Unprecedented: Melting Before Our Eyes

The volume of Arctic sea ice is reducing faster than the area of sea ice, further speeding the arctic death spiral.

WHO:  Seymour W. Laxon, Katharine A. Giles, Andy L. Ridout, Duncan J. Wingham, Rosemary Willatt, Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling, Department of Earth Sciences, University College London, London, UK
Robert Cullen, Malcolm Davidson, European Space Agency, Noordwijk, The Netherlands
Ron Kwok, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, USA.
Axel Schweiger, Jinlun Zhang, Polar Science Center, Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA
Christian Haas, Department of Earth and Space Science and Engineering, York University, Toronto, Canada.
Stefan Hendricks, Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Bremerhaven, Germany
Richard Krishfield, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, USA
Nathan Kurtz,School of Computer, Math, and Natural Sciences, Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.
Sinead Farrell, Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center, University of Maryland, Maryland, USA.

WHAT: Measuring the volume of polar ice melt

WHEN: February 2013 (online pre-published version)

WHERE: American Geophysical Union, 2013, doi: 10.1002/grl.50193

TITLE:  CryoSat-2 estimates of Arctic sea ice thickness and volume (subs req.)

Much has been written about the Arctic Death Spiral of sea ice melting each spring and summer, with many researchers attempting to model and predict exactly how fast the sea ice is melting and when we will get the horrifying reality of an ice-free summer Arctic.

But is it just melting at the edges? Or is the thickness, and therefore the volume of sea ice being reduced as well? That’s what these researchers set out to try and find out using satellite data from CryoSat-2 (Science with satellites!).

The researchers used satellite radar altimeter measurements of sea ice thickness, and then compared their results with measured in-situ data as well as other Arctic sea ice models.

A loss of volume in Arctic sea ice is a signifier of changes in the heat exchange between the ice, ocean and atmosphere, and most global climate models predict a decrease in sea ice volume of 3.4% per decade which is larger than the predicted 2.4% per decade of sea ice area.

Sea ice area minimum from September 2012 (image: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio)

Sea ice area minimum from September 2012 (image: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio)

The researchers ran their numbers for ice volume in winter 2010/11 and winter 2011/12, and then used the recorded data sets to check the accuracy of their satellites (calibration for my fellow science nerds).

The most striking thing they found was a much greater loss of ice thickness in the north of Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago. Additionally, they found that the first year ice was thinner in autumn, which made it harder to catch up to average thickness during the winter, and made greater melting easier in summer.

Interestingly, they found that there was additional ice growth in winter between 2010-12 (7,500km3) compared to 2003-08 (5,000km3), which makes for an extra 36cm of ice growth in the winter. Unfortunately the increased summer melt is much greater than the extra growth, so it’s not adding to the overall thickness of the sea ice.

For the period of 2010-12 the satellite measured rate of decline in autumn sea ice was 60% greater than the predicted decline using PIOMAS (Panarctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System). Most researchers when seeing results like that might hope that there’s an error, however when measured against the recorded data, the CryoSat-2 data was within 0.1 metres of accuracy. So while astounding, the 60% greater than expected loss of sea ice thickness is pretty spot on.

The researchers think that lower ice thickness at the end of winter in February and March could be contributing to the scarily low September minimums in the arctic death spiral, but the greatest risk here is that the ever increasing melt rate of ice in the arctic could take the climate beyond a tipping point where climate change is both irreversible and uncontrollable in a way we are unable to adapt to.

Visualisation of reduction in arctic sea ice thickness (from Andy Lee Robinson, via ClimateProgress)

Visualisation of reduction in arctic sea ice thickness (from Andy Lee Robinson, via ClimateProgress)

So as usual, my remedy for all of this is: stop burning carbon.

Uninhabitable Homeland

The effects of climate change on Arctic peoples is a warning sign for the rest of the planet.

WHO: Elizabeth Ferris, Co-Director, Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement

WHAT: Looking at the effects of climate change on people living within the Arctic and how it is displacing them within their own countries.

WHEN: January 13, 2013

WHERE: The Brookings Institute (public policy think tank based in Washington, DC)

TITLE:  A Complex Constellation: Displacement, Climate Change and Arctic Peoples

The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet right now due to a reduction in surface albedo, which is scientist for when the white ice melts; the darker surfaces absorb heat faster.

This means that the people who live in the Arctic are experiencing climate change ahead of the schedule the lower latitudes are on. So what’s happening to all the people who like living in the really really cold? This report from the Brookings Institute in the USA is looking into it.

