Snow chaos in Europe caused by melting sea-ice in the Arctic

by Maja Sojtaric, UiT The Arctic University of Norway

Snow chaos in Europe caused by melting sea-ice in the Arctic
The Finnish Meteorological Institute’s observation station used in the study, Pallas National Park, Arctic Finland. Credit: Jeff Welker

They are diligently stoking thousands of bonfires on the ground close to their crops, but the French winemakers are fighting a losing battle. An above-average warm spell at the end of March has been followed by days of extreme frost, destroying the vines with losses amounting to 90 percent above average. The image of the struggle may well be the most depressingly beautiful illustration of the complexities and unpredictability of global climate warming. It is also an agricultural disaster from Bordeaux to Champagne.

It is the loss of the Arctic sea-ice due to climate warming that has, somewhat paradoxically, been implicated with severe cold and snowy mid-latitude winters.

“Climate change doesn’t always manifest in the most obvious ways. It’s easy to extrapolate models to show that winters are getting warmer and to forecast a virtually snow-free future in Europe, but our most recent study shows that is too simplistic. We should beware of making broad sweeping statements about the impacts of climate change.” Says professor Alun Hubbard from CAGE Center for Arctic Gas Hydrate, Environment and Climate at UiT The Arctic University of Norway.

Melting Arctic sea ice supplied 88% of the fresh snow

Hubbard is the co-author of a study in Nature Geoscience examining this counter-intuitive climatic paradox: A 50% reduction in Arctic sea-ice cover has increased open-water and winter evaporation to fuel more extreme snowfall further south across Europe.

The study, led by Dr. Hanna Bailey at the University of Oulu, Finland, has more specifically found that the long-term decline of Arctic sea-ice since the late 1970s had a direct connection to one specific weather event: “Beast from the East”—the February snowfall that brought large parts of the European continent to a halt in 2018, causing £1bn a day in losses.

Researchers discovered that atmospheric vapor traveling south from the Arctic carried a unique geochemical fingerprint, revealing that its source was the warm, open-water surface of the Barents Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean between Norway, Russia, and Svalbard. They found that during the “Beast from the East,” open-water conditions in the Barents Sea supplied up to 88% of the corresponding fresh snow that fell over Europe.

Snow chaos in Europe caused by melting sea-ice in the Arctic
Professor Alun Hubbard downloading information from an Automatic Weather Station in the Barents Sea. Credit: Alun Hubbard

Climate warming is lifting the lid off the Arctic Ocean

“What we’re finding is that sea-ice is effectively a lid on the ocean. And with its long-term reduction across the Arctic, we’re seeing increasing amounts of moisture enter the atmosphere during winter, which directly impacts our weather further south, causing extreme heavy snowfalls. It might seem counter-intuitive, but nature is complex and what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic.” says Bailey.

When analyzing the long-term trends from 1979 onwards, researchers found that for every square meter of winter sea-ice lost from the Barents Sea, there was a corresponding 70 kg increase in the evaporation, moisture, and snow falling over Europe.

Snow chaos in Europe caused by melting sea-ice in the Arctic
The Beast from the East on March 15, 2018, captured by Aqua MODIS satellite imagery. The parallel cloud bands (“cloud streets”) streaking south across the Barents Sea indicate convection rolls of warm, moist air rising from the ice-free surface. Credit: NASA

Their findings indicate that within the next 60 years, a predicted ice-free Barents Sea will likely become a significant source of increased winter precipitation—be it rain or snow—for Europe.

“This study illustrates that the abrupt changes being witnessed across the Arctic now, really are affecting the entire planet,” says professor Hubbard.

Explore furtherA relationship between severe winter weather and Arctic warmth?

Satellite images show huge Russian military buildup in the Arctic

 of Nagurskoye on March 16, 2021. Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

By Nick Paton Walsh, CNN

Updated 6:42 AM ET, Mon April 5, 2021

(CNN)Russia is amassing unprecedented military might in the Arctic and testing its newest weapons in a region freshly ice-free due to the climate emergency, in a bid to secure its northern coast and open up a key shipping route from Asia to Europe.Weapons experts and Western officials have expressed particular concern about one Russian ‘super-weapon,’ the Poseidon 2M39 torpedo. Development of the torpedo is moving fast with Russian President Vladimir Putin requesting an update on a “key stage” of the tests in February from his defense minister Sergei Shoigu, with further tests planned this year, according to multiple reports in state media.

