A Love Story And A Clearance Sale
I have a love story and a clearance sale on my mind.
The love story came from church: the preacher said that people are always telling love stories—stories about what grandkids just did, or how good it would be when the wife got back from her trip, or how cute the boyfriend is.
Then he quoted a poem by Mary Oliver. It ends this way:
And he said that if you listened closely, if you thought about it, other sorts of stories were really love stories, too: stories about being cheated, about how grandma was missed; even the dark, bitter stories about co-workers disliked, perhaps for envy, or about rivals denigrated.
Those dark stories are love stories because the pain in them comes from loss, and the loss matters because of the love: the love we used to have, or want to have, or wish we had again. That's the "cutting knowledge of pain."
So of course I had to think of my love stories, and my stories of loss. So many people, parents, grandparents, friends, teachers, lovers (and one ex), students, colleagues--all gone, with varying degrees of finality, from my life today!
And then I thought of my non-human love, which is nature.
You can't ever be completely separated from nature's presence, because if that happens to you, you die: the grittiest urban air comes to your lungs from the stomata of tropical plants and from plankton in Antarctic seas; the water, however processed it may be as you taste it, springs from the earth like a gift.
Yet my love affair with nature (like much else in my life) was carried on, very often, in my head.
True, there were real and vivid encounters: the smell of the pines on Georgian bay shores; the sun on my body as I lay on a rock lapped by Lake Talon's waters; or the first spring robins appearing, miraculous, after a long Sault Ste. Marie winter, to race about the rapidly greening grass among the traces of snow yet remaining.
But so much was imagined. Nature was part of who I—a boy from Northern Ontario—was, or imagined I was. I would look out my bedroom window and imagine simply walking North.
Once out of town, I thought, there wouldn't be much that was human between me and the Pole.
Predictably, I loved to read about the explorers: Martin Frobisher, who brought news of the disappointment that the Bay that now bears his name was not, in fact, a straight passage to China. The doomed Franklin, with his elegant dinner service abandoned amid the ice, his quest for the Passage turned to escape attempt, his men dying one by one of scurvy or hypothermia or heartbreak. And eventually, Amundsen, (and even later, the Mounties on the St. Roch) finding a way through the ice fields and intricate passages of the Canadian Archipelago to glory.
Were I to follow in their footsteps, I thought, the Arctic would not be a route to someplace else, but a destination.
These decades later, I've still not been much North of 50 degrees. But I watch the ice with satellite eyes: a high-tech stalker. And I'm losing the Arctic that was.
The ice pack has existed for millions of years, swelling and shrinking as glaciation alternated with warming in a vast, slow cycle. The pack had been growing in recent millenia; the height of post-glacial warming was reached perhaps 8,000 years ago, and the planet had been cooling, gradually and fitfully, yet seemingly inescapably, as the Earth's orbit shifted subtly toward the next glaciation.
But now humans have changed things. We've increased the carbon dioxide 'blanket' in our atmosphere by about 40% in the last century or two, and the planet has been responding—especially in the last four decades. The ice has been shrinking back, giving up land and sea to winds and tides and radiation.
We measure this, of course—measurement is as human as love.
There are three main ways. Easiest is "extent."
Satellites look down and their sensors distinguish ice from water, or rock, or snow. Defined areas containing a 'threshold' proportion of ice—usually 15%—are counted as 'ice.' All such areas are then totalled together, and that is the ice extent.
It's simple, and works especially well when the boundaries of the ice pack are relatively clear and definite.
My calculation is that the Arctic sea ice extent is down a little less than 32% from the first complete year of the satellite record—1979.
That's if you count from the annual minimum; the sea ice grows and shrinks every year, almost like the planet breathing, with the minimum normally happens around the first two weeks of September. As you might expect, that's the time of year when the ices most shows its vulnerability; the decline is less for the winter months.
Unfortunately, it is during the sunlit months of the year that the sea ice exerts its ever-dropping ability to cool the planet.
More involved than finding the extent is finding the ice "area."
In this method, each 'grid box' containing the 'threshold amount' of ice is not only counted, but its actual ice-covered area is calculated. This is done for all areas of the ice pack, and the 'grid box' subtotals are then added together. That's the sea ice area.
This sea ice area number will always be smaller than the number for sea ice extent, though it can approach it quite closely when the pack is well-defined, with nice neat edges. But in recent years, the ice has more often been internally fissured and riven with enormous 'leads'—areas of open water that can form as the ice pack shifts and cracks—or melts.
My calculation is that the annual minimum Arctic sea ice area is down a bit 39% from the first complete of the satellite record in 1979.
The hardest measure—but arguably the most important—is 'volume.'
Ice volume (as one might expect) can only be found if one first finds the thickness of the ice--and satellites are only beginning do this, with the European Cryosat mission. Observers can do it, though, if they go to the ice pack and either drill through the ice or deploy sensors on the ice. There are airborne sensors that can be trailed from planes to measure thickness, too. And for years nuclear submarines (Russian, American and British) have been measuring ice thickness from the bottom, using their sonar.
Some of this data has even been released to researchers—though usually in a form that obscures where exactly the submarines went.
