Once upon a time there was an ocean

Oldnorthpolemap.jpg The Arctic summer sea ice cover could be reduced by 2013 to “a few outcrops on islands near Greenland and Canada between mid-July and mid-September”, according to new research reported in The Observer [UK] today. The paper also suggests that this year could still see a new record minimum. Wieslaw Maslowski, the US Navy researcher who suggested in 2007 that the Arctic could be ice free by 2013, told Observer science editor Robin McKie:

‘It does not really matter whether 2007 or 2008 is the worst year on record for Arctic ice,’ Maslowski said. ‘The crucial point is that ice is clearly not building up enough over winter to restore cover and that when you combine current estimates of ice thickness with the extent of the ice cap, you get a very clear indication that the Arctic is going to be ice-free in summer in five years. And when that happens, there will be consequences.’

This is the first story I’ve found in a mainstream newspaper that has picked up on what those “consequences” might be, albeit in only the most general terms:

This startling loss of Arctic sea ice has major meteorological, environmental and ecological implications. The region acts like a giant refrigerator that has a strong effect on the northern hemisphere’s meteorology. Without its cooling influence, weather patterns will be badly disrupted, including storms set to sweep over Britain.

Or a run of warm wet summers.

The paper also talked to Mark Serreze from the NSIDC about the speed up in melt over the last week:

‘[…]Beaufort Sea storms triggered steep ice losses and it now looks as if it will be a very close call indeed whether 2007 or 2008 is the worst year on record for ice cover over the Arctic. We will only find out when the cover reaches its minimum in mid-September.’

The fat lady may just have got back into the limo and returned to her hotel for a snack.

[Update 12/8: The NSIDC has updated (11/8) its Arctic news page, commenting on the effect of storms on the ice, and noting that Amundsen’s long version of the NW Passage will be open soon.]

Santa’s blues

Polarbear.jpg What’s a Christmas icon to do, when all the ice at the North Pole disappears in summer? This startling question is posed by the latest flush of media attention to events in the Arctic. First there was a National Geographic story on June 20th speculating that the North Pole would be ice free this summer (note: this is nothing to do with record minima, just do with ice around the pole itself). This was picked up by CNN, who went to Mark Serreze of the NSIDC in Boulder, Colorado for comment:

“We kind of have an informal betting pool going around in our center and that betting pool is ‘does the North Pole melt out this summer?’ and it may well,” said the center’s senior research scientist, Mark Serreze. It’s a 50-50 bet that the thin Arctic sea ice, which was frozen in autumn, will completely melt away at the geographic North Pole, Serreze said.

And then everything went quiet, until The Independent in Britain (referred to as The Indescribablyoverhyped on climate matters by Stoat) picked up the story and ran with it under the headline – Exclusive: no ice at the North Pole:

It seems unthinkable, but for the first time in human history, ice is on course to disappear entirely from the North Pole this year.

They seem to be having problems with their choice of tense, and quite how they can justify the “exclusive” tag escapes me… The Drudge Report noticed, and then everyone in the world had to have a go [Telegraph, AP(*)]. Andy Revkin at DotEarth covers it well, and RealClimate chips in with its own analysis. It won’t be long before the usual denialist sites will be spluttering with indignation, despite the fact that the North Pole has a very good chance of being open ocean this summer – even if a new record minimum is not set.

None of this has any relevance to the odds of my winning my various sea-ice bets, but it does give me a chance to post a few interesting Arctic-related links from the last week… As part of its beat-up, The Independent went to Peter Wadhams, professor of ocean physics at Cambridge University, for his impressions on the changes in the Arctic, and the BBC’s been carrying a blog from Liz Kalaugher aboard a Canadian icebreaker that over-wintered near Banks Island. Interesting stuff – note Liz’s comments about the weather. Meanwhile, across the melting ice, the Russian defence establishment is beginning to get worried about the impact of melting permafrost.

