Through A Glass Darkly: Equinox Reflections On Sea Ice--2010 And Onwards

The Spring 2011 update in a series of equinoctial reflections upon the sea ice. The original post, from 9/24/10, can be found below.

--Doc, 3/25/2011

There's quite a bit of good information in both the original Hub and in the update--from an historical perspective and some basics and reaction, too. But for more recent Hubs on this topic, see the links in the sidebar.

--Doc, 11/5/2012

Spring Equinox, 2011

I'm a bit nervous, in a low-intensity--yet persistent!--sort of way. When I started this Hub last fall, I was disturbed at what I had seen happen to the Arctic sea ice. I remain so; reasons to be disturbed, unfortunately, have not abated. The annual cycle has turned once again and the North Pole is now tipped toward the sun, a new six-month daytime begun. The curtain is just opening on the Arctic Ice Show for a new season. What are we likely to see?

Curtain, former Nippon Kan Theatre, Seattle.  Photo by Joe Mabel.  Image courtesy photographer and Wikimedia Commons.
Curtain, former Nippon Kan Theatre, Seattle. Photo by Joe Mabel. Image courtesy photographer and Wikimedia Commons.

I still don't have the gift of prophecy. However, there are a few hints of what might come--and a few things to note in passing, too--as days here in the Northern hemisphere lengthen. Let's take a look at what happened to the sea ice first.

The lowest January sea ice extent ever occurred in 2011.
The lowest January sea ice extent ever occurred in 2011. | Source

The Arctic Sea Ice

It's notable that we did not see a false recovery in ice extent this year, as we did in 2011. Although the El Nino of 2010 faded to a La Nina during the last months of 2010, sea surfaces temperatures in Arctic waters remained very warm by normal standards, especially in Baffin Bay, in Canada's Eastern Arctic. (El Nino tends to raise global mean temperatures slightly; La Nina has the reverse effect.)

The result was a slow freeze-up; Hudson Bay and the Western coast of Greenland in particular remained ice-free longer than normal. And low ice extents off Canada's East Coast meant a second consecutive year of hardship for the Harp Seal population--the seal pups are born and raised on the sea ice.

Early in the year a new record for lowest mean January sea ice extent was set, as illustrated to the right. Then the previous February low--a record set in 2005--was matched. So it has continued to date. 2011 nearly matched the record low maximum sea ice extent from 2006 (shown below.)

Sea Ice Maximum extent for 2011 (reported March 22, 2011.)
Sea Ice Maximum extent for 2011 (reported March 22, 2011.) | Source

Nor does the ice look very solid. As was the case in 2010, there are comparatively widespread areas of fracturing and open-water 'leads.' Of course, these leads are still freezing over rapidly; although Arctic temperatures are above normal, as has been the case for much of the Arctic over much of the winter, it is far from warm.

Sea Ice near Greenland, March 22, 2011.  Image courtesy NASA, Patrick Lockerby.
Sea Ice near Greenland, March 22, 2011. Image courtesy NASA, Patrick Lockerby. | Source

The Antarctic

The main venue for melting sea ice is the Arctic--at least, it is if you are considering a changing pattern of melt; in the Antarctic, sea ice melt has always been greater as a percentage of total sea ice area.  Typically, it is around 80%, with seasonal minima near 3 million square kilometers.  But this year the melt in the Antarctic merits a mention, too.

In contrast to the Arctic trend toward lower and lower extents, sea ice extent in the South has been increasing slightly. But this year put an end to that trend temporarily, with a minimum extent significantly below the norm. The result is a global sea ice extent near low-record levels.

Antarctic Sea Ice Extent minimum, 2011.
Antarctic Sea Ice Extent minimum, 2011. | Source
Global sea ice extent from 1979.  The red line at bottom shows departures from the norm (anomalies.)
Global sea ice extent from 1979. The red line at bottom shows departures from the norm (anomalies.) | Source

So what's the bottom line?

Well, I don't do prophecies.  Arctic sea ice is extremely variable, and frequently makes fools of those who venture to prophesy; sunny bright days can turn overcast, winds and currents can shift, and temperatures can change.  But there does seem to be real vulnerability here.