The official Polar Countries are Greenland, Canada, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland the USA (Alaska) and one of the major issues that will be faced by anyone living in these countries and inside the Arctic circle is ‘internal displacement’ which is UN speak for refugees who don’t leave their original country, but can no longer live wherever ‘home’ originally was.

The map of the world angle you don’t normally see – the Arctic (from paper)

The map of the world angle you don’t normally see – the Arctic (from paper)

The Arctic is expected to warm by up to 10oC by 2100, which will have serious ramifications for weather patterns in North America by messing with the jet stream, but will also have other scary impacts like greater erosion from the lack of sea ice protecting coastal areas from storm surges.

Larger storm surges is also an issue for permanent infrastructure for coastal communities (as the people of Manhattan discovered in Hurricane Sandy), but here’s one I hadn’t thought of before – melting permafrost means that the ground underneath houses in the Arctic could literally melt away from underneath the foundations. If your home is melting underneath the foundations and will continue to, how long do you stay?

There’s issues for sea life, where permafrost creates a kind of breeding ground for ice crystals filled with sediment, which then float to the surface and feed all the small things like plankton under the sea ice (if there’s any sea ice left). There’s issues getting food, not only with changes in the migration patterns of the tasty animals normally hunted in the Arctic, but more modern food issues like supply barge docks being destroyed in climate fuelled storms.

Ice crystals (tlindenbaum, flickr)

Ice crystals (tlindenbaum, flickr)

There’s the interesting new research looking at black carbon feedback loops, where researchers think that pollution could be creating enough of a colour change on the top of ice and snow that it’s further speeding up the melting of the Arctic.

What else is happening in the Arctic through climate change? Well the growing season is getting weird from the changed patterns of freezing and thawing of the ground, but scarier than that, roads are starting to buckle and travelling across ice that used to be thick enough to drive a large truck over is becoming increasingly dangerous in really unpredictable ways. It really puts a different spin on a fun day of ice fishing when you don’t know if the ice will even hold you up…

The report looks at the potential benefits for the local communities from the changes, however some of them are pretty suicidal for the planet as a whole. Unfortunately, Greenland (who was only given self governance from Denmark in 2009) has decided that the best way to be less reliant on Danish Government subsidies is ‘drill baby, drill’, and the number of mineral exploration licences has increased dramatically over the past decade, with the oil and gas industry spending $100m in 2011 searching Greenland for more fossil fuels.

Whichever language you say it in, ‘drill baby, drill’ is also the fastest way towards spending the atmosphere’s entire carbon budget and ensuring that there will not be a livable climate for Greenland’s next generations, so I hope someone is advising their government that a longer term outlook would be more beneficial.

Other benefits from a melting Arctic are new shipping routes, greater tourism opportunities, new military bases, and greater wage-based activities (which must be think tank speak for ‘all other businesses that pay wages’).

The big sticking point though (aside from the fact that their homes are melting beneath their feet) will be the geopolitics of the region. The report points out that indigenous Arctic people are rarely represented at national or international Polar negotiations in a way that they can influence the decisions that affect them. Competing commercial, national security and environmental concerns are going to only be heightened in the Arctic as climate change continues to intensify.

The report concludes that more research needs to be undertaken, (naturally) and that Governments and organisations need to make sure that they’re engaging fully with local indigenous peoples (yes, you need to ask before you mine their land).

For my part, I hope that the rest of the world can start looking at the Arctic and stop seeing it as the next place to attempt to continue the fossil fuel gold rush and instead start seeing it as the future of where the whole planet is headed, complete with 7m of sea level rise if Greenland fully melts.

Is it time to stop burning carbon yet?

When the Party’s Over: Permian Mass Extinction

“The implication of our study is that elevated CO2 is sufficient to lead to inhospitable conditions for marine life and excessively high temperatures over land would contribute to the demise of terrestrial life.”

WHO: Jeffrey T. Kiehl, Christine A. Shields, Climate Change Research Section, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, USA

WHAT: A complex climate model of atmospheric, ocean and land conditions at the Permian mass extinction 251 million years ago to look at CO2 concentrations and their effect.

WHEN: September 2005

WHERE: Geological Society of America, Geology vol. 33 no. 9, September 2005

TITLE: Climate simulation of the latest Permian: Implications for mass extinction

The largest mass extinction on earth occurred approximately 251million years ago at the end of the Permian geologic era. Almost 95% of all ocean species and 70% of land species died, and research has shown that what probably happened to cause this extinction was carbon dioxide levels.

As the saying goes; those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, so let’s see what happened to the planet 251 million years ago and work out how we humans can avoid doing it to ourselves at high speed.

This research paper from 2005 did the first comprehensive climate model of the Permian extinction, which means their model was complicated enough to include the interaction between the land and the oceans (as different to ‘uncoupled’ models that just looked at one or the other and not how they affected each other).

