Brace for the Polar Vortex; It May Be Visiting More Often

Syracuse on Sunday. “Winter is shortening, but you’re getting these more intensive periods in that shorter winter,” a researcher said.CreditDennis Nett/The Post-Standard, via Associated Press
Syracuse on Sunday. “Winter is shortening, but you’re getting these more intensive periods in that shorter winter,” a researcher said.CreditCreditDennis Nett/The Post-Standard, via Associated Press
  • Jan. 28, 2019

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Find your long johns, break out the thick socks and raid the supermarket. After a month of relatively mild winter weather, the Midwest and the East Coast are experiencing what has become a seasonal rite of passage: the polar vortex.

The phrase has become synonymous with frigid temperatures that make snowstorms more likely. And if it seems as if these polar freezes are happening more often, you’re right. “They are definitely becoming more common,” said Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center. “There have been a couple of studies that have documented that.”

Colder temperatures have been arriving later in winter over the past few years, according to Judah Cohen, a climatologist at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, a weather risk assessment firm. But because of changes to the polar vortex, when wintry weather does arrive, it’s often more intense — witness the four back-to-back nor’easters last year.

“I’ve been making that argument that winter is shortening, but you’re getting these more intensive periods in that shorter winter,” Dr. Cohen said.

[If it’s so cold outside, what happened to global warming? Read our explainer.]

Scientists are still trying to figure out why these intense arctic chills are flooding southward more frequently. To understand their thinking, it helps to understand the nature of the polar vortex. While the expression became broadly popular during an unusually cold winter in 2014, the vortex was known to meteorologists long before that.

A satellite image of low pressure from the polar vortex swooping across North America in January 2014.CreditNOAA, via Getty Images
A satellite image of low pressure from the polar vortex swooping across North America in January 2014.CreditNOAA, via Getty Images

The term refers to circular bands of winds near the poles that are strongest in wintertime and well above the jet stream in the stratosphere. The stratosphere is an atmospheric layer that extends roughly seven to 31 miles above the earth.

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Usually, those circular bands act as walls that keep the teeth-chattering cold air locked at the poles. But, every so often, the winds break down and allow the cold air to escape. That’s what happened at the beginning of January, when the polar vortex split into threeseparate bands.

Embedded video

Zac Lawrence@zd1awrence

Here is my “official” 3D animation of this year’s stratospheric split. Another beautiful event!

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It’s this escaping polar air that is dropping temperatures in the Midwest and the East — there’s a lag time between the atmospheric event and when we experience the effects. The broken vortex is also sending icy temperatures to much of Europe in what some call the “Beast From the East.”

Some researchers, including Dr. Francis and Dr. Cohen, say they suspect that the more frequent polar vortex breakdowns can be tied to climate change.

While climate change is warming the earth, not all parts of the earth are warming at the same rate; the Arctic is warming at a rate twice as fast as the world average. That warming has led to historically low levels of sea ice in the region. The melting sea ice, particularly in an area near the Barents and Kara Seas off Siberia, may be linked to the changes in the polar vortex.

“When we lose a lot of ice in that particular area in the summer, it absorbs a lot of extra heat from the sun,” Dr. Francis said. This is because the darker open ocean absorbs more heat than reflective ice. “And so we see a very persistent, hot spot there in terms of temperature differences from what they should be.”

Research suggests that the hot spot, along with changes in the jet stream driven by climate change, cause the polar vortex to break down in mid- to late winter.

“As the Arctic gets warmer and warmer, the severe weather picks up,” Dr. Cohen said.

In October, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a milder than average winter, but that is not necessarily at odds with the January chill.

“There’s a difference between some seasonal outlooks such as NOAA’s that look at the whole three-month period and others that may be breaking it down month by month,” said Bob Henson, a meteorologist with the forecasting service Weather Underground. “It’s quite possible the winter will average warm for December through February. But that may well manifest as the extreme warmth we’ve seen over the last month followed by some much colder and colder than average conditions into February.”

For more news on climate and the environment, follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.

Kendra Pierre-Louis is a reporter on the climate team.


This Is Why Global Warming Is Responsible For Freezing Temperatures Across The U.S.

In January of 2014, a displaced polar vortex brought extremely cold temperatures to many parts of the United States, causing Lake Michigan near Chicago to freeze over, as shown here. The current cold snap is extremely similar in nature, and is wreaking havoc across much of the continential United States right now, in 2019.EDWARD STOJAKOVIK / FLICKR

The country is freezing in an unprecedented fashion, and global warming is to blame. Sound crazy? The cold snap that North America is experiencing east of the rocky mountains, with temperatures at Arctic-like levels, is real, but it’s only part of the story. Simultaneously, there are record warm temperatures happening in other parts of the world, from Australia to the actual Arctic.


While a small but vocal minority of people might use the faulty logic of, “it’s cold where I am, therefore global warming isn’t real,” even schoolchildren know that weather isn’t climate. But these extreme cold snaps have gotten more severe in recent years, due to a combination of global warming and a phenomenon you’ve likely heard of: the polar vortex. Here’s the science of how it works, and why global warming is paradoxically playing a major role in today’s record-low temperatures.

The difference between a strong, stable polar vortex (L) and a weak, unstable one that can cause cold snaps and extremely cold weather across the mid-latitudes (R), such as the event we’re experiencing now.NOAA

When you think about the Earth, including its weather, climate, and temperature, what picture do you get in your head?

The best way to picture Earth is as a sphere rotating on its axis, but with two additional effects: the atmosphere and the oceans. As the Earth rotates on its axis, we experience warming during the day (in direct sunlight) and cooling at night (in the dark), as the Earth radiates its stored heat away into the depths of space. When our hemisphere is tilted towards the Sun, we experience summer months; when our hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun, we experience winter months.

The ocean stores tremendous amounts of heat, with ocean currents transporting that heat from one location to another. But in terms of these particular weather events we’re experiencing right now, the atmosphere is the biggest factor.

This graphic shows the global circulation of Earth’s atmosphere. Included in this display are Hadley cells, Ferrell cells and polar cells, along with the six different zones in the northern and southern hemispheres displaying the prevailing winds.WIKIMEDIA COMMONS USER KAIDOR

On any planet that rotates, you’ll have an effect called the prevailing winds. As the atmosphere circulates around the world, planet Earth typically experiences three different types of winds, normally confined to three different latitude zones:

  • 0° to 30°: where we get the trade winds, which blow from east to west and converge at the equator.
  • 30° to 60°: which give us the westerlies, which blow from west to east, and rise up towards the Arctic (or down towards the Antarctic) circle.
  • 60° to 90°: the polar cells, which are normally confined to the highest-latitude regions on Earth.

Although the latitude bands differ, this phenomenon is common to most rapidly rotating planets with atmospheres, including Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Earth, though, is a little bit special.

