Arctic melt worries UN and White House
The UN weather agency WMO (World Meteorological Organisation) has confirmed that the Arctic’s sea ice melted at a record pace in 2012, the ninth-hottest year on record. With just 3.4 million square kilometres (1.32 million square miles) during the August to September melting season, the sea ice cover was a full 18 percent less than the previous low set in 2007. The WMO’s Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said this was a “disturbing sign of climate change”, and pointed to the link between climate change and extreme weather events.
Meanwhile, a special briefing was called at the White House to discuss the possibility of the Arctic becoming ice free in the summer within just TWO years. Nafeed Ahmed, director of the “Institute for Policy Research & Development” headlines his post for the “Guardian“: “White House warned on imminent Arctic ice death spiral”. He describes the meeting, including NASA’s acting chief scientist Gale Allen, the director of the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon as “the latest indication that US officials are increasingly concerned about the international and domestic security implications of climate change”.
10 Arctic specialists were called in to advise the US government, including marine scientist Professor Carlos Duarte, currently director of the Oceans Institute at the University of Western Australia. I met and interviewed Prof. Duarte back in 2011 at the Arctic Frontiers conference, when he worked with the Spanish Council for Scientific Research. At that time, he was already calling for urgent action and warning of the danger of “climate tipping points”, including the melt of the Arctic sea ice. His conclusions are based on research which was presented in an article in Nature Climate Change last year.
The West Australian newspaper quotes Prof. Duarte as saying the “snowballing situation would prove as hard to slow down as a runaway train”. He told the paper the ice melt was accelerating faster than any of the models could predict, and the prospect of an Arctic Ocean free of ice had been brought forward to 2015, compared with a prediction in 2007 that at least a third of the normal sea ice extent would remain in summer in 2100. When I spoke to him in 2011, the US navy was already assuming a date of 2050 and Duarte said he expected it to be even earlier.
Prof Duarte also warned of the increasing danger of melting methane. Let me quote a little from the interview:
DUARTE: “We know from the history of ice covering the planet along geological time scales that ice is strongly a non-linear element in the earth’s system. It’s one of the components that show very rapid, very abrupt changes and tipping points. So we expect that once the ice will be lost quickly from the Arctic and also from the shelves in Greenland, then other forces will be set in motion, and many forces will be set in motion by loss of ice. One of them is the release of methane hydrates from the shallow continental shelves, mostly around Siberia, and those are molecules of methane that are trapped into ice in the sediments of the continental shelves and in the permafrost on land. So if this ice melts, this methane can be released abruptly and suddenly. And deposits of methane trapped in the shallow sediments of the Arctic amount to about five times the greenhouse power that humans have set in motion through burning fossil fuels. So if this five times what we have released in 150 years is released within a few years, that would be detrimental to the climate system and it could lead to a very rapid warming, and could again set in motion other forces like increased freshwater discharge to the Arctic, which has already increased by 30 percent. And this involves a greater export of fresh water and buoyancy to the Atlantic, which may affect global circulation and global currents, and those in turn will affect regional climates also further south to the sub-Arctic region. Also, warmer temperatures are leading to dieback of the boreal forest and also the peat deposits in the boreal region are drying up to the extent that they can catch fire.”
(IRENE QUAILE: How close are we?)
DUARTE: “We very much know what the threshold and the tipping point for the release of methanes will be, because the methane is kept in the hydrates, deposits in the salty sediments by ice, frozen sediments, and we know the freezing point of salty sediments may be around minus 1 degree. So when the temperature of water in the summer goes well above freezing point, the hydrates will defrost and the methane will be released. So what we need to monitor is the temperature of the shallow waters in the Siberian shelf and other shallow waters in the Arctic, in the Canadian region as well, and see how close they’re getting to temperatures of 3 and 4 degrees, which will be those that will lead to melting of the hydrates.”
Scary? The interview, it seems, is as relevant as ever, the Professor’s warnings more urgent. I wonder what it feels like to be called in to the White House to brief the government of a country that is both a key player in the Arctic and a top emitter of the greenhouse gases that are causing the melt? On the one hand it must be satisfying for the scientists to know they are finally being heard. But there must also be some frustration about the extent of dangerous climate change that had to be set in motion first. Has the Arctic ice already reached a “tipping point”?
