“Insanely Warm” Arctic Ocean Waters Are Delaying Freeze-Up and Pouring Heat Into the Atmosphere

In late October, sea ice off Siberia has only now begun to start freezing — an unprecedented situation for that part of the Arctic

ImaGeoBy Tom YulsmanOctober 30, 2020 5:00 PM


Arctic temperature forecast

Temperatures in large parts of the Arctic are expected to remain warmer than normal, as seen in this graphic showing a model prediction for Nov. 13. (See below for an animation of the day-by-day forecast between now and then.) Temperatures are expected to remain high for awhile because wide swaths of open water are releasing huge amounts of heat into the atmosphere. (Credit: WXCHARTS.COM)


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In September, Arctic sea ice reached its second lowest extent on record.

Now, in one significant way, the situation has only gotten worse.

With the onset of winter, large swaths of Arctic waters that should be frozen over by now remain ice free. As a result, the extent of the ice is currently running at record lows for this time of year.about:blankabout:blank

As of Oct. 29th, sea ice extent was 1.3 million square miles less than the median extent for the years 1981 through 2010. That area of ‘missing’ ice is about a third again as large as all of the U.S. states east of the Mississippi River.

Arctic Sea Ice Extent Comparison

During the latter part of October, the extent of Arctic sea ice has been at record lows. (Credit: NSIDC, with annotation added)

“The main factor is ocean heat,” says Walt Meier, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center. (By way of full disclosure, the NSIDC is based at the University of Colorado, where I direct the Center for Environmental Journalism.)

In September, sea surface temperatures in the Laptev Sea off Siberia climbed higher than 5 degrees C, or 41 F. “That’s insanely warm for the Arctic Ocean, especially in that region, far away from any warmer inflow from the Atlantic or Pacific.”

Meier notes that winds and waves have mixed some of that heat down into the water column. For ice to form on the surface, heat needs to be lost to the atmosphere. “So that’s where we are now,” he says. “The ocean still has heat, so ice is not yet forming. And that heat is going into the atmosphere.”

Northern Hemisphere temperature Outlook

The outlook for temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere through Nov. 13, as calculated by a model. The dark colors over the Arctic show where temperatures are forecast to be more than 10 degrees C warmer than normal. (Credit: WXCHARTS.com)

You can get a feel for this effect in the animation above, which shows a model forecast for how air temperatures near the surface in the Northern Hemisphere will vary from normal from late October through Nov. 13. Note the grayish colors in the Arctic just off Siberia.about:blankabout:blank

Here, temperatures are forecast to be 10 degrees C, and even more, above normal. This, according to Meier, is a result of all the heat escaping from open Arctic waters into the atmosphere.

“Normally at this time of year in that location, there’d be ice present and air temperatures can quickly drop as the ice insulates the air from the ocean,” he says.

Why is the ocean so warm? It’s tied to very early melting of the sea ice following winter last year. That occurred because of “extreme conditions,” Meier says. Southerly winds along the Siberian coast “brought warm air temperatures and also served to push the ice away from the coast, initiating the opening.”

Temperatures were so warm in Siberia, in fact, that wildfires began igniting there in May — which was very early in the season. (Scientists thought that in some cases these were “zombie fires,” which had started the previous year and continued to smolder under the snows of winter, re-emerging as soon as the snow melted.)

Thanks to the warm temperatures, large amounts of sea ice disappeared earlier in the season than usual, exposing the ocean surface to the warming rays of the Sun. Whereas ice has a very high albedo, meaning it reflects most of the sunlight that hits it, the relatively dark, low-albedo sea surface absorbs much of that energy, and so the waters warm.about:blankabout:blank

“The ice was already opening up by June 21,” Meier says. “So you had open water when the sun was at its maximum in the Northern Hemisphere — 24 hours of daylight in the Arctic bringing in energy to the low albedo ocean water. That served to melt more ice and heat up the ocean.”

Continued southerly winds may have also churned up some heat from the sub-surface ocean.

Now, with the Sun barely above the horizon along the Siberian coast, the waters are exposed to almost no solar radiation. And it now looks like enough heat has escaped from the ocean to allow ice to begin forming.

Arctic Sea Ice Concentration on Oct. 29, 2020

The concentration of Arctic sea ice as of Oct. 29, 2020. Ice has finally begun to form along the Siberian coast. But most of the region should already be iced over. (Credit: NSIDC)

You can see it in the bluish areas along the Siberian coast in the map above. About a week ago, there was little to no ice there.

Interestingly, once the ocean gives off sufficient heat to allow sea surface temperatures to fall low enough, ice can form rapidly, Meier says. So we should not be surprised to see the extent of the ice cover in the Arctic catching up in coming weeks.about:blankabout:blank

Moving forward, what should we expect? A delay in freeze-up makes the spring ice cover somewhat thinner, according to Meier. But the weather conditions during next year’s warm season will be much more important

Sea Ice Thickness

Trends in sea ice thickness and overall volume are an important indicator of Arctic climate change. This visualization of September sea ice thickness and volume from 1979 to 2020 is based on an ocean and sea ice model called PIOMAS. (Credit: Zachary Labe)

Over the long run, the impact of human-caused warming in the Arctic couldn’t be clearer. It can be seen in many ways. For example, every calendar month of the year has seen a long-term decline sea ice extent.

As the animation above shows, it can also be seen in a dramatic decline in the estimated volume and thickness of Arctic sea ice. As of the end of September, ice volume was just one quarter of what it was in 1979.

In A Heating-Up West, Must Business-As-Usual Conservation Be Interrupted?


A firefighter strolls through the aftermath of a burn. Photo courtesy US Dept. of Defense
A firefighter strolls through the aftermath of a burn. Photo courtesy US Dept. of Defense

EDITOR’S NOTE: In this column, Lance Olsen reviews reasons to accept that we can’t restore ecosystems to what they were, can’t keep them as they are, and that heresy may be our best path to hope.

                                                           By Lance Olsen
Throughout many decades, many in the forest and wildlife conservation communities have organized around concerns about the adverse effects of business-as-usual in the logging industry.
For many, grappling with these concerns has also become business-as-usual in the conservation community. Alas, business-as-usual conservation is increasingly unlikely to meet its goals.
I’ve long sympathized with conservationists’ business-as-usual concerns about logging, and still do. After all, they’ve been all-too-frequently justified, and all-too-frequently still are. There’s still good and necessary work to be done in this context. I stand by the men and women doing that work.
That said, along with these continuing concerns, I’ve increasingly come around to a view that forests and wildlife are now far less threatened by logging than by the consequences of our fossil-fuel economy. This may nowhere be more true than the dry interior western United States.