The researchers used the CCSM3 climate model that is currently housed at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and is one of the major climate models currently being used by the IPCC to look forward and model how our climate may change with increasing atmospheric carbon pollution (or emission reduction). They organised their model to have ‘realistic boundary conditions’ for things like ocean layers (25 ocean layers for those playing at home), atmospheric resolution and energy system balance. They then ran the simulation for 900 years with current conditions and matched it with observed atmospheric conditions and got all of their data points correct with observed data.

Then, they made their model Permian, which meant taking CO2 concentrations and increasing them from our current 397ppm to 3,550ppm which is the estimated CO2 concentrations from the end of the Permian era.

What did ramping up the CO2 in this manner do for the planet’s living conditions in the model? It increased the global average temperature to a very high 23.5oC (the historic global average temperature for the Holocene (current era) is 14oC).

Changing the CO2 concentrations so dramatically in the model changed the global average ocean surface temperature 4oC warmer than current conditions. Looking at all the ocean layers in their model, the water was warmer in deeper areas as well, with some areas at depths of 3000m below sea level measuring 4.5-5oC where they are currently near freezing.

The greatest warming in the oceans occurred at higher latitudes, where ocean temps were modelled at 8oC warmer than present, while equatorial tropical oceans were not substantially warmer. The oceans were also much saltier than they currently are.

The big problem for all of the things that called the ocean home at the end of the Permian era is the slowing of ocean circulation and mixing. Currently, dense salty water cools at the poles and sinks, oxygenating and mixing with deeper water allowing complex organisms to grow and live. If this slows down, which it did in this model, it has serious consequences for all ocean residents.

Current ocean circulation patterns (NOAA, Wikimedia commons)

Current ocean circulation patterns (NOAA, Wikimedia commons)

Their Permian model measured ocean overturning circulation around 10 Sv (million cubic metres per second), whereas current ocean overturning circulation is around 15-23 Sv. The researchers think the ocean currents could have slowed down enough to create anoxic oceans, which are also known as ‘ocean dead zones’ or ‘Canfield Oceans’, and stated that it set the stage for a large-scale marine die off.

If the end of the Permian was pretty nasty for ocean residents, how did it fare for land-dwellers? What happened to the tetrapods of Gondwanaland? Well it looked really different to how earth looks today.

Permian land mass (Wikimedia commons)

Permian land mass (Wikimedia commons)

There were deciduous forests at high latitudes, and the elevated CO2 in the model was the dominant reason for warm, ice free Polar Regions (which also hindered ocean circulation). Land surface temperatures were between 10 – 40oC warmer than they are today. In their model, dry sub-tropical climates like the Mediterranean or Los Angeles and Southern California were much hotter, with the average daily minimum temperatures around 51oC. Yes, Los Angeles, your overnight low could be 51oC.

Understandably, the authors state that ‘these extreme daily temperature maxima in these regions could contribute to a decrease in terrestrial flora and fauna’, which is scientist for ‘it’s so damn hot outside nothing except cacti can grow’.

All of these changes were run over a 2,700 year period in the model, which if you take the 2005 CO2 concentration of 379ppm as your base is an increase of 1.17ppm per year.

This is the important bit to remember if we’re going to learn from history and not go the way of the Permian residents. Our current rate of increase in CO2 concentrations is 2ppm per year, which means we are on a super speed path to mass extinction. If we continue with business as usual, which has been aptly renamed ‘business as suicide’ by climate blogger Joe Romm, we will be at the end of the next mass extinction in around 1,500 years.

Where humanity is headed (from Royal Society Publishing)

Where humanity is headed (from Royal Society Publishing)

All we need to do to guarantee this being the outcome of all of humanity is keep the status quo and keep burning fossil fuels and the entire sum of humans as a species on this planet will be a tiny geological blip where we turned up, became the most successful invasive species on the globe, burned everything in sight and kept burning it even when we knew it was killing us.

However, I think this part from the paper’s conclusion should give most of us a pause for thought;

 ‘Given the sensitivity of ocean circulation to high-latitude warming, it is hypothesized that some critical level of high-latitude warming was reached where connection of surface waters to the deep ocean was dramatically reduced, thus leading to a shutdown of marine biologic activity, which in turn would have led to increased atmospheric CO2 and accelerated warming.’

As a species, if we are going to survive we need to make sure we do not go past any of those critical levels of warming or tipping points. Which means we need to make sure we stop burning carbon as fast as possible. Otherwise, T-Rex outlasted us as a species by about two million years which would be kinda embarrassing.