Images show build up of Russia's military presence in the Arctic

Images show build up of Russia’s military presence in the Arctic 04:15This unmanned stealth torpedo is powered by a nuclear reactor and intended by Russian designers to sneak past coastal defenses — like those of the US — on the sea floor.The device is intended to deliver a warhead of multiple megatons, according to Russian officials, causing radioactive waves that would render swathes of the target coastline uninhabitable for decades.In November, Christopher A Ford, then assistant secretary of state for International Security and Non-Proliferation, said the Poseidon is designed to “inundate U.S. coastal cities with radioactive tsunamis.”An “onyx” anti-ship cruise missile launched by the Northern Fleet in Alexandra Land, near an Arctic “trefoil” base. Credit: Russian Ministry of DefenseExperts agree that the weapon is “very real” and already coming to fruition. The head of Norwegian intelligence, Vice Admiral Nils Andreas Stensønes, told CNN that his agency has assessed the Poseidon as “part of the new type of nuclear deterrent weapons. And it is in a testing phase. But it’s a strategic system and it’s aimed at targets … and has an influence far beyond the region in which they test it currently.” Stensønes declined to give details on the torpedo’s testing progress so far.Satellite images provided to CNN by space technology company Maxar detail a stark and continuous build-up of Russian military bases and hardware on the country’s Arctic coastline, together with underground storage facilities likely for the Poseidon and other new high-tech weapons. The Russian hardware in the High North area includes bombers and MiG31BM jets, and new radar systems close to the coast of Alaska.The Russian build-up has been matched by NATO and US troop and equipment movements. American B-1 Lancer bombers stationed in Norway’s Ørland air base have recently completed missions in the eastern Barents Sea, for example. The US military’s stealth Seawolf submarine was acknowledged by US officials in August as being in the area.A senior State Department official told CNN: “There’s clearly a military challenge from the Russians in the Arctic,” including their refitting of old Cold War bases and build-up of new facilities on the Kola Peninsula near the city of Murmansk. “That has implications for the United States and its allies, not least because it creates the capacity to project power up to the North Atlantic,” the official said.Correction: A previous version of this graphic displayed an image from 2016 instead of 2020. This has been fixed.
Source: Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Graphic: Henrik Pettersson, CNNThe satellite images show the slow and methodical strengthening of airfields and “trefoil” bases — with a shamrock-like design, daubed in the red, white and blue of the Russian flag — at several locations along Russia’s Arctic coast over the past five years. The bases are inside Russian territory and part of a legitimate defense of its borders and coastline. US officials have voiced concern, however, that the forces might be used to establish de facto control over areas of the Arctic that are further afield, and soon to be ice-free.”Russia is refurbishing Soviet-era airfields and radar installations, constructing new ports and search-and-rescue centers, and building up its fleet of nuclear- and conventionally-powered icebreakers,” Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell, a Pentagon spokesman, told CNN.The 50 Let Pobedy (50 years of victory) icebreaker moving through the Arctic ice, said to be in January this year, in a first transit of the eastern seas in deep winter. Credit: Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation”It is also expanding its network of air and coastal defense missile systems, thus strengthening its anti-access and area-denial capabilities over key portions of the Arctic,” he added.Campbell also noted the recent creation of a Quick Reaction Alert force at two Arctic airfields — Rogachevo and Anadyr — and the trial of one at Nagurskoye airfield last year. Satellite imagery from March 16 shows probable MiG31BMs at Nagurskoye for what is thought to be the first time, bringing a new capability of Russian stealth air power to the far north.High-tech weapons are also being regularly tested in the Arctic area, according to Russian officials quoted in state media and Western officials.Campbell added that in November, Russia claimed the successful test of the ‘Tsirkon’ anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile.A Russian army demonstration video of its new ski sled for the Arctic. Credit: Russian Ministry of DefenseThe Tsirkon and the Poseidon are part of a new generation of weapons pledged by Putin in 2018 as strategic game changers in a fast-changing world.At the time US officials scorned the new weapons as technically far-fetched and improbable, yet they appear to be nearing fruition. The Norwegian intelligence chief Stensønes told CNN the Tsirkon as a “new technology, with hypersonic speeds, which makes it hard to defend against.”On Thursday, Russian state news agency TASS cited a source in the military industrial complex as saying there had been another successful test of the Tsirkon from the Admiral Gorshkov warship, saying all four test rockets had hit their target, and that another more advanced level of tests would begin in May or June.The climate emergency has removed many of Russia’s natural defenses to its north, such as walls of sheet ice, at an unanticipated rate. “The melt is moving faster than scientists predicted or thought possible several years ago,” said the senior State Department official. “It’s going to be a dramatic transformation in the decades ahead in terms of physical access.”Source: Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Graphic: Henrik Pettersson, CNNUS officials also expressed concern at Moscow’s apparent bid to influence the “Northern Sea Route” — a shipping lane that runs from between Norway and Alaska, along Russia’s northern coast, across to the North Atlantic. The ‘NSR’ potentially halves the time it currently takes shipping containers to reach Europe from Asia via the Suez Canal.Russia’s Rosatom state nuclear company released elaborately produced drone video this February of the ‘Christophe de Margerie’ tanker completing an eastern route across the Arctic in winter for the first time, accompanied by the ’50 Let Pobedy’ nuclear icebreaker for its journey in three of the six Arctic seas.Campbell said Russia sought to exploit the NSR as a “major international shipping lane,” yet voiced concern at the rules Moscow was seeking to impose on vessels using the route. “Russian laws governing NSR transits exceed Russia’s authority under international law,” the Pentagon spokesman said.”They require any vessel transiting the NSR through international waters to have a Russian pilot onboard to guide the vessel. Russia is also attempting to require foreign vessels to obtain permission before entering the NSR.”The senior State Department official added: “The Russian assertions about the Northern Sea Route is most certainly an effort to lay down some rules of the road, get some de facto acquiescence on the part of the international community, and then claim this is the way things are supposed to work.”Elizabeth Buchanan, lecturer of Strategic Studies at Deakin University, Australia, said that “basic geography affords Russia the NSR which is increasingly seeing thinner ice for more of the year making it commercially viable to use as a transport artery. This might yet transform global shipping, and with it the movements of 90+% of all goods globally.”The State Department official believes the Russians are mostly interested in exporting hydrocarbons — essential to the country’s economy — along the route, but also in the resources being uncovered by the fast melt. The flexing of their military muscles in the north — key to Moscow’s nuclear defense strategy, and also mostly on Russian coastal territory — could be a bid to impose their writ on the wider area, the official said.”When the Russians are testing weapons, jamming GPS signals, closing off airspace or sea space for exercises, or flying bombers over the Arctic along the airspace of allies and partners, they are always trying to send a message,” the official added.

Russia insists motives are peaceful and economic

Russia’s foreign ministry declined to comment, yet Moscow has long maintained its goals in the Arctic are economic and peaceful.A March 2020 document by Kremlin policymakers presented Russia’s key goals in an area behind 20% of its exports and 10% of its GDP. The strategy focuses on ensuring Russia’s territorial integrity and regional peace. It also expresses the need to guarantee high living standards and economic growth in the region, as well as developing a resource base and the NSR as “a globally competitive national transport corridor.”Putin regularly extols the importance of Russia’s technological superiority in the Arctic. In November, during the unveiling of a new icebreaker in St. Petersburg, the Russian President said: “It is well-known that we have a unique icebreaker fleet that holds a leading position in the development and study of Arctic territories. We must reaffirm this superiority constantly, every day.”Putin said of a submarine exercise last week in which three submarines surfaced at the same time in the polar ice: “The Arctic expedition … has no analogues in the Soviet and the modern history of Russia.”Among these new weapons is the Poseidon 2M39. The plans for this torpedo were initially revealed in an apparently purposeful brandishing of a document discussing its capabilities by a Russian general in 2015.It was subsequently partially dismissed by analysts as a ‘paper tiger’ weapon, meant to terrify with its apocalyptic destructive powers that appear to slip around current treaty requirements, but not to be successfully deployed.A Russian Delta IV submarine photographed on top of ice near Alexandra Island on March 27, during an exercise, with a likely hole blown in the ice to its left from underwater demolition.A Russian Delta IV submarine photographed on top of ice near Alexandra Island on March 27, during an exercise, with a likely hole blown in the ice to its left from underwater demolition.Yet a series of developments in the Arctic — including, according to Russian media reports, the testing of up to three Russian submarines designed to carry the stealth weapon, which has been suggested to be 20 meters long — have now led analysts to consider the project real and active.Russia’s state news agency, RIA Novosti, cited a “source” on Monday saying that tests for the Belgorod submarine, especially developed to be armed with the Poseidon torpedo, would be completed in September.Manash Pratim Boruah, a submarine expert at Jane’s Fighting Ships, said: “The reality of the weapon is clear. You can absolutely see development around the torpedo, which is happening. There is a very good probability that the Poseidon will be tested, and then there is a danger of it polluting a lot. Even without a warhead, but definitely with just a nuclear reactor inside.”Boruah said some of the specifications for the torpedo leaked by the Russians were optimistic and doubted it could reach a speed of 100 knots (around 115 miles per hour) with a 100MW nuclear reactor. He added that at such a speed, it would probably be detected quite easily as it would create a large acoustic signature.”Even if you tone it down from the speculation, it is still quite dangerous,” he said.Source: Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Graphic: Henrik Pettersson, CNNBoruah added that the construction of storage bays for the Poseidon, probably around Olenya Guba on the Kola Peninsula, were meant to be complete next year. He also expressed concerns about the Tsirkon hyper-sonic missile that Russia says it has tested twice already, which at speeds of 6 to 7 Mach would “definitely cause a lot of damage without a particularly having big warhead itself.”Katarzyna Zysk, professor of international relations at the state-run Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, said the Poseidon was “getting quite real,” given the level of infrastructure development and testing of submarines to carry the torpedo.”It is absolutely a project that will be used to scare, as a negotiation card in the future, perhaps in arms control talks,” Zysk said. “But in order to do so, it has to be credible. This seems to be real.”Stensønes also raised the concern that testing such nuclear weapons could have serious environmental consequences. “We are ecologically worried. This is not only a theoretical thing: in fact, we have seen serious accidents in the last few years,” he said, referring to the testing of the Burevestnik missile which was reported to have caused a fatal nuclear accident in 2019. “The potential of a nuclear contamination is absolutely there.”