The ocean temperatures are warm enough in the equatorial regions, during the right seasons, to form tropical cyclones, and are cool enough, in the winter seasons, to form extreme polar vortices.BERKELEY EARTH SURFACE TEMPERATURE (BEST) TEAM

Because of the thinness of Earth’s atmosphere, our substantial axial tilt, the behavior of cloud cover and reflectivity at the poles, and a number of other factors, our planet has an extremely large temperature difference between the equator and the poles. This temperature difference is smallest in the summer, when the polar areas experience nearly 24 hours of continuous sunlight, and largest in the winter, where it’s almost always night.

As a result of these severe temperature differences, there is a persistent, large-scale, low-pressure zone that rotates in a cyclone-like fashion at each pole: from west to east. (Counterclockwise at the north pole, clockwise at the south pole.) These two zones are known as polar vortices, and they each start a few miles up in the atmosphere and extend well into the stratosphere.


The interplay between the atmosphere, clouds, moisture, land processes and the ocean all governs the evolution of Earth’s equilibrium temperature. The stratosphere, in particular, is of tremendous importance for phenomena like the Arctic’s polar vortex.NASA / SMITHSONIAN AIR & SPACE MUSEUM

Beneath them, you’ll typically find a large mass of cold, dense air surrounding each of the poles. Normally, these vortices are stable enough, as temperature and pressure differences are severe enough, to keep them in place throughout the year.

When the vortices are at their strongest, you get a single cell, and the air is extremely well-confined. When the vortices weaken, they can break up into two or more cells, and begin to migrate away from the poles. When they’re extremely weak, they can fragment, and some of that low pressure, low temperature air can begin to interact with the higher pressure, higher temperature air from outside the polar regions.

Earth in 2013 (at left) with a well-defined, single-cell, strong polar vortex, along with Earth in 2014 (at right) where the polar vortex became extremely weak, and migrated over the populous land masses of the mid-latitudes.NOAA / PMEL


Although the term has been around since the 1850s, few people heard of the polar vortex until earlier this decade, when it became so weak that it migrated over the North American and Eurasian continents, causing some of the coldest winter weather we’ve seen in recent history.

When the vortex at the north pole becomes extremely weak, the high pressure zones found in the middle latitudes of Earth (where the westerlies are) can push towards the poles, displacing the cold air. This causes the polar vortex to move farther south. In addition, the jet stream buckles, and deviates towards more populous, southern latitudes. As the cold, dry air from the poles comes in contact with the warm, moist air of the mid-latitudes, you get a dramatic weather change that we conventionally refer to as a cold snap.

When the polar vortex around the North Pole weakens, it causes much of the cold air at high latitudes to mix with the warm air in the mid-latitudes. This pushes the jet stream south, brings cold air to highly populous areas, and creates the conditions for a cold snap.

The weather we’re experiencing across much of the northern hemisphere is due to exactly this phenomenon, occurring right now.

But how is global warming to blame?


The answer is simple: because the phenomenon that causes the polar vortex to break down is known as sudden stratospheric warming, where the upper layers of the atmosphere increase in temperature by approximately 30–50 °C (54–90 °F) over the span of only a few days. The fact that there are land masses located where they are in the northern hemisphere means that as those land temperatures increase, they transport their heat to even more northern latitudes.

The polar vortex, typically, is a single-cell or double-cell region concentrated at polar latitudes. However, warming events along the land and in the sea near the poles have changed the temperature and pressure gradients in recent years, and are causing the polar vortex to destabilize. This results in the extreme weather events we’re experiencing more recently.NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE

The exact details of how this works are complex, but the explanation is simple: warmer land temperatures, particularly in northern North America and northern Eurasia, allow more heat to be transported into the Arctic stratosphere. A warmer Earth makes sudden stratospheric warming events more likely and more frequent. And those events destabilize the polar vortex, bring cold air down into the mid-latitudes, and cause the extreme weather we’re experiencing right now.

The temperature map of Earth on the day of Sunday, January 27th. Note how the southern, Antarctic region has its cold air relatively confined, while the northern, Arctic region has colder and warmer areas in uneven, perhaps unexpected locations.CLIMATEREANALYZER.ORG


As the Earth continues to warm, there will be reduced snow cover and less sea ice in these critical regions, which alters the pressure and temperature gradients of the regions at the boundary of the polar vortex. In extreme cases, the polar vortex weakens or collapses as a result. The migration of the jet stream is one of the first signs, and it has become an all-too-frequent phenomenon in recent years.

The enormous cold snap we experienced in 2014 wasn’t a one-off event. Although for many, that storm was so memorable it feels like it was only yesterday, we can absolutely expect these types of extreme weather events to become commonplace in the coming years. The climate is changing, and it’s affecting our weather in a variety of ways all across the globe.

In January of 2014, the term polar vortex came into the popular lexicon with a catastrophic cold snap that affected large portions of North America, causing enormous portions of Niagara Falls to freeze over, among other things. We can expect these events to be far more frequent going forward.MICHAEL MURAZ / FLICKR

Perhaps paradoxically, it’s a strong, extremely cold polar vortex that results in stable, warm temperatures across the more populous mid-latitudes in winter. This is one effect of climate change that’s already here, and will take centuries, in the best-case scenario, to reverse. There are freezing temperatures and an extraordinary cold snap affecting huge portions of the land mass in the northern hemisphere’s mid-latitudes right now, but this won’t feel extraordinary for long.


As the Earth continues to warm, extreme weather events like this will become commonplace, with many climatologists predicting an unstable polar vortex bringing storms like this to us multiple times per decade. Welcome to the new normal, courtesy of global warming, where the Arctic can’t even remain cold in the dead of winter.

Astrophysicist and author Ethan Siegel is the founder and primary writer of Starts With A Bang! His books, Treknology and Beyond The Galaxy, are available wherever books are sold.

What is the polar vortex and is global warming to blame?
Forecasters say millions of people in the Midwest and Great Lakes will see record-shattering wind chills from 40 to 65 degrees below zero this week — cold so extreme it could cause frostbite on exposed skin in five minutes or less. Some 100 million people will experience temperatures near or below zero. Here’s what you need to know about the polar vortex behind the deep freeze.

What is the polar vortex?

The frigid air will come from a brief visit by the polar vortex — which is a real meteorological phenomenon, not just a sensational headline. It’s a whirling mass of cold air circulating in the mid- to upper-levels of the atmosphere, present every winter.

It usually stays closer to the poles but sometimes breaks apart, sending chunks of Arctic air southward into the U.S. during winter.


This week’s particularly cold outbreak may be explained by the relative lack of cold air so far this winter in the eastern U.S. Instead of the cold air bleeding south a little at a time, it’s coming all at once.

How cold will it get?

The polar vortex will result in some shockingly cold temperatures this week. The National Weather Service in Chicago forecasts it will be the coldest Arctic outbreak in 25 years and perhaps since records have been kept.

Wednesday’s high temperature in Chicago is forecast to be 12 below zero. Low temperatures from 5 to 15 below zero are likely in Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Albany and Burlington with wind chills as low as 40 below Thursday morning.