As I said, I'm a little nervous.

Politics

It is a tangled web, indeed.

Climate change deniers now form a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. This fact has so far led to a attempt--fortunately dead upon arrival in the Senate--to block the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing restrictions upon emissions of greenhouse gases; to hearings notable both for the contempt shown scientists and the credence given to the most foolish of denialist cliches; and rumblings about defunding any NASA program studying climate change. Apparently, it is no longer sufficient to ignore scientific conclusions on climate change; now the data itself has to be suppressed by political fiat. It seems insufficient to call this "disturbing."

On other political fronts, we have steeply rising oil prices, due to the unrest of the "Arab awakening," currently playing out bloodily upon the Libyan sands as well as more peacefully in other Arab lands. Combined with this, we have the continuing nuclear drama of Fukushima in the wake of the Japanese tsunami. Several nations have already called a moratorium on new nuclear development, though it remains to be seen how durable these will prove. All of this should be a boost for renewable sources of energy; but it's never wise to assume a rational political response to crisis.

Satellite view of tsunami damage to the nuclear plant at Fukushima, Japan.  Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Digital Globe 2.
Satellite view of tsunami damage to the nuclear plant at Fukushima, Japan. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Digital Globe 2.
Glory aboard its Taurus launch vehicle, seen, ironically enough, against the sunset.  Photo courtesy NASA.
Glory aboard its Taurus launch vehicle, seen, ironically enough, against the sunset. Photo courtesy NASA.

Science

It's been a tough winter for climate science in some ways.

A parade of hearings confirmed that, despite all the melodramatic foofaraw of the Climategate "scandal," no scientific misconduct had taken place. But an essential data collection project fell victim to a launch accident, when, on March 4, the Glory satellite fell into the ocean. (A fairing failed to separate as it should, and the extra weight was too much for Glory to reach orbit.) Sensors on board would have contributed to the study of clouds, solar radiation, and (most significantly) atmospheric aerosols. Climate scientist and commentator Gavin Schmidt wrote, "There is a huge hole building in the US contribution to Earth and Sun observing systems."

At least Cryosat, the European satellite launched to measure Arctic sea ice last fall, is working. Its shakedown period is complete, and data is now being released. It will be very interesting to see what conclusions emerge from the study of that data.  Is sea ice volume declining as drastically as the University of Washington Piomas model indicates?

Sea ice volume as modeled by Piomas.  Volume has been declining much more rapidly than extent.
Sea ice volume as modeled by Piomas. Volume has been declining much more rapidly than extent. | Source

And it means--?

It means we wait. The ice has begun responding to the again sun, to the wind, to the ocean currents. What the degree of response will be remains to be seen.

The play is ready.  Is it tragedy? History?  Or a comedy of (human) error?

The curtain is just rising. . .

Below is the original entry in this series of equinoctial posts on Sea Ice, originally published 9/24/10.

The Earth-Moon system in half-phase, from the Galileo probe.  Image courtesy NASA and Wikipedia.
The Earth-Moon system in half-phase, from the Galileo probe. Image courtesy NASA and Wikipedia.

Fall Equinox, 2010

It’s just past the fall equinox, that day when the year turns from light to dark, summer to winter. Days have been growing shorter since the summer solstice, of course, but now the corner has been turned; the balance has shifted to night. It’s not that obvious, here, just going by the temperature. It’s been a very warm summer—recording-setting warm, actually—and that warmth seems reluctant to slip away to the tropics, as it must.

But I’ve been watching with more than just my own eyes.  All through this long, hot summer I’ve been peering down at Earth through the sensors of humanity’s eyes in the sky: MODIS, with its the 36 frequency bands, flying aboard NASA’s “Terra” and “Aqua,” or the AMSU microwave sensors aboard NOAA satellites.  Mostly, I look at the Arctic ice cap, curious and a little worried, to see how the melt season progresses.

The Aqua satellite.  Image courtesy NOAA.
The Aqua satellite. Image courtesy NOAA.