In this part of the world, there’s been increasing evidence that rising levels of greenhouse gases, principally carbon dioxide, will yield heat and drought enough to transform this semi-arid region’s forests. The options include transformation to a less dense, savanna-like forest of the same species, or to a “novel” forest composed of species unlike the familiar forest of today, or even to a landscape without trees.

The stakes are high, will only be getting higher as temperatures climb higher, and the risks extend well beyond rare and already-threatened plants and animals. Given the deep evidence I’ll consider here, we are all being forced to reconsider the future of even common, widespread species such as lodgepole pine and the mule deer.
As the West goes dry
A new book, Climate Change and Rocky Mountain Ecosystems, 2018, J.E. Halofsky, D.L. Peterson (eds.), brings some useful perspective for evaluating the new situation. More specifically for the region from Yellowstone to Glacier National Parks, Chapter Five of the new book, Effects of Climate Change on Forest Vegetation in the Northern Rockies needs special mention.
The very first sentence of Chapter Five’s abstract lays out the critical changes in clear terms. “Increasing air temperature, through its influence on soil moisture, is expected to cause gradual changes in the abundance and distribution of tree, shrub, and grass species throughout the Northern Rockies, with drought tolerant species becoming more competitive.”
This one sentence says a mouthful. Its described path from heat to drought takes us straight into the realm where drought tolerance will be critical to hope for the survival of grasses, shrubs, trees — and animal life associated with them.
Haunting, an evergreen forest in Yellowstone's Lower Geyser Basin has been turned to dead snags by geothermal heat. Might this become a widespread aesthetic in Greater Yellowstone as drought and higher temperatures eliminates forests evolved for the cold and what does it mean for the species specially adapted to them? Photo courtesy NPS
Haunting, an evergreen forest in Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin has been turned to dead snags by geothermal heat. Might this become a widespread aesthetic in Greater Yellowstone as drought and higher temperatures eliminates forests evolved for the cold and what does it mean for the species specially adapted to them? Photo courtesy NPS
The Nevada Department of Wildlife, for example, has found that, “Droughts are especially difficult on mule deer and their associated habitats,” and that “ the impacts of drought on Nevada’s mule deer have been significant.
Obviously enough, drought does no favors for any wild species, in any part of the world. Elephants, leopards, tigers are known to take hits from drought.

Periodic drought has long been bad news to life on earth. The worse news is that we can expect more of it, including its expansion across a wider expanse of the land base.

Periodic drought has long been bad news to life on earth. The worse news is that we can expect more of it, including its expansion across a wider expanse of the land base. For example, in 2006, the Journal of Hydrometeorology published findings that “ … the proportion of the land surface in extreme drought is predicted to increase from 1 percent for the present day to 30 percent by the end of the 21st century.”
This modeled expectation of expanding droughty areas has been variously confirmed by observed real-world trends since then. For example, a 2018 study found that the drylands of the interior western US have expanded eastward, and by140 miles.
This is gritty stuff, and not without implications. In fact, drought predicts the health and death of animals, first through its direct effect on the productivity and quality of animal habitat, with a subsequent indirect bottom-up effect on animals’ physical health and risk of mortality. In drought, food can be very scarce, which forces animals to sprawl out more widely in search for a bite to eat, only to get in trouble when their sprawl collides head-on with a sprawling human condition. In this collision, animals including bears can die as the ecosystem wilts.

For the conservation community, the take-home message is that conservation strategy that doesn’t account for drought is conservation with its head in the sand. The recently released Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy for the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem seems a prime example.