Siberia’s warming shows climate change has no winners

Melting permafrost offers opportunities but poses calamitous risks

An LNG tanker successfully sailed to Asia via the Arctic Ocean early this year, the first time the journey has been managed in winter. (Kyodo photo/courtesy of Sovcomflot)KO SAKAI, Nikkei senior staff writerMarch 14, 2021 09:56 JST

TOKYO — On Feb. 19, a Russian icebreaker that transports liquefied natural gas arrived at Sabetta, an LNG loading port in the far north of Siberia. The ship had sailed through the ice-covered Arctic Ocean on its way to and back from China’s Jiangsu Province.

The journey is noteworthy because the Arctic Sea route that the ship took is usually only navigable from July to November, when the sea ice is thin.

It was the first time for a ship to successfully navigate the Arctic Sea route to Asia in the dead of winter.

Japanese companies took note. JGC Holdings has built an LNG plant near the port, to and from which Mitsui O.S.K. Lines partially handles transportation. Trading house Mitsui & Co. and other parties have invested in the second phase of the LNG project, which is to be completed around 2023. Once a year-round shipping route is established, transportation time between Russia and Japan will be greatly reduced.

Global warming is something of a boon for Russia, where 55% to 65% of the country is covered in permafrost. It is estimated that 60% of the country’s oil and 90% of its natural gas, as well as deposits of nonferrous metals and gold, lie under this thawing part of the planet.

President Vladimir Putin once shrugged off the perils of global warming, saying, “an increase of two or three degrees wouldn’t be so bad for a northern country like Russia. We could spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up.”

That was at least partially prophetic. According to Russia’s Federal State Statistics Service, grain production in 2020 was up 9.7% from the previous year, the second highest level after 2017. The amount of land under cultivation is also increasing.

But those shrugged-off perils are beginning to overshadow the bumper harvests.

In the Republic of Sakha in far eastern Siberia, the temperature is minus 50 C, yet white smoke rises from the snow-covered ground. In January, local media released an amazing image of a peat fire in the ground under the snow.

Roughly 140,000 sq. km of Russia, about the size of Greece, was lost to fire in 2020. Most of that was in once-frozen areas. When covered with snow in winter, the fires seem to be extinguished. However, the peat in the ground continues to smolder, and in summer it ignites on the surface. They’re being called zombie fires and are believed to be caused by global warming.

There are concerns that the zombies will rage again this year.

Peat fires emit large amounts of carbon dioxide. A record 244 million tons of CO2 equivalents were released by fires near the Arctic Circle, mainly in Russia, in the 12 months through last August, according to the British journal Nature. That is 35% more than a year earlier and equal to 21% of Japan’s total emissions in 2017.

In Siberia, plants and other organisms that have been decomposing for more than 10,000 years are trapped in the soil as CO2 and methane gas. These gases are released by fires and other events, further accelerating global warming. The world’s permafrost zones are thought to contain twice the amount of carbon that is in the atmosphere.The Yamal Peninsula in the Russian Arctic in summer 2020. Seventeen of these holes have been discovered since 2014. (Kyodo photo/courtesy of Russian researchers)

There is another phenomenon that illustrates the seriousness of the situation.

Last summer a craterlike hole with a diameter of 20 meters and depth of 30 meters was discovered in the permafrost zone of northwestern Siberia. It is the 17th such hole to be discovered since 2014. The working hypothesis is that the craters are the result of explosions of accumulated methane gas in the thawing permafrost. The blasts are able to blow away frozen soil that had been contained by ice.

This might be fine so long as no one is living in these locations. But in May 2020, a fuel tank at a power plant on the outskirts of the city of Norilsk in central Siberia collapsed, spilling diesel fuel into a nearby river. It caused such serious environmental damage that Putin declared a state of emergency.

The operating company concluded that the collapse occurred because the ground loosened as the permafrost thawed. It has been reported that one-fifth of the infrastructure in the frozen zone, including oil and gas facilities as well as railroads, will be affected by 2050.

In 2016, western Siberia experienced a different kind of crisis, an anthrax outbreak. One boy and over 2,000 reindeer died. The source of the bacterial infections was the melted corpse of a reindeer that had been frozen for more than 75 years. Some scientists have warned of the possibility of more dormant pathogens reactivating.

Russia ratified the Paris Agreement in September 2019. The base year for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is 1990, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since its emissions have declined rapidly since then, Russia has already met its short-term target.

Although it was supposed to be a global warming “winner,” Russia has become an unexpected climate change victim.

The anomalies in Siberia are a wake-up call from Mother Earth. It is time for all of humanity to listen, and for all of us to pool our collective wisdom to address this problem.

Russian tanker cuts a previously impossible path through the warming Arctic


FEBRUARY 23, 2021 / 10:33 AM / CBS NEWS

Moscow — A Russian natural gas tanker has completed an experimental round trip along the Northern Sea Route — the first time the path across the Arctic has been forged at this time of year. The voyage by the Christophe de Margerie tanker through the ice is the latest visual indicator of climate change in the delicate region.

The tanker, run by the Sovcomflot shipping company, returned to the remote Russian gas terminal at Sabetta on February 19, taking Russia one step closer to its goal of year-round commercial navigation through the warming Arctic.

The LNG (liquefied natural gas) tanker set out from the Chinese port of Jiangsu on January 27 after delivering its cargo. It entered the Northern Sea Route, which traverses Russia’s north coast, a few days later near Cape Dezhnev, where it was met by the Russian nuclear icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy (50 Years of Victory). Together they completed the 2,500-nautical-mile voyage through the ice in 11 days and 10 hours.

The vessel managed to complete the first leg of the trip from Russia to China without an icebreaker. Both of the journeys broke records for winter navigation due to the changing climate in the Arctic allowing passage through thinner ice. Using the Northern Sea Route enables shippers in Russia and other countries to avoid a much lengthier southern journey around Europe, the Middle East and all of southern Asia, saving millions of dollars.

The deepest ice encountered by the ships was about 5 feet thick. The vessels encountered no multi-year buildup of old ice on the route, however, and meteorologist and journalist Eric Holthaus called that a clear indicator of “a climate emergency.”

Last May, the Christophe de Margerie became the first large-capacity cargo vessel to complete an eastbound transit of the Northern Sea Route, two months earlier in the year than the journey traditionally has been made. 

The Russian tanker Christophe de Margerie is seen as it steams across the Northern Sea Route in February 2021. SOVCOMFLOT

“As a result of the early Northern Sea Route (NSR) voyage completed by Christophe de Margerie in May 2020, as well as the current NSR voyage, the navigation in the Eastern part of the Arctic was practically doubled,” Sovcomflot CEO Igor Tonkovidov said earlier this month. He noted that for decades the transit route along that segment of the NSR had typically remained closed by ice from November until July.

Climate Change 

“The Arctic is ours”

Novatek, the company that operates the LNG gas plant in Sabetta, plans to continue experimental voyages eastward along the Northern Sea Route, with the next one scheduled this spring, the daily Russian business newspaper Kommersant quoted the company’s boss as saying.