This year was—exceptional. Those who pay attention to such things knew it would be warm; the central Pacific was plainly shifting into its El Nino mode, and when that happens, global temperatures rise a bit as energy is released from ocean to atmosphere. Sure enough, temperatures rose to record or near-record levels--even as irony-challenged politicians in certain locales proclaimed the end of global warming.

A snowy Washington in a more innocent day--1925.  Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
A snowy Washington in a more innocent day--1925. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

As the summer waxed, old temperature records fell all over the Northern hemisphere; in Russia the heatwave would be brutal enough to kill 11,000 people in Moscow alone, and would cost the nation an estimated 7-15 billion US dollars. Then monsoon rains in Pakistan would set new records, flooding the Indus River. A fifth of the country would go underwater, affecting 21 million people and costing as much as 43 billion US dollars. International aid will be required for years to come.

Moscow with and without the smog, summer 2010.  Image courtesy Arkytarava and Wikimedia Commons.
Moscow with and without the smog, summer 2010. Image courtesy Arkytarava and Wikimedia Commons.

In a much quieter way, the trajectory of ice melt was nearly as dramatic.  The ice extent started the year with near-record lows, but surprised everybody in March with an unexpected growth surge that brought it back almost to the historical mean—statistical territory unseen for a long, long time.  Some applauded this “recovery,” though others pointed out that all this new ice must surely be very, very thin.

Sea Ice trend chart, courtesy NSIDC.
Sea Ice trend chart, courtesy NSIDC.

Their caution was justified.  Early May began a roller coaster ride:  extent fell precipitously to a record low monthly value for June; only to see a melt slowdown in July that allowed the 2007 records to  prevail for that month; then another, sharper, slowdown in early August let 2008 slip past, too; and finally, stuttering ups and downs in September settled in to a near-tie with 2008.  Through it all, the maps and photographs showed ice that looked cracked or shattered, often ponded with meltwater—ice that looked vulnerable.

"Granular" Ice in the Canadian Archipelago, 1 km resolution.  Image courtesy NASA.
"Granular" Ice in the Canadian Archipelago, 1 km resolution. Image courtesy NASA.

Now the ice is slowly growing once again.  It’s time for reflection, for wondering what all those twists and turns and surprises meant.  Not recovery:  the pattern of consecutive increases in minimum set in 2008 and 2009 weren’t statistically enough to show that--though some prefer to believe otherwise.  And that pattern was shattered, with a 2010 minimum 436 thousand square kilometers below 2009.

IJIS sea ice extent graph, 9/23/2010.  Courtesy JAXA-IJIS.
IJIS sea ice extent graph, 9/23/2010. Courtesy JAXA-IJIS.

Still worse, ice volume may be decreasing faster than ice extent.  It’s hard to measure volume from satellites, but estimates put it at a record low.  Soon we’ll know more:  Cryosat, already in orbit, will soon finish its shakedown period and begin the first series of regular satellite reports of ice volume.  Many will welcome the debut of that new eye in the sky.

Cryosat 2 blasts off.  Image courtesy European Space Agency.
Cryosat 2 blasts off. Image courtesy European Space Agency.

But I think I already know what will come—not in detail of course, but the essential picture. It’s presumptuous, perhaps; I’m not a scientist, and I don’t claim special gifts of prophecy.  But sometimes “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

So, based on the Dylan Effect, I see ups and downs—that’s a clear message from this summer’s roller coaster.  But each year there’s another two parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere to warm; and if we are in the cooling grasp of La Nina now, El Nino will return again soon enough.  On average, year over year, the ice will decline, melting back to the hard core of oldest, thickest ice jammed against the northern shores of Greenland and the islands  of the Canadian Archipelago, like a besieged army retreating to a fortress.

Ice near Ilulisatt, Greenland.  Image courtesy Michael Haferkamp & Wikkimedia Commons.
Ice near Ilulisatt, Greenland. Image courtesy Michael Haferkamp & Wikkimedia Commons.

Then, one year in the not-too-distant future—three years, five years, ten or fifteen perhaps?—we’ll see another year like 2007.  Sun, wind, and current will align against the diminished summer ice.  And that last fortress of summer ice, that iron-hard core, cut off from meaningful replenishment, will melt away, too.