For the conservation community, the take-home message is that conservation strategy that doesn’t account for drought is conservation with its head in the sand. The recently released Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy for the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem seems a prime example. I ran a search of the 300-plus page document for drought, and got no results. Zero. Evidently, the d-word is too explosive for this government to mention even in some passing reference.
As the West heats up
Just as wildlife and forest conservationists can’t duck drought, we can’t avoid the reality that we’ve already passed through some important thresholds of heat, and that ecosystems will be taking hits from more and more of it.
Heat has consequences for species and ecosystems. By 2002, an article in Nature reported that, “Although we are only at an early stage in the projected trends of global warming, ecological responses to recent climate change are already clearly visible”
By 2004, Global Environmental Change could publish findings that, ”Between 1C and 2C increases in global mean temperatures most species, ecosystems and landscapes will be impacted and adaptive capacity will become limited.”
By 2006, it was already too late to halt the heat at .06C above the pre-fossil fuel era. In that year, biologist Camille Parmesan’s review of over 800 reports focused exclusively on wild species and ecosystems found that a third of species had already felt the effects of “recent, relatively mild climate change (global average warming of 0.6 C).”
Within a few years, it was already too late to halt the heat at 0.7C, and then too late to halt it at 0.85C. As of 2018, it’s already too late to halt the heat at a little over 1C, and it’s not going to stop climbing. Instead, species and ecosystems are likely to take hits from increasing heat for at least the next 30 years.
The Greater Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy, a document forged by the federal government and the states, is supposed to guide grizzly bear management forward into the future. And yet the document, at best, pays lip service to the largest landscape-level force already affecting the ecosystem—climate change. Olsen notes that transformation of habitat is certain to send bears ranging more widely and coming into conflict with people which could cause higher mortality. By not acknowledging this, he says, the agencies are being remiss. Photo courtesy NPS/Eric Johnston
The Greater Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy, a document forged by the federal government and the states, is supposed to guide grizzly bear management forward into the future. And yet the document, at best, pays lip service to the largest landscape-level force already affecting the ecosystem—climate change. Olsen notes that transformation of habitat is certain to send bears ranging more widely and coming into conflict with people which could cause higher mortality. By not acknowledging this, he says, the agencies are being remiss. Photo courtesy NPS/Eric Johnston
By 2016, an article in Earth’s Future reported that “… the historically hottest summers would become the norm for more than half of the world’s population within 20 years.”
In 2017, the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Association published findings that the record-breaking heat of  2015  “will be the new normal by 2040.”
Since then, the assorted sciences gathered under the banner of climate science have reported that it will be extremely difficult to halt the heat at 2C, let alone 1.5. And in May, 2018, an article in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences cited evidence that, if the world economy continues on it’s business-as-usual dependency on burning fossil fuels, we’re on course to the 4C scenario.
That study was no outlier, no weird departure from the rest of reports on a future of increasing heat. In 2017, scientists describing their work were saying, ”Our study indicates that if emissions follow a commonly used business-as-usual scenario, there is a 93 percent chance that global warming will exceed 4 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.”
If we let it our carbon dumping force heat to 4C, very much is very, very screwed.
In September of 2017, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interviewed Clive Hamilton, an experienced observer of climate science. According to Hamilton, ”No one wanted to pay attention to the implications of a world four degrees warmer… Then a few scientists said let’s have a conference and actually talk about it. …. It was then that I would buttonhole a couple of scientists and say: ‘Well, you know we’re speculating about this. But what do you really think is the situation?’ And one of them just looked at me and said: ‘We’re f–ked.'”
As more and more people begin to get their heads around the urgency of our climate crisis, the odds of avoiding 4C will likely improve. The bottom line here is that saving forests and wildlife requires — yes, requires — actual effort aimed at saving the atmosphere.
This new responsibility for conservation would keep wild habitats and species out of the fire but, sad to say, it won’t keep them out the frying pan. Even if the world does halt the heat short of 4C, a lot will remain at risk at 3, or even 2.
As with drought, conservation strategy that doesn’t account for heat is conservation with its head in the sand. Alas, again, the recently released Grizzly Bear Conservation Strategy is a prime example. Again, in running a search of its 300-plus pages, I found only three pages that make reference to temperature, and those few references left a lot unsaid about the risk grizzlies will be facing in an increasingly hotter world.
Some conservationist are beginning to shift gears
Noting that “Climate Change may undermine the effectiveness of current efforts to conserve wildlife and ecosystems,” a 2018 Wildlife Conservation Society report cites “examples of how conservationists are strategically altering their approaches to keep pace with climate change.”
WCS biologists say “our hope is that this report will help conservationists learn how to move beyond business-as-usual conservation approaches and make their work climate informed.”
They spell out a basic necessity for moving beyond business-as-usual conservation. “The first step is to consult the latest science on observed and projected climate impacts.”
The need for conservationists to get ready for change was identified three years earlier, in 2015. Writing for Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Paul R. Arnsworth  et al asked “Are conservation organizations configured for effective adaptation to global change? They opened their discussion by saying, “Conservation organizations must adapt to respond to the ecological impacts of global change.”

“They opened their discussion by saying, ‘Conservation organizations must adapt to respond to the ecological impacts of global change.'”

Amen to that. Global warming’s effect on climate is and for a long time will be forcing increasingly extensive change not just on trees but also on soils, grasses, shrubs, and the lives of wild animals.
These changes are and will be adding up to impact far in excess of anything logging could do in its wildest dreams of deregulation and subsidy. There is plausibly no better illustration of this sobering reality than in Figure 5 and Table 1 of Rocky Mountain Forests at Risk (see below).
Where’s the hope? 
There’s serious potential of heartbreak, despair and even a sinking feeling of hopelessness for conservationists who’ve devoted a career to saving familiar forests and wildlife from the excesses of logging, only to come face-to-face with losing them to the excesses of a fossil fuels economy. In a conversation with a wildlife biologist about this, he said if we level with people about the dangers of the climate situation, they’ll see it as a hopeless cause, throw their arms up in despair and walk away.
That’s a real risk. But there it is, and the bitterest pill takes form in the scenario of losses it’s already too late to stop, because of future heat that’s coming down the pipeline in the next few decades. When hotter and drier conditions are already forcing change on Rocky Mountain forests at only 1 Celsius above the fossil fuels era, there’s increasingly little reason to expect that upping the heat to 2 or 3C won’t endanger a lot of what we love.
Have a look at the graphic that speaks to forest cover outlook again, above. Among other things, that graphic illustrates the importance of latitude. For example, Glacier National Park is a higher latitude than Yellowstone, which raises hope that it will take less damaging hits to fir, pine, spruce — and the animal life associated with them.
Looked at another way, Yellowstone is at a higher latitude than points south, where the loss of familiar conifers is set to be even greater than for Yellowstone. IPCC’s 2007 report made that point pretty well. ”For widespread species such as lodgepole pine, a 3C temperature increase would increase growth in the northern part of its range, decrease growth in the middle, and decimate southern forests.”
One take-home message is relatively simple. As with real estate, hope for the the survival of species and systems is increasingly going to be partly a matter of location, location, location.
But there’s another, equally simple message that needs to be taken into account. Hope will also rest partly on traits of the species involved, and species differ in their tolerance for drought. This difference in species’ traits will be playing an increasingly decisive role in deciding the winners and losers that our fossil fuel economy and its creation of climate change will force on the Northern Rockies ecosystem
Many mountain forests could be transformed into savanna as they die or burn and conditions become too warm for "normal natural succession" to continue. It has consequences for many species. Photo courtesy BLM/Bob Wick
Many mountain forests could be transformed into savanna as they die or burn and conditions become too warm for “normal natural succession” to continue. It has consequences for many species. Photo courtesy BLM/Bob Wick
It’s worth repeating that key sentence that I referenced at the beginning: “Increasing air temperature, through its influence on soil moisture, is expected to cause gradual changes in the abundance and distribution of tree, shrub, and grass species throughout the Northern Rockies, with drought tolerant species becoming more competitive.”
This scenario carries a third simple message. Drought tolerant species might make it, but others will face higher risk of defeat — even with conservationists’ very best business-as-usual attempts to save them from logging.
This potentially discouraging scenario can be enough to thrust a conservation-minded individual — or group — into denial. Why? Psychoanalyst Rene Lertzman offers an answer. “Might we unconsciously deny what is staring us in the face because what is at stake is too painful to consider?” I think she’s onto something important with that question.

Psychoanalyst Rene Lertzman offers an answer. ‘Might we unconsciously deny what is staring us in the face because what is at stake is too painful to consider?'”