An illustration by the European University at St. Petersburg shows the Northern Sea shipping route, which a Russian tanker traversed for the first time ever in the winter in February 2021, and the southern Suez Canal route.EUROPEAN UNIVERSITY AT ST. PETERSBURG

Last year, Russia moved almost 33 million tons of cargo along the Northern Sea Route, including over 18 million tons of LNG. Cargo traffic along the NSR has grown almost fivefold in the past five years alone.

“The route can handle a lot more than that,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Trutnev said during a government meeting last week. He said that according to a decree issued by President Vladimir Putin, cargo traffic along the NSR should rise to 80 million tons per year by 2024. 

“One way that target can be achieved is by expanding the period of Arctic navigation,” Trutnev said.

To help it achieve its lucrative Arctic ambitions, Russia has been renewing its unique civilian fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers. Last year Russia unveiled the new flagship of that fleet, the Arktika, said to be the world’s biggest and most powerful.

Nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika returns to Saint Petersburg on December 14, 2019, after tests.OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/GETTY

“Russia’s Arctic attracts many who are interested in its resources,” St. Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko said at the launch ceremony. “But the Arctic is ours, and we’ve proved it.”

By the end of 2022 Russia plans to launch two more ships in the same series.

Environmentalists have raised concern over the growing presence of nuclear power in the sensitive Arctic region, which is already plagued by problems linked to climate change.

According to some estimates, the Arctic holds oil and gas reserves equivalent to 412 billion barrels of oil, about 22% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas. 

Collapse of Greenland Ice Sheet to Raise Sea Level Faster Than Expected

Estimates of ‘just’ 90 centimeters sea level rise by 2100 ignore Antarctica’s slower but hefty contribution, warns oceanographer John EnglanderShare in FacebookShare in TwitterSend in e-mailSend in e-mailZen ReadPrint article

News coverage you can trust


Glacier on west Greenland in August 2007, as it bends in its normal descent to the sea. Due to warming the melting glacier has retreated far inland

Glacier on west Greenland in August 2007, as it bends in its normal descent to the sea. Due to warming the melting glacier has retreated far inlandCredit: John Englander×90&!8&btvi=1&fsb=1&xpc=IghYckrBLt&p=https%3A// SchusterGet email notification for articles from Ruth SchusterFollowPublished at 23:48

The vast ice sheet on Greenland has become unstable and technology isn’t storming to the rescue. The world is not on a trajectory to “curb” global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius – we’re almost there already. “Everybody is asleep. It’s like the Titanic,” wails sea level rise guru John Englander, an oceanographer and author who has made it his life’s mission to shake the world awake before it’s too late.

Too late for what? To secure coastlines all over the world ahead of the rising sea, which is pushing coastlines farther inland. To protect property values, to strategize and reorganize economic priorities, to move seaside nuclear reactors, you name it. Life as we know it.

Part of the reason for the global somnolescence is that scientific reports by nature err on the side of caution. Thus, the current sea level rise estimates for 2050 or 2100 (which distract from the fact that sea level rise will continue afterward) are typically conservative, which in this case means they understate the real rise. It’s also considered rude to conclude that the world is careening toward hell in a handbasket.- Advertisment –

But the world is not on a minimalist trajectory. It is not heading for a “mere” 40-centimeter (16-inch) increase by 2100 based on the optimistic scenario, which is losing credence. The official (UN-IPCC) high end of forecasts is around 90 centimeters by 2100 – but even that is too optimistic in Englander’s view, as he warned in a joint paper with other academics in December: “Twenty-first century sea level rise could exceed IPCC projections for strong-warming futures.”

Sea level rise by 2100 could be 2 meters. It could be 3, or 4 meters, he says. The only thing we know is that we don’t know: the situation is fluid, you should excuse the expression. And we know that a lot of the water will come from Greenland.

To warn the general population, however, Englander feels science’s kid gloves are inappropriate at this point. Mounting evidence indicates climate change is accelerating and creating vicious circles that quicken it even more. The destabilization of Greenland’s ice sheet is a case in point.

John Englander during his 2006 expedition of Antarctica.

It is hard to reconcile reports of its accelerated melting and destabilization with estimates that it will, nonetheless, take maybe five to six centuries for all Greenland’s ice to melt. Englander explains this seeming incongruity.

“I’ve been there several times, leading expeditions,” he tells Haaretz. “It’s hard to comprehend how vast Greenland is. It’s 2,500 kilometers north to south and about 1,000 kilometers east to west, literally from east of the Mississippi in the U.S., and from Maine to Florida” – i.e., nearly 2.2 million square kilometers.- Advertisment –

In Middle Eastern terms, Greenland is about the size of Saudi Arabia. (Israel is about 22,000 square kilometers in area – about twice the size of B-15, the biggest-ever iceberg caught on camera, which calved off the Ross Ice Shelf. )

Greenland is covered by a layer of ice 1 to 3 kilometers thick; if it all melts, it will raise global sea levels by over 7 meters. No one thinks that can happen quickly. It will take centuries, at least. “The question is what will happen by 2050 and 2100,” Englander drives home the point.

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Asked if the Greenlandic ice sheet’s recently reported destabilization could change his vague expectation that the melt should take centuries, Englander offers the only answer he can: maybe. Which is all the more reason to wake up.- Advertisment –

Sea level rise cannot be stopped

Even if carbon dioxide emissions were to screen to a halt today, even if cows were to start farting flowers instead of methane, even if every car were to suddenly morph into a tree, further sea level rise is inevitable. Like the Titanic, its direction cannot be diverted anymore, though its momentum might be influenced.

It is time to glance again at John Englander’s famous graph of historic correlations between atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, global mean temperatures, and sea level over the last 400,000 years. The graph shows exactly what the problem is:

John Englander's graph

Atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen to levels last seen millions of years ago, approximately speaking (neither Donald Trump nor the coronavirus changed the trajectory in any meaningful sense). Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and temperature are correlated: if the one rises, so does the other. The higher the CO2, the higher the global mean temperature – at a lag. Again: at a lag. Temperature has yet to proportionately react to the increase in carbon dioxide levels.

Yes, after CO2 rises, temperature will too – but how long the reaction will take depends on a practically infinite array of parameters, so it cannot be predicted with any meaningful accuracy. All we can say is it will happen, and the fact that the globe has experienced year after year of “record heat” is just the start. Oceans, being vast and dense and saline, take longer to react than the air or shallow lakes, but as the air warms, so does their surface and then their depths. The Arctic has been among the worst affected – there are days parts of it are hotter than in Tel Aviv.

Apropos of which, forecasting the future of Israel’s coast is tricky.

“The coastline has moved kilometers inland over the last 50 years,” says Dr. (emeritus) John K. Hall of the Geological Survey of Israel, adding that this conundrum tends to be met with massive denial. “The beaches are eroding, the cliffs are coming down,” he adds. At sea rise levels of 20 to 30 centimeters, it is difficult to draw lines with any accuracy, to say which neighborhoods will be affected and which spared – but the key issue is the likelihood of increasingly violent storms smashing into the beaches and cliffs. “If sea levels come up, storms will beat the hell out of the coast,” Hall predicts.

Anyway, there is a growing unease in global scientific circles about simultaneously warning and reassuring the public. More and more scientists are warning that sea level will rise faster “than previously thought.” Which means what?

Calving face of Eqi Glacier, West Greenland. Note the boat to show scale. Face is roughly one hundred meters high

Forecast: Weasels?

