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What Happens in the Arctic Doesn't Stay in the Arctic

Dan Lashof

Posted September 19, 2012 in Solving Global Warming

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UPDATED IMAGE (credit: NASA with 1979 boundary redrawn by NRDC)

Arctic sea ice extent dropped to the lowest level ever recorded, bottoming out at 3.41 million square kilometers on September 16, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). That’s 49 percent below the average minimum recorded during the 1980s and 1990s.

Arctic Sea Ice 9-13-2012

Scientists are confident that this trend is due to pollution. While there are year-to-year fluctuations in the location and extent of arctic sea ice, driven primarily by wind patterns, the best estimates are that the minimum extent never dropped below 9.8 million square kilometers in the first half of the 20th Century and probably not below 9 million in the last 1000 years.  Since around 1950 there has been a clear trend toward less ice, with the minimum extent dropping below 4 million square kilometers for the first time this year.

Wind-driven reorganization of the sea ice also can’t explain the progressive reduction of ice thickness and the declining fraction of ice that has persisted for more than one year. These trends not only bear the fingerprint of human-caused climate change, they mean that the arctic ice is ever more vulnerable to collapse. In fact, arctic sea ice is melting much faster than climate models had predicted.

Unfortunately, what happens in the arctic doesn’t stay in the arctic. The dramatic loss of arctic ice contributes to more extreme weather in the United States in at least three ways.

First, the dramatic reduction in reflective ice in the Arctic Ocean changes the flow of energy in the climate system throughout the northern hemisphere. In particular, it alters the position and shape of the jet stream, favoring a pattern with more pronounced waves. That means that tropical air can penetrate further north and that arctic air can penetrate further south. It also means that weather systems tend to move more slowly from west to east. This is a formula for increasing extreme weather—both persistent excessive heat and severe snow storms.

Second, reduced arctic sea ice amplifies warming over the arctic, speeding the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and raising global sea levels. When sea ice melts there is no direct effect on sea levels because floating ice displaces exactly the same volume as the melt water. That’s not the case with land-based ice, such as the massive Greenland ice sheet. Excessive warmth in the arctic has led to surface melting throughout Greenland. Any runoff from the Greenland ice sheet contributes directly to increasing sea levels. And that means more coastal flooding in the United States, particularly on the East and Gulf coasts.

Third, arctic warming increases the total amount of heat absorbed by Earth and releases carbon from the not-so-permafrost, both of which amplify global warming. Sea ice acts like a windshield sunshade keeping your car cool. Replacing shiny ice surfaces with dark open ocean ones means the Earth as a whole absorbs more solar energy. The effect is equivalent to 20 years’ worth of carbon dioxide emissions according to Cambridge University physicist Peter Wadhams. In addition, as the arctic warms billions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane currently trapped in the permafrost could be released, directly adding to the blanket of heat-trapping gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. All of which means even faster climate change, and even more extreme weather across the United States.

So as you look at the astonishing pictures coming out of the arctic remember that this is not just a problem for polar bears. Unlike what promoters claim for Vegas, what happens in the arctic doesn’t stay in the arctic.

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Comments

Meme MineSep 19 2012 05:21 PM

Occupy, the spearhead of the progressive “Liberal” movement makes no mention of CO2 in their list of demands because of IPCC’s demand for the bankster funded carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians and corporations and Obama has not mentioned the crisis in state of the unions. Even Julian Assange himself, our courageous modern day Socrates of truth had exposed the twisted political science of climate change crisis exaggeration. Canada voted in a Prime Minister to a majority and accused by all as being a climate change denier who then officially killed Y2Kyoto and nobody cared. Not even the millions of people in the global scientific community who only say a crisis “might” happen, and have never said any crisis “WILL” happen. Every single IPCC warning is qualified with a “potentially etc.” so how close to the edge of no return from unstoppable warming will science drag us before they finally say it “WILL” happen. Too late, they already said we are at the point of no return (maybe). Help, my planet is on fire, maybe?
Science agrees that; “climate change is real and happening and could possibly be (theyhaveneversaidWILLyet) a catastrophic climate crisis. Ya, like a little climate crisis is possible, outside of a Harry Potter movie. Science has never said any crisis will happen, only might happen. Deny that.

