Can We Learn about Past Weather and Climate?” with my sub-session having a focus on polar regions. The Thu/Fri session was “Precipitation over Mountainous Terrain: Observations, Understanding, Modeling, and Future Prospects”. In between, I soaked up as much as I could, wandering the halls to hear and see fascinating presentations on climate history, science communication, sea ice, and designing climate change musicals for primary school children. Here’s a few highlights, my personal “tip of the iceberg” from this year’s meeting.
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Antarctic sea ice: The end of the trend?

west antarctic sea iceUnusual things are happening to Antarctic sea ice extent. We are about a month away from the traditional time of maximum extent (around 20 September), and each year for the last six years, total sea ice extent around the Antarctic has been above normal. The last three years have been record-breaking, with 2014 seeing the 20 million square kilometre threshold exceeded for the first time since satellite records began in 1979 (Figure 1). But this year, sea ice growth stalled in early August and is currently going nowhere. For the first winter since 2008, total Antarctic sea ice extent is below normal (Figure 2).

ASIExtentanom201409 Figure 1: September Antarctic sea ice extent, percent difference from the 1981-2010 normal.

Antarcticseaice20150819 Figure 2: Antarctic sea ice extent in 2015 (blue line). The dashed line shows 2014 extent, the gray line the 1981-2010 average extent and the shading represents the two standard deviation spread about the average.

What’s more, the pattern of sea ice change this winter is the opposite of the trend pattern we’ve seen over the past few decades towards more ice around the Ross Sea and less ice near the Antarctic Peninsula ((Turner, J., J. C. Comiso, G. J. Marshall, T. A. Lachlan-Cope, T. Bracegirdle, T. Maksym, M. P. Meredith, Z. Wang, and A. Orr, 2009: Non-annular atmospheric circulation change induced by stratospheric ozone depletion and its role in the recent increase of Antarctic sea ice extent. Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L08502, doi:08510.01029/02009GL037524.)). This year, near the Antarctic Peninsula, we have more ice than normal, and less than normal north of the Ross Sea and across parts of the Indian Ocean (Figure 3). A real turn-around.

ASI20150816extentmap Figure3: Antarctic sea ice coverage for 16 August 2015 (white). The thin solid line shows the 1981-2010 average sea ice edge for this date.

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A tale of two hemispheres

Jim RenwickAt the end of June, Professor Jim Renwick of Victoria University gave his inaugural lecture. As you might expect of a climate scientist, it concerns what we know about the climate system and where we’re heading. He pulls no punches. Jim has been kind enough to put together a text version of the lecture for Hot Topic: it follows. You can watch the full lecture, with accompanying slides, on the video embedded at the end of the post.

We live in a golden age of earth observation. With a few clicks of a mouse on a web browser, any of us can see the state of the global ocean surface, the current condition of the Greenland ice sheet, how much rain is falling in the tropics today, and on and on. Plus, the International Space Station (ISS), and a series of satellites such as MODIS give us wonderful images of our home planet. The climate science community can tell, with unprecedented coverage and timeliness, just what is going on in the climate system. It is a great time to be a climate researcher, but also a worrying time, in both cases because we can see exactly what is changing.

One thing the ISS pictures emphasise is just how thin the atmosphere is, a thin blue layer between the solid earth and the blackness of space. Not only is this life-supporting envelope very thin, some of the key gases in the atmosphere are there in only trace amounts, so we can change the properties of the atmosphere easily, by targeting the right gases. The discovery of the ozone hole 30 years ago brought this home with a bang. And we’ve found that build-up of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere can have a profound effect on the climate system, right down to the bottom of the oceans.

Carbon dioxide is important because it’s a crucial control on the surface temperature of the earth. It is very good at absorbing heat (infrared radiation) welling up from the earth, then re-radiating both up and down, in the process warming the earth’s surface. The effect is very like a blanket put on a bed – what’s under the blanket warms up. More CO2 is like putting another blanket on the bed and less is like taking away a blanket. No CO2 and the earth freezes – temperatures like we had in the South Island in late June would be the norm everywhere, all the time. While there are several other “greenhouse gases”, carbon dioxide is the most important since it stays in the atmosphere so long, hundreds to thousands of years.
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NZCCC 2013: Jim Renwick on Antarctic sea ice, SAM and ozone

Here’s the final interview I recorded at last week’s NZ Climate Change Conference in Palmerston North: VUW’s Dr Jim Renwick ((Apologies to Jim for inadvertently using the British pronunciation of his surname in the introduction. I’m told that my usage is a reliable indicator of a migrant from the UK… )) talking about the complex relationship between the southern annular mode — a north-south movement of the westerly winds that blow around Antarctica — sea ice growth and the ozone hole. It’s interesting stuff, not least because SAM has a significant impact on NZ weather and climate, and how it might change in the future is a very big factor in projecting southern hemisphere climates in a warmer world. The abstract of his conference presentation, Antarctic sea ice, the SAM, and the future of the ozone hole, is here.

Arctic records tumble as ice melts: 2012 Arctic report card released at AGU

The latest Arctic Report Card was published yesterday at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco, and it makes grim reading. Apart from last summer’s new record low sea ice minimum, all the indicators of warming are pointing in the wrong direction. The Arctic is making a rapid transition to a new climate state. Highlights of the report (from the press release):

  • Snow cover: A new record low snow extent for the Northern Hemisphere was set in June 2012, and a new record low was reached in May over Eurasia.
  • Sea ice: Minimum Arctic sea ice extent in September 2012 set a new all-time record low.
  • Greenland ice sheet: There was a rare, nearly ice sheet-wide melt event on the Greenland ice sheet in July, covering about 97 percent of the ice sheet on a single day.
  • Vegetation: The tundra is getting greener and there’s more above-ground growth. During the period of 2003-2010, the length of the growing season increased through much of the Arctic.
  • Wildlife & food chain: In northernmost Europe, the Arctic fox is close to extinction and vulnerable to the encroaching Red fox. Massive phytoplankton blooms below the summer sea ice suggest that earlier estimates of biological production at the bottom of the marine food chain may have been ten times lower than was occurring.
  • Ocean: Sea surface temperatures in summer continue to be warmer than the long-term average at the growing ice-free margins, while upper ocean temperature and salinity show significant interannual variability with no clear trends.
  • Weather: Most of the notable weather activity in fall and winter occurred in the sub-Arctic due to a strong positive North Atlantic Oscillation, expressed as the atmospheric pressure difference between weather stations in the Azores and Iceland. There were three extreme weather events including an unusual cold spell in late January to early February 2012 across Eurasia, and two record storms characterized by very low central pressures and strong winds near western Alaska in November 2011 and north of Alaska in August 2012.

It’s well worth digging down beyond the executive summary to look at the individual reports for key elements in the Arctic — there’s a lot of detail to digest, all of it fascinating, much of it sobering, if not downright scary. This is rapid climate change, happening now. I wonder if anyone in Doha will notice?