Extremely Warm Cyclone Predicted to Drive 50-60 F Above Average Temperatures Across North Pole

Our lexicon of what’s considered to be normal weather does not include February days in which temperatures at a North Pole shrouded in 24-hour darkness cross into above freezing ranges. But that’s exactly what some of our more accurate weather models are predicting will happen over the next five days.

Another Unusually Warm and Powerful Storm

During this time, a powerful 950 to 960 mb low is expected to develop over Baffin Bay. Hurling hurricane force gusts running from the south and digging deep across the North Atlantic, Barents, and Arctic Ocean, the low is projected to drive a knife of 50-60 F above average temperatures toward the North Pole by February 5th.

(20-25 foot surf heading for the increasingly fragile sea ice in this February 4 wave model forecast. Note the 30-40 foot waves off Iceland and associated with the same storm system that is predicted to bring above freezing temperatures to the North Pole on February 5th. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

These warm winds are predicted to bring above freezing temperatures to areas that typically see -20 to -30 F readings in February. They are expected to rage over a sea ice pack that is at record low levels. And if the storm emerges, it will hammer that same dwindling ice pack with 20 to 25 foot or higher surf.

Fragile Arctic Sea Ice Faces a Hammering

Presently, Arctic sea ice extent is trending about 200,000 square kilometers below record lows set just last year for the period of late February. And recent scientific research indicates that warm winter storms like the one that is now predicted to form can have a detrimental impact on sea ice.

(Arctic sea ice extent is presently at around 13 million square kilometers [bottom red line] — a new record low for this time of year. It should be around 15 million square kilometers and would be if the world hadn’t warmed considerably since the 1980s. Image source: JAXA.)

Not only do the storms bring warmer temperatures with them — a kind of heat wave that interrupts the typical period of winter freezing — they also drive heavy surf into a thinner and weaker ice pack. The surf, drawn up from the south churns warmer water up from the ocean depths. And the net effect can dissolve or weaken large sections of ice.

The presently developing event is expected to begin to take shape on February 4th, with warm gale and hurricane force winds driving above freezing temperatures near or over the North Pole on February 4th – 6th. To say that such an event, should it occur, would be practically unprecedented is the common understatement of our time. In other words, this is not typical winter weather for the North Pole. It is instead something we would expect to see from a global climate that is rapidly warming and undergoing serious systemic changes.

(February 5 GFS model run shows above freezing temperatures crossing the North Pole. Temperatures in this range are between 50 and 60 degrees [F] above average for this time of year. If the extremely warm cyclone event occurs as predicted, it will be a clear record-breaker. It will also further harm Arctic sea ice levels that are already in record low ranges. Image source: Climate Reanalyzer.)

Extreme Cyclone Beneath an Extreme Jet Stream

In the predicted forecast we see more of the extreme jet stream waves that Dr. Jennifer Francis predicted as an upshot of human-forced polar amplification (a condition where the poles warm faster than the rest of the globe under a larger warming regime). The particular wave in question for the present forecast involves a high amplitude ridge running very far to the north over Svalbard and knifing on into the high Arctic. The facing trough over Baffin Bay, Greenland, and North America is also quite pronounced and elongated. A feature that appears to want to become a cut off bubble of displaced polar air in a number of the model forecasts.

High amplitude Jet Stream waves during Northern Hemisphere winter as a signature of global warming are predicted by Francis and others to generate greater temperature and precipitation extremes in the middle latitudes. They are a feature of the kind of stuck and/or upside down weather we’ve been experiencing lately where temperatures in the Northeast have been periodically colder than typically frigid locations in Alaska. These flash freezes have, at times, faded back into odd balmy days in the 50s and 60s (F) before plunging back into cold. But the overall pattern appears to get stuck this way for extended periods of time.