Alternatively, where denial yields to acceptance, the result doesn’t have to be enlightenment. Acceptance of painful new realities can, as my biologist friend worried, usher us into a feeling of hopelessness.
Barbara Betz wrote in the May 1968 issue of International Journal of Psychiatry, “Hopelessness is often derived from unfulfillable, rather than from merely unfulfilled, desires and wishes focused on impossible aims.” Anna Freud, the savvy psychologist daughter of famed father Sigmund Freud, put it succintly; In our dreams we can have our eggs cooked exactly how we want them, but we can’t eat them.
But our responses don’t need to end at hopelessness. In her 1968 article, Betz pointed out that the feeling of hopeless “diminishes with the development of capability to change aim.” She added the counterpart to hopelessness “is not just ‘hope’ but enthusiasm and zest.”
The time is now to change business-as-usual thinking
In his popular tune, The Gambler, Kenny Rogers says “Ya gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”
The question of when shows up four times in that chorus, and it’s critical to the hopes we can hold in a world that favors the persistence of drought tolerant ecosystems — at the expense of ecosystems close to our hearts’ desires. Is it time to walk away from forests and wildlife we hold dear, and devote our time and efforts to species that have a chance in a hotter, drier Northern Rockies region?
In 2007, Nature published “What to let go,” by Emma Marris. “Triage,” Marris wrote, “is a dirty word in some conservation circles, but,” she reminds us, “conservationists have long had to make decisions about what to save.” Amen.
“As more and more admit it,” she adds, “open discussion about how the decisions are best made — by concentrating on particular species, or particular places, or absolute costs, or any other criterion — becomes possible.”
Given what we know about the importance of drought tolerance and latitude, Marris’ references to “particular species” and “particular places” seem particularly apropos.
“Whichever criteria come into play,” Marris reminds us, “one thing remains constant. The decisions have to be made quickly.”  I’d only add that these decisions should have been made years ago, but that normal human resistance to change has kept the brakes applied.
 Aiming for a forest of drought tolerant trees
Picking my way through the Montana State Nursery’s catalog, I found four trees specifically described as drought tolerant, one of them “very drought tolerant.” Juniper was one of them, and it’s a familiar tree on many dry sites.
Big toothed maple and prairie poplar, according to the state nursery, usually establish themselves along waterways but, once established, tolerate drought pretty well. These two trees may thus have some potential for persistence of riparian systems important to many plant and animal species.
The fourth tree was bur oak, and what the state nursery said about that tree got my attention more than any of the others. While the others are capable of providing shade that will be increasingly valuable to many species as heat firms its grip, and shade cast on streams could grant added value to the prairie poplar and big toothed maple, the bur oak was for me a standout.
The nursery describes bur oak as “very drought tolerant.” Equally striking, it describes characteristics recognized for the whitebark pine. Just as the  pine periodically casts off cones with nuts providing food for bird, squirrel, and bear, the oak periodically casts off acorns. Birds and small mammals pounce on his periodic plenty, and bears have been known to pull down bur oak branches to eat acorns directly from the tree when they and other beneficiaries have already gobbled up the goodies fallen on the ground.
Business-as-usual conservation in the Northern Rockies has long been organized around the familiar fir, spruce, and pine ecosystems. These are the systems we know and love and, for many, perpetuating these forest is the desired future. A forest of juniper, prairie poplar, big toothed maple and bur oak would clearly be a novel forest and, for some conservationists, a heresy.
And yet, for at least some others, including me, a novel forest would just as clearly be preferable to no forest at all. Getting from here to there will plainly require departure from business as usual.
Given the latitude of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the national forests around the Park seem a reasonable enough place to start, so I’ve been pestering the Custer-Gallatin Forest to at least start thinking and talking out loud about it.
This will require a shift from the Forest Service business-as-usual approach of managing for ecosystems’ desired future conditions. The need for this shift was strongly underscored in no less a journal than Forest Ecology and Management. An article there by S.W. Golladay et al makes a forceful case for shifting our aims away desired future conditions, and aiming instead for achievable future conditions.
“We contend that traditional approaches to forest conservation and management will be inadequate given the predicted scale of social-economic and biophysical changes in the 21st century. New approaches … are urgently needed …,” they wrote. “These approaches acknowledge that change is inevitable and sometimes irreversible, and that maintenance of ecosystem services depends in part on novel ecosystems, i.e., species combinations with no analog in the past.”

Wildfires and weather extremes: It’s not coincidence, it’s climate change

Right on the heels of arguably the West Coast’s most intense heat wave in modern history comes the most ferocious flare-up of catastrophic wildfires in recent memory. Meanwhile, just a few hundred miles east, a 60-degree temperature drop over just 18 hours in Wyoming and Colorado was accompanied by an extremely rare late-summer dumping of up to 2 feet of snow.

These kinds of dystopian weather events, happening often at the same time, are exactly what scientists have been warning about for decades. While extreme weather is a part of the natural cycle, the recent uptick in the ferocity and frequency of these extremes, scientists say, is evidence of an acceleration of climate impacts, some of which were underestimated by climate computer models.

“This is yet another example of where uncertainty is not our friend,” says Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State. “As we learn more, we are finding that many climate change impacts, including these sorts of extreme weather events, are playing out faster and with greater magnitude than our models predicted.”

On Wednesday NOAA released its latest State of the Climate Report, which finds that just during the month of August the U.S. was hit by four different billion-dollar disasters: two hurricanes, huge wildfires and an extraordinary Midwest derecho.

Just one such extreme event can strain emergency resources — a situation West Coast firefighters find themselves in now. However, in two dramatic cases this summer, the nation was hit simultaneously with concurrent catastrophes, some of which had no precedent in modern history. It’s a concept scientists call compound events, and it is necessary to factor these confluences into future projections to properly estimate risk, response and resources.

In mid-August the West suffered through an extended heat wave which saw Death Valley surge to 130 degrees, the hottest temperature ever reliably measured on Earth. The tinderbox conditions caused by the heat, along with a rare lightning outbreak, sparked the first round of major wildfires in California this season, escalating into three of the four largest fires in state history. At about the same time a powerful derecho caused billions of dollars in damage in Iowa and Illinois, and Hurricane Laura plowed into the Gulf Coast of Louisiana as a Category 4 with 150 mph winds and 16 feet of storm surge.

