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Thick Antarctic ice not sign of cooling

Sea ice can be very thick...(Pic: I.Quaile)

Sea ice can be very thick…even in a warming world (Pic: I.Quaile)

The recent publication of a study on Arctic ice as measured by the “yellow submarine”, an underwater robot, caused a flurry of comments on the “climate hoax” by some of those of a “climate-sceptical” persuasion. I contacted a sea ice physicist at Germany’s AWI Institute for an independent opinion. Here’s the background:

Measurements conducted by an underwater robot have found that Antarctic sea ice is much thicker than previously thought in some places. Much of this floating sea ice is underwater, hidden from the satellites which have been tracking seasonal sea ice for decades. The satellite data is normally validated by drilling into ice floes which can be reached by ship, or visual estimates from the ships themselves. However, it is difficult to reach the thickest ice that way.

Underwater robot below the ice

Over the last four years, an international group of researchers has been mapping the bottom of sea ice in several areas of the Antarctic using an underwater robot, or AUV. It can swim to a depth of some 30 metres (100 feet) and uses sonar directed upwards to survey the bottom of the sea ice. This gave them access to areas where measurements could not be carried out until now.

The study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, suggests that the average ice thickness could be considerably higher than previous estimates. In three regions surveyed, the robot sub found that deformed, thickened ice accounted for at least half of and as much as 76 percent of the total ice volume, the researchers say.

Climate skepticism vindicated?

While Antarctica’s ice sheet, that is the land ice, is melting and retreating, the extent of the sea ice has been expanding over the last three winters. This has led some who are skeptical about climate change to suggest that it could be evidence that human-made global warming is not happening. But sea-ice physicist Stefan Hendricks, from the Alfred-Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, based in Bremerhaven, Germany, told me in an interview the new measurements were no reason to doubt climate change is happening.

Ice physicist Hendricks (Foto: Hendricks)

Ice physicist Hendricks (Foto: Hendricks)

“What our colleagues have shown is that ship-based measurements do not record this really thick ice. That is no surprise to us. It is good that they have found this out, but basically it just tells us that we have to be cautious when it comes to using ship-based data”, Hendricks said.

The sea ice extent in the Antarctic has been growing, while the sea ice in the Arctic, at the northern end of the planet, has decreased dramatically in recent years. Hendricks stresses that the two regions are completely different:

“The Arctic Ocean is surrounded by land, whereas in the Antarctic, the land is in the middle. If the Arctic were not surrounded by land, the ice cover would also be much bigger in winter”, says Hendricks.  The increase in Antarctic sea ice in winter can be partly explained by the wind direction, he adds . Ice grows faster, the thinner it is. If it is blown out from shore, for instance into the Indian Ocean, new ice is created very quickly, according to the ice expert. He also warns against  comparing what happens to the Arctic in summer to what happens at the southern end of the planet in winter:

“If you look at the cycle over the whole year, your will see that the sea ice in the Antarctic also melts almost completely in summer”.

Valuable data, limited application

Still, the German expert says the new ice measurements from the Antarctic are of major importance to our understanding of how sea ice behaves. But he stresses that the ice floes are on the move all the time.  Although the measurements are very exact, the situation is constantly changing ,and the measurements could only be taken at a limited number of spots in what is a huge area of ice.

“The question is how representative is this for the total ice extent? This depends to a very large extent on which ice floe you take. There are large differences between them. The differences are particularly marked if you go further away from land. Close to land, the ice piles up and is deformed and so you get this very thick ice. Further out, you don’t get that”.

The new measurements certainly do not give any reason to be more relaxed about climate warming, says Hendricks.  Increased sea ice could have a cooling effect, as ice reflects heat back into space, whereas the sea water absorbs the heat, exacerbating warming. But given that the ice melts again in summer, that effect would be very slight, says the physicist.

 

 

 

 

 

Date

December 4, 2014 | 3:31 pm

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Arctic icon in decline

Polar bear in Bonn? Nice poster, Greenpeace!

Arctic icon on display at Greenpeace Arctic event in Bonn (I.Quaile)

 As I plan my coverage of this year’s annual UN climate conference, this time in Peru, a news item from WWF pops up in my mail box. The organization is concerned that the number of polar bears in the Beaufort See in Alaska and in north-western Canada has dropped by around 40 percent in the last ten years.  Now that is a very worrying statistic.

It is based on a study published in the journal Ecological Applications: Polar bear population dynamics in the southern Beaufort Sea during a period of sea ice decline.