Shards will remain.  There will be floes and bergs dotting the waters; there will be remnant shelves in deeply-cut sheltered fjords, where even the 24-hour Arctic sun can only shine briefly each day.  The captains of the oil tankers plying the newly-freed sea lanes of the Arctic Basin will need to beware ice.

Berg and Coast Guard ship.  Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Berg and Coast Guard ship. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But the summer ice-cap will be gone. It will be missed: melting shores, newly exposed to a thousand miles of open water, will wash away in unaccustomed wave action like sand castles. Water vapor, unconstrained by ice, will pour into the Arctic atmosphere, augmenting the greenhouse effect and feeding storms quite different than those now experienced. Animals and plants will struggle to survive in habitats for which they are no longer suited; too often, they will fail in that struggle. The traditional peoples of the Arctic will see their lifeways rendered utterly irrelevant, dealing a heavy blow to a culture still trying to adapt to the majority culture’s ways and institutions.

An Inuk portrait, 1995.  Image courtesy Ansgar Walker & Wikimedia Commons.
An Inuk portrait, 1995. Image courtesy Ansgar Walker & Wikimedia Commons.

And perhaps the methane, locked away for millennia in permafrost or hydrate deposits undersea, will begin to begin to reach the atmosphere in really significant quantities.  If it does, it will be a “tipping point”:  methane is 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas, molecule for molecule, than CO2.  Then the changes will really start; and then perhaps—like a debtor for whom the repossessions begin in earnest--we will really begin to understand our situation in the world.

Melting permafrost and coastal erosion can ruin your whole day.
Melting permafrost and coastal erosion can ruin your whole day.

We’ll finally understand:  all the Cassandras were right.  We’ll understand that our position in the world is not guaranteed us, regardless of  our own actions.  That our welfare in this world is our responsibility, not God’s.  And that, by protecting our comfort, we will have imperiled our very survival.

Solomon Joseph Solomon's 1886 "Ajax and Cassandra."  Cassandra, possessed of the gift of prophecy, was cursed by Apollo always to be disbelieved; thus, she could do nothing to avert her rape, enslavement and eventual murder.
Solomon Joseph Solomon's 1886 "Ajax and Cassandra." Cassandra, possessed of the gift of prophecy, was cursed by Apollo always to be disbelieved; thus, she could do nothing to avert her rape, enslavement and eventual murder.

May the time remaining us when the summer ice is gone prove sufficient to our need.

Comments 12 comments

Daniel Bailey 6 years ago

Thanks, Kevin!

Excellent narrative & use of illustrations, too.

The Yooper


barry 6 years ago

That captured the behaviour of the sea ice over the last year very well (I followed it almost daily, also as an amateur). I'm curious, has anyone yet assessed the average rate of ice melt for this year? It's rank in the 30 year record would would offer an interesting angle on the prevalence of rotten ice this year.


H P Roychoudhury profile image

H P Roychoudhury 6 years ago from Guwahati, India

It is very important hub you have high lighted rightly relating to the question of human survival. Melt slowdown and formation of carbon dioxide is the vital question now in the Globe. The country of power and knowledge should come forward with affective afford in the search of a solution.


Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

I think you made a good point about the future. Thank you for an interesting and though-provoing hub.


Neven profile image

Neven 6 years ago from Bavaria, Germany

Excellent overview, Doc K. Like I said on my blog: "We are watching the canary in the coal mine. Let's hope it doesn't turn out to be a black swan."


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 6 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Thanks to all for your comments--sorry I was away for a bit, and unable to reply as they came in!

Dan, thanks for coming by! You encourage me to think that perhaps my more, uh, "indirect" choices of image weren't just self-indulgently obscure. We'll be talking again on Neven's blog or on "Open Mind," I'm sure!

Thank you, HP Roychoudhury. Your insistence on scientific accuracy here and elsewhere is admirable, and I hope I won't disappoint you in future Hubs. Your point that the world is awaiting an effective American response to the warming crisis is certainly correct, too. Unfortunately, it now appears that the election of President Obama was not enough in that regard; the prospect of effective action in the near term in the US is not very good. In the Biblical story of Moses, Pharoah needed more than one plague to consent to allow the enslaved Israelites to go free; it appears that the case is going to be analogous with regard to the mitigation of CO2 emissions.