Let me close with another quote from that interview with Carlos Duarte:
DUARTE: “Unfortunately society is much more mobilised by opportunities than by risks. So the discourses and warnings of risks actually almost lead to inaction by society, whereas the sight of opportunities encourages society to set themselves in motion. So the opportunities for economic growth in the Arctic have dominated the discourse and the actions by society and policy makers. Those opportunities are new navigation routes across the Arctic, and the exploitation of oil, gas and fisheries, that were not accessible just a few years ago. The paradox in this is that the Arctic countries recognise that the forces that are improving access to these resources is actually climate change and that the reason for this climate change is the burning of fossil fuels by humans. Arctic nations themselves are responsible for 26% of the release of these greenhouse gases and are taking advantage of these opportunities, which will involve greater emissions of greenhouse gases. (…) I think there should be a balance between the economic growth these opportunities could bring about and the economic losses, they may bring about, which I don’t think have been quantified.”
DateMay 6, 2013 | 1:54 pm
10 years French-German Arctic Station
Congratulations to the team of the joint French-German Arctic research station in Ny Alesund, Svalbard. It is ten years since the German polar authority AWI (Alfred-Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research) and its French counterpart IPEV (Institut Polaire Paul Emile Victor) joined forces at the world’s northernmost research base.
The station was my first Arctic destination in 2007, so it has a special significance for me. During the IPY, I was involved in an international radio cooperation to report on polar science, which was how the Ice Blog was born.
AWIPEV is the biggest of the research stations in Ny Alesund, and takes up to 150 scientists from France and Germany in the course of a year.
I visited again in 2010 with a team looking at ocean acidification. Their equipment was transported up by the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, a “first” in terms of cooperation between scientists funded by the EU’s EPOCA programme and the environment group. Greenpeace offered the ship to help out when none of the scientific research vessels was available for the project.
The station has also just been the first to be officially approved by the climate data network GRUAN. Not a terribly attractive acronym, but definitely easier to say/write than the whole title: Global Climate Observing System Reference Upper Air Network. Basically, the idea is to standardize and the measurement of climate parameters around the world so that the figures are really comparable. It was initiated by the World Meteorological Organization, the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, UNESCO, UNEP and the International Council for Science.
Keep up the good work everyone up there at AWIPEV.
DateApril 29, 2013 | 2:55 pm
“Penguins” ask Berlin to save Antarctic
Today, it seems, is World Penguin Day. If you happened to be in the German capital, Berlin, this would have been drawn to your attention by largish “penguins” visiting the embassies of Russia, China and Norway, as well as the German Agriculture Ministry, which, it may surprise you to know, is responsible for the protection of the Antarctic on behalf of the German government
Activists from “The Antarctic Ocean Alliance“, (AOA) made use of the occasion to draw attention to the need to protect the pristine ice region at the south of the world. The background is that Germany will be host to a meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCALMR) in July this year. The meeting, in Bremerhaven, home of Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for polar and marine research, will be discussing the possible creation of two Marine Protected areas (MPAs) in the Antarctic. The alliance, made up of WWF, Greenpeace, Deepwave, Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) and others, is calling on Germany to play a leading role and on other key countries to support a decision in favour of the protected areas.
Steve Campbell, Campaign Director of the AOA, stressed Germany’s long tradition of scientific polar research and the key role the country could play in Antarctic protection. The alliance stresses that the Southern ocean is under increasing pressure from climate change and resource depletion. The areas the AOA want protected now are described by the campaigners as one of the world’s last wildernesses and an essential “living laboratory” for the planet.
DateApril 25, 2013 | 1:35 pm
Why a new “Arctic Circle” Forum?
While working on a story about the Arctic Council in the run-up to its next meeting in May, I was greatly interested by the announcement that there is to be a new global forum called the Arctic Circle. Iceland’s President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, made the announcement this week at an event held by the National Press Club in Washington. On the Arctic Circle website, the new organization is described as “nonprofit and nonpartisan”. The mission is “to facilitate dialogue and build relationships to confront the Arctic’s greatest challenges. We aim to strengthen the decision-making process by bringing together as many Arctic and international partners as possible under one large ‘open tent’. By facilitating circumpolar meetings of leaders across disciplines, we will identify truly sustainable development practices for the Arctic, the world’s last pristine environment”.
The background, of course, is the opening of the Arctic to shipping and commercial exploitation because of climate change. The organisers say the new open forum will help raise the profile of Arctic issues worldwide and discuss solutions “in a frank and collaborative manner”.
I met President Grimsson in January in what at first sight might appear an unusual location – the Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi.
He actually has close ties to the emirate, and was there for “sustainability week” and the World Future Energies Forum. He explained to me then his interest in making it clear that the Arctic is not just of significance to the High North region and the countries around it, but the planet as a whole. So I am not surprised that he is spearheading an attempt to open the region to the influence of other countries. Iceland has also been conducting a lot of negotiations with China, including a new free trade agreement announced by the President this week. As reported on the Ice Blog and DW before, China is increasingly interested in getting a foothold in the Arctic.