In 2004, it seems 1,500 polar bears were counted. The latest count showed just 900. Declining sea ice and a lack of prey seem to be the likeliest causes. Another piece of evidence to justify the decision in 2008 to list polar bears under the US Endangered Species Act.

WWF fears the worrying trend will continue if climate change is not halted. There are only between 20,000 and 25,000 polar bears left in the world. With the average air temperature in the Arctic a good five degrees centigrade higher than it was a hundred years ago, it is hardly surprising that nature is struggling to cope. As the sea ice declines, the bears are losing their habitat. You might also remember the pictures of all those walruses on the beach a few weeks ago. They too, were affected by the decline of the sea ice where they usually rest between dives.

So what can we do to halt the decline in the polar bear population? This brings me back to the forthcoming climate conference in Peru. I am finding it difficult to arouse interest in this year’s meeting. “Paris next year is the important one”, I hear. So does climate action just get put on hold for another 12 months? Tell that to the polar bears. One single conference cannot save the world from the climate catastrophes that could lie ahead if the world does not manage to reduce its emissions drastically in the next few years. UNEP’s “Emissions Gap Report 2014”, just published yesterday, says we have to be carbon-neutral by the 2nd half of this century to keep temperature rise below two degrees centigrade. There is still a huge gap between the pledges made by countries within the UNFCCC framework and what is necessary for that. Emissions would have to peak within the next ten years, says the UNEP report, based on the latest IPCC data. Otherwise we risk severe and irreversible climate change with all the droughts, floods and other impacts that come with it.

Melting... (Pic: I.Quaile)

Melting… (Pic: I.Quaile)

Given the need for urgent action, I fail to understand how anyone can say “forget Peru, wait for Paris”. I would be the first to stress that these conferences alone cannot halt climate change. The switch to renewable energy is already underway. But ultimately, governments have to agree to binding targets. We have seen encouraging signs from the top emitters China and the USA. Without those international negotiations, this is unlikely to have happened. Let us take the Peru conference as an opportunity to focus world interest on the urgency of climate action. Countries have to keep doing there homework. I don’t know if we will be able to turn our energy policies around in time to save the bears. But if they are to have any chance – at the risk of sounding clichéd: the time for action is now, and any major climate event is a chance to say so.

 

Date

November 21, 2014 | 4:50 pm

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The Arctic on the UN agenda

Statue of Liberty Action at the Arctic Sea Ice Edge

US icon sinking in melting ice? The photo was taken in the Arctic Ocean northwest of Svalbard the 7th of September 2014.
(Christian Auslund / Greenpeace)

To those of us who deal with the Arctic on a regular basis, the significance of the melting ice for the UN climate negotiations and vice versa is abundantly clear. But not everybody understands all the connections. A major media event like this week’s New York climate summit hosted by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in person was a fine chance to focus attention on the need to protect the Arctic. Greenpeace made good use of it, handing over a petition with six million signatures just ahead of the big event, and with hundreds of thousands gathered in New York for the Climate March.

It was timely in more ways than one, just as the latest sea ice figures were published to confirm the melting trend.

The petition calls for long-term protection of the Arctic, with the region warming more than twice as fast as the global average and opening the high north to shipping and commercial exploitation. Greenpeace and other groups are calling for a ban on oil exploration, which could endanger the fragile ecosystem. Experts also have safety concerns about increased shipping.

Ban Ki-moon receives a Greenpeace delegation, as world leaders prepare to  attend a major UN climate change summit. The UN Secretary General is presented with a six million signature petition calling for long term protection of the Arctic region. The delegation consists of Indigenous rights activist, youth leader and Saami politician Josefina Skerk, Margareta Malmgren-Koller, who has signed dozens of leaders up to Greenpeace’s Arctic Declaration policy proposal; Greenpeace Senior Political Advisor Neil Hamilton and Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo. Credit: Michael Nagle / Greenpeace

Ban Ki-moon receives the Greenpeace delegation with the petition. The delegation consists of Indigenous rights activist, youth leader and Saami politician Josefina Skerk, Margareta Malmgren-Koller, Greenpeace Senior Political Advisor Neil Hamilton and Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo.  Photo: Michael Nagle / Greenpeace

Commercial development versus environment

Earlier this month, a survey showed that 74% of people in 30 countries support the creation of a protected Arctic Sanctuary in the international waters surrounding the North Pole. The study was commissioned by Greenpeace and carried out by Canadian company, RIWI. Around the same time, the Arctic Council, which combines the Arctic states and indigenous peoples’ representatives, currently chaired by Canada, supported the founding of a new business grouping, the Arctic Economic Council. Its aim is to promote the commercial development of the Arctic region. I wrote about this here on the Ice Blog and on the DW website.