All of these measurements are useful, but the trouble is that even with many thousands of them logged, the proportion of the ice pack measured is much smaller than the complete thickness profile of the entire ice cap you'd like to have, if only you could.
The only practical way that complete coverage can be approximated is to model the ice thickness: you can put all relevant physical factors into a computer model of the ice—all the currents and tides, all the sun, all the physics and weather you can think of. Then you run the model—usually 'constraining' it with the thickness measurements that you do have, so that your model can't drift too far from reality.
That gives you a profile of ice thickness, and it is straightforward in principle to use it to calculate the ice volume—though in practice it remains an awful lot of numbers to crunch. But that crunching is done all the time; for instance, the US Navy does it to help its captains know where they may encounter dangerous ice conditions. Probably other nations, especially Russia, have similar capabilities.
And the Earth Sciences department of the University of Washington does this too.
Their model, called PIOMAS, is different. The "operational" models used by the Navy have a conservative bias; the ice is generally shown as thicker than it really is. Better that a ship steer farther away from trouble than need be, than that it gash its hull! By contrast, PIOMAS is meant to be useful for climate research, which means that it is meant to track the ice volume as accurately as researchers can constrain it to do.
And PIOMAS has an alarming story to tell: whereas the ice extent has declined 32% since 1979, and the ice area 39%, the ice volume is now down by three-quarters.
You might say that the Arctic ice pack is now 75% off.
Yes, that is correct. By this volume measure, the Arctic ice pack is just one-quarter what it was in 1979.
And the decline has been accelerating: simple extrapolations of the PIOMAS numbers give estimates of as little as one to three years until the September minimum is zero, or close to it. ("Extrapolation" in this context means simply projecting the trend forward in time, using some suitable mathematical function.)
To be sure, extrapolation is not always a trustworthy guide. There is no guarantee that the ice pack will continue melting away at the same rates we have been seeing over the last few years. And in fact climate models suggest that that first 'zero' minimum is more likely to come between 2030 and 2040.
But that is roughly the time when the chances of my personal survival reach the 50-50 mark, considering age and life expectancy figures.
So there is a real chance that, even under the conservative projections of climate models, I may outlive the Arctic ice pack—for there is some experimental evidence suggesting that ice-free Arctic summers are likely to lead in surprisingly short order to an Arctic Ocean that is largely ice-free year 'round.
It is hard to imagine, and hard to believe. There's no guarantee that it will happen this way—but the evidence that we do have says that it very well could.
I don't like the prospect of outliving the object of my Romantic folly. And you shouldn't either, because even if you don't care a fig for the North, the disappearance of the ice pack will change the world's weather, and change it in ways that we can't yet predict.
We know that more open water will put more water vapor in the air, and increase the sunlight absorbed each summer, both of which will lead to yet more warming.
We know that the more open water has already meant Arctic coasts eroding ever faster, forcing expensive, difficult, and damaging relocations of coastal villages.
We think that less ice may mean more extreme weather as the Jet Stream slows and meanders more widely.
And we definitely know that Arctic summer storms have been increasing markedly in recent years, each one further shattering and scattering the ice pack.
Indeed, when I originally wrote this, a remarkable Arctic cyclone was just winding down. Its central pressure was as low as 963 milliBars—a level worthy of a hurricane—the storm stretched across much of the Central Arctic Basin, and it lasted better than five days. We have never seen a comparable event in the Arctic. It brought steep declines in sea ice.
Now there is another on the way, and we wait to see whether it will do the same, or whether the Arctic Ocean has cooled enough to protect the remaining ice somewhat.
We also know that all of this, taken together, will be very disruptive of the lifeways of the two top predators in the Arctic: Polar bears, and humans.
But there is so much we can't yet know—including exactly how strong each of these trends will become as ice loss continues, and how these and other developments will interact.
So the Arctic ice pack is on clearance sale—75% off. On the "you break it, you bought it" rule, we are about to buy damaged goods.
Too bad there's no way to look at the price tag in advance.
Other Climate-related Hubs by Doc Snow
- Global Warming Science In The Age Of Washington And Jefferson: William Charles Wells
Some argue that greenhouse warming is thermodynamically impossible. But observations and experiments going back as much as 350 years tell a different story. Among the first to study radiation in the atmosphere was an unassuming Scots-English doctor,
- Fire From Heaven: Climate Science And The Element Of Life--Part One, Fire By Day
We depend upon the 'fire' of solar radiation for our very lives. But how intense is this fire? Does it change? Here's the story of these questions and their answers--and of the people investigating them.
- Global Warming Science, Press, And Storms: Nils Ekholm
Scientists are expected to live and die on the quality and integrity of their data analysis—but usually that is a metaphor. Not for Nils Ekholm! Read the story of this remarkable scientist, self-made man and sometime Arctic explorer.
- "Responsibility," or "Driver, Boy and Girl"
A short story about responsibility, school buses, history, and burnings big and small. . . "Afternoon on a warm spring day in central Ontario, with a school bus dragging a dust plume up and down the county roads, bringing the high-schoolers..."
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