(Very high amplitude ridge and trough pattern at the Jet Stream level of the circumpolar winds is thought by a number of scientists to be a feature of human caused global warming. One that is related to polar amplification in the Arctic. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

Heat in the Arctic is driving sections of cold air south even as warm air invades through places like Alaska, Northeast Siberia, and the Barents Sea. But the main variables of this story are global heat, global warming, fixed extreme temperature and precipitation patterns, and warm air invasion. The winnowing streamers of cold air driven out over places like the U.S. Northeast are just a side effect of the overall warming trend. One that is starkly apparent in the very odd western warmth that has grown more and more entrenched with each passing year.

For Now, It’s Still Just a Forecast

As with any five day forecast, we can take this one with more than just a grain of salt at the present time. But such an extreme event is entirely possible during the present age of human-forced climate change. During late December of 2015, we identified a predicted major storm that ultimately drove North Pole temperatures to above freezing. At the time, that storm was considered unusual if not unprecedented. However, since February is typically a colder period for the North Pole region, a warm storm drawing above freezing air into that zone would be even more unusual. It would also be a feature of the larger trend of loss of typical seasonal winter weather that we’ve been experiencing for some time now.

5 FEB UPDATE: Storm and Heat a Bit Further South and East Than Predicted

A powerful warm storm in the 952 mb range did form and track across Greenland to exit over the Greenland Strait earlier today. The storm drove warm air far north, pushing above freezing temperatures past Svalbard and over the dark and frozen sea ice. It hurled gale force winds, hurricane gusts, and massive swells into the ice. But it did not push temperatures to above freezing at the North Pole as some models had earlier predicted.

(Warm cyclone hurls much warmer than normal temperatures across the Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean on 5 Feb, 2018. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

It did, however crank temperature there up to -4.3 C or about 26 C above average for this time of year.

The storm is now predicted to drive above freezing temperatures across the Barents Sea, over Novaya Zemlya, through the Kara Sea and ultimately into Northern Siberia over the next 24-48 hours. In numerous regions, temperatures are already hitting near 30 C (54 F) above average. This extremely warm spike relative to typical conditions — associated with a high amplitude Jet Stream wave and related cyclone — will continue to ripple through the Arctic over the next few days.

Overall, total Arctic region temperature anomalies are predicted to range from 2.5 to 3.5 C above the 30 year average for the next few days. These are very warm departures. But not so warm as recent spikes in the range of 4 to 5 C above average for the region. In addition, there appears to be a tendency for powerful warm storms to continue to develop near Svalbard in the longer 5-15 day model runs. So the North Pole isn’t out of the woods yet for potential above freezing temperatures this February.


A Tale of Two Ice Caps: As Arctic Ocean Heads Toward Ice-Free Summers, New Study Shows Human Warming Takes Out 56% of Antarctic Sea Ice by 2050

Thus far, the Arctic has been ground zero for human-caused climate change. A combination of sea ice melt, albedo loss, a warming ocean that transports heat beneath a melting ice cap, regions of Jet Stream retreat into the far north, and an overburden of greenhouse gasses near the pole, among other factors, have all resulted in a very rapid pace of local warming.

Global temp anomaly

(Global surface temperature anomaly over the last month features a high degree of, very visible, Arctic heat amplification. Most global warming models show the Arctic warms rapidly first under human warming. Then, as second stage warming progresses, heat begins to spike over other regions of the globe. Image source: NOAA ESRL.)

While global warming totals about .8 C above the 1880s average, about 1/6th the difference between now and another ice age, but on the side of hot, Arctic warming has pushed above 3.0 C during the same time period. And as the Arctic is warming four times as fast as the rest of the globe, many of human climate change’s most extreme impacts are now visible there.

The Arctic’s Massive and Dramatic Loss of Sea Ice

A primary measure of Arctic warming has been sea ice melt. And Arctic sea ice melt during the past few decades has been nothing if not dramatic. By end of summer 2012, a time when sea ice melt is most intense, area and extent totals had fallen more than 50% below their 1979 measurements. Meanwhile, Arctic sea ice volume, a measure of area + thickness, had fallen by as much as 80%. These losses are dramatic and raise the possibility for ice free summers, if the weather conditions line up, during a period between now and 2030.


(Arctic death spiral showing sea ice volume measurements for all months from 1979 through early 2013. Image source: Skeptical Science. Data source: PIOMAS.)