The Greenland ice sheet alone locks up 7 meters of sea level rise, which is bad enough, but Antarctica locks up 65 meters more, Englander explains. All the other glaciers in the world add just 1 more meter. “Looking at glaciers from Mount Kilimanjaro [in Kenya] to the Alps, it’s pocket change” he says.

Ergo: the Arctic island of Greenland and southern continent of Antarctica contain about 98 percent of the ice on land, by volume. Yet modelers have been ignoring Antarctica’s contribution.

This is why? For one thing, because the dynamics and precise timing of Antarctica’s melting ice remain profoundly unclear. As we said, scientists tend to err on the side of caution, lest they be perceived as a pack of yowling Cassandras scorned by policymakers. If you stand on a soapbox shrieking “The end is nigh,” precious few will listen even as avenging angels begin to arrive.

But the result is that projections of half a meter to just-under-a-meter of sea level rise by the century’s end don’t factor in Antarctica, nor do they factor in Greenland’s destabilization, Englander explains.

That is bound to end about as well as the Euripides play performed in 408 B.C.E., where the actor Hegelochus meant to say, “After the storm I see again a calm sea,” but wound up saying, “After the storm I see again a weasel.” Well, 2,500 years belatedly, the unfortunate thespian may have had a point. Those are not calm seas on our horizon.

A weasal. Not to be mistaken for a calm sea.

The Greenlandic irony

What does “Greenland has destabilized” even mean? That parts of the ice sheet and major glaciers are already exhibiting sudden break up and collapse. In 2012, the documentary “Chasing Ice” captured one huge collapse using time-lapse cameras. Meanwhile, Greenland is already the chief contributor to sea level rise today, and it has started to dawn on coastal residents and insurance companies and the like that “something” will have to be done.

Part of Englander’s book due out on April 6, “Moving to Higher Ground” (The Science Bookshelf), discusses exactly these conundrums.

Why is it only an issue now? The science of climate change has been around for decades. Why is anybody still buying a beachside home?

Disappearing glacier southwest Greenland shown in 2016. Note the dark gray color on top of much of the white ice. This is pulverized rock dust known as cryoconite, produced by the grinding glacier from the bedrock. As the glacier recedes the fierce Arctic winds blow this onto the glacier. The dark color increases the heat absorption and hastens the melting; one of the “feedback loops” in the global warming process

Englander blames a failure of imagination. At the height of the Ice Age, the average sea level was 120 meters lower than it is now. As the latest Ice Age waned and the ice sheets melted, sea levels gradually rose – sometimes more abruptly than at other times. But none of that happened during recorded history.

Civilization as we could recognize it – a gradual transition from hunting-gathering to a settled lifestyle – seems to have begun around 12,000 years ago, some places earlier, some places later, well after the Last Glacial Maximum 22,000 years ago. People adore living by the coast and always have. Even Neanderthals are thought to have frolicked in the water and dived for shellfish. And the first villages on low-lying shoreland were indeed inundated. Israeli archaeologists, for example, have found the remains of Neolithic villages off today’s coast, under the waves of the Mediterranean.

But for the last 7,000 or 8,000 years, sea levels have been stable, near present-day heights, and we are not capable of imagining the situation otherwise, Englander postulates.

Sea levels have been creeping up since the industrial revolution began and some cities have noticed – think of Miami and its sunny-day floods. But that is why we simply cannot fathom what a meter or two even mean. It’s beyond our scope of experience.

The last time sea level was above present-day levels was 122,000 years ago, when it was some 7 meters above present, he explains.

Water flowing on in channels on the Greenland ice

“Even at the accelerated warming rate, most people don’t think we’ll get more than a meter out of sea level rise from Greenland this century. But a meter of global sea level rise would be devastating, flooding literally thousands of coastal communities,” he points out the obvious.

Three of the biggest cities in the world are in acute danger: Shanghai, Mumbai and Jakarta, and so are hundreds more from Alexandria to Boston to London.

Ironically, Greenland’s own coastlines are probably safe. This is because as its ice cover melts, the land is rising, as land does when an enormous weight is lifted. It is the obverse of the situation in Jakarta, where the land is sinking because of groundwater depletion, the heavy buildings and sea level rise. Never mind 2100: the city is expected to be 95 percent underwater by 2050.

“The human instinct is to be optimistic, [to hope] technology will come to the rescue. But it doesn’t make sense in this context,” Englander sums up. “The oceans have been warmed almost a degree already and we’re going to warm them 2 degrees more. The ice is going to melt.”

Greenland is careening toward a critical tipping point for ice loss

By Mindy Weisberger – Senior Writer 4 hours ago

The Greenland Ice Sheet is one of the largest ice sheets in the world.

The Greenland ice sheet is a vast body of ice covering 660,000 square miles (1,710,000 square kilometres), roughly 80% of the surface of Greenland.The Greenland ice sheet is a vast body of ice covering 660,000 square miles (1,710,000 square kilometres), roughly 80% of the surface of Greenland.(Image: © Danita Delimont/Getty Images)

Frozen Greenland is on track to become significantly less frozen before the 21st century is over. By 2055, winter snowfall on the Greenland Ice Sheet will no longer be enough to replenish the ice that Greenland loses each summer, new research finds.

Rising global temperatures are driving this dramatic change. If Earth continues to heat up at its present pace, average global temperatures should climb by nearly 5 degrees Fahrenheit (2.7 degrees Celsius) by 2055. Regional averages in Greenland become even hotter, rising by about 8 F (4.5 C), scientists reported in a new study.

Under those conditions, Greenland’s annual ice loss could increase sea levels by up to 5 inches (13 centimeters) by 2100 — unless drastic steps are taken, starting now, to curb greenhouse gas emissions and slow global warming trends.

Related: Photos of Greenland’s gorgeous glaciersCLOSEGreenland’s Extreme Melt Since 2019 0% PLAY SOUND

Ice sheets are any thick masses of ice that cover more than 20,000 square miles (50,000 square kilometers) of land, and they grow their icy layers from snow that builds up over thousands of years, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). During the last ice age (around 115,000 to 11,700 years ago), ice sheets blanketed much of North America and Scandinavia. But today, only two ice sheets remain — in Greenland and in Antarctica — holding around 99% of Earth’s freshwater reserves, NSIDC says.

Ice sheets aren’t static — their own weight pushes them slowly toward the ocean, where they discharge ice and meltwater from ice shelves, streams and glaciers. An ice sheet can remain stable only so long as its lost ice is replenished seasonally by winter snowfall.

The Greenland Ice Sheet is roughly three times the size of Texas, measuring approximately 656,000 square miles (1.7 million square km), according to NSIDC. If all of Greenland’s ice were to melt at once, sea levels would rise by about 20 feet (6 meters). While that catastrophic scenario is unlikely to happen anytime soon, Greenland has been steadily losing ice for decades, at a rate of about 500 gigatons per year since 1999, another study published in August 2020 found.

Those scientists said that Greenland was already losing more ice than it gained every winter. Their models factored in ice loss from iceberg calving, which can be substantial; a massive iceberg that separated and drifted alarmingly close to a Greenland village in 2018 was thought to weigh more than 12 million tons (11 million metric tons), Live Science previously reported

However, the processes that drive icebergs to separate from the ice sheet are complex and unpredictable, said Brice Noël, lead author of the new study and a researcher with the Institute for Marine and Atmospheric research (IMAU) at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. For the new study, the researchers analyzed the Greenland Ice Sheet’s surface to determine when melt would surpass snowfall, Noël told Live Science in an email.

