Emergency Climate Meeting: White House Officials Told Arctic Ocean Could Be Ice-Free Within Two Years

PIOMASexponential 2012

This week, a number of top scientists, experts, DoD and Homeland Security Department notables are convening an emergency meeting warning White House officials that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free during summertime within two years.

This A-Team (A for Arctic) includes NASA’s chief scientist Gale Allen, National Science Foundation Director Cora Marett, Director of the Oceans Institute of the University of Western Australia marine scientist Prof Carlos Duarte, and nine other top Arctic specialists together with key representatives from the US Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon.

The Washington meeting is the second major climate emergency meeting of its kind to occur within the past month. Just a few weeks ago, the UK held its own climate meeting in response to severe and unprecedented weather occurring throughout Europe this winter and spring.

Scientists and specialists descending on the White House are now echoing increasingly urgent warnings coming from Arctic experts such as Peter Wadhams and Dr. Wieslaw Maslowski that the Arctic Ocean could be essentially ice free by 2016 plus or minus three years. Trends analysis confirms these scientists’ predictions showing that current average volume melt rates put the Arctic in an ice-free state sometime around 2016. Even worse, an outlier melt year similar to 2007 or 2010 would result in ice-free conditions this year (2013) or in any year following. The result is that the two year warning, in the extreme worst case, could be too late.

We are in the zone of Maslowki’s melt. So any year from now to 2019, according to observed melt trends, could result in ice-free conditions at end of summer.

One of the current set of White House advisors, Prof Carlos Duarte, warned in early April that the ice was melting far faster than predicted and the Arctic could see ice free ocean conditions during summer by 2015. According to reports from The Guardian, Duarte noted:

“The Arctic situation is snowballing: dangerous changes in the Arctic derived from accumulated anthropogenic greenhouse gases lead to more activities conducive to further greenhouse gas emissions. This situation has the momentum of a runaway train.”

Duarte is also the lead author of a paper examining Arctic tipping points and how they are rapidly being passed, resulting in an ever-increasing polar warming. The three primary drivers of these changes include loss of ice reflectivity or albedo, increased release of greenhouse gasses from the Arctic geography and oceans as they warm, and increased release of biologically generated greenhouse gasses as new micro-organisms are able to enter the Arctic environment.

Duarte’s observations are similar to those of other scientists who have warned of amplifying feedbacks in the Arctic. Just last year, NOAA issued a warning that a number of key tipping points had been reached and would result in jarring changes to climates and weather around the globe. In 2011, a group of Russian and US scientists observed massive releases of climate change enhancing methane from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. NASA scientist James Hansen warned of the potential for a powerful Arctic methane release as a result of human forcing in his 2008 book “Storms of My Grandchildren.” And in 2012, NSIDC issued a paper showing that methane release from tundra could amplify human-caused global warming by an additions .4 to 1.5 degrees.

It was the sum total of these warnings and observations that lead to the formation by a group of scientists of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG). AMEG is headed by Peter Wadhams, a noted polar researcher, and is composed of a number of scientists very concerned that Arctic conditions could rapidly deteriorate as an amplifying pulse of methane emerges.

A simple explanation of these system changes can be found here.

Among other things, AMEG is very concerned about the implications of Arctic sea ice melt and methane release for global food security. According to AMEG:

“The weather extremes from last year are causing real problems for farmers, not only in the UK, but in the US and many grain-producing countries. World food production can be expected to decline, with mass starvation inevitable. The price of food will rise inexorably, producing global unrest and making food security even more of an issue.”

AMEG’s observations are consistent with the biology inherent to many grains used for food. These grains evolved in conditions over the past 5 million years or so that required large ice sheets to stabilize the climate. Alterations to weather patterns causing extremes outside of these food crops biological thresholds put them at risk. And the current loss of sea ice is just beginning to kick off such unpredictable and difficult to adapt to extremes.

The sum total of this growing list of scientific observation is that warming and, therefore, sea ice loss in the Arctic kicking into very high gear results in serious and severe consequences.