Thin Ice Over Warming Water

As hinted at above, the Arctic has a number of unique characteristics that make it vulnerable to rapid warming in the context of a more slowly warming globe. And chief among these is geography — warmer continents surrounding a mostly frozen ocean.

A lion’s share of the northern polar ice cap area is composed of sea ice. By area, even after the stunning losses seen since 1979, the sea ice cap composes about 10.5 million square kilometers on average. Greenland, in contrast, only boasts an ice sheet of around 2 million square kilometers. This large layer of ice provides an amazing amount of cooling just due to its white, reflective properties. In the past, this albedo has helped to maintain a zone of very cold air centered almost directly over the pole.

But this Arctic system of cold amplification and northern refrigeration has a major Achilles heel. For the sea ice sits upon an ocean that is much closer to the melting point of water than any frozen land mass. Furthermore, all ocean systems are connected and, to one degree or another, readily transport heat.

Melting Arctic Sea Ice

(Melting Arctic sea ice during summer. Image source: NASA.)

In the context of human-caused warming, the majority of northern polar ice area is little more than a relatively thin layer sitting atop an ocean that is rapidly collecting atmospheric heat. A context that can result in rather dramatic consequences. In short, what this means is that northern polar ice sheet inertia isn’t quite so strong as was previously hoped.

A warming ocean eats away at the bottom ice. And as the thin, frozen ice layer of white, reflective ice is, at first gradually, and then more rapidly, replaced by dark, absorptive ocean the Arctic refrigerator breaks down and, increasingly, turns into a heat amplifier. A quickening pace of albedo loss means an even more rapid pace of warming for the ocean waters below. As warmth concentrates, more feedbacks come into play. Greenhouse gasses like methane and CO2 become liberated from the ice and also go to work in setting off warming. These feedbacks work in concert and, for a time, the Arctic heat rapidly amplifies.

Arctic heat amplification is now plainly visible in winter months when heat absorbed by a mostly ice-free Arctic Ocean during summer radiates up through thin and crack-riddled ice. In this way, heat bubbling up through the ice displaces cold, Arctic air southward, sparking off severe weather. An ongoing event that was particularly extreme during the winters of 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 when Arctic air first fled south over Europe and then the central and eastern United States (see polar vortex collapse).

An extended period of heat amplification has been the story of Arctic warming ever since the world began to heat up during the 1880s. A more moderate spurt of sea ice loss coincided with the growing Arctic warmth from the 1920s to the 1950s before stalling in the 60s and 70s, only to resume with a vengeance during the 1980s. Today, the extreme of Arctic heat amplification results in a number of rather severe knock-on effects that threatens everything from even larger Arctic greenhouse gas releases (methane, CO2) and severe changes to the Jet Stream that may well wreck the periods of relatively stable weather human beings in the north have been used to for 10,000 years running.

Antarctic — Vast Continental Ice Sheets Surrounded By Oceans

Moving southward into the still frozen austral regions, we find a geography and related pace of climate change that is markedly different. Here the vast glaciers pile atop a Continent that has now been buried and frozen for millions and millions of years. The cold is locked into ice sheets that reach thousands of feet in height, cover an area of nearly 14 million square kilometers, and plunge deep into the long-frozen Earth. If the ice in the Arctic is merely a thin facade covering warmer oceans, the Antarctic ice is a thick fortress atop adamant and frozen earth.

The degree of inertia this represents for human-caused climate change is, therefore, much greater than what we see up north. And though the Antarctic fortress is far from impenetrable to the radically strong assaults of human warming, it will resist their insults for longer, giving way its great piles of ice in a more ablative fashion with, likely, even more stark and shocking results.

This densely frozen geography coming into conflict with human-caused warming has resulted in far-reaching, though less visible, impacts. Overall, largely due to the heat-insulation effect of Antarctica, southern hemisphere warming has progressed far more slowly than warming in the north. Here the battle is one of inches in which regions closer to the equator, such as Australia and the equatorial oceans, show the highest rates of warming. Meanwhile, Antarctica has remained, for the most part, a bastion of cold with increasingly intense wind fields isolating it from the more rapidly warming regions. In this case, and in contrast to the Northern Hemisphere Jet Stream, the upper level winds surrounding the South Pole have strengthened even as they have slowly receded.