The worst impacts will spread from the Upper Midwest Tuesday, through the Great Lakes Wednesday and into the Northeast by Thursday.

If there’s any saving grace to this current bitter blast, it’s that the mass of cold air won’t penetrate very far south, with the core staying over the northern third of the nation. Temperatures in central and South Florida will stay above 40 degrees.

How long will the cold last?

The cold blast won’t last very long. The coldest air will be in retreat by Friday. By Sunday temperatures will back in the 50s in parts of the Ohio Valley — feeling like 100 degrees warmer than this week’s lowest wind chills.

View image on TwitterView image on Twitter

Jeff Berardelli@WeatherProf

Try thinking warm thoughts… After the polar vortex passes, by Sunday, temperatures will be 75 degrees warmer in parts of the Ohio Valley and Midwest, feeling like 100 warmer!!

See Jeff Berardelli’s other Tweets

Is the polar vortex connected to climate change?

A counterintuitive theory about the polar vortex is gaining ground among some in the climate science community: Regional cold air outbreaks may be getting an “assist” from global warming. While it may not seem to make sense at first glance, scientifically it’s consistent with the extremes expected from climate change.

Overall, Earth is warming due to climate change, but areas near the North Pole are warming more than 2 times faster than the rest of the globe. This “Arctic Amplification” is especially pronounced in winter.

When warm air invades the Arctic Circle, it weakens the polar vortex, displacing cold air masses southward into Europe, Asia and the United States. You might think of it as a once tight-knit circulation unraveling, slinging pieces of cold air outward.

Evidence for this was presented in a research paper published in the Journal of the American Meteorological Society. Essentially, it suggests climate change can contribute to a more extreme, wavy jet stream, hurling cold air masses farther south.

It should be noted that this theory is relatively new and there is a lot of debate in the climate science community about the extent to which such a connection exists. CBS News reached out to two leading climate scientists for comment about whether or not a portion of the recent Arctic outbreaks can be traced to climate change. Here’s what they had to say:

Dr. Judah Cohen, a climate scientist at Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER), told us:

I have argued that low sea ice and extensive snow cover [in autumn] as a result of Arctic amplification have resulted in more frequent weakenings or disruptions of the polar vortex in recent decades.

When the polar vortex is weak or “perturbed,” the flow of air is weaker and meanders north and south (rather than west to east). This allows a redistribution of air masses where cold air from the Arctic spills into the mid-latitudes and warm air from the subtropics is carried into the Arctic.

Dr. Michael Mann, the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, said:

These questions test the limits of both our available data (the apparent increase in frequency of these events is quite recent and so at best only just starting to emerge from the background noise) and the model simulations.

As we showed in our recent Science article, current generation climate models don’t resolve some of the key processes involved in the jet stream dynamics behind many types of weather extremes.

Honest scientists can legitimately differ based on reasonable interpretations of the evidence to date.

In summary, most scientists involved with this kind of research are intrigued by the theory. It is a very active area of research. Generally, they agree that more study and improved climate models are needed to zero in on the causes and effects.

75% of the US will suffer below-freezing temps this week. But wait! There’s more …

(CNN)Absurdly cold weather is about to grip much of the US, trapping millions of Americans in sub-zero temperatures and bringing “dangerous to impossible travel conditions.”

Some states could suffer the coldest air in a generation, the National Weather Service said.

The coldest air will come between Tuesday and Thursday in the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes, with temperatures plunging to 20-40 degrees below zero, CNN meteorologist Dave Hennen said. Wind chills will plummet to 35-60 below zero.
“Chicago will likely see its coldest readings in nearly 25 years, with lows approaching the all-time record of 27 below and a daytime high on Wednesday of around 15 below,” Hennen said.
“It could remain below zero in Chicago from around noon on Tuesday until around midday on Friday.”
Across the Midwest and Great Lakes, the brutal cold will likely shatter dozens of records, Hennen said.
But the deep freeze is only half of the story. The Dakotas are grappling with blizzard conditions, the National Weather Service said. And heavier snow is expected in the Upper Midwest and Great lakes, meaning “dangerous to impossible travel conditions.”

While intense snow smothers much of the Midwest, snow will likely extend all the way down to Mississippi and Alabama.
In Atlanta, where thousands of football fans are getting ready for the Super Bowl, temperatures will plunge Tuesday as the city gets hit with up to two inches of snow.
All Georgia state offices will be closed Tuesday, Gov. Brian Kemp said.
Luckily, temperatures will rebound for the weekend, melting anything that sticks in time for the big game.

The plight of the ‘snow oxen’

A biologist draws on his fieldwork to consider the world of muskoxen during climate change.

Life in the planet’s latitudinal and altitudinal margins has long weathered extremes: Tibetan wild yaks, Arctic muskoxen, Bhutanese takin (“gnu goats”), or the Gobi’s saiga gazelles became inured to dryness, thin air and cold. Now rampant climate change together with hunters, poachers, herders and predators (which increasingly include feral dogs) is driving these “elusive, dazzling treasures” to the brink. In refreshingly footnote-free dispatches, the conservation biologist Joel Berger discusses the Pleistocene ancestry of these ungulates — physical and behavioral traits that may yet allow social slow-breeders to adapt. In spite of a “disquieting desperation” pervading the no-longer-so-icy barrens, Berger finds grace notes of humor and lyricism, even a stubborn solution: “Maintain what we have and restore what we’ve lost.” 

FOR BERGER THESE ANIMALS are not just fascinating puzzles but powerful symbols as well, “relics of the past and fugitives in a modern world.” The Los Angeles-raised wilderness buff tries to understand their relationship with other species, their perceptual worlds, and the interplay of food base, climate, reproduction rates, predation and human incursion that either dooms them or makes them thrive. Yankee whalers with breechloaders, in a textbook example, exterminated muskoxen in 19th century Arctic Alaska. In 1930, the animals were replenished with Greenlandic stock shipped thousands of miles. Inupiaq Eskimos no longer familiar with the long-skirted bruisers see them as competition to caribou, an important subsistence game. (Similarly, yak pastoralists on the Tibetan Plateau think wild yaks take food from the mouths of domestic herds.) Some grizzlies learned to breach the bulwarks adult muskoxen form when they feel threatened, slaughtering numerous animals — more than they can eat — and eliminating entire herds. Mortality from bear kills has increased twenty-fold lately. Sealing off plants on which muskoxen feed, frequent winter thaw-and-refreeze episodes have been causing the animals hardship, stunting the calves’ growth. In 2011, a February storm whipping a western Alaska lagoon drowned 52 out of a herd of 55 that Berger was studying. Was this ice surge nature’s business as usual, a statistical fluke, or a harbinger of things to come? Urgency drives Berger’s scientific agenda. He wonders how long it takes extremophile mammals to adapt, and what it takes for them to do so.

  • A muskox mother with her newborn near the DeLong Mountains, Alaska.