Global responsibility for the Arctic

The UN Secretary General accepted the Greenpeace petition saying:
“I receive this as a common commitment toward our common future, protecting our environment, not only in the Arctic, but all over the world.”

Ban Ki-moon said he would consider convening an international summit to discuss the issue of Arctic protection. He also expressed a desire to travel aboard one of the organisation’s  campaigning ships in the Arctic in the near future.

Greenpeace Executive Director Kumi Naidoo, who was part of the delegation, said: “The Arctic represents a defining test for those attending the summit in New York”.

He said leaders should bear in mind that concern for the rapid warming of the world was not consistent with planning oil and gas development in the melting Arctic.

The small delegation that met Ban Ki Moon included Indigenous rights activist and Saami politician Josefina Skerk, who last year trekked to the North Pole to declare the top of the world ‘the common heritage of everyone on earth’.
Skerk, a member of the Saami Parliament, said: “We, who want to continue living in the North, are gravely concerned about climate change and the destructive industries that are closing in. My people know and understand the Arctic, and it is changing in a manner, which threatens not just our survival, but the survival of people all over the world.”

Skerk said humans had created the crisis and had to take action to solve it.

“I urge the Arctic countries in particular to take a giant step up and I think the world needs to pay much closer attention to ensure that it happens. They might as well start here in New York.”

From Kiribati to Svalbard and New York

Melting ice especially from the Arctic Greenland ice sheet is raising sea levels around the globe, endangering low-lying areas. At the weekend, the President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, ended a Greenpeace-organized tour of glaciers in Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago. He said the trip to the Arctic ice had made a deep impression on him, which he would share with world leaders at the U.N. climate summit:

 

The Arctic island of Svalbard from the air

Impressive ice island: Svalbard (Photo: I.Quaile)

“It’s a very fascinating sight. In spite of that, what I feel very deeply is the sense of threat,” Tong said. “If all of that ice would disappear, it would end up eroding our shores.”

Kiribati is a group of 33 coral atolls located about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Many of its atolls rise just a few feet above sea level.

In last year’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), experts concluded oceans could rise by as much as 1 meter (3.3 feet) by the end of this century if no action is taken to cut the greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming.

“It won’t take a lot of sea level rise to affect our islands,” Tong said. “We are already having problems.”

Sea ice minimum confirms melting trend

The New York summit coincides with the annual announcement of the minimum sea ice for the year, as the summer season comes to an end. The sea ice – in contrast to glaciers on land – does not influence global sea level, but is regarded as a key indicator of how climate change is affecting the region. This year the figure announced by the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) was 5.01 million square kilometers. The figure is the sixth lowest extent since records began.

The minimum ever recorded at the North Pole was 3.29m sq km in 2012 – and the eight lowest years have been the last eight years.

Ice levels in the Arctic have recovered from their all-time low, but are still on a shrinking trend, said Julienne Stroeve of the National Snow and Ice Data Centre. ”We have been telling this story for a long time, and we are still telling it,” she said.

NSIDC records showed that, this year, ice momentarily dipped below 5million sq km to 4.98m on 16 September, but the official figure is taken from a five day average.

Satellite data shows that one part of the Laptev Sea was completely clear from sea ice for the first time this summer. One of the most important questions for climate scientists is how soon the Arctic will experience its first sea ice-free summer.

Rod Downie, head of WWF UK’s polar programme, said that this year’s new Arctic minimum should prompt new action from the leaders meeting in New York. He stressed the connection between the Arctic and weather conditions in other parts of the world:

“As David Cameron prepares to meet other global leaders at the UN climate change summit in New York, the increased frequency of extreme weather that is predicted for the UK as a result of a warming Arctic should serve as a reminder that we need urgent action now to tackle climate change,” he said.

The summit was a major PR event to draw attention to the need for urgent and substantial climate action. The accompanying protests around the globe show people are not happy with the slow pace of the climate talks and their governments’ efforts to reduce emissions. Of course there was little in the way of concrete pledges. Still, on the whole, I see it as a successful step on the way to a new climate agreement because it has put the spotlight on climate change at a time where international conflicts are dominating the news agenda.