Antarctica summer storms

(Antarctica surrounded by storms on March 2 of 2014 as a combination of austral summer and human warming shove the Southern Hemisphere Jet Stream toward the pole. Image source: Lance-Modis.)

Such a recession resulted in very hot, dry weather for southern Australia as equatorial heat shoved the strong winds and related storms ever southward. Meanwhile, increased rates of evaporation held in check the benefits of equatorial rain expansion into northern regions. Only the occasional challenge to this new, retreating Jet Stream, breaks the pattern of expanding drought in the south with extraordinary precipitation and storm events. And so Australia has suffered a series of worst droughts and fires on record interrupted by brief but very intense rain events over the past decade.

While the vast ice sheets of Antarctica have, so far, served as a buttress against atmospheric warming even as the Jet Stream retreated southward, heat in the ocean again went to work. Though mostly protected by vast and frozen continental lands to the west, the more northerly segment of East Antarctica featured large sections of submerged continents upon which rested immense, sea terminating ice sheets. Some of these great ice sheets had sections submerged hundreds of feet below sea level. And though the surface waters only gradually warmed, deeper down, the story was much different.

The endless calving of Antarctica’s glaciers sends off thousands of ice bergs from the shores of Antarctica each year. This massive calving cools the surface waters near Antarctica through both the melting of these frozen hills and mountains as well as the chilling effect they have on nearby air currents. As such, cold waters continually flow out from Antarctica. But even these waters have been impacted by human caused climate change, grudgingly increasing in temperature over the decades.

Pine Island Glacier Calves into Amundsen Sea

(Pine Island Glacier calves into the Amundsen Sea. A recent study found this large ice sheet was in the first stages of irreversible collapse. Image source: iSTAR-NERC.)

If the cold surface waters surrounding Antarctica have warmed only slowly, the story of the depths is somewhat different. Down-welling warmer and saltier waters contacting the Antarctic Circumpolar Current create a growing pool of warmth extending to the Antarctic Continental Shelf boundary. There, water circulation dynamics cause the warm water in the abyss to up-well even as it contacts the ocean terminating polar ice sheets.

The warm water thus eats away at the undersides of these ice sheets, causing increasing instability in some of the most vulnerable regions of West Antarctica. This heat transfer from the ocean depths has set off a significant erosion in a number of very large ice sheets and is now spurring the massive Pine Island Glacier (PIG) into an unstoppable rush to the sea.

Models Show Antarctic Sea Ice to Rapidly Decline through Mid Century

If Antarctic warming has been more subtle than the explosive heat amplification of northern regions, it is no less ominous. At the very least, it resulted in locking in 1-2 meters of sea level rise through irreversible ice sheet collapse spurred by warm water upwelling and now puts at risk many more meters of eventual increases to follow.

But, at the surface of the waters, despite a period of slowly rising warmth, the buffer zone of Antarctic sea ice has remained somewhat stable since 1979, even showing periods of moderate increase in overall area and extent. As described above, this is in marked contrast to a stunning collapse of Northern Hemisphere sea ice. A contrast that has served as foil for much debate over the ongoing impacts of human warming even as it was exploited as fodder by climate change deniers, when they weren’t out chasing the most recent snowstorm.


(Antarctic sea ice area anomaly since 1979 shows a slight increase in overall coverage, primarily due to a counter-trend increase in Ross Sea ice coverage. New studies show Antarctic sea ice is now set to rapidly decline. Image source: Cryosphere Today.)

Looking more closely, though, one finds that the current expansion of Antarctic sea ice may well be very precarious. For of the three embayments containing Antarctic sea ice only one — the Ross Sea — has shown sea ice growth in recent years. The other two have either remained stable or shown slow recession.