(*) The AP story uncovers this truly remarkable and hitherto unnoticed fact: “That pushed the older thicker sea ice that had been over the North Pole south toward Greenland and eventually out of the Arctic, Serreze said. That left just a thin one-year layer of ice that previously covered part of Siberia.” So that ice has somehow left the land and started floating towards the Pole. Be afraid, be very afraid…

It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I don’t feel fine)

CTarctic110608.jpg For REM, it “starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane“, for us, it looks like diminishing Arctic sea ice is the sign. Over at Open Mind, the blogger formerly known as Tamino looks in some detail at the sea ice/rapid warming paper I linked to yesterday. His post makes for sober reading. David Lawrence and his team at NCAR and the NSIDC examined runs of the NCAR-based CCSM climate model that included episodes of rapid sea ice loss, and looked at what happened to climate of the Arctic during those periods. They found that the rate of warming increased 3.5 times faster than the average rate models project over the coming century. From the press release:

While this warming is largest over the ocean, the simulations suggest that it can penetrate as far as 900 miles inland. The simulations also indicate that the warming acceleration during such events is especially pronounced in autumn. The decade during which a rapid sea-ice loss event occurs could see autumn temperatures warm by as much as 9 degrees F (5 degrees C) along the Arctic coasts of Russia, Alaska, and Canada.

This is what it looks like in their nifty graphic:


This is what we saw last winter.


Looks as though the process the paper describes is already under way. Canada’s a bit cooler, but then it still has some ice left at the moment…

And the end of the world? Go and re-read my recent post on methane hydrates in the shallow seas north of Siberia. Consider what Lawrence et al have to say about permafrost. Then ponder the meaning of “positive feedbacks in the carbon cycle”. What’s happening up North could make any efforts to reduce global emissions irrelevant, or at best, mean that reaching a relatively low stabilisation target (450ppm?) suddenly a lot harder. Just to make things even harder, we have 30 years of warming to go, even if we could stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gases today.

I’m going to enlarge my veggie garden, and re-examine my thoughts on resilience as a response to climate change.

[Update: Joe Romm at Climate Progress has good coverage.]

[Update 2: Nature‘s In The Field blog reports reactions to the Lawrence et al paper from aboard a ship cruising the Arctic, and in passing confirms some of my thoughts…]

Sugar coated iceberg

Polarbear.jpg Prognostications on the fate of the Arctic sea ice this boreal summer are coming in thick and fast. The National Snow and Ice Data Centre in the US has updated its summer news page with the latest data and some projections of what might happen:

Spring has arrived in the Arctic. After peaking at 15.21 million square kilometers (5.87 million square miles) in the second week of March, Arctic sea ice extent has declined through the month of April. April extent has not fallen below the lowest April extent on record, but it is still below the long-term average. Taken together, an assessment of the available evidence, detailed below, points to another extreme September sea ice minimum. Could the North Pole be ice free this melt season? Given that this region is currently covered with first-year ice, that seems quite possible.

Most striking are the estimates of this summer’s likely minimum based on the melting rates observed over the last 25 years.


“To avoid beating the September 2007 record low, more than 50% of this year’s first-year ice would have to survive; this has only happened once in the last 25 years, in 1996.”

Meanwhile, Andy Revkin at the New York Times has been asking sea ice researchers for their views. You can read their replies in the comments to his post. A number of well-known names are backing a new record, including BIll Chapman, the researcher responsible for the excellent Cryosphere Today site (I want to get an iPhone so that I can try out the special graphics CT provides), who writes:

The two wild cards remaining would be (1) how thick is this first-year ice and (2) will it be warm enough to melt the first-year ice this summer? Since temperatures over the central Arctic were normal to above normal this past winter and spring, I don’t think the thickness will be too great. The key will be June temperatures and cloud cover in the central Arctic. Given relatively clear conditions and an early to average start to the melt of the central Arctic, the albedo will lower and the process will be in motion to easily melt that first year ice. In fact, the only thing that could prevent a record would be a colder than average summer – especially early summer. Given recent history and our penchant for burning fossil fuels, I’d consider this somewhat unlikely.

I say the odds favor a new NH record minimum – put my money there.

My money’s already there… Good to know I’m backing the form horse, even if I would rather lose.

“The Arctic ice is back to normal.” Yeah, right. #2

This latest New Scientist video accompanies a news item headlined “North Pole could be ice free in 2008“, and shows multi-year ice moving out of the Arctic over winter.

“The set-up for this summer is disturbing,” says Mark Serreze, of the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). A number of factors have this year led to most of the Arctic ice being thin and vulnerable as it enters its summer melting season.”

Also of interest in the video: look at the large cracks in the thicker ice north of Canada.