More commentary on the summit from me here:

World leaders must act as climate takes centre stage

All-star gala puts climate back on the agenda

 

Date

September 24, 2014 | 2:22 pm

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Arctic Economic Council – and the environment?

Shipping in icy waters is becoming more common

Shipping in icy waters is becoming more common (Pic: I Quaile)

I would like to share my thoughts with you on the founding meeting of the Arctic Economic Council,  taking place in Canada Sept. 2nd and 3rd. Iqaluit, the capital of the northern Canadian territory of Nunavut, is hosting the inaugural meeting of the, group set up to promote commercial development in the Arctic, as climate change makes the region more accessible. It was in Iqaluit that the first-ever ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council (AC) took place back in 1998. The newly established independent Arctic Economic Council (AEC), with close links to the AC, could prove to be equally influential.

Canada currently holds the rotating presidency of the Arctic Council, an organization linking eight Arctic states and six organizations representing Arctic indigenous peoples. Its self-set tasks include sustainable development, monitoring the Arctic environment, identifying pollution risks and environmental emergency preparedness. But in the race to open the Arctic to increased shipping, oil and gas exploration and mining, the formation of the new Arctic Economic Council (AEC) could see commercial interests gaining the upper hand.

Canada puts business first

Leona Aglukkaq, Canada’s Minister for the Environment, the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and the Arctic Council, is presiding over the founding meeting of the AEC. Its creation has been a key project during Canada’s 2013-2015 Arctic Council chairmanship, which Aglukkaq has focused on “development for the people of the North.”

“Our government prioritized the creation of the Arctic Economic Council to facilitate business opportunities, trade, investment and growth in the best interests of Northerners,” said Aglukkaq ahead of the two-day meeting. “Establishing this body is an historic moment for the Arctic Council in its efforts to advance sustainable development in the Arctic. I’m confident that the AEC will be a strong and effective body that will help enhance pan-Arctic economic cooperation for the benefit of communities and people in the Arctic.”

 An unwise move for the AC?

But some people believe the AC could be making a mistake by allowing a potentially highly influential business group to grow outside of its own structures.  Neil Hamilton, Senior Polar Political Advisor at Greenpeace International, told DW: “By creating an independent organization which answers to no one but has the authority to attend, work within, and manipulate the activities of the Arctic Council and its working Groups, the Arctic Council has severely undermined its own mandate.”

The AEC is being established with the contribution of the Arctic Council, but as an independent body.  Representatives of both Councils would meet at regular intervals to discuss the economic development of the Arctic.

Originally, the AEC was envisaged as a circumpolar business forum. It’s since turned into a more formal structure. Each of the member states and each of the council’s indigenous permanent participant organizations was invited to send a maximum of three representatives to the inaugural meeting, where they will discuss the organization, structure and objectives of the AEC. The business representatives attending include CEOs and other high-ranking figures from a range of industries including oil and gas exploration, iron mining, tourism and shipping lines.

In the future, membership will not be limited to these nominations and may accept self-nominations from the Arctic business community.

Beautiful but on the endangered list

Arctic ice on the endangered list (Pic: I.Quaile)

A back-seat for the environment?

Canada says businesses in the Arctic will play a strong role in building a sustainable and economically vibrant future for the region. This will not reassure environment campaigners who have repeatedly attacked the current Canadian administration for its support of environmentally problematic industries such as oil tar sands or fracking, and for its refusal to back international climate agreements.  The participation of the Vice-President of Russia’s Rosneft Oil Company Andrey Shishkin will raise eyebrows among those concerned about the possible environmental impact of oil exploration in the High North.

Finland is seeking to chair the AEC, although the group is to be purely business and not government run.  In a press release, the country’s Foreign Ministry mentions environment protection but does not appear to give it priority when it outlines the objectives of the new body:

“In the future, the main focus of its work will be on the enhancement of the economic operating conditions of indigenous peoples and Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), the reduction of obstacles to trade, the support for sustainable economic operations, and raising of issues the AEC itself considers topical.”

In an AC paper on “facilitating the creation of the Arctic Economic Council,” environmental protection is only listed the last of six objectives, in connection with “maximizing the potential for Arctic economic activities.”

Conservationists are concerned that protecting the environment could take a back seat while companies pressure for fewer restrictions. With the Arctic warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the world and melting ice easing access to northern regions, the pace of Arctic development could outrun efforts to ensure environment protection and safety measures with increasing shipping and the risk of accidents or oil spills.