    Courtesy of Joel Berger

Decrying new trends, this conservationist cannot help being a culture critic too. “Our focus on individual achievement and modern technology erodes our curiosity about the natural world,” he writes. As a result of runaway industrialization, Central Asia’s “Roof of the World,” which boasts the greatest amount of ice outside the poles, is heating up like the Arctic, two to three times faster than other regions. Sprawling development by itself is lethal. It is in “remote geographies,” Berger avers, that “wild animals may have a better chance to survive the world’s crowded lowlands.”

Drawing on 33 expeditions, the book shows biological fieldwork, warts and all. Berger digs “chip-like” or “slimy nugget” stool samples from muskox anuses with frost-stiffened fingers when he’s not defending projects to belligerent locals.

Conservation can be a bloody business, as in sawing horned heads off for postmortems. And before muskox calves could be captured for Depression-era reintroductions to Alaska, all the adults in their fiercely steadfast parental groups had to be killed.

An old-school biologist of Jane Goodall or George Schaller’s cut appears in these pages, one sharply in tune with modern ethics. The poetry-quoting Berger feels for the animals, which he regards as sentient individuals, not anonymous research subjects. He worries they’ll burn calories or break bones stampeding. “We would never know the emotional toll of becoming a muskoxen orphan in the Beringian wilds, or that of females we (accidentally) detached from their herds,” he writes. Berger acknowledges PTSD in these creatures and its effects on their physical and emotional wellbeing; he therefore favors non-invasive approaches. “Another day, another datum,” he quips, speaking of a tranquilized animal. He constantly weighs the trade-off between science and conservation.

His methods range from the high-tech — radio-collaring; heli-darting; photographic profiles to determine growth rates; hormone analyses to assess stress-levels or pregnancy — to the experimental, as when he plays wolf-howl recordings to caribou or stalks muskoxen in a bear costume, only to be charged. Many mysteries remain. How do thousands of caribou cows give birth within the same 10-day window, overwhelming bear and wolf predators with sheer numbers. And do muskoxen remember their dead?

The book’s blunt title holds dual meaning: It references the conditions under which Berger and his assistants labor (whether climatic, physical, logistical or political) and also the measures we need to take to avoid the worst of the sixth mass extinction.

Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon and of American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean. An anthropologist and wilderness guide, he also dabbles in photography.

Arctic breaks records with 5-year heat streak

Arctic warming continues at about double the rate of the rest of the planet, NOAA says

A polar bear climbs out of the water to walk on the ice in the Franklin Strait in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago in 2017. A new report says Arctic warming continues at about double the rate of the rest of the planet. (David Goldman/Associated Press)

The Arctic had its second-hottest year on record in 2018, part of a warming trend that may be dramatically changing earth’s weather patterns, according to a report released on Tuesday by the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Arctic air temperatures for the past five years have exceeded all previous records since 1900,” according to the annual NOAA study, the 2018 Arctic Report Card, which said the year was second only to 2016 in overall warmth in the region.

It marks the latest in a series of warnings about climate change from U.S. government bodies, even as President Donald Trump has voiced skepticism about the phenomenon and has pushed a pro-fossil fuels agenda.



NOAA issues 2018 , region experienced 2nd warmest air temps ever recorded. More details: 

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The study said the Arctic warming continues at about double the rate of the rest of the planet, and that the trend appears to be altering the shape and strength of the jet stream air current that influences weather in the Northern Hemisphere.

“Growing atmospheric warmth in the Arctic results in a sluggish and unusually wavy jet-stream that coincided with abnormal weather events,” it said, noting that the changing patterns have often brought unusually frigid temperatures to areas south of the Arctic Circle.

Some examples are “a swarm of severe winter storms in the eastern United States in 2018, and the extreme cold outbreak in Europe in March 2018 known as ‘the Beast from the East.'”

Environmentalists have long warned of rapid warming in the Arctic, saying it threatens imperilled species like polar bears, and is a harbinger of the broader impacts of climate change on the planet.

Trillions in infrastructure damage

Scientists have warned that the region could suffer trillions of dollars worth of climate change-related damage to infrastructure in the coming decades.

But the melting of Arctic ice has piqued the interests of polar nations like the United States, Canada and Russia by opening new shipping routes and expanding access to a region believed to be rich in petroleum and minerals.

The United States and Russia have both expressed an interest in boosting Arctic drilling, and Russia has bolstered its military presence in the north.

The 2018 Arctic Report Card found the Arctic region had the second-lowest overall sea-ice coverage on record. The map shows the age of sea ice in the Arctic ice pack in March 1985 (left) and March 2018 (right). Ice that is less than a year old is darkest blue. Ice that has survived at least 4 full years is white. (Mark Tschudi/University of Colorado/NOAA/

The NOAA report comes weeks after more than a dozen U.S. government agencies released a study concluding that climate change is driven by human consumption of fossil fuels and will cost the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century.

Trump, who has been rolling back Obama-era environmental and climate protections to maximize production of domestic fossil fuels, said of the update to the National Climate Assessment: “I don’t believe it.”

Trump last year announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris Deal agreed by nearly 200 nations to combat climate change, arguing the accord would kill jobs and provide little tangible environmental benefit.

Permafrost Is Warming Around the Globe, Study Shows. That’s a Problem for Climate Change.

Rapid changes in the long-frozen soil are raising concerns about a surge of planet-warming greenhouse gases as the permafrost thaws.

Lake and ponds like these at the foothills of the Brooks Range in Alaska form when permafrost thaws. Copyright: Josefine Lenz/Alfred-Wegener-Institut Lake and ponds like these at the foothills of the Brooks Range in Alaska form when permafrost thaws. The

Lake and ponds like these at the foothills of the Brooks Range in Alaska form when permafrost thaws. Thawing also releases methane and carbon dioxide. Copyright: Josefine Lenz/Alfred Wegener Institute

Vast areas of permafrost around the world warmed significantly over the past decade, intensifying concerns about accelerated releases of heat-trapping methane and carbon dioxide as microbes decompose the thawing organic soils.

The warming trend is documented in a new study published Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications. Detailed data from a global network of permafrost test sites show that, on average, permafrost regions around the world—in the Arctic, Antarctic and the high mountains—warmed by a half degree Fahrenheit between 2007 and 2016.

The most dramatic warming was found in the Siberian Arctic, where temperatures in the deep permafrost increased by 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Along with increased greenhouse gas emissions, the disintegration of permafrost is causing big problems for communities in the Arctic by damaging roads and other infrastructure as the land destabilizes and erodes. The permafrost meltdown also threatens ecosystems with massive discharges of silt and sediments into rivers and coastal areas.

The findings, from what the authors describe as the first globally consistent assessment of permafrost temperature change, add to an exanding body of global warming evidence, including studies published in just the past week showing that the world’s oceans have been warming at an accelerating rating and Antarctica has been losing six times more ice mass yearly than it was four decades ago.

