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:

"Pain."  Image courtesy Tetranecro and Wikimedia Commons.
"Pain." Image courtesy Tetranecro and Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Mallards in the St. Mary's River.  Image courtesy FungusGuy and Wikimedia Commons.
Mallards in the St. Mary's River. Image courtesy FungusGuy and Wikimedia Commons.

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.

American Robin in snow.  Image courtesy Jerry Friedman and Wkimedia Commons.
American Robin in snow. Image courtesy Jerry Friedman and Wkimedia Commons.

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.

Little Trout Bay, Ontario, Lake Superior.  Image courtesy "clairity" and Wikimedia Commons.
Little Trout Bay, Ontario, Lake Superior. Image courtesy "clairity" and Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Martin Frobisher, by Cornelius Ketel, ca. 1577.  Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Martin Frobisher, by Cornelius Ketel, ca. 1577. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Graph by author.
Graph by author.

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.

Arctic scientist in the sun.  Image by Jerry Potter, courtesy NOAA & Wikimedia Commons.
Arctic scientist in the sun. Image by Jerry Potter, courtesy NOAA & Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Graph by author.
Graph by author.

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.

USS Pogy on an Arctic science mission.  Photo by Steven Vanderwerff, USN, courtesy DoD & Wikimedia Commons.
USS Pogy on an Arctic science mission. Photo by Steven Vanderwerff, USN, courtesy DoD & Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Russian territorial claim in the Arctic Ocean.  Pictures of modern Russian submarines are tough to get!
Russian territorial claim in the Arctic Ocean. Pictures of modern Russian submarines are tough to get!

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.

Image courtesy University of Washington.
Image courtesy University of Washington.

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.)

Graph courtesy 'Wipneus.'  The red 'exponential' line best fits the accelerating decline in ice volume.
Graph courtesy 'Wipneus.' The red 'exponential' line best fits the accelerating decline in ice volume. | Source

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.

Image courtesy National Snow And Ice Data Center (NSIDC) & Wikimedia Commons.
Image courtesy National Snow And Ice Data Center (NSIDC) & Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Arctic storm trends, from Zhang et al (2004), "Climatology and Interannual Variability of Arctic Cyclone Activity: 1948–2002"
Arctic storm trends, from Zhang et al (2004), "Climatology and Interannual Variability of Arctic Cyclone Activity: 1948–2002" | Source

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.

Arctic summer cyclone from orbit, August 6, 2012; Greenland is lower left.  Image courtesy NASA & Wikimedia Commons.
Arctic summer cyclone from orbit, August 6, 2012; Greenland is lower left. Image courtesy NASA & Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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Comments 15 comments

Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 4 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Thanks for checking out this article!

Do you care about the Arctic sea ice? Why, or why not? Do you think we'll see an ice-free Arctic soon?

And what do you think it will do to the physics of the atmosphere? To the political debate around climate change?


prokaryotes 4 years ago

A great talk on the weather extreme / jet stream connection

LESSON: ARCTIC SEA ICE DECLINE http://climatestate.com/pure-climate-science/item/...


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 4 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Thanks, prokaryotes!


Chris Alemany profile image

Chris Alemany 4 years ago from Port Alberni, British Columbia

Wow. I've seen the thickness data before at the NSIDC but I've never seen them in whole in this context. 75% is a mighty sobering number. What are the error ranges for the PIOMAS data (he asks hopefully... lol)


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 4 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

That's a good question, Chris--and one I've not seen an answer to. As I stated in the text, PIOMAS is really not 'data' in the strict sense, as it is the product of modeling--albeit modeling constrained by true (though sparser) thickness data.

I think an answer is starting to emerge from Cryosat-2, as a prelimary result explains:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/aug/11/...

Note that the Cryosat-2 team's analysis currently shows a 60% decline in volume--since 2004!

As also mentioned in the Guardian story, a separate analysis by Dr. Peter Wadhams of Cambridge arrived at a figure comparable to the PIOMAS results. (His results rest in part upon submarine data acquired when Dr. Wadhams went cruising with the Royal Navy.)

So PIOMAS results are looking pretty good--even though, as you say, they look pretty bad in another sense.


arcticio profile image

arcticio 4 years ago

Thanks for taking a long, well written route to thickness. If you look at yearly volume loss - 100% loss results in an ice free Arctic - you'll see the accelerating nature of this development:

http://www.arctic.io/2012/7/yearly-sea-ice-volume-...

Regarding PIOMAS error bar: PSC states the uncertainty for October total ice volume to be ±1.35 * 1000 km³

http://psc.apl.washington.edu/wordpress/research/p...

Whether the uncertainty is at the upper or or lower end will be visible soon, too soon. Effectively the Arctic will have gone ice free within one generation.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 4 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Thanks for bringing the answer--or at least, *an* answer--to Chris's question into the comment thread, arcticio--as well as for checking out the article, of course. I'm guessing that monthly error will differ from month to month--but not by, say, orders of magnitude, or anything close to that much. (A couple of percent, maybe?)