Just three weeks later, and here we are again. This past weekend California experienced an even more intense heat wave, with the southern part of the state hitting 121 degrees west of the mountains for the first time in record-keeping history. Predictably, fires flared back up due to the severe heating and drying, and then went into overdrive as a wicked early-season cold front — which is also bringing heavy snow to the Rockies — brought a wind event through the mountains and valleys of the intermountain west.

In Washington state, an estimated 330,000 acres burned across the state on Monday, more than the total in each of the last 12 fire seasons. California has seen a record 2.3 million acres burn so far this year — more than 3 times the normal for an entire season (typically July through November), and 7 times the normal year to date.

NASA image shows locations of wildfires in red and plumes of smoke across the Western U.S. NASA

If it were just this fire season, one could chalk the extremity up to mere coincidence. But scientists say this is part of an ongoing upward trend, made clear by the data and well understood by science.

“There is little doubt that we’re witnessing an acceleration of fire activity in the West – be it in terms of burned area, number of large fires, fire growth, and of course direct and indirect impacts to people,” explains Dr. John Abatzoglou, climate professor at the University of California Merced.

Increase in California areas burned by wildfires, 1975 to 2015.WILLIAMS, ABATZOGLOU ET AL., EARTH’S FUTURE

Abatzoglou makes clear that there are many factors — not just climate change — that contribute to the escalation of fire activity. These include the increased settlement of people in fire-prone lands and a legacy of fire suppression in many lower-elevation forests, which led to years of heavy growth of trees and brush.

“We can focus on the bad fortune of the lightning siege around the San Francisco Bay Area, or the multitude of stupid human tricks that materialized in large wildfires, but the confluence of long-term and short-term environmental factors set the table for the 2020 fire season,” he said.

In other words, though climate change does not cause the heat waves or fires, it sets the stage so that when conditions are ripe, like the summer and fall of 2020, heat waves are more intense and fires burn more fiercely.


This summer has been extremely hot and dry in the West. According to NOAA, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah each had their warmest August on record. Research has found that heat waves are now larger, getting more intense and lasting longer than decades ago.  Specifically in California, extreme heat waves — like the ones of recent weeks — are now 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer due to climate change. By 2080, that same study finds such heat waves will intensify by another 3 to 5 degrees.

This week’s NOAA report also finds that the same general area in the West also experienced one of its driest Augusts on record. This short-term dry and hot pattern is mainly due to natural cycles in weather, and from season to season has the biggest impact on the amount of area burned because it determines how dry the forests and brush are.

“Across the Western U.S. forests, we find that climatic measures of fuel dryness explain about ¾ of the year-to-year variability in the burned area — highlighting that climate very strongly enables big fire seasons in warm-dry summers and inhibits widespread fire activity in cool-wet summers,” explains Abatzoglou.

But over the long term, human-caused climate change has been gradually drying out the atmosphere and the fuel. “The observed changes in fuel dryness [plus the] number of days of high fire danger have been particularly stark in the American West over the past half-century,” says Abatzoglou.

Since the 1970s the warm season in the West has heated up by 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit. This extra heat has increased the evaporation of moisture from the surface. While atmospheric moisture has also increased some, it has not increased nearly as fast as the temperature. That has caused a long-term “moisture deficit” and has accelerated the rate of foliage drying. This is part of the reason why, according to research, the West has entered into one of the worst megadroughts in the past 1,200 years.

recent study, co-authored by Abatzoglou, found a direct link with nearly all of the increase in summer forest-fire area during the period from 1972–2018 driven by the increased moisture deficit. To illustrate just how impactful the moisture deficit is, right now, as unprecedented wildfires burn out of control, the deficit is at record low levels in the majority of the Western U.S.

Another recent study from this spring found that the frequency of autumn days with extreme fire weather conditions has more than doubled since the 1980s, fueled by a combination of less rainfall and warmer temperatures.

But many scientists believe that there is more at play contributing to this extreme weather than simply the direct effects of warming and drying. One of those mechanisms is the indirect impacts of global warming on the most influential weather-maker on day-to-day conditions: the jet stream.

The speed and orientation of the jet stream — a river of fast-moving air currents in the atmosphere — determines the track, intensity and forward speed of most storm systems and also how cold or hot the weather is. The attributes of the jet stream at any given moment are determined largely by the placement of hot and cold air masses and the strength of the gradient between them. Because the Arctic has been warming at three times the rate of the rest of the globe, climate scientists know human-caused climate change is throwing the jet stream off-kilter. But how and to what extent is not totally understood.

A number of climate scientists believe that a warmer Arctic is slowing down the jet stream during certain times of year, resulting in a more wavy jet stream. As shown below, a wavy jet stream can catapult warm air northward into the Arctic and drive cold air far southward. This is exactly what happened during the catastrophic Midwest floods in 2019 and is also the kind of pattern we have right now, which is causing record low temperatures and extremely early season snow in the Rockies and Plains. A wavy jet stream is a normal part of nature, but climate change may be making it more amplified, resulting in more extremes.


“I think it’s a triple whammy — heat and drought, which are favored by climate change, and the extra added ingredient is the slower, wavier jet stream,” explains Mann. But he says the wavier jet stream isn’t well resolved by current models, thus they underestimate the extremity of weather events enhanced by climate change.

As for future fire seasons, Abatzoglou says we should expect extreme fires seasons like 2020’s to become the rule rather than the exception.

“While the extent of the ongoing fire siege is beyond what most have seen in the West, the alignment of ingredients for such fire seasons is becoming more favorable as a result of climate change and land-use practices,” he said. “We should expect, adapt, and prepare for similar years moving forward.”

Warming oceans are trapping shellfish in hotspots they can’t escape

A new study has found marine creatures like mussels could be vulnerable to a phenomenon known as "elevator to extinction," in which increasing temperatures are driving them towards new, less secure habitats
A new study has found marine creatures like mussels could be vulnerable to a phenomenon known as “elevator to extinction,” in which increasing temperatures are driving them towards new, less secure habitats

Many species are expected to be displaced as the world continues to warm and natural habitats are transformed, and this is true both on land and at sea. Scientists studying more than half a century of data on bottom-dwelling shellfish have uncovered evidence of a destructive feedback loop, in which generations of these marine creatures are becoming trapped in warmer areas that threaten their survival.