“We can now say with certainty that permafrost is warming at the global scale,” said Hugues Lantuit of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Ocean Research, a co-author of the new study.

Rate ‘Suggests Substantial Change Underway’

Most permafrost areas have been frozen since the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago. They trap vast amounts of carbon in layers of frozen organic soil up to a mile thick.

By some estimates, the Arctic permafrost contains enough carbon to nearly double the amount of CO2 currently in the Earth’s atmosphere. A rapid meltdown would be disastrous because it could release a lot of CO2—in addition to methane, a powerful short-lived climate pollutant—to the atmosphere, where it would cause additional warming, said Ted Schuur, a permafrost expert at Northern Arizona University.

“This rate of warming suggests substantial change underway,” Schuur said. “This is important and often overlooked news. We often don’t think about what we can’t see deep under the ground.”

Schuur said the study indicates that even areas with very old and cold permafrost, including parts of Greenland, may be more vulnerable than previously thought, with signs of thaw changes, like areas of sinking land, visible at the surface.

Graphs: Permafrost Is Heating Up

The temperature data, collected at an average depth of 45 feet into the permafrost at each site, will improve projections of future greenhouse gas emissions from thawing permafrost by providing a record of temperature increases measured by direct observations, said the study’s lead author, Boris Biskaborn of the Alfred Wegener Institute.

The research also could help the 4 million residents of the Arctic prepare for the direct impacts of thawing permafrost by showing where to expect the greatest changes that could cause roads or bridges to fail or coastal permafrost bluffs to collapse.

Somewhat counterintuitively, the rapid rate of permafrost warming is very likely related to more snow, Biskaborn said. At some of the test sites, snow has been falling and accumulating earlier in the year. More shrubby vegetation, spurred by summer warming, keeps that snow from blowing away. It forms a thick insulating blanket that traps summer heat in the ground and prevents the ground from cooling off and refreezing.

Reinforcing Previous Permafrost Warnings

The findings in the new paper reinforce results from other recent studies. In 2017, scientists found a huge seasonal surge in greenhouse gas emissions in Alaska during autumn months linked with warming temperatures. Emissions from the October-December period had increased by 73 percent since 1975, and that increase correlated with rising summer temperatures in the region.

Columbia University Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory climate researcher Róisín Commane, who led the research on seasonal emissions, said the new permafrost study reinforces concerns that greenhouse gas emissions from the Arctic could surge sharply as the region warms.

“My take home is that the anecdotal site thawing that I heard about this winter is part of a region-wide warming that seems to be accelerating faster in this decade than in previous decades,” she said. “I think this means that older carbon that was once locked up in the permafrost will start to make it into the ecosystem and eventually the atmosphere,” she said, adding that it’s hard to make direct measurements of CO2 emissions from older carbon in thawing permafrost.

Permafrost experts from the Alfred Wegener Institute collect data at an area of exposed permafrost in Siberia. Copyright: Thomas Opel/Alfred Wegener Institute

Permafrost experts from the Alfred Wegener Institute work at an area of exposed permafrost in Siberia. Copyright: Thomas Opel/Alfred Wegener Institute

The study looked at 154 test sites, with 123 that included enough data to track the warming trend over the entire decade. The depth of the boreholes at the test sites help rule out the influence of seasonal temperature changes, so the observations show the steady warming caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases. The temperature increased at 71 sites, decreased at 12 sites and remained unchanged at 40 sites.

“It’s nice to get a quasi-global picture of permafrost change and how trends differ between regions and/or permafrost types,” said Mathias Göckede, a climate researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry who was not involved in the study. “As I see it, their findings basically confirm what has been estimated before, but provides more details and a more solid foundation.”

Vegetation ‘browning’ threatens Arctic carbon balance

Photo of Rachael Treharne in the Lofoten archipelago
Rachael Treharne in the Lofoten archipelago (Courtesy: Rachael Treharne)

The Arctic is already under severe threat from climate change. Now, research has revealed that damage to Arctic vegetation hampers its ability to absorb greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

An increasing number of extreme climatic events are taking place in the Arctic, ranging from fire to unusual winter conditions such as sudden temperature fluctuations and changes in snow cover. These extreme conditions damage plants by killing them or by causing a stress response, visible as high levels of brown anthocyanin pigments. Extreme events cause huge areas of the Arctic to turn brown and bring major disturbances to Arctic ecosystems.

Despite the growing frequency and obvious adverse effects of these “browning” events, until now little was known about how they change the ecosystem’s carbon balance – the equilibrium between emission and absorption of carbon dioxide. New research led by Rachael Treharne of the University of Sheffield, UK, with colleagues from Norway and Italy, has revealed a steep drop in the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by plants affected by an extreme climatic event, regardless of whether the plants were killed or just stressed.

Photo of Arctic vegetation showing anthocyanin pigments after a browning event

The research focused on the Lofoten archipelago in northern Norway, an area that has suffered numerous browning events. A sealed chamber placed over an area of ground allowed measurement of the gas exchange of the plants and soil inside. Plants absorb carbon dioxide, while both plants and soil release it.

The study found a reduction in COuptake of 48% in areas where extreme climatic events had killed many plants, but also a 50% reduction in areas where plants had been stressed and produced protective anthocyanins.

“The large reductions in net CO2 uptake have implications for the whole ecosystem,” says Treharne. A large reduction across the growing season severely decreases the ecosystem’s capacity as a carbon sink; it cannot absorb as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as undamaged vegetation.

Damaged vegetation usually recovers its green colour by the peak of the growing season, the researchers point out, complicating attempts to quantify the severity of browning by remote sensing from satellites.

“Many climate models assume an arbitrary level of greening — and therefore increasing carbon dioxide uptake — across the Arctic,” Treharne says. “The scale of the browning we’ve seen in recent years suggests the reality may be more complex.”

Scientists may need to reassess their predictions of future climate change to account for Arctic browning.

“It couldn’t be clearer that our current efforts to tackle climate change are deeply and dangerously inadequate,” says Treharne. “However, if we take ambitious action now, we can cut how much the Arctic is expected to warm by as much as 7°C. This is critical to minimizing the impacts of climate change in these globally important ecosystems.”

Treharne and colleagues reported their research in Global Change Biology.

How Feedback Loops Are Driving Runaway Climate Change

If you think this summer has been intense as far as record warm temperatures, wildfires, drought, and flooding events around the Northern Hemisphere, you haven’t seen anything yet — unless you happen to live in the Arctic.

According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), air temperatures there are increasing at an “unprecedented rate” — twice as fast as they are around the rest of the globe. NOAA’s 2017 Arctic Report Card states unequivocally that the Arctic “shows no sign of returning to reliably frozen region of recent past decades.”