I could wish there were more uncertainty about the outcome, in a way; as I intimated in the article, I don't much care for the prospect I see coming. But *not* knowing wouldn't really help, of course.

And it's still possible that we can keep bad from getting even worse.


Chris Alemany profile image

Chris Alemany 4 years ago from Port Alberni, British Columbia

Thank you all very much for your answers. Whether its 75% since 1979 plus or minus a couple million cubic km or 60% since 2004 it ain't good.


Chris Alemany profile image

Chris Alemany 4 years ago from Port Alberni, British Columbia

Thank you all for the answers. They were exactly what I was hoping to get.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 4 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

You're very welcome, Chris, for my part. And no, it ain't good, all in all.


Phil L 4 years ago

Thanks for this post. It spoke to my heart as well as my head. A good example of effective climate change communication.


Andii 4 years ago

What got me to this site was reading a story of Fridjof Nansens expedition to the pole .From what I got was that ice in Greenland was preventing him from is planned route from east to west and then the summer ice free waters and current from the Qara sea to the nearest

to the Pole ,but he only got about 83 degrees north about north of Franz Joseph . Wonder what he would think now ,he was a plodder and plunderer and did not appreciate the power of nature like most of humans they go every where damaging the environment with pollution and poison and now it is out of our hands we all know this and we are awaiting our doomsday.pity for our generations .


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 4 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Thanks, Phil! I appreciate that!

Andii, thanks for coming by and commenting. I must say, though, that I can't recognize a "plodder and plunderer" in anything I know about Nansen. (And by the way, his 'furthest North' was a record for the time, at 86.13'--not too shabby.)

As an explorer and scientist he was decisive and original; as a politician he did the job he signed up for and resigned as soon as it was over; and as a humanitarian, well, the first chapter reads like this:

"In April 1920, at the League's request, Nansen began organising the repatriation of around half a million prisoners of war, stranded in various parts of the world. Of these, 300,000 were in Russia which, gripped by revolution and civil war, had little interest in their fate.[10] Nansen was able to report to the Assembly in November 1920 that around 200,000 men had been returned to their homes. "Never in my life", he said, "have I been brought into touch with so formidable an amount of suffering."[131]

"Nansen continued this work for a further two years until, in his final report to the Assembly in 1922, he was able to state that 427,886 prisoners had been repatriated to around 30 different countries. In paying tribute to his work, the responsible committee recorded that the story of his efforts "would contain tales of heroic endeavour worthy of those in the accounts of the crossing of Greenland and the great Arctic voyage."" (Wikipedia)

I also think that you are a bit too pessimistic about the future. Yes, we have been storing up, and continue to store up, all kinds of future misery by our reckless endangerment of the climate with which we were endowed. But it is not out of our hands. If we stop emitting CO2--and the technology basically does exist to do that--then we will avoid the worst possibilities. Warming will stabilize at a level that is not too destructive.

But we have to take the problem seriously, and take effective action--the sooner, the better.


Sanxuary 3 years ago

That 75 percent you mention is never off and goes directly to the top to make a few people very wealthy. They expect you to jump hoops and to do the impossible each day, but challenged to do something safe or better is something they will tell you is impossible. With each lie they will spend millions on advertising to convince you that they are doing a great job, while business remains the same. They will donate millions for a tax write off and spend millions to deny the cancer they cause, because even your misery is a chance to advertise. We can not grow reusable fuel alternatives that harvest carbon dioxide that creates a sustainable 50 t0 ratio every time we burn and regrow it. Why because we are to stupid to have any common sense in such an obvious argument. We need to keep dumping tons of carbon into the air and to allow our warming planet to solve its own crisis. Mankind is consumed by greed, the inability to use its advancements in knowledge to supersede greed, unable to seek balance and has no ability to find balance in the best interests of humanity. We are now the immature society that has ever lived, despite being the most educated ever most people can not even flush the toilet.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 3 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Thanks for your comment. There's some truth, and a lot of pain, in what you write.

For what it's worth, I think you are too pessimistic. Yes, greed is real, and is too often promoted as a virtue. Yes, there are plunderers too short-sighted to realize that the ruin they bring will fall on their own heads as well. Yes, we are in dire straits, and only begin to realize it.

But I do think that there are some hopeful signs, too. Coal is dying. Renewables are surging, and it's partly because there is awareness that, at least, we *could* have a carbon problem. I don't think Keystone is going to be built. It even looks as if the Arctic sea ice may get a bit of a reprieve this year--it's been an unusually cool summer in the high Arctic, and this may turn out to be only the fourth- or fifth-lowest minimum. (We'll see; it's always in the lap of the weather gods.)

And most people can *too* flush a toilet. Most of them generally do--excepting of course the far-too-large number who still don't have access to such luxuries.

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