JamieSep 19 2012 08:46 PM

Great post! Thanks, Dan. Be sure to check out the trailer for Chasing Ice (http://www.chasingice.com/). Looks like a beautiful, moving film.

Sue EllenSep 19 2012 11:26 PM

What can we do to fix this problem? Scientists have been talking about global warming for years. And little has been done to help the problem.

TJSep 20 2012 09:17 AM

@Meme Mime w/e get out of the way and let the adults deal with this. If you want to keep your head in the sand I suggest you not do it anywhere near a coast as you'll drown as the oceans continue to rising.

Are you saying the Arctic ice isn't melting? NASA has facts, acts of politicians and political movements and glory hounds like Assange are meaningless.

john warnerSep 25 2012 07:23 AM

Before you blame Arctic Ice Melt on man-made carbon dioxide you have to prove that human activity is the cause of Climate Change. When I look at my plot of the earth's average annual global air temperatures anomalies between 1979 and 2011, AMSU channel 5 data from satellites, I see that 2008 is lower that 1980. There is a 1.37 degree Celsius per century trend and over the 32 year period the average around which the natural variability occurs has increased 0.44 degrees Celsius. But even this trend is so small compared to the natural range of variability 0.78 degrees Celsius I do not see how any scientist could say the earth's air temperature increase is statistically significant. Also you can't possibly statistically and scientifically prove there is a cause for the the increase. Therefore I find it intellectually dishonest to shift the attention to the truly speculative predictions about the future that aren't subjected to any conceivable statistical scientific truth test. So far the NRDC has not met the minimum burden of proof necessary to charge man-made carbon dioxide with being a negative external cost. According to the Microeconomic Field of Welfare Economics which bases the moral justification for Capitalism on the voluntary exchange of equivalent value among Free Men, this lack of proof makes using the force of government to outlaw man's freedom to produce and use fossil fuels immoral. The IPCC TAR 2001 The Temple of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming in the first foot of their Scientific Basis agrees with me that there is no direct or indirect effect of human activity on Climate Change.

From the IPCC Third Assessment Report on Climate Change 2001 1st footnote from page 5 Summary for Policy Makers 1...

"Climate change in IPCC usage refers to any change in climate over time, whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity. This usage differs from that in the Framework Convention on Climate Change, where climate change refers to a change of climate that is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and that is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods."

john warnerSep 25 2012 01:12 PM

As citizens we don't have to passively accept Scientific Authority if they do not provide any actual, factual, scientific, statistical, proof about how much additional carbon dioxide adds to the earth's average annual total global air temperature without complicating the issue with imaginary, hypothetical positive or negative feed-backs. The very fact that Al Gore claims there is a scientific consensus and the range of temperature predictions for doubling carbon dioxide is 1.4 degrees Celsius and 5.8 degrees Celsius tells a lot about the credibility of their science as the basis for making public policy. Since there is ample reason to be skeptical let us conduct a citizens intellectual experiment to further test our confidence in Scientific Authority. It is time to make the argument that the natural physical mechanisms are too numerous and too powerful to let any forcing factor substantially raise the earth’s average annual air temperature. Fortunately nature conducts an annual experiment that overwhelmingly disproves the Catastrophic Anthropogenic Carbon Dioxide Global Warming Theory. The IPCC claims that in 100 years carbon dioxide will increase 365 ppm and that the 3.71wpsm increase in radiative forcing will increase the earth’s air temperature 5.8oC. On January 5th the sun is closer to the earth than on July 5th. As a result the sun’s P/A is 24wpsm greater on January Fifth. This allows us to conduct an intellectual experiment to test the explanatory power of their ratio between temperature and radiative forcing. (5.8oC/3.71wpsm)*24wpsm=37.52oC In fact the earth’s air temperature is 3oC cooler on January fifth. Therefore the IPCC ratio predicted a temperature that is 40.52oC higher than the earth’s actual temperature. Al Gore won a Nobel Peace Prize and An Oscar using a ratio of 5oC/3.71wpsm. The IPCC’s lowest ratio of 1.4oC/3.71wpsm still predicts a temperature that is 12.06oC too high in this experiment. I can assure you that there is nothing about the earth's air temperature record to date that makes me think the IPCC predictions are credible. I know all of the mitigating physical mechanism that account for this paradox. And so do the Global Warming scientists and I challenge them to regain some credibility by using their access to the media to inform us. But they won't because they would have to reveal all that they know about why carbon dioxide at the current growth rate can't exert any more influence on the earth's air temperature in the next 600 years than 0.28 degrees Celsius. And 1.1 degrees Celsius in some remote places like the Arctic Ocean.