The Executive Summary of the report also adds, “Arctic paleo-reconstructions, which extend back millions of years, indicate that the magnitude and pace of the 21st century sea-ice decline and surface ocean warming is unprecedented in at least the last 1,500 years and likely much longer.”

recent report from National Geographic revealed that some of the ground in the Arctic is no longer freezing, even during the winter. Along with causing other problems, this will become yet another feedback loop in the Arctic, causing yet more greenhouse gasses to be released from permafrost than are already being released and impacting the entire planet.

The simplest explanation for a positive climate feedback loop is this: The more something happens, the more it happens. One of the most well-known examples is the melting of sea ice in the Arctic during the summer, which is accelerating. As greater amounts of Arctic summer sea ice melt away, less sunlight is reflected back into space. Hence, more light is absorbed into the ocean, which warms it and causes more ice to melt, and on and on.

Dr. Ira Leifer is an academic researcher who specializes in bubble-related oceanographic processes (such as subsea bubble plumes emanating from the ocean floor), satellite remote sensing, and air pollution. Working closely with NASA on some of his projects, Leifer uses the agency’s satellite data to study methane in the Arctic and its role in climate disruption.

One of his concerns about a feedback loop already at play in the Arctic is how the heating of that region is already being amplified by ocean currents that transport warmer, more southerly waters northwards into Arctic seabed waters where it can affect methane deposits in submerged permafrost and sub-seabed methane hydrates.

“The release of this methane contributes powerfully to overall warming – methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, which actually has a bigger effect [on] the atmosphere’s radiative balance than carbon dioxide on decadal timescales,” Dr. Leifer told Truthout.

Although climate is generally thought to occur on century timescales, human timescales and ecological adaptation timescales are measured in decades instead of centuries, and this is now how many climate processes are being monitored given the rapidity of human-forced planetary warming.

Dr. Peter Wadhams is a world-renowned expert who has been studying Arctic sea ice for decades.

His prognosis for the Arctic sea ice is grim: He says it is in its “death spiral.”

“Multi-year ice is now much less than 10 percent of the area of the ice cover; it was 60 percent or more before 2000,” Dr. Wadhams told Truthout. “[Sea ice] extent in summer is down to 50 percent of its value in the 1980s.”

Dr. Wadhams, who is also the President of the International Association for the Physical Sciences of the Ocean (IAPSO), noted that this primary feedback loop is much further along than most of us realize.

“I see the summer sea ice disappearing by the early 2020s,” Wadhams said. He noted that the change of albedo (a measure of reflection of solar radiation) due to the loss of sea ice and snowline retreat across the Arctic “is sufficient to add 50 percent to the warming effect of CO2 emissions alone.”

Alarmingly, on August 21, Arctic scientists told The Guardian that the oldest and strongest sea ice in the Arctic had broken up for the first time in recorded history. One of them described the event as “scary,” in part because it occurred off the north coast of Greenland, which is normally frozen year-round. The region has long been believed to be “the last ice area”: It was thought, at least until now, to be the final place that would hold out against the melting impacts from an increasingly warmer planet.

Abrupt Acceleration

Temperatures are rising most strongly in the Arctic, with some areas already showing an increase of as much as 5.7 degrees Celsius (10.26 degrees Fahrenheit).

Dr. Michael MacCracken, Chief Scientist for Climate Change Programs with the Climate Institute in Washington, DC, explained to Truthout how, now that the Arctic is warmer, the temperature gradient between the tropics and the traditionally cold Arctic is reduced.

With a reduced gradient, the movement of warmth from low to high latitudes is slowed. As Earth rotates, this leads to a wavier jet stream that can carry low latitude warmth up to Alaska and elsewhere in the Arctic, and the southward reach of cold air in the Arctic to lower latitudes. This explains why New Orleans, for example, has recently experienced unusual freezing winter weather.

“In addition, the waves in the jet stream that result are shifting to the east less rapidly, which means the unusual weather patterns that are more frequently occurring are moving eastward less rapidly,” Dr. MacCracken explained. “So both wet and dry periods are lasting longer, contributing to both excessively wet (e.g., flooding) and excessively dry (e.g., wildfire) conditions.”

Dr. Wadhams is concerned about this as well.

“The jet stream effect is because Arctic air is warming faster than tropical air, so the temperature difference is decreasing,” he explained. “This reduces the driving force on the jet stream, so it then meanders, which brings hot air to the higher latitudes (and cold air to some low latitudes).”

Summer weather patterns are now increasingly likely to become stalled out over places like North America, portions of Asia, and Europe, according to a recent climate study that showed how a warming Arctic is causing heatwaves in other places to become more intense and persistent due to a slowing of the jet stream.

Dr. Leifer warned that as these processes continue and the Arctic continues to heat up faster than the tropics, the pole-equator temperature difference that controls our weather and causes three major weather circulation “cells” — tropical, mid-latitude, and arctic — will merge into a single weather cell. A similar merging of weather cells occurred during the time of the dinosaurs.

“The jet stream, which controls seasonal storms in the midlatitudes, is a result of these three cells, and would disappear in a single weather cell planet, dramatically altering rain patterns and almost certainly heralding an ecosystem catastrophe,” Leifer explained. “The plants that underlie the food chain would be replaced by others that the local animals (insects to apex predators) could not utilize — in short, an abrupt acceleration of the current Great Anthropocene Extinction event.”

The diminishment of the jet stream also contributes to another potentially catastrophic feedback loop within the Arctic seabed: Changes to the jet stream are causing longer and more intense heat waves to occur across the Arctic, which of course causes the Arctic Ocean to warm further.

Kevin Lister, an associate with the Climate Restoration Foundation in Washington, DC, co-authored a paper with Dr. MacCracken for the United Nations that addressed the crisis in the Arctic, among other climate disruption-related issues.

Unlike the most commonly accepted idea that global temperatures should not be allowed to increase by more than 1.5°C, Lister told Truthout that the planet reaching 1.5°C above baseline “is fundamentally dangerous and that the rate of change we are seeing today means we will not even be able to stop the temperature at this level.”

Lister said this conclusion was reached, in part, due to initial observations from Dr. Wadhams regarding how the loss of sea ice was amplifying rates of change in the Arctic.

Lister told Truthout that “methane emissions [in the Arctic] are already a severe risk,” and that he and Dr. MacCracken’s UN paper shows that once temperatures started rising they would be largely unstoppable due to the interacting nature of the feedback mechanisms.

“Thus, one feedback mechanism, such as sea ice melting, can trigger another, such as methane releases, which then accelerates the first in a tightening spiral,” he explained. “In reality, there are many critical feedback mechanisms and the interlocking effects between them means that the climate is far more unstable and irreversible than we are led to believe, and the climate’s change is likely to follow a super exponential progression once the temperature rises above a certain level.”

Dr. Leifer, who has been studying Arctic methane for years, shares the same concern.

“There is the potential for seabed methane deposits off Greenland to be destabilized by the input of warm melt water and also heat transport,” he said, in addition to having pointed out that this process has been occurring in other areas around the Arctic for many years.

As I have written in the past, we are currently facing the very real possibility of a major methane release in the Arctic. Such a release would be a catastrophe for the global climate — and the survival of humans and other species.