Grimsson told Thomson Reuters the new forum was needed because “while most countries have a stake in the melting of Arctic ice, only eight – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States – are members of the Arctic Council”. The intergovernmental group was established in 1996.
China, India and Singapore are amongst the non-Arctic states seeking observer status on the Arctic Council at a meeting to be held in Sweden next month. The new “Arctic Circle”, on the other hand, would be open to anybody: “concerned citizens, representatives of ngos, scientists, researchers alongside governments and corporations.”
The first meeting of the new forum will be held in Iceland in October. It remains to be seen who will sign up and how influential it will turn out to be. The formation of the group shows the Arctic’s rising significance on the international agenda. The question is which forum will turn out be the best placed to effectively protect the sensitive ecosystems and traditional lifestyles of indigenous groups in the Arctic at the time when international commercial interest is growing steadily. And with the burning of fossil fuels continuing to exacerbate climate change and no progress being made towards reducing emissions – who is to mediate in the conflict between those who want to profit from exploiting oil and gas resources in The Arctic and those who want to stop using it and shift to climate-friendly renewables? There are those who would like to do both. But as the saying goes, “you can’t have your cake and eat it” – or maybe you can’t have your ice and melt it?
DateApril 19, 2013 | 2:25 pm
Antarctic Peninsula is thawing faster
Ice in parts of the Antarctic Peninsula is now melting during the summer faster than at any time during the last thousand years, according to new research results. The scientists have reconstructed changes in the intensity of ice-melt, and the mean temperature on the northern Antarctic Peninsula since AD 1000, based on the analysis of ice cores.
According to the study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, the coolest conditions and lowest melt occurred from about AD 1410 to 1460, when mean temperature was 1.6 °C lower than that of 1981–2000. Since the late 1400s, there has been a nearly tenfold increase in melt intensity from 0.5 to 4.9%. The warming has occurred in progressive phases since about AD 1460, but the melting has intensified, and has largely occurred since the mid-twentieth century. The study concludes that “ice on the Antarctic Peninsula is now particularly susceptible to rapid increases in melting and loss in response to relatively small increases in mean temperature”.
Paul Brown of Climate News Network says the findings explain a series of sudden collapses of ice shelves in the last 20 years, which scientists studying them had not expected. He also quotes the researchers as saying the current melting could lead to “further dramatic events, making the loss of large quantities of ice on the Peninsula more likely, and adding to sea level rise”.
The study is also of interest against the background of the debate going on over the last 20 years on whether the Antarctic would gain mass through extra snow falling and so REDUCE sea level rise, or would lose ice because of higher sea and air temperature and so exacerbate the effect.
The scientists use a 364-metre ice core from James Ross Island to get in insight into both past temperatures and ice melt. Layers in the core show periods when summer snow on the ice cap thawed and then refroze. By measuring the thickness of the layers, they could tell how the history of the melting related to changes in temperature at the site over the last thousand years.
Lead author Dr. Nerilie Abram of the Australian National University and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) said: “Summer melting at the ice core site today is now at a level that is higher than at any other time over the last 1,000 years. And whilst temperatures at this site increased gradually in phases over many hundreds of years, most of the intensification of melting has happened since the mid-20th centrtury.
Dr. Robert Mulvaney from the BAS, who led the drilling expedition and co-authored the paper said: “Having a record of previous melt intensity for the Peninsula is particularly important because of the glacier retreat and ice shelf loss we are now seeing in the area. Summer ice melt is a key process that is thought to have weakened ice shelves along the Antarctic Pensinsula leading to a succession of dramatic collapses, as well as speeding up glacier ice loss across the region over the last 50 years”.
The changes on the Antarctic Peninsula do not necessarily apply to other parts of Antarctica, such as the West Antarctic ice Sheet. Melting is also occurring there and could have an even greater risk of large-scale sea level rise.
Paul Brown from Climate News Network notes “it is not clear that the levels of recent ice melt and glacier loss in West Antarctica are exceptional or are caused by human-driven climate changes.”
Lead author Abram says: “This new ice core record shows that even small changes in temperature can result in large increases in the amount of melting in places where summer tempearatures are near to 0°C, such as along the Antarctic Peninsula, and this has important implications for ice instability and sea level rise in a warming climate”.
I interviewed Andrew Shepherd, Professor of Earth Observation at the British University of leeds, on a major satellite sutdy of the polar ice melt towards the end of last year. It makes interesting listening to complement this latest development:
DateApril 16, 2013 | 12:43 pm