john warnerSep 25 2012 03:06 PM

Environmental Radicals are easy to identify because they refuse to get into an argument where they have to use reason to defend their beliefs. Dan all you have to do is to inform your readers that my science is correct. When the earth's air temperature increases the rate at which it cools goes up 4 times faster. The earth's average annual global total air temperature is 249.25621 degrees Celsius. At this temperature the earth's air radiates to space at the rate of 218.88 watts per square meter. You can confirm this by using the Stefan-Boltzmann Equation from your college Physics textbook. Differentiating the Stefan-Boltzmann Equation at 249.25621 degrees Celsius yields: dR=(3.5123073)dT. This means that if the temperature increases 1%, 2.4925621 degrees Celsius, the rate of radiating to space will go up 8.7546441 watts per square meter. 8.7546441/218.88=0.0399974. In order to maintain this 1% temperature increase the physical mechanisms that are heating the earth's air have to remain at 4% higher. This is just the first of many powerful natural physical mechanisms that moderate the earth's air temperature.

Dan LashofSep 25 2012 05:29 PM

John-
You clearly know some physics and calculus, but your reading of the climate science literature seems to be clouded by your concern that taking action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions would necessarily limit freedom and perhaps threaten capitalism itself. So let me begin by assuring you that NRDC advocates science-based policies that are fully consistent with capitalism and are designed to make markets function better, not replace them. See for example, my post here (http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/dlashof/actually_the_heartland_institu.html) as well as my colleague’s recent post here (http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/dgoldstein/regulation_mandates_and_free_e.html). Of course, living in a society does require accepting some limits to freedom: You are not free to kill or steal from your neighbor and you should not be free to make your neighbor sick by dumping pollution into the air he breathes or the water she drinks. In the inimitable words of Thomas Hobbes, without such standards of conduct life would be “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Turning to the science, I wish I could tell my readers that you are right so I could move on to working on a less difficult problem. Unfortunately, you are relying on selective information and flawed reasoning. Let me give three examples.

First, you quote the IPCC’s definition of climate change, but you fail to quote its conclusion that “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.” (IPCC, 2007). Of course, citizens have every right to question scientific authorities, but they need to present compelling data and reasoning, which you fail to do.

Second, your argument based on the cyclical change in global temperatures between July and January fails to account for the heat capacity of the ocean, which is orders of magnitude greater than that of the atmosphere and makes the ratio you calculate inapplicable to the secular increase in carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.

Third, while you are absolutely right that the Stefan-Boltzmann equation provides the ultimate constraint on how much the earth will warm up for any given increase in heat-trapping gases, you have left out the factors that amplify the warming effect of adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, particularly the increase in water vapor (which follows the exponential Clausius-Clapeyron equation) and the reduction in albedo from melting ice, which brings us back to my original post.

john warnerSep 26 2012 03:12 PM

Thanks for the reply. This is an edited version of my last comment. The temperature scale should have been labeled Kelvin.

Environmental Radicals are easy to identify because they refuse to get into an argument where they have to use reason to defend their beliefs. Dan all you have to do is to inform your readers that my science is correct. When the earth's air temperature increases the rate at which it cools goes up 4 times faster. The earth's average annual global total air temperature is 249.25621 degrees Kelvin. At this temperature the earth's air radiates to space at the rate of 218.88 watts per square meter. You can confirm this by using the Stefan-Boltzmann Equation from your college Physics textbook. Differentiating the Stefan-Boltzmann Equation at 249.25621 degrees Kelvin yields: dR=(3.5123073)dT. This means that if the temperature increases 1%, 2.4925621 degrees Kelvin, the rate of radiating to space will go up 8.7546441 watts per square meter. 8.7546441/218.88=0.0399974. In order to maintain this 1% temperature increase the physical mechanisms that are heating the earth's air have to remain at 4% higher. This is just the first of many powerful natural physical mechanisms that moderate the earth's air temperature.

Comments are closed for this post.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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