Could a Dire Situation Lead to a “War for Survival”?

Lister and Dr. MacCracken both believe that the global focus on a maximum allowable temperature increase target of 1.5°C above baseline is both dangerous and unachievable. Most media and governmental attention has centered on keeping the Earth from warming 2°C over pre-industrial revolution baseline temperatures, and ideally limiting warming to 1.5°C. This is based on a politically agreed upon goal set forth during the 2015 Paris Climate talks, which were nonbinding.

“It reflects the way that intergovernmental climate change policy has been managed which has been to arbitrarily set a temperature target, which was firstly 2°C and then latterly 1.5°C, and then to see if economic and political policy can deliver an appropriate carbon budget,” Lister explained. “This is clearly not a rational way to develop climate change policy.”

Lister and Dr. MacCracken both believe that, in an ideal world, the process would be the other way round; governments would decide a safe temperature rise based on the best science and then set an appropriate climate change policy. But this is not the world we live in.

Mark Serreze, the director of the US National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, recently pointed out how the Arctic climate system has entered uncharted territory, so that even computer models are “no longer providing a reliable guide to the future.”

Dr. Leifer said that even if we prepare for the inevitable sea level rise from Greenland melting alone, accelerated melting there is “very bad,” as it reduces the time to implement plans. However, he noted, most countries are not in preparation mode to begin with.

“For example, a forward-looking society would encourage relocation through, say, tax incentives and disincentives from, say, most of Florida, to higher ground — even purely on a hurricane insurance basis,” he said. “Sadly, forward-looking is incompatible with our political system’s biannual money festival, aka elections. Still, very few other countries are doing better — excepting some northern European countries, like Holland — despite differences.”

The impacts of climate disruption aren’t waiting for our preparations, or lack thereof. Dr. Leifer believes that, sooner or later, the sea levels will rise dramatically.

Once this happens, he believes coastal cities will have to be abandoned due to sea level rise and increasingly destructive hurricanes. He believes that the sooner that departure happens, the less destruction and loss of human lives we will experience.

Dr. Leifer also expressed concern about the changes to the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), which is currently weakening and already at its weakest in at least the last 1,600 years.

Dr. MacCracken told Truthout that his greatest concern about Arctic feedback loops is that of the melting of the plateau of the Greenland Ice Sheet. He explained that the meltwater and warmth at the surface is penetrating down into the ice sheet, softening it enough that the glacial ice has started flowing outward, and as this happens, the surface of the ice sinks to lower altitudes.

This kicks in a feedback loop that ultimately causes warming to accelerate, which causes the ice to flow faster, which further accelerates the melting.

“The ice making up the Greenland Ice Sheet holds about the equivalent of 6-7 meters (~20 feet) of global sea level rise, and glaciological evidence makes clear that an order of approximately half of that melted during the last interglacial about 125,000 years ago, contributing significantly to the 4-8 meter rise in sea level at that time,” Dr. MacCracken said.

He pointed out that this rise was caused by a 1°C temperature increase, similar to the temperature increase Earth is experiencing right now (1.16°C above baseline).

“At that time, the atmospheric CO2 concentration was near 300 ppm and the warming was due to differences in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun; today, the orbital parameters are less favorable to significant warming, but the CO2 concentration is a good bit higher and growing,” Dr. MacCracken said. “And its warming influence acts all year long, making it not surprising that the loss of mass of ice from the Greenland Ice Sheet is going up rapidly with a stronger and stronger influence on sea level around the world.”

The rapidly melting Greenland Ice Sheet is precisely what is causing the AMOC to slow.

Moreover, an Arctic that is continuing to warm could lead to the failure of the Gulf Current, Dr. Leifer said.

“The resultant deep freeze that would hit Europe would destroy European agriculture and likely lead to a massive war for survival,” he warned.

Earth’s Ice Loss “Is a Nuclear Explosion of Geologic Change”

Much of the frozen water portion of the Earth, otherwise known as the cryosphere, is melting.

This is not news: It’s been happening for decades. What is news is that the long-term melting trends in the Arctic, Antarctica, and with most land-based glaciers are accelerating, often at shocking rates, largely due to human-caused climate change.

Antarctica is melting three times as fast as it was just 10 years ago, alarming scientists. A study earlier this year showed 3 trillion tons of ice had disappeared since 1992. That is the equivalent of enough water to cover the entire state of Texas with 13 feet of water, and raise global sea levels a third of an inch.

“From 1992 to 2011, Antarctica lost nearly 84 billion tons of ice a year (76 billion metric tons),” read the AP story on the study. “From 2012 to 2017, the melt rate increased to more than 241 billion tons a year (219 billion metric tons).”

“I think we should be worried,” one of the study’s 88 co-authors, University of California, Irvine’s Isabella Velicogna, told AP. “Things are happening. They are happening faster than we expected.”

In fact, the polar ice caps have melted faster in the last 25 years than they have in the last 10,000 years.

In the Arctic, the Greenland Ice Sheet is losing an average of 270 billion tons of ice each year, and the strongest sea ice in the region broke up for the first time on record this summer.

For glaciers that exist outside of the Polar Regions, the situation is even worse.

“You can count on all alpine glaciers in the world to be gone by 2100,” Dan Fagre, US Geological Survey (USGS) research ecologist and director of the USGS Climate Change in Mountain Ecosystems Project, told Truthout.

Truthout spoke with experts like Fagre, as well as others with expertise in the Antarctic and Arctic, who shared an often-grim prognosis of what lies in store for the cryosphere.


Ruth Mottram is a climate scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute who has been studying Greenland for the last 11 years, and the Arctic for the last 15. Mottram is also one of the scientists behind the Polar Portal – a Danish web portal that gives near real-time data on the Arctic, including sea ice and Greenland ice sheet processes.

She explained to Truthout that melting in Greenland can vary significantly from year to year and is highly dependent upon weather conditions any given year.

“However, since the turn of the millennium there has been a series of summers where there have been increasingly large amounts of melt and runoff into the ocean,” Mottram explained.

She studies the surface mass budget, which is the balance between income — snowfall — and the outgoing melt and runoff. Mottram and her colleagues sum these up daily on the Polar Portal, as well as over the entire year, which in turn gives them an idea of the “health” of the ice sheet.

Her data is alarming.

“Of the top 10 lowest surface mass budget years,” Mottram said of this data, “only 2 occurred before the year 2000.”

She explained that on top of this, the ice sheet can also lose mass by calving (ice breaking off a glacier at its terminus) from glaciers and basal melting.

“Yet, both of these processes also have to be balanced by snowfall and what we see in the last two years is that the total budget, as opposed to the surface-only budget, has been roughly neutral – around 0,” she added.

However, Mottram also pointed out how the ice sheet has lost 200 – 300 gigatonnes (one gigatonne is about 1 cubic kilometer) of ice every year from 2003-2011. This means that the two aforementioned neutral and relatively lower melting years, as she put it, “do not nearly reverse the mass losses of the last decades.”