"Hello, hello," thank you for your constant support! It is always a pleasure to hear from you.

Neven, thank you for your encouragement as well. You've been most kind regarding a number of my Hubs, now, and that is very much appreciated!

I should mention, for those who haven't encountered the site yet, that Neven started an excellent clearing house site on Arctic sea ice melt. Its first season was replete with wit, ideas, perspectives and of course, data--most interesting for those who have caught the "bug!" You can check it out at:

http://neven1.typepad.com/

(Understand, though, that the discussion is at a slower pace now, since the melt season has ended. Neven is taking a well-deserved rest from the breakneck speed with which he operated during melt, and much of the content will be generated by commenters. Though they've been doing a great job during the season!)


MapleLeaf 6 years ago

Kevin,

Fantastic job-- your piece eloquently encapsulates the situation. Not only that, but you are (IMHO) a gifted writer.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 6 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

MapleLeaf, thank you very much for that praise. I'll try to keep the quality coming, and bump up the quantity a bit.

I hope you'll keep checking my Hubs out--and I hope you'll keep letting me know just how I'm doing.


Minnetonka Twin profile image

Minnetonka Twin 5 years ago from Minnesota

I am a new follower and am really wanting to learn more about the change in climate. I found this hub very informative and appreciate the work you put into it. It is scary stuff and we can't think that the way we treat the earth will not have repricussions. Thx


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 5 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Seems like it's the fate of this Hub that I receive comments while away and unable to respond immediately.

Oh, well, can't change the fact that I made you wait, Minnetonka Twin! Hope you had as nice a weekend as I did!

Thanks for coming around, thanks for your kind words, and thanks for your interest in a topic that I believe to be most important. I honestly think that I've got some of the most engaging treatments of the history of global warming science to be found on the Web so far; I've structured them after some of the pivotal scientific papers published over the years. There are six so far, dealing with work by:

--Joseph Fourier;

--Claude Pouillet;

--John Tyndall;

--Svante Arrhenius;

--Nils Ekholm;

--Guy Callendar.

The Callendar Hub is linked below; the others you can easily access by pulling up my profile page. If you start at the beginning (or the end, for that matter) you can also access them one by one by following the series links.

However, if you want to follow the story of the science in more detail, and with more focus on the science and less on the biography, then I'd recommend physicist Spencer Weart's excellent hyperlinked account online:

http://www.aip.org/history/climate/index.htm

Probably the central spot on the web debating the climate issue from the point of view of the mainstream science is Realclimate:

http://www.realclimate.org/

It's a lively (and sometimes messy) site, with lots of science--sometimes very detailed--and a fair amount of politics and social commentary relevant to the climate issue facing us.

Another excellent site is here:

http://www.skepticalscience.com/

Again, lots of scientific detail, often quoting chapter and verse of relevant scientific literature.

I'll add that there's lots of sites dedicated to opposing the mainstream science, too. I think they are generally in error, and I think some are not in good faith, so I'm not going to link to them directly. Unquestionably the most prominent, however, is called "Watts Up With That," and there is also one called "Climate Audit." If you want to check them out, they won't be hard to find by Googling.

Good luck with your quest to inform yourself, and stay in touch!


James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 5 years ago from Chicago

A very interesting post. I am a sceptic myself. I don't think man is big enough to change the earth in such dire ways. I believe sunspots or solar flares can. I think history proves that the earth warms and cools to its own delight. And we are along for the ride.


Doc Snow profile image

Doc Snow 5 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA Author

Thanks James.

Yes, Earth warms and cools over time, but that doesn't mean that humans can't be one of the factors that do so--and there is no doubt whatsoever that we are responsible for increasing the atmospheric concentration of CO2 by more than 30%. Clearly, we are "big enough" to do that.

So the question is, does that affect the climate? Overwhelmingly, the answer is "yes"--I'd invite you to engage fully with that evidence, some of which is linked in the comments just above.

To assume that we have a "free ride" is to shirk our responsibility to Creation.

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