Polar researchers had attributed the moderate net expansion of southern sea ice to a combination of increasingly strong winds spreading out Ross ice flows during winter, a freshening of surface waters through the ongoing melt of Antarctica’s ice sheets that increases the melt temperature of ice and thus encourages its formation, and to changes to ocean currents and rates of precipitation. Now, a new study conducted by researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science has found that this relative period of Ross sea ice stability and growth is about to end.

Warmth About to Crash Through Antarctica’s Gates

The various fragile conditions that have conspired to expand Ross Sea ice are now about to collapse under an onrush of increasing temperatures. For according to a new study entitled The Effects of Changing Winds and Temperatures on the Oceanography of the Ross Sea During the 21rst Century high resolution climate models show both increasing temperatures and rapidly melting ice in this critical and climatologically sensitive region under a regime of business as usual fossil fuel emissions.

According to the study’s authors:

We examined the effects of projected changes in atmospheric temperatures and winds on aspects of the ocean circulation likely important to primary production using a high-resolution sea ice–ocean–ice shelf model of the Ross Sea. The modeled summer sea ice concentrations decreased by 56% by 2050 and 78% by 2100.

In short, the bounding Jet Stream, the insulating continental Antarctic ice, and the cold surface waters surrounding the continent can’t keep out an ever increasing level of human-caused warming indefinitely. Over the coming decades this warmth will pulse higher in the region surrounding Antarctica with profound impacts to sea ice, resulting in a more than 50% reduction by 2050 and a 78% reduction by 2100.

The study also found that:

The ice-free season also grew much longer, with the mean day of retreat in 2100 occurring 11 days earlier and the advance occurring 16 days later than now.

In essence, the spring and summer melt season throughout the Antarctic region was shown to extend nearly one month longer than today’s period of melt and warmth. Such an expansion of heat intensity and duration will have profound impacts not only for sea ice, but for land ice and for life in the oceans as well.

Mixing Layers Reduced, Large Phytoplankton Blooms to Follow

Perhaps less visible but somewhat more ominous are ocean changes that are projected as Antarctic sea ice goes into rapid decline. Study authors found that ocean mixing over the region would fall by 12% by 2050 and a remarkable 44% by 2100. This dramatically increased stratification would, at first, result in very large blooms of phytoplankton as the surface waters see far more oxygen and the depths become ever-more deprived. This riot of microbial life may seem a positive development for the Ross Sea. But, if anything, it is a sign of oceanic productive zones moving southward to the polar region.

More ominous is the impact on krill and larger animals dependent on these small swimmers. Sea ice is critical to the survival of many krill species. And with its decline, these marine animals are likely to be negatively impacted.

According to lead author, Dr. Walker Smith:

our results suggest that phytoplankton production will increase and become more diatomaceous. Other components of the Ross Sea food web will likely be severely disrupted, creating significant but unpredictable impacts on the ocean’s most pristine ecosystem.


The Effects of Changing Winds and Temperatures on the Oceanography of the Ross Sea During the 21rst Century

The Storms of Arctic Warming

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

Arctic Heat Wave to Rip Polar Vortex in Half

Scientists: Ocean Warming, Upwelling to Make an End to Antarctica’s Vast Pine Island Glacier




Cryosphere Today

Skeptical Science


Open Water Visible at North Pole Camera 1, Cracks Visible at Camera 2

North Pole Open Water

(Image source: APL)

Last week, North Pole Camera 1 began to record visual images of cracks on the surface of sea ice. Now, just one week later, open water is visible in the same location. Meanwhile, cracks are beginning to show up in the vicinity of North Pole Camera 2.

On the ice near these cameras, our Persistent Arctic Cyclone, which has continued to thin the Arctic’s Central ice since late May, is beginning to have a very visible effect. Though the storm center has moved away, leaving these areas mostly sunny, the agitated ocean beneath the ice is making its presence known through cracks and open stretches of water near both of these cameras.

At North Pole Camera 1, to the right hand side of the most recent shot, open water is visible. The best way to see it is to look straight ahead at the anemometer, whose top establishes the horizon. Then, look to the right. There a growing wedge of blue-grey, indicating open water, appears. If you look closely at this section of the image, not only can you see open ocean, but breaking waves are also visible at the ice edge. (It works very well if you have a touch screen you can use to zoom in on this section of image).