Greenland Ice Sheet meltwater is influencing the circulation of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), a massive oceanic conveyor belt current that moves huge amounts of warm water from the tropics northward, and from the Atlantic up toward the Arctic. The AMOC plays a critical role in creating the mild climate of the UK and other parts of Western Europe.

“There is also some evidence that Arctic climate change in general is influencing mid-latitude weather patterns – leading to the kind of persistent and extreme weather that leads to, for example, the heatwave we had in northern Europe this year,” Mottram explained. “The idea is that the warming of the Arctic – which has been more rapid than in other parts of the planet – has led to a smaller difference in temperature between pole and tropics, which then leads to a more wavy jet-stream.”

While Mottram believes longer observations are needed on this topic, some studies have pointed out how the wavier jet-stream is intensifying extreme weather events like hurricanes, as well as altering global climate patterns.

Meanwhile, the increasing melt of the Greenland Ice Sheet is directly linked to the increase in calving and iceberg production at outlet glaciers.

“These can pose hazards to shipping and fisheries,” Mottram added. “But they also allow the ice sheet to contribute water to the ocean faster than just by melting.”

She and her colleagues also note the number of storms tracking up the east coast of Greenland of late, which have brought a lot of snow and rain to eastern Greenland and seem to be penetrating higher up into the Arctic – possibly due to the lower sea ice extent there.

“The winds associated with these storms can bring quite high temperatures to east and northeast Greenland, and this year we twice saw very unusual warm periods – associated with Foehn winds (similar to the Chinook in north America) – that also opened up the pack ice around the coast of Greenland,” Mottram explained. She also pointed out the role this could have played in the way in which the aforementioned “last ice area” of sea ice recently began to move away from the coast and break up.

This led to the north coast of Greenland briefly becoming navigable over the summer. The Polarstern and Oden – two research ships from Germany and Sweden respectively – were able to access areas of the Arctic to do research much more easily than had been expected.

The same is true of the Venta Maersk – the Danish “ice class” container ship that was the first to traverse the northern sea route this summer.

“It’s not to say it’s easy to sail in the Arctic right now, quite not,” Mottram said. “But the time is coming soon!”

Michael MacCracken, the chief scientist for climate change programs at the Climate Institute in Washington, DC, told Truthout that the loss of land ice, such as the loss of mass from the Greenland Ice Sheet, clearly raises sea level globally.

“This threatens low-lying coastal areas and island nations, and additionally, the rise in sea level can lift up glacial ice streams around Antarctica,” he said. “This then allows ocean waters better access to the ice streams, warming them and making calving more likely, ultimately contributing to further sea level rise.”


NASA emeritus scientist Robert Bindschadler, who worked for 35 years as a glaciologist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, previously told Truthout that the world may see three to four meters of sea level rise by the year 2200.

Bindschadler has led 18 field expeditions to Antarctica, published more than 130 scientific papers, and advised the US Congress and a former vice president on the stability of ice sheets and ice shelves. His current primary concern about what is happening in the Antarctic is linked to the fact that many of the glaciers there exist within deep valleys, as remote sensing has proven as of late.

“These deep valleys matter because they mean the glacier is sitting in a trough so deep that were you to remove the ice, it is below sea level,” Bindschadler told Truthout. “The damage the ocean can do only extends to the point where the glacier retreats onto the land. But the fact that these big outlet glaciers in Antarctica are sitting in a valley whose floor is below sea level means they can never escape the impact the oceans have on them.”

In other words, these land-based glaciers are now at risk of being melted from below by warming seawater that could flow into the valleys within which the glaciers are located.

He pointed out another worrisome fact about these valleys: Many of their depths may increase the further they get from the ocean.

“So, the ocean has greater impact on them the more they melt, which means the potential for fast and continual retreat of these outlet glaciers is probably more widespread than we appreciated four years ago,” Bindschadler added.

Bindschadler is concerned that these valleys – in which so many of the major glaciers exist – could be the next major factor in how glacial ice is rapidly released into the oceans, causing sea levels to rise further.

Alpine Glaciers

Fagre, who is the lead investigator in the USGS Benchmark Glacier Program and has been working in Glacier National Park since 1991, is concerned about how mountain snowpack has been shrinking in Glacier National Park, like in so many other places, over the last half century.

In Glacier National Park, the snow is on the ground an average of 30 days less than it used to be.

“Since the planet is warming up, more of the precipitation in Glacier is now falling as rain instead of snow,” Fagre told Truthout. Since they’re less likely to be covered in snow, glaciers are more directly exposed to the sun, which obviously hastens their melting.

In 1850, Glacier National Park, before it was designated a national park, contained 150 glaciers, covering around 100 square kilometers. Today, only between 14 and 15 square kilometers of ice coverage remain, an 85 percent loss. Instead of 150 glaciers, there are now only 26. Even this alarming tally of ice loss is a conservative estimate, as measuring area doesn’t account for thinning.

Fagre and his team started monitoring the mass balance of Glacier National Park’s Sperry Glacier in 2005.

“Our program mirrors what the others are seeing in Alaska and the Cascades,” he said. Aside from a couple of years where the glacier accumulated more ice, the glacier lost mass consistently, “as is true for almost every mountain glacier in the world for which we have mass balance information.”

“Our trajectory has well exceeded previous worst-case projections for many of our glaciers,” said Fagre, and added that the Blackfoot and Jackson Glaciers in the park had melted faster than the predictions by a full decade.

“What we’ve found since then is that they continue to go, and at unsustainable rates,” he said.

“This is an explosion, a nuclear explosion of geologic change,” Fagre said of the global impacts from climate change, particularly in the cryosphere. “This is unusual. It is incredibly rapid and exceeds the ability for normal adaptation. We’ve shoved it into overdrive and taken our hands off the wheel.”


Kevin Lister, an associate with the Climate Institute in Washington, DC, co-authored a paper with MacCracken for the UN that addressed the crisis in the Arctic, among other climate change-related issues.

Lister and MacCracken’s paper showed that the natural rate of carbon sequestration is so slow as to not be measurable. This doesn’t bode well for the possibility of halting climate change: The researchers say that carbon sequestration will be incapable of bringing atmospheric CO2 down to safe levels even in the hypothetical circumstance of a zero-carbon economy emerging.

Their paper also shows that while carbon sequestration and mitigation measures must continue to be pursued, “the likelihood is that that they will be unable to bring [atmospheric] CO2 down fast enough.”

Lister believes that climate change “is fundamentally irreversible as there is strong evidence that the heating effects of the amplifying mechanisms are greater than that of increases in [atmospheric] CO2.”

Lister told Truthout that he and MacCracken have argued that dramatic solutions to the climate crisis “must be pursued with all urgency.”

“Should we fail to make a start, then the scale of intervention that we need and the risks associated with it will increase exponentially with any delay,” Lister said.