“We explore the sensitivity of the Greenland Ice Sheet mass loss to atmospheric warming using a much higher resolution climate model — 1 km — compared to previous work (20 to 100 km),” Noël said. “Higher spatial resolution means that we can now better capture the high mass loss rates of small outlet glaciers;” this source of melt runoff was previously excluded from models, but contributes significantly to the total mass of ice lost, he explained. 

“As a result, we can more accurately project the future evolution of the Greenland Ice Sheet mass loss and its contribution to sea-level rise,” Noël said. 

Accelerated exposure


– Images of melt: Earth’s vanishing ice

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– 10 signs that Earth’s climate is off the rails

Stability of the ice sheet began to slip after the 1990s, as atmospheric warming boosted meltwater runoff during warm summer months, according to the study. Models showed that most of the runoff was produced at the margins of the ice sheet, in a narrow band called the ablation zone. As Earth warms, it melts the ablation zone’s protective layer of tightly compressed snow. Once this layer is gone, the ice underneath — which is much less reflective than the bright snow — absorbs more sunlight, leading to more melt. 

“The accelerating exposure of bare ice amplifies the runoff production, and thus the surface mass loss,” Noël said.

In a scenario where humans don’t lower greenhouse gas emissions and present warming continues, ice loss in Greenland will cross a new threshold — in which the ice sheet gets smaller each year — within just a few decades, according to the study. And that’s a conservative estimate; that threshold could be crossed even earlier, depending on how much additional ice is lost annually from calving icebergs, the authors reported. 

It could then take thousands of years for the ice sheet to melt completely, but saving Greenland’s ice from disappearing would require halting or reversing global warming sooner rather than later — “during this century,” Noël said.

The findings were published online Jan. 19 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Originally published on Live Science.

Mystery of Greenland’s expanding ‘dark zone’ finally solved

By Harry Baker – Staff Writer 6 hours ago

Algal blooms triggered by windblown phosphorus dust are to blame.

Algal blooms darken the ice sheet and cause increased melting.Algal blooms darken the ice sheet and cause increased melting.(Image: © Jim McQuaid)

The mystery of a growing “dark zone” on Greenland‘s melting ice sheet has been solved.

Researchers have found that phosphorus-rich dust blown across the ice may be the key to the phenomenon.

Greenland’s ice sheet is the second largest in the world. It covers around 656,000 square miles (1.71 million square kilometers), an area three times the size of Texas, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). However, the ice sheet is now in a state of permanent retreat and is losing 500 gigatons (500 billion tons) of ice every year, Live Science previously reported. 0% PLAY SOUND

That’s why the dark zone is so worrisome. During the summer months, part of the western section of the ice sheet turns from brilliant white to inky gray as algae bloom across the surface. Since 2000, these blooms have gotten bigger, causing the dark zone to expand, according to a statement by the researchers

The darker color of the ice reduces its albedo — the amount of sunlight it reflects back to space — and causes the ice sheet to absorb more heat. However, until now, what triggers these algal blooms has remained a mystery.

Related: 10 signs that Earth’s climate is off the rails

“We see a lot of variability in the blooms that form on the ice-sheet surface,” said Jenine McCutcheon, a microbiologist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and lead author of the new study describing the findings. “We wanted to better understand what causes their growth,” she told Live Science.

 Understanding the algal blooms

During the Arctic’s sunless winter months, the ice algae — primarily made up of Ancylonema nordenskioeldii and species in the Mesotaenium genus — remain in a dormant state deep within the ice. During spring, as the ice melts, these algae slowly migrate to the surface. When they reach the surface, the Arctic summer provides 24-hour sunlight for photosynthesis and growth. The algae are normally green, but when exposed to constant sunlight, they create dark-colored sunscreens to protect themselves from damaging ultraviolet rays. This is what darkens the ice and, ironically, causes it to absorb more sunlight.(Image credit: Jim McQuaid)

But sunlight alone didn’t seem enough to cause the expansive blooms the researchers were seeing.

After the researchers analyzed samples they collected from the surface, “it became clear phosphorus was the most important nutrient to the algae,” study co-author Jim McQuaid, a climate scientist at the University of Leeds in England, told Live Science. “We then found that it was originating locally.”

In Greenland, the phosphorus comes from hydroxylapatite — a phosphate mineral that also contains calciumoxygen and hydrogen — that gets blown across the ice as dust from exposed rocky outcrops. 

“As the atmosphere gets warmer due to climate change, the exposed rock becomes drier and winds get stronger,” McQuaid said. “This means more dust is transported across the ice.”

Melting ice in the area also uncovers more hydroxylapatite-rich rocks, thus increasing the available phosphorus. So the algal blooms are part of a positive feedback loop: The increased ice melting leads to a higher phosphorus input, which spurs the algal growth that, in turn, further increases the ice melting.

“This type of thing will continue to happen in the future; there’s no doubt in my mind,” McQuaid said, referring to the accelerated melting.RELATED CONTENT

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 However, now that scientists fully understand the dark zone phenomenon, they can more accurately predict how fast the Greenland ice sheet will melt.

“If we can measure the amount of phosphorus that’s in the environment, it may be possible to translate that to an estimate of algal growth and allow us to better monitor the rate of ice melting,” McCutcheon said.

The study was published online Jan. 25 in the journal Nature Communications.

Scientists Have Found Some Truly Ancient Ice, But Now They Want Ice That’s Even Older

December 26, 20208:03 AM ETHeard on Weekend Edition Saturday


Inside of the Blue Ice Drill tent, drillers Tanner Kuhl (left) and Elizabeth Morton (right) work with graduate students Austin Carter, Jacob Morgan and postdoctoral fellow Sarah Shackleton in Antarctica in 2019.John Higgins

The oldest ice on Earth probably is hiding somewhere in Antarctica, because this frozen continent holds ice that’s hundreds of thousands and even millions of years old. Scientists are hoping to find it.

But even the scientists hunting for old ice aren’t sure how long the very oldest ice might have stuck around, says John Higgins, a geochemist at Princeton University.

“Would I be surprised at this point if we had 5-million-year-old ice?” asks Higgins. “I mean, I’d be surprised, but not it’s not unfathomable.”

One group has already claimed to have found 8-million-year-old ice in a buried glacier, establishing the age by dating volcanic ash on the ice, but some experts have their doubts.

“My attitude is that I accept that it’s old ice. I don’t know if it’s exactly 8 million, but I accept that it’s old ice,” says Eric Wolff, a climatologist with the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.Article continues after sponsor message


Scientists Discover A New Form Of Ice — It’s Square

The trouble is, he says, that particular ice sample is “a real mess” and of no use to scientists who are only after old ice because of something special trapped inside: little samples of ancient air from when the ice formed.

“When you pull out the ice, it essentially is crystal clear except it’s filled with tiny bubbles,” explains Higgins. He considers those bubbles to be the next best thing to having a time machine that would let scientists go back and directly collect the past air.