Once you locate the ice edge, follow it with your eyes. At this point, we can notice breaking waves from horizon to horizon within the frame of the picture. These features, though subtle, are plainly present.

Given this opening of water near Camera 1, one wonders how much longer this camera will keep sending pictures to us.

At North Pole Camera 2, a crack in the ice has now also developed.

You can see this crack in the image below:


(Image source: APL)

If you look to the left-hand side of this image, you can see a thin, black crack appearing in the distance.

APL has managed cameras near the north pole for years. This is the first time we’ve been able to see cracks and sections of open water from cameras located so close the central sea ice. These images are being taken in early June. A clear sign that the central ice is far more fragile than usual for this time of year, much less any time during summer whatsoever.

Cracks in Sea Ice Visible At North Pole Camera 1


(Image source: APL)

Small leads (cracks) in the sea ice became visible at the North Pole Observatory’s Camera 1 today.

This camera is part of a North Pole environmental observatory supported by a National Science Foundation Grant and managed by the Applied Physics Lab at the University of Washington. Camera 1 is one  of two cameras placed on ice at or near the North Pole to visually observe conditions there.

The cracks began to appear at around 20:15 this evening when two areas of ice — one to the left of the camera and one to the right — began to break up.

Ice near the North Pole is generally very stable. But melt over the past few years has begun to threaten melt in this region. Over the past two weeks, a persistent storm has churned up the ocean, breaking large sections of fragile ice. Unless conditions remain colder than average for much of the summer this year, large sections of ice, previously protected from melt, are at risk of loss during this summer.

Some scientists, noting rapid trends in sea ice area and volume loss, have recently warned that Arctic sea ice could completely melt by end of summer as early as 2015 and possibly before 2020. An indication that this end stage melt was beginning would be cracking and break-up of ice in the area of the North Pole and in other protected regions close to Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

Summer 2013 is not expected to see all or most sea ice lost by end of summer. However, an extraordinarily strong melt year with losses akin to 2007 or 2010 (volume) would be enough to render the Arctic mostly ice free.


North Pole Observatory

Persistent Arctic Storm

Pulse of Warm Air Brings Above-Freezing Temps to North Pole; Cyclone, Central Ice Thinning Projected to Continue

It’s happened. An early-season Scandinavian heatwave has pushed above freezing temperatures all the way into the central Arctic.

A powerful atmospheric blocking pattern that spawned record 80+ degree temperatures in Scandinavia this weekend has elongated, stretching all the way into the central Arctic. As the bulge increased in amplitude, it brought warmer air with it. Temperatures at the North Pole over the past week ranged from 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, we are seeing temps around 33 degrees, a range of ‘warmth’ usually reserved for mid summer.

You can see the culprit of this warm air injection on the map below. Note the large bulge in the Jet Stream appearing over Scandinavia and reaching all the way to the North Pole:


(Image source: California Regional Weather Service)

This pulse of warmer air is now riding over regions where sea ice was thinned by a persistent, moderate-strength Arctic cyclone that lasted for about a week. The cyclone churned and dispersed the ice, causing large cracks to form even in a region very close to the North Pole. The freezing point of sea water is about 29 degrees Fahrenheit, so we’ll have to see if this warmer air combined with near constant sunlight has any further melting effect (see The Big Thin Begins to learn more about this event).

You can see these above -freezing temperatures running up over Svalbard and on to the North Pole on the map below. Note that temperatures displayed here are in Celsius, not Fahrenheit:


(Image source: Uni-Koeln)

Particularly interesting is that 40 degree F reading on the northeastern tip of Greenland. But the high 30s and low 40s blanket Svalbard as well.

Weather forecast model maps show this pulse of warm air persisting through tomorrow. Then colder air returns along with stormier weather.

A related feature is the persistent cyclone that chewed away at the central ice for much of last week. It has now transitioned to the Beaufort Sea where it appears to be strengthening. Intensification is expected to continue through tomorrow. Then, the cyclone is projected to swing back to the Central Arctic by late Tuesday, apparently feeding on warmer, moister air as it intensifies to a 980-985 mb low by early Wednesday.