Save the Arctic protest lantern in Bonn

Greenpeace are protesting around the world to save the Arctic (Pic: I.Quaile)

The World Wildlife Fund, which originally supported the group, told journalists the way it had been set up was “opaque and unaccountable”. WWF said it hat been refused permission to observe the meeting.

Greenpeace Arctic policy advisor Hamilton told DW: “The founding document of the Arctic Economic Council sets the frame for a new era of exploitation of the Arctic, without any indication of intent to protect the environment.” At the same time the Arctic Council, which was established to protect the environment, was “negating its prime function.”

Hamilton called on the Arctic Council to accord civil society the same privilege as it appears to be allowing the new economic group, by loosening regulations on granting the role of observer status.

The two-day meeting in Iqaluit ends on Wednesday, September 3rd. In the coming months, the Arctic Council will have to clarify its relation to the new AEC it helped create, and demonstrate how it’s going to reconcile the increasing pressure for commercial activity with avoiding environmental damage.

Date

September 2, 2014 | 8:48 am

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Polar melt confirmed from space

Greenland ice wall

The Greenland ice sheet, photographed 2009 (I.Quaile)

I am disappointed that there was so little mainstream media coverage (please correct me if I am wrong) of a report from a team of scientists from Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) in Bremerhaven who have analysed just over two years of data from the CryoSat-2 satellite. Their conclusion that the Greenland ice sheet and Antarctica’s glaciers are melting at record pace, dumping some 500 cubic kilometers of ice into the oceans every year, twice as much in the case of Greenland and three times as much in the case of Antarctica, by comparison with 2009 – yes, you read right, we are talking about a very short period for such a dramatic increase in ice loss – should have made more news headlines and not just the science pages.

To understand the scale of that, the researchers say it would be the equivalent of an ice sheet that’s 600 meters thick and covers an area as big as the German city of Hamburg – or, my colleagues here at DW calculate, as big as Singapore.

The research team headed by Veit Helm used around two years’ worth of data from the ESA CryoSat-2  satellite to create digital elevation models of Greenland and Antarctica. The results were published in the online magazine of the European Geoscience Union (EGU)  The Cryosphere.

“The new elevation maps are snapshots of the current state of the ice sheets,” Helm says. “The elevations are very accurate, to just a few meters in height, and cover close to 16 million square kilometers of the area of the ice sheets.” He says this includes an additional 500,000 square kilometers that weren’t covered in previous elevation models from altimetry.

infografik ice engl

Space technology shows declining ice mass

Helm and his team analyzed all data from the CryoSat-2 radar altimeter SIRAL in order to come up with the detailed maps. The satellite with this new radar equipment was launched in 2010. Satellite altimeters measure the height of an ice sheet by sending radar or laser pulses which are then reflected by the surface of the glaciers or surrounding areas of water and recorded by the satellite.

The researchers used other satellite data as well to document how elevation has changed between 2011 and 2014.

Rapid ice loss over a short period of time

The team used more than 200 million SIRAL data points for Antarctica and some 14 million data points for Greenland to create the elevation maps. The results show that Greenland alone is losing around 375 cubic kilometers of ice per year.

Compared to data which was collected in 2009, the loss of mass from the Greenland ice sheet has doubled. The rate of ice discharge from the West Antarctic ice sheet tripled during the same period.

I think this is definitely worth talking about. We know the huge implications of polar ice melt for global sea levels. Other research from this year also tells us that, at least in the case of parts of Antarctica, the ice melt is probably irreversible.

We cannot afford to ignore what is happening to the ice sheets. The extent of ice loss in Greenland is particularly dramatic. I am losing patience with those people who respond to studies like this and our reporting on it by saying “but the East Antarctic is gaining volume” and “the Antarctic sea ice has grown”. It is so easy to take things out of context and mix different factors up when trying to understand a very complex system.

I will give the last word here to AWI glaciologist Angelika Humbert, who co-authored the study:  ”If you combine the two ice sheets (Greenland and Antarctic), they are thinning at a rate of 500 cubic kilometers per year. That is the highest rate observed since altimetry satellite records began about 20 years ago.” It seems to me there is no arguing with that.

Related stories:

Antarctic melt could raise sea levels faster 

West Antarctic ice sheet collapse unstoppable

Climate change risk to icy East Antarctica

Antarctic Glacier’s retreat unstoppable

 

 

 

 

 

Date

August 22, 2014 | 1:33 pm

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