Higgins and some colleagues recently drilled an ice sample in the Allan Hills region of Antarctica that was later shown, by analyzing trace amounts of the gas argon, to be as old as 2.6 million years old. In his view, that’s “the oldest thing that I think we have high confidence in the age of the ice and the age of the air that’s trapped in the ice.”

A slightly younger 2 million-year-old sample found nearby was pristine enough to use its bubbles to measure important greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, providing a snapshot of the atmosphere back then that challenged scientists’ previous assumptions.Enlarge this image

Field teams of scientists and ice core drillers spent up to eight weeks living in tents in Antarctica from late 2015 to early 2016 and again in 2019 to 2020.John Higgins

Understanding how carbon dioxide levels have changed over Earth’s history could help climate researchers understand how human activities will warm the planet in the future. “One of the biggest questions about modern warming and anthropogenic climate change is how much warming should we expect with the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere,” says Sarah Shackleton, another researcher at Princeton University.

She sometimes melts extremely old ice in the lab and watches as the ancient gasses bubble up through the liquid, which she calls “mesmerizing.”

“One thing that’s really surprising to me, every time, is how much gas is in the ice,” Shackleton says, adding that atmospheric gases make up about 10% of the volume of glacial ice.

All of this is why researchers are so keen to find ice from key time points in Earth’s climate history, such as periods of unexplained changes to warming and cooling cycles.

An ice sheet has covered Antarctica for at least 30 million years, but it’s still challenging to find very old ice.

Snowfalls constantly add new layers of ice to the top of the Antarctic ice sheet. The oldest layers down below, however, can melt away because of geothermal heat coming up from the ground.

“The rocks are giving off heat slowly over time, so that has the potential to melt ice at the bottom,” explains John Goodge, a geologist at the University of Minnesota.

Still, bits of old ice — like that 2.6 million-year-old sample — can sometimes be preserved at the ice sheet’s edges.

“The oldest snippets of ice we’d been able to find come from places where the ice has flowed up a mountain range and been exposed at the surface,” says Goodge.

In those places, though, the ice can be messy and all jumbled up, or found in isolated pockets. It’s not in nice layers that have been laid down sequentially over a continuous stretch of Earth’s history.

To get that kind of neatly layered ice sample, scientists need to drill straight down through the thick Antarctic ice sheet. So far, the oldest ice collected that way goes back 800,000 years.

Now, several groups from around the world want to drill down to ice that’s even older, more than 1.5 million years old.

“Whether or not we’ll be able to find it at the bottom of the ice sheet, where we can recover a relatively simple continuous record, I guess that’s the $64,000 question,” says Goodge.


Sub Makes Unexpected Find Under Floating Ice Shelf

Drilling through nearly 2 miles of solid ice is difficult and will take several years, he notes, which makes it important to target the most promising spot.

A European project has already picked a barren place called “Little Dome C,” where the temperature is always below -13 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We’ve already set up the drill tent and part of the campsite at the location,” says Wolff. “And so next November, a team should be going in to set up the drill and start drilling.”

Barbara Stenni of Ca’Foscari University thinks there’s “a good possibility” of finding ice 1.5 million years old or older at this location, and she points to results from an ice-penetrating radar survey that support that idea. “The physical evidence tells us that this ice is probably there,” she says.

Meanwhile, researchers from China have been drilling deep for old ice at a place called Dome A. “That one may or may not succeed,” says Jeffrey Severinghaus of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, explaining that the site was picked because it’s close to a research station. “It wasn’t really chosen with the aim of getting the sort of best possible old ice site.”

He has been working with Goodge to develop a new kind of rapid drill that can chip through the ice sheet quickly, in days rather than years, so that researchers can assess different places before committing to more elaborate and expensive drilling.

“It was my feeling that the actual existence of very old ice at the bottom of the glacier would be extremely difficult to predict ahead of time with conventional methods like radar and stuff like that,” says Severinghaus.

With their drill, it will be possible to make multiple holes and run tests on ice at the bottom, he says, so “you’d know for sure that the old ice existed.”Enlarge this image

Graduate student Jenna Epifanio keeps the drill barrel straight while driller Tanner Kuhl lowers it into the hole in 2019. This Antarctica expedition focused on recovering large volume samples of the 2-plus-million-year-old ice discovered four years earlier.John Higgins

The coronavirus pandemic has delayed his team’s work — indeed, the virus forced researchers to call off almost the entire Antarctic field season. But in fall of 2021, the hunters of old ice will be back.

If any of these efforts eventually let scientists get a continuous sequence of ice layers going back 1.5 million years or more, they’ll be able to understand atmospheric changes that occurred during an important climate switch.

About a million years ago, there was a dramatic shift in the planet’s cycle of ice ages. Those had been coming every 40,000 years or so, but for some reason, that pattern ended — and it changed to every 100,000 years instead.

“To us working on climate, that’s a really big deal,” says Wolff. “It’s a really big question as to why that change, because it’s fundamental to how our climate system works. In a way, you can say we don’t really understand today’s climate if we don’t understand why we live in a 100,000-year world rather than a 40,000-year world.”

Glaciers clearly come and go because of influences that are not well understood, agrees Severinghaus, who thinks “we ought to know about those in order to predict our future.”

While some of those mysteries might be solved by drilling continuous ice cores that go back 1.5 million years or finding isolated fragments of ice as old as 5 million years, he says, “There’s no reason why we couldn’t get lucky and find something even older.”

“Alarming” and “extraordinary” rate of change as the Arctic warms, NOAA report says


DECEMBER 9, 2020 / 7:42 AM / CBS NEWS

The Arctic is warming and changing rapidly, with record or near-record conditions documented across the region in 2020. That’s according to an international team of 133 researchers from over a dozen countries who contributed to the 15th annual NOAA Arctic Report Card, released on Tuesday.

The report is a comprehensive year-in-review of Arctic conditions — what NOAA calls vital signs — that characterize the health and stability of the Arctic ecosystem. They include variables like air temperature, sea ice and wildland fires. While climate conditions in this frigid part of the world typically change naturally at a glacial pace, in recent years the transformation has been occurring at a breakneck speed.

In the a video accompanying the report, NOAA says there have been “alarming rates of change observed” since the 2006 Arctic Report Card, and adds, “the rate of change has been extraordinary.” Report Card 2020 by NOAAPMEL on YouTube

This is evidenced by the intense heat and wildfires in Siberia this summer. It’s not often that events deep in rural Arctic territory make headlines around the world, but in late June, for the first time on record, the temperature soared past the 100-degree Fahrenheit mark above the Arctic Circle, in a town called Verkhoyansk. That was part of a several months long heat event which climate scientists said was made 600 times more likely by human-caused climate change.

From October 2019 to September 2020, Arctic surface temperatures were the second warmest on record — almost 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1980-2010 normal average — behind only 2016, a year affected by a very strong global El Niño event.


The cause of the rapid warming is straightforward and well understood: It is human-caused climate change. But in the Arctic, the pace of warming is 2 to 3 times the global average — a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification. 

According to the report, the sea-ice extent at the end of the summer in 2020 was the second lowest in the 42-year satellite record, behind only the summer of 2012, a summer characterized by unusual stormy conditions which breaks up ice. But this October, when sea-ice typically rebounds quickly, it did not, dropping to the lowest levels on record

The sea-ice reconstruction shows sea-ice extent has remained relatively constant over the past 1500 years, but in recent decades there has been a dramatic decline.ZACK LABE

October 2020 sea-ice volume also recorded the lowest value on record. The ice was so thin that Russia was not able to find thick enough ice to test its new nuclear-powered ice-breaker ship. This drop is ice volume is part of a long-term trend in which sea-ice volume, due primarily to declines in ice thickness, has dropped by two-thirds since the 1970s. 