(Image source: ECMWF)

Longer range forecasts show the cyclone persisting as it continues its strange dance around the Central Arctic.

We’ll have to watch the ice pack for further breakage and fracture from these two events. A continued thinning of the central ice so early in the year would be unprecedented. Yet it seems possible enough to continue monitoring.

It’s worth noting that CICE model forecasts show the thickest sea ice just north of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago suffering a sustained thinning. This event, should it arise, would likely be the result of this persistent cyclone combined with intensifying warm air pulses:


(Image source: US Navy CICE)


California Regional Weather Service



Total Meltdown Warning: High Risk Arctic Summer Sea Ice Will Completely Collapse by 2013-2017

This winter, massive cracks riddled the sea ice. Forming over an ice sheet nearly 80 percent thinner than in 1980, these cracks appeared suddenly and grew with astonishing speed. Covering hundreds of miles in minutes, they laid bare the ocean beneath, venting heat into an already quickening atmosphere (read more about the crack-up here).

2012 was the hottest La Nina year on record and the 9th hottest year on record globally. It was a year that saw a massive collapse in summer Arctic sea ice continue with a vengeance. Sea ice volume, as measured by the Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System (PIOMAS) fell to 3,264 cubic kilometers by September of 2012. This was 750 cubic kilometers below 2011’s record low and 3,200 cubic kilometers below 2007’s record low.


(Image credit: PIOMAS)

Even more disturbing is the fact that from the period of 2005 to 2012, two large, precipitous drops in sea ice volume occurred. In 2010, 2460 cubic kilometers of sea ice volume was lost. And in 2007, 3440 cubic kilometers of sea ice volume faded into the ocean.

With minimum sea ice volume for 2012 now sitting at 3264 cubic kilometers, a single melt year with weather conditions like 2007 would bring the total down to zero volume by end of summer 2013. This event may be unlikely to happen. But there is still a significant risk, a 10% potential, that something on this order may happen in 2013. Based on past sea ice losses and a current, ongoing melt trend, we can’t rule it out. So for the first time ever in the modern record, there is a chance that summer sea ice will completely disappear this year.

But even if we saw a repeat of 2010’s massive melt, volumes would be pushed very low — down to a paltry 800 cubic kilometers. And, in such a case, a complete melt by 2014 or 2015 becomes almost certain.

Taking into account the average rate of melt from 2005-2012, we see losses of 740 cubic kilometers per year. If these average losses continue through 2013-2017 total melt occurs sometime in the summer of 2017. But any catastrophic melt similar to 2007 results in a complete melt during any one of these five years.

Even if melt is ‘mild’ compared to averages over the past 8 years, it is almost certain that all summer sea ice will be gone by 2020. For these reasons, it is very important to sound the alarm for total summer sea ice collapse now. Given current trends, it appears less likely that summer sea ice will remain and more likely that the world will see an open Arctic Ocean sometime within the next five years and, almost certainly, by the end of this decade.

Looking at the risk trends, it appears 10% likely that zero summer sea ice volume will be reached by the end of 2013. That likelihood jumps to 25% by the end of summer 2014. By 2015, if current trends bear out, the chance is around 40%. Moving on to 2016, we get into the range of higher probabilities with a 50% likelihood of total summer melt. And without some kind of negative feedback or the intervention of weather less favorable for melt, there is more than a 60% likelihood that all sea ice will have disappeared by summer of 2017 (These probabilities are based on trends analysis and are not based on any official climate model).

Feedbacks To Play a Role?

There are a number of feedbacks taking place in the Arctic that may play a role in either preserving a small remnant of summer sea ice or in hastening the ice sheet’s eventual collapse. Some of these feedbacks are visible now. But there are, likely, others that have not yet been identified.  Here are a few of the major players:

The first is sea ice melt itself. As sea ice melts more of the white, reflective ice is replaced by dark, heat absorbing, water. As less and less of the Arctic Ocean is covered by ice during the summer months, more and more dark ocean is available to absorb the near-constant summer sun’s rays. This feedback, called loss of albedo, would push for a faster melt and, if it comes to dominate, would result in a more rapid melt of far more fragile ice.

