by Maja Sojtaric, UiT The Arctic University of Norway
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.https://e1ac7464d9e81ce2033a0fae7f811a32.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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 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.
“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.
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.
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.
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
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 EnglanderRuth 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.
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. )https://www.youtube.com/embed/lBfzFt_kgNU?start=0&controls=1&loop=0&modestbranding=1&rel=1&autoplay=false&enablejsapi=1&mute=undefined
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:
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?
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.
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?
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 calcium, oxygen 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
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.
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 messagehttps://15f129e7406814ad85308332d49b3aa3.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
This dramatic drop in Arctic ice is the main driver for rapid Arctic changes.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”