Comparison of sea-ice thickness from 1980 to 2020ZACK LABE

This dramatic drop in Arctic ice is the main driver for rapid Arctic changes.

Climate Change 

Large expanses of sea-ice, and to a lesser degree snow, stabilize the Arctic climate by regulating air and ocean temperatures. The white shading reflects sunlight back to space, limiting heating. But as temperatures have continued to climb over the past few decades, ice cover has diminished rapidly, exposing typically more of the darker-colored ocean and land. That darker surface is absorbing more heat, leading to warmer temperatures and more melting.

This does not represent a mere subtle shift in the way the system works — it is a dramatic change. The way in which ice regulates the climate versus exposed land and ocean is drastically different. Not only does the exposed area absorb more heat, it also allows ocean and air currents to penetrate deeper into the Arctic, allowing warmth from southern latitudes to invade.

Rick Thoman is an Alaskan climate specialist from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and co-author of the report. He says the systemic changes occurring in the Arctic should raise eyebrows to the south, because they foreshadow what may be in store for the rest of us.

“The Arctic continues to sound the bell as a warning to lower latitudes on how rapidly things can change when thresholds are crossed,” said Thoman. “The thresholds will not be the same, of course, but the Arctic is living proof that major environmental change need not proceed gradually over generations.”

Arctic Report Card
In this July 24, 2017 file photo, an iceberg floats past Bylot Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. NOAA’s annual Arctic Report Card, released on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020, shows how warming temperatures in the Arctic are transforming the region’s geography and ecosystems.DAVID GOLDMAN / AP

It may seem counterintuitive, but snow accumulation during the 2019-20 winter was above normal across the entire Arctic. However, this makes sense because a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, dumping more snow, as long as the air temperatures are still near or below freezing. 

With that said, the exceptional spring warmth across the Eurasian Arctic still resulted in the lowest June snow cover extent in this region since the observational record began in 1967. And this drop in late spring snow cover is not just confined to 2020. Since 1981, June Arctic snow cover extent is decreasing at a rate of 15% per decade. 

Variability in seasonal snow cover is an important control on wildland fire activity in high northern latitudes, and as a consequence of dwindling spring and summer snow cover, wildfires are escalating in the Arctic. In 2020, record-setting Arctic fires — mainly in the boreal forest of Siberia — emitted 35% more carbon dioxide than the year before, which was also a record-breaker. 

These more intense wildfires are due to the drying out of accumulated layers of partially decomposed organic matter by prolonged warm, dry conditions, like the ones observed this year in Siberia. This provides a high-octane fuel source. 

Areas in red indicate parts of the Arctic which are now more flammable.NOAA

The report says, “Increasing trends in air temperature and fuel availability over the 41-year record (1979-2019) suggest that conditions are becoming more favorable for fire growth, with more intense burning, more fire growth episodes, and greater consumption of fuels.”

The changes are not only being experienced on land, but also in the Arctic Ocean. Sea surface temperatures this summer were 1 to 3 degrees Celsius (2 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal.  

The abnormally warm water is one of the reasons sea-ice took so long to regrow this fall. 

Nearly all of the Arctic experienced warmer than normal seas, illustrated in the red shading.NOAA

But this warmer water also comes with some positive biological impacts. NOAA reports that ocean primary productivity — a technical term for the amount of life, like plankton — in the Laptev Sea near Siberia was 2 to 6 times higher than normal. Benefitting from this increase in biological activity are bowhead whales, a staple resource for coastal Indigenous people from Russia to Greenland. Over the past 30 years the bowhead whale population has increased, partly due to increases in Arctic Ocean life.

While there are those rare examples of positive impacts, most of the changes are happening so fast that they are destabilizing for Indigenous populations, ecosystems and for weather and climate patterns. And Thoman says the Arctic will not be settling into a “new normal,” or back to what used to be considered normal, anytime soon, because the only constant at the moment in the Arctic is change.  

“Because the Arctic changes are intimately tied with ice and snow changes, and these are positive feedback loops, this is not something that can be reversed with one cold winter (multi-year ice takes, well, multiple years to grow),” explains Thoman. “It would take generations for ‘frozen Arctic’ like the, say, 1960s to return, and some things, like permafrost in some areas, would take far longer to regrow.”

First published on December 8, 2020 / 8:37 PM

Rivers melt Arctic ice, warming air and ocean

NOVEMBER 6, 2020

by Heather McFarland, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Rivers melt Arctic ice, warming air and ocean
Water from Canada’s Mackenzie River enters the blue Arctic Ocean in July 2012. White areas in the top half of the photo are largely sea ice, while those below are clouds over land. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

A new study shows that increased heat from Arctic rivers is melting sea ice in the Arctic Ocean and warming the atmosphere.

The study published this week in Science Advances was led by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, with contributing authors in the United States, United Arab Emirates, Finland and Canada.

According to the research, major Arctic rivers contribute significantly more heat to the Arctic Ocean than they did in 1980. River heat is responsible for up to 10% of the total sea ice loss that occurred from 1980 to 2015 over the shelf region of the Arctic Ocean. That melt is equivalent to about 120,000 square miles of 1-meter thick ice.

“If Alaska were covered by 1-meter thick ice, 20% of Alaska would be gone,” explained Igor Polyakov, co-author and oceanographer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ International Arctic Research Center and Finnish Meteorological Institute.

Rivers have the greatest impact during spring breakup. The warming water dumps into the ice-covered Arctic Ocean and spreads below the ice, decaying it. Once the sea ice melts, the warm water begins heating the atmosphere.

The research found that much more river heat energy enters the atmosphere than melts ice or heats the ocean. Since air is mobile, this means river heat can affect areas of the Arctic far from river deltas.

Rivers melt Arctic ice, warming air and ocean
This diagram shows the relative amount of warming caused by Arctic rivers, with the sources of heat in orange and the heat sinks in turquoise. In spring, rivers flow into the Arctic Ocean, warming the water and melting sea ice, which in turn warms the atmosphere. A feedback occurs as the reflective ice disappears, allowing the dark ocean water to absorb more heat and melt more sea ice. Credit: Graphic adapted from Science Advances paper

The impacts were most pronounced in the Siberian Arctic, where several large rivers flow onto the relatively shallow shelf region extending nearly 1,000 miles offshore. Canada’s Mackenzie River is the only river large enough to contribute substantially to sea ice melt near Alaska, but the state’s smaller rivers are also a source of heat.

Polyakov expects that rising global air temperatures will continue to warm Arctic rivers in the future. As rivers heat up, more heat will flow into the Arctic Ocean, melting more sea ice and accelerating Arctic warming.

Rivers are just one of many heat sources now warming the Arctic Ocean. The entire Arctic system is in an extremely anomalous state as global air temperatures rise and warm Atlantic and Pacific water enters the region, decaying sea ice even in the middle of winter. All these components work together, causing positive feedback loops that speed up warming in the Arctic.

“It’s very alarming because all these changes are accelerating,” said Polyakov. “The rapid changes are just incredible in the last decade or so.”