Fragile ice. As sea ice becomes thinner it is subject to an increasing array of mechanical forces that may hasten its break-up. Thin ice is less resilient to storms, for example. And as the ice breaks into smaller and smaller chunks a greater portion of its surface area is exposed to the sun’s rays and to the surrounding, warmer water. Again, this feedback would push for a more rapid melt.

Methane and CO2 release. Large portions of the frozen land-mass called permafrost are melting in the Arctic. When the organic matter in the permafrost breaks down either methane or CO2 is released. In addition, large volumes of methane are bubbling up from the sea-bed both from freed methane hydrates and from submerged and thawing permafrost. These releases produce local spikes of the greenhouse gasses methane and carbon dioxide while also amplifying global, human-caused climate change. Methane release local to the Arctic tends to increase Arctic heat trapping, resulting in more rapid ice melt.

Greenland melt. Over the past few years, an ever-increasing volume of cold, fresh water has been melting from the vast glaciers of Greenland. Ironically, this cold water melt may produce one of the the few negative feedbacks in the Arctic environment. Cold water flushing into the Arctic Ocean and North Atlantic may perturb heat transport to the Arctic via the Gulf Stream. Large volumes of fresh water also freeze at higher temperatures than the saltier ocean water, potentially restoring some albedo to the Arctic. So, in this case, large pulses of water from Greenland may result in a small volume of ice remaining to the north of Greenland during late summer. Even larger pulses may result in some recovery of the ice pack. But such an event would come at the cost of rapidly rising seas, powerful storms, and dangerous, large water pulses from Greenland. The question in such a case is if the positive human forcing on the climate system and the strength of other amplifying feedbacks in the Arctic is enough to overwhelm the negative feedback of water pulses from Greenland.

Because it appears less likely that water pulses from Greenland will grow large enough to produce a powerful enough negative feedback to overwhelm summer ice melt short-term, it appears that complete summer ice melt by 2013-2017 is a high risk and total ice melt by 2020 is almost certain.

After that time, all eyes turn to Greenland as the great ice sheets begin to play their role in re-establishing equilibrium to the Arctic environment. The surrounding heat of the oceans, air, and the amplifying feedbacks coming from the Arctic environment itself will almost certainly push Greenland into a very rapid melt phase by the late 2010s onward. And this next phase of Arctic melt will be far more dangerous and troublesome than the rapid sea ice melt period of 1979-2020.

Cracks of Doom

In parting, I will leave you with this graphic provided by the US Navy. It shows a broad but very thin ice sheet covering much of the Arctic. It shows the remaining, small portion of thick ice hovering just north of the Arctic Archipelago and the north shore of Greenland. It shows how much of the thick sea ice has already been flushed out through the Fram Straight.

What it does not show are the cracks that appear, periodically, like Arctic lighting over the now fragile ice sheet.

This is the state in which the Arctic enters its 2013 melt season. Thin. Depleted. Fragile. And with the cracks of its eminent demise now riddling its surface.


(Image credit: US Navy)

Japanese Space Agency Shows New Record Low For Arctic Sea Ice Extent, Record Set in 2007 Falls


The Japanses Space Agency recorded a new record low for sea ice extent this morning. The new low, now 4,189,000 square kilometers is about 20,000 square kilometers below the previous record low set in 2007.

2007 was a year of extreme melt, making it even more important that these records have fallen, again, in such a short span. Many climate change deniers had claimed that sea ice in the Arctic would begin to recover. This clearly hasn’t happened and the trend established by human-forced climate change has continued despite a massive effort underway to cloud the issue.

NSIDC, another measure tracking sea ice extent shows that ice is still slightly above the record low for that monitor. With the current rate of melt, the NSIDC measure will likely show a new record for tomorrow or the day after.

I’ll leave you with a fully resolved picture of the polar sea ice from August 23rd provided by JAXA:






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