The research was carried out at Rutgers University and throws up some counter-intuitive revelations concerning the migration of marine species. Many creatures will respond to warming waters by traveling to cooler areas for refuge, but the scientists found a number of species that do just the opposite, a phenomenon they call “wrong-way migration.”

These include sea scallops, blue mussels, clams and quahogs, which the team notes are valuable resources for the shellfish industry, with the team drawing its conclusions from more than six decades of data on more than 50 species off the north-east coast of the US. Around 80 percent of the species studied could no longer be found in their traditional habitats, turning up in shallower, warmer waters instead.

“These deeper, colder waters of the outer shelf should provide a refuge from warming so it is puzzling that species distributions are contracting into shallower water,” says lead author of the study Heidi Fuchs.

Once there, they are already less likely to survive, but the ones that do and go on to reach adulthood become part of a destructive feedback loop, with these warmer regions again causing the earlier spawning of their larvae, and the cycle then repeats.

While this study only looks at bottom-dwelling invertebrates from one general location, the findings are consistent with trends observed in other animals whose habitat is being affected by climate change. This is sometimes called the “elevator to extinction” phenomenon, where animals like birds and butterflies are driven to higher and higher altitudes to escape increasing temperatures until they can no longer be found in areas they originally inhabited.

Are Tardigrades The Most Indestructible Animals on Earth? There’s a Close Contender

(Steve Gschmeissner/Science Photo Library/Getty Images)





Humans wouldn’t survive two minutes in space, but in 2007, two species of tardigrades were released into space and then collected again – still alive.

Tardigrades are a group of tiny invertebrate species that live all over the world – you can probably find one yourself on a piece of moss in your back garden or local park. Actually, you can find them pretty much anywhere – on a mountain top, at the bottom of the sea or even in a volcano!

Astrobiologist Dr Jon Stone from McMaster University summarises how they can survive a battery of extreme conditions, including temperatures as cold as -180°C for 14 days or oven heat of 151°C for 30 minutes.

They can also survive “5000 Gy gamma radiation (which is the radiation type that, in the Marvel Universe, transformed David Banner into the Incredible Hulk). Where 5-10 Gy kills humans” says Dr Stone.

They can also survive being in a frozen state for 30 years and potentially up to 100 years, although that long is still contested writes Dr Stone.

But are tardigrades the most indestructible animals on Earth? We asked eight biologists who study them – 63 percent said “Yes” meaning there is still some debate on this question. Here’s what we learned from experts.

Why are tardigrades so indestructible?

When conditions are difficult to live in, tardigrades curl up into a ball called a tun. When in a tun, the tardigrade goes into a kind of ‘paused’ state, called ‘cryptobiosis’.

During cryptobiosis, animals don’t move, grow or reproduce, but they are protected from extreme conditions. There are multiple types of cryptobiosis depending on what conditions you are dealing with.

The best-studied type is called ‘anhydrobiosis’, which protects from cells drying out when there is no water.

If cells dry out, lots of things can get damaged like their DNA and membranes. When some animals undergo anhydrobiosis, their cells become filled with a sugar called trehalose, which protects the cell contents until there is water again.

Anhydrobiosis in tardigrades was discovered way back in 1702, when scientist Anton von Leewenhoek dried out and revived the tardigrades he found on house roofs. Tardigrades can remain in cryptobiosis with no food or water for years, for at least 30 years if frozen.

Marine tardigrades are not indestructible

There are more than 1,400 known species of tardigrades and each differs in their ability to undergo different types of cryptobiosis. Biologist Dr William Miller From Baker University explains, “Terrestrial tardigrades in cryptobiosis are very resistant to destruction … But marine and freshwater tardigrades do not exhibit cryptobiosis, and thus are very destructible.”

Similarly, only some species of tardigrades make trehalose, the sugar substance that protects cells during anhydrobiosis.

The species of tardigrades that don’t make trehalose may have some other tricks to protect them from harsh conditions like special proteins that turn into a glass-like substance to protect cells. There is lots of interesting research to be done to understand this set of survival tools, but it’s clear tardigrades can’t all be lumped together.

Some things that can destroy a tardigrade

Generally tardigrades are way more resistant to changes in their environment than most animals. They are often studied in an astrophysical context – for example identifying whether they would survive if Earth was hit by an asteroid.

However, this doesn’t mean they are indestructible against everything – as expert Dr Dennis Persson puts it, “Tardigrades are certainly one of the most stress-tolerant animals on Earth, but they are very easily destroyed with the prick of a needle, or eaten by other animals, fungi and protists.”

Although tardigrades are resilient in some ways, they are vulnerable to things that most animals are in danger of, such as predators and infections.

Tardigrades vs Nematodes

Working out whether tardigrades are the most indestructible animals, we need to know about the competition. Ecologist Dr Diego Fontaneto explains that ‘other animals can survive what we consider extreme conditions for life.

Among them, there are nematodes and rotifers, which share similar life-history strategies, habitats, and body size with tardigrades. These animals survive desiccation and freezing as much as tardigrades, if not even better than tardigrades.’

Other animals that have the cryptobiosis trick up their sleeves include nematode worms, some kinds of shrimp, and even some species of plants and yeast! Nematodes have been particularly well studied, and paleobiologist Dr Graham Budd notes that “The record for survival in a dehydrated state is held by the nematode Tylenchus polyhypnus at 39 years.”

And the tardigrade Vs nematode battle has not been verified yet. “In general, as different animals have different survival capabilities in different conditions, it is difficult to single one type out as the ‘most resilient ever’,” says Dr Budd.

Takeaway: Tardigrades may be the most indestructible animal, but they are not resistant to any type of harm and many experts say Nematodes are a close challenger to this title. Despite the debate, it’s certain that we are only just beginning to learn which creatures can cope in extreme environments, and how they do it.

Article based on 8 expert answers to this question: Are tardigrades the most indestructible animal on Earth?

This expert response was published in partnership with independent fact-checking platform Metafact.io. Subscribe to their weekly newsletter here.

Flex Alert issued as California expects severe heat over Labor Day weekend

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California will roast in dangerous heat through the Labor Day weekend, forecasters said Thursday, and options for cooling off may be limited by coronavirus concerns at beaches and calls for energy conservation that could limit use of air conditioning at home.

The withering hot, dry air also could create conditions ripe for more wildfires, even as blazes ignited by a lightning blitz in August continue to burn and foul the air with smoke, authorities said.