A Catastrophic Decline

Overall, the Arctic has lost 80% of its sea ice by volume since 1979 and the rate of losses over the past ten years has been accelerating. In addition, strange and dangerous events are cropping up with increasing frequency. The polar jet stream is mangled — a result Dr. Jennifer Francis of Rutgers attributes to loss of Arctic sea ice.

According to Francis:

“The loss of Arctic summer sea ice and the rapid warming of the Far North are altering the jet stream over North America, Europe, and Russia. Scientists are now just beginning to understand how these profound shifts may be increasing the likelihood of more persistent and extreme weather.”

In addition, this winter hosted a freakish and massive sea ice breakup throughout the Beaufort Sea during February and March, two of the Arctic’s coldest months. To say that such an event was unprecedented is almost an understatement. Never before had such a large cracking event been observed during winter. The event was kicked off by strong winds blowing over the Beaufort sea ice. The ice was so thin it couldn’t retain integrity and broke in a spectacular and disturbing series of massive cracks.

You can view this break-up sequence in the below series of images provided by NASA:

A wide and varying range of events can now be shown to have been amplified and worsened by Arctic sea ice loss. These include last year’s drought, 2011’s flooding, the Texas drought of 2011, Hurricane Sandy, this year’s extreme European winter, massive outbreaks of wildfires in the northern hemisphere since 2006, and record summer heatwaves and floods occurring throughout the northern hemisphere over the same period. It is the fact that these blocking pattern generated extreme weather events are now clearly linked to sea ice loss, that constitutes an ongoing and worsening weather emergency.

This past February, the US Department of Defense issued its own concerns. In its Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap, the DOD warned of:

“… significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to greater competition for more limited and critical life-sustaining resources like food and water.”

… and that the impacts of climate change could:

“Act as accelerants of instability or conflict in parts of the world… [and] may also lead to increased demands for defense support to civil authorities for humanitarian assistance or disaster response, both within the United States and overseas … DoD will need to adjust to the impacts of climate change on its facilities, infrastructure, training and testing activities, and military capabilities.”

Cause for Serious Response

Now, as this summer’s melt season proceeds, many scientists are increasingly concerned that ice free conditions will appear this summer, next summer, or sometime before 2020. As noted above, such events will have very serious implications for world-wide climate  and food security. And it is these results that the White House is in serious need of addressing. Given such a context, one would hope that US government officials take the clear warnings given by scientists and members of the defense community and begin the policy responses needed to start reigning in human greenhouse gas emissions. It is high time such efforts began. And we are in serious and urgent need that they ramp up rapidly.

According to Duarte, “We are facing the first clear evidence of dangerous climate change.” From here on, things only grow worse.

Links:

White House Warned of Imminent Arctic Ice Death Spiral

Public Statement by Arctic Methane Emergency Group

Professor Joins Fight to Save the Arctic

The Arctic is Already Suffering Dangerous Climate Change

Extreme Weather Events Are Driven By Arctic Melt

Arctic Sea Ice Melt, Methane Release Shows Amplifying Feedbacks from Human Caused Climate Change

DoD’s Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap

For Central US, Climate Change and a Mangled Jet Stream Means Drought Follows Flood Follows Drought

Human Climate Change is Wrecking the Jet Stream: UK Met Office Calls Emergency Meeting

Human Climate Change Is Wrecking the Jet Stream; UK Met Office Calls Emergency Meeting

cloverleaf jet stream

(Weather model showing forecast temperature, high and low pressure for April 20. What this clover-leaf pattern roughly represents is the new ‘normal’ shape of the jet stream. Image source: here)

The UK Met recently called an emergency meeting with the world’s top climate scientists to discuss how melting polar ice is radically altering that country’s weather. A permanent blocking high pressure system has formed over Greenland. This high has, effectively, caused the Arctic to invade the UK with increasing ferocity. The state is now so extreme that the Met is calling a meeting of the world’s climate experts to discuss what the future may hold.

Dr. Slingo, Britain’s top climate scientist notes how persistent high pressure systems are blocking the polar wind pattern from moving. What this means is that the weather simply cannot change. Increasingly, the UK has become a part of the Arctic. Slingo noted to ITV News:

If this is how climate change could manifest itself, then we need to understand that as a matter of urgency.

This meeting’s discussion will likely focus on how melting polar ice is dramatically altering the north polar jet stream and what future changes we can expect as sea ice continues to erode. Over the past year, Dr. Jennifer Francis has issued increasingly clear warning about the potential for extreme weather events due to polar sea ice erosion. Her warnings were then punctuated by an amazing and freakish superstorm: Sandy.

This winter, the increasingly powerful blocking high pumped warmer air into the Arctic even as typical Arctic weather was flushed south into the UK and Europe.

The New Clover-Leaf Jet Stream

In understanding this phenomena, it is important, first, to understand what is normal. During the 20th century, the polar jet stream ran swiftly around the northern hemisphere. For the most part, it served as the border between temperate regions of relatively warmer, milder climates and the much colder Arctic environment. This rapid jet served to keep colder air trapped in the Arctic and warmer air confined primarily to the south. Ripples in this jet stream were mild, looking almost like the wavy pattern of a stylized upside down fruit bowl. Invasions of warm air to the north and cold air to the south were rare and often resulted in strong storms that were then noted as ‘extreme’ weather events.

Today, things are radically different. Looking at the image above, we can see that the jet stream looks more like a mangled clover leaf than a gracefully arching bowl. This increasing clover leaf pattern is a result of a number of atmospheric dynamics. The first is that sea ice and Greenland ice are dramatically melting. Sea ice volume is 80 percent lower than it was in 1980 and Greenland is losing water at the rate of 250 cubic kilometers every year. This ice has an amazing ability to keep cold air locked in place, keeping the Arctic colder and, importantly, driving the jet stream to faster speeds. But, with the loss of this ice, the temperature difference between the Arctic and the southern latitudes is lessened. With more warmth in the Arctic, the jet stream has tended to slow down, meandering in these great, clover-like dips and whirls.

As the jet stream dips and whirls it tends to get stuck, staying in the same shape over the same location for long periods of time. This shape change is the result of certain features that push the jet into this new pattern. One is that more cold, reflective ice is in Greenland now than over the north pole. The result is that high pressure systems tend to form over Greenland rather than the north pole itself. The formation of this Greenland high many hundreds of miles to the south has severe weather implications for the UK and the rest of Europe. What it means, primarily, is much colder, stormier winters for Europe.

In other regions, warm air floods northward creating heatwaves. This was particularly true for the US during winter/spring of 2012. But an area not often mentioned is the west coast of Greenland and Baffin Bay which has experienced temperature averages more than 3 degrees Celsius hotter than normal for the entire winter. Last summer was also extraordinarily hot for Greenland, resulting in a record 150 year melt. In the above image, you can see these warm air invasions in the form of yellow and orange fingers pushing into the space of the colder greens and blues.

The new clover-leaf jet stream will not be easy for humans to manage. It will mean more persistent weather in a given region. And, if conditions are extreme, they will stay extreme for longer periods. More heatwaves, more cold snaps. More storms in areas where storms have become more prevalent.

Ironically, the new clover leaf jet stream causes one more self-reinforcing impact. It transports more warmer air into the Arctic. As such, it enhances the melt of ice which was the initial driver of extreme weather patterns in the first place. So, in this case, extreme conditions have the potential to snowball with a mangled jet stream resulting in more ice melt and more ice melt resulting in more extreme weather.

One last word and one last thing to think about. More and more the weather patterns resemble those roughly described by scientists as a Heinrich Event. Such events were characterized by rapid Arctic ice melt and resulting extreme weather and climate shifts. So it might be useful for climate scientists and the UK to discuss these geological events in the context of potential future weather. Because the UK, Europe and the rest of the world appear to be at the start of just such an event. The difference between this event and past events in the geological past is that the human forcing driving it is much greater than the previous natural forces that caused such changes. So it would be naive of us to hope that the current event will not also be more extreme than those seen in the past.

Links:

UK Met Calls Emergency Meeting to Discuss Climate Change

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