A strong ridge of high pressure building over the western U.S. is expected to send temperatures climbing Friday in Southern California and then spread the heat northward, peaking on Sunday or Monday, the National Weather Service said.

Many temperature records are likely to fall and there is a chance that some all-time record highs will be recorded, the Los Angeles region weather office said.

“These extreme max temps, combined with lows in the mid-70s to lower 80s will make Sunday one of the most hazardous in recent memory,” the office said.

With temperatures predicted to be 10 to 20 degrees above normal in California and high heat elsewhere in the West potentially limiting the availability of power to import, the manager of the state electrical grid issued a Flex Alert calling for voluntary conservation Saturday through Monday between the hours of 3 p.m. and 9 p.m.

The California Independent System Operator also ordered power generators to postpone routine maintenance and restore any out-of-service transmission lines Saturday through Monday. Cal ISO also noted that high overnight temperatures don’t allow electrical infrastructure to cool down.

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The power concern follows a mid-August heat wave that strained the grid to the point where the Cal ISO ordered utilities to implement brief rolling blackouts for the first time since 2001. Officials said customers’ conservation significantly helped.

“It was an important factor indeed,” said Operations Vice President Eric Schmitt. “We’re asking for that kind of support again as we go into this weekend.”

Authorities, meanwhile, hoped to prevent a surge in COVID-19 infections that could occur if people engage in traditional Labor Day weekend activities.

Los Angeles County, the nation’s most populous, did not plan to close beaches but health authorities warned that could happen if they become too crowded, and masks will be required when people are out of the water.

Up the coast, Santa Barbara County planned to allow use of the water and active uses of the beach such as running or walking but no sunbathing. Monterey County said people could cross the sand to reach the water but otherwise barred use of beaches.

Such measures were not in place on the entire coast. Surfing mecca Huntington Beach, for example, was keeping its famous shoreline fully open.

The brewing heat wave was also expected to bring another challenge to thousands of firefighters who have been making progress on numerous wildfires, including massive complexes of multiple fires ignited by lightning last month.

“Firefighters are closely monitoring weather conditions, as extreme heat is expected over the weekend,” the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said in a statement.

The fires have destroyed more than 3,200 structures, including homes, and there have been eight deaths. More than 12,400 people remained evacuated Thursday.

East Antarctic Melting Hotspot Identified by Japanese Expedition – Ice Melting at Surprisingly Fast Rate

Japanese Icebreaker Ship Shirase

The Japanese icebreaker ship Shirase near the tip of the Shirase Glacier during the 58th Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition. Credit: Kazuya Ono

Ice is melting at a surprisingly fast rate underneath Shirase Glacier Tongue in East Antarctica due to the continuing influx of warm seawater into the Lützow-Holm Bay.

Hokkaido University scientists have identified an atypical hotspot of sub-glacier melting in East Antarctica. Their findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, could further understandings and predictions of sea level rise caused by mass loss of ice sheets from the southernmost continent.

The 58th Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition had a very rare opportunity to conduct ship-based observations near the tip of East Antarctic Shirase Glacier when large areas of heavy sea ice broke up, giving them access to the frozen Lützow-Holm Bay into which the glacier protrudes.

“Our data suggests that the ice directly beneath the Shirase Glacier Tongue is melting at a rate of 7–16 meters per year,” says Assistant Professor Daisuke Hirano of Hokkaido University’s Institute of Low Temperature Science. “This is equal to or perhaps even surpasses the melting rate underneath the Totten Ice Shelf, which was thought to be experiencing the highest melting rate in East Antarctica, at a rate of 10–11 meters per year.”

Factors Influencing Melting of Shirase Glacier

Warm water flows into Luetzow-Holm Bay along a deep underwater ocean trough and then flows upwards along the tongue’s base, warming and melting the base of Shirase Glacier Tongue. Credit: Daisuke Hirano et al., Nature Communications, August 24, 2020

The Antarctic ice sheet, most of which is in East Antarctica, is Earth’s largest freshwater reservoir. If it all melts, it could lead to a 60-meter rise in global sea levels. Current predictions estimate global sea levels will rise one meter by 2100 and more than 15 meters by 2500. Thus, it is very important for scientists to have a clear understanding of how Antarctic continental ice is melting, and to more accurately predict sea level fluctuations.

Lunch on Shirase Glacier Tongue

Daisuke Hirano (center) with a helicopter pilot (left) and a field assistant (right) having lunch on the floating Shirase Glacier Tongue. Credit: Yuichi Aoyama

Most studies of ocean–ice interaction have been conducted on the ice shelves in West Antarctica. Ice shelves in East Antarctica have received much less attention, because it has been thought that the water cavities underneath most of them are cold, protecting them from melting.

During the research expedition, Daisuke Hirano and collaborators collected data on water temperature, salinity, and oxygen levels from 31 points in the area between January and February 2017. They combined this information with data on the area’s currents and wind, ice radar measurements, and computer modeling to understand ocean circulation underneath the Shirase Glacier Tongue at the glacier’s inland base.

The scientists’ data suggests the melting is occurring as a result of deep, warm water flowing inwards towards the base of the Shirase Glacier Tongue. The warm water moves along a deep underwater ocean trough and then flows upwards along the tongue’s base, warming and melting the ice. The warm waters carrying the melted ice then flow outwards, mixing with the glacial meltwater.

The team found this melting occurs year-round, but is affected by easterly, alongshore winds that vary seasonally. When the winds diminish in the summer, the influx of the deep warm water increases, speeding up the melting rate.

“We plan to incorporate this and future data into our computer models, which will help us develop more accurate predictions of sea level fluctuations and climate change,” says Daisuke Hirano.

Reference: “Strong ice-ocean interaction beneath Shirase Glacier Tongue in East Antarctica” by Daisuke Hirano, Takeshi Tamura, Kazuya Kusahara, Kay I. Ohshima, Keith W. Nicholls, Shuki Ushio, Daisuke Simizu, Kazuya Ono, Masakazu Fujii, Yoshifumi Nogi and Shigeru Aoki, 24 August 2020, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-17527-4

This study was supported by Grants-in-Aids for Scientific Research of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT; JP17K12811, JP17H01615, JP25241001, JP17H01157, JP17H06316, JP17H06317, JP17H06322, JP17H06323, JP17H04710, JP26740007, JP19K12301, and JP20K12132).

Antarctica: 60% of ice shelves at risk of fracture, research suggests

Collapse of shelves would accelerate loss of Antarctic ice sheet and increase sea-level rise

Fracture at the front of Ross ice shelf, the largest in Antarctica. A platform of ice nearly four times the size of the UK is at risk of collapse.
 Fracture at the front of Ross ice shelf, the largest in Antarctica. A platform of ice nearly four times the size of the UK is at risk of collapse. Photograph: Martin Wearing/PA

Approximately 60% of Antarctica’s ice shelves could be vulnerable to fracture, accelerating the loss of the Antarctic ice sheet and increasing sea-level rise, according to a paper.

Antarctica’s ice shelves, floating extensions of the ice sheet, help slow the flow of ice into the ocean. But if these shelves fracture and then collapse, the flow of melting glaciers into the oceans accelerates.

A study published in the journal Nature has mapped areas where ice shelves hold back upstream ice and are susceptible to “hydrofracture”, where meltwater flows into crevasses and fissures in the ice and enlarges them, potentially triggering the collapse of the ice shelf.

This process could accelerate the loss of Antarctic ice more than some climatic models predict as atmospheric warming increases. The study follows scientists’ recent announcement that Earth has lost 28tn tonnes of ice from its surface since 1994.

Most climatic models do not include the impact of hydrofracturing in their calculations, although one 2016 paper did account for them in a simpler way than the new study.

Hydrofracturing can only occur if the surface of an ice shelf is inundated with meltwater. Large pools of meltwater have existed in many areas of Antarctica for decades without causing the collapse of an ice shelf because the flow of water into surface fissures is slow or refreezes.

A tributary ice stream flowing from the Transantarctic mountains into the Ross ice shelf.
 A tributary ice stream flowing from the Transantarctic mountains into the Ross ice shelf. Photograph: Martin Wearing/PA

While some areas are not susceptible to fracture, Ching-Yao Lai of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and colleagues identified that 60% of the Antarctic ice shelf was both slowing the flow of ice into the ocean and also vulnerable to fracture.

While fractures in the ice are visible in satellite imagery, manual mapping is impractical because of the extent of the ice. So Lai and colleagues used machine learning to identify fracture-like features in satellite pictures of Antarctica, before modelling which fractures were vulnerable to hydrofracturing.

They developed a model to predict where fractures could form and found close agreement with the fractures mapped by their machine learning algorithm.

Lai said: “We predicted that the ice-shelves areas that can collapse due to hydrofracture are mostly the crucial part of ice shelves that hold back the upstream flow of ice sheets. Thus the loss of these ice-shelf areas due to hydrofracture can substantially affect the flow of ice sheets into the ocean.

“But predicting how much and how fast the loss of Antarctic ice and sea-level rise will occur due to the hydrofracturing process will require coupling our new fracture model with an ice-sheet and climate model, which is an important next step.”

The researchers hope their fracture model can help create more accurate models of the fate of the ice sheets, which together with climatic modelling will produce more accurate predictions of sea-level rise, which scientists believe could exceed one metre by the century’s end.

The researchers warned that while many areas of Antarctic meltwater were not currently likely to cause the hydrofracture of the ice beneath, with global heating these areas could become newly at risk in the future.

“Increased meltwater ponding in resilient locations will not lead to widespread hydrofracturing according to our analysis,” the authors wrote. “However, predictions of future melt suggest that melt rates seen in locations that experience meltwater ponding today could become widespread by 2100 under high-emissions scenarios.”

Tesla owner caught and charged for animal cruelty, EV community up in arms



There are lines that must never be crossed. For the Tesla community, one such line was crossed recently, after a video was shared on Twitter showing a fellow Tesla owner abandoning a yellow labrador at Orchards Park in Vancouver, WA. The clip was quite shocking, as it showed the dog’s owner seemingly tricking the pooch before coldly leaving it behind.

The incident spread across the Tesla community over the weekend, and it did not take long before numerous netizens were calling for the dog’s owner to be reprimanded. KATU News reporter Kellee Azar took to Twitter to voice her frustration at the incident as well, stating that “no dog, animal or person should be treated this way.”

Fortunately, the incident was recorded by a neighboring resident’s surveillance camera. Amidst the video’s spread on social media, an investigation was promptly started and handled by the Clark County Animal Protection and Control, and it was not long before the abandoned pooch was found. In a later social media post, animal shelter “I Paw’d it Forward” noted that the yellow lab was safe.

That being said, “I Paw’d it Forward” has explained in an update on its official Facebook page that the yellow labrador involved in the incident, 13-year-old Henry the Dog, won’t be up for adoption until the investigation was completed. The announcement was done after numerous people volunteered to take him in. In this light, at least, Henry seems to be heading to a loving home in the near future.

As of the Tesla owner who abandoned Henry, she has been identified and cited for animal cruelty. The update was related by Clark County Animal Protection and Control on Saturday. In a statement to KOIN 6 News, a program manager from the organization stated that animal control officers were able to identify the woman in the video, and that she was interviewed the same afternoon. While authorities did not reveal the name of Henry’s owner, they opted not to disclose her name to the public.

Part of the Tesla community’s outrage on the incident is partly due to the fact that Teslas themselves are actually one of the most pet-friendly vehicles available today. This is evident in the company’s efforts to make its electric cars as safe for pets as possible. A good example of this is represented by Dog Mode, which allows owners to maintain their vehicles’ cabin temperature even when they are not around.

Scientists Attribute Record-Shattering Siberian Heat and Wildfires to Climate Change

A decade of brutal Arctic heat waves increased emissions from fires and permafrost, melted heat-reflecting sea ice and pushed the High North climate toward collapse.


JUL 15, 2020


A view of a forest fire in central Yakutia from a helicopter. Credit: Yevgeny Sofroneyev\TASS via Getty Images

Siberia’s scorching, 100-degree temperature record made headlines in late June, but it was just the latest spike in a decade of historic heat waves across the Arctic that also set records for wildfires, thawing permafrost and melting sea ice. Such extremes, scientists said, show that Arctic warming is accelerating to outpace all but the most dire climate projections.

Intensifying warming in the Arctic trickles down to the rest of the world, melting Greenland’s ice to raise sea levels and flood coastal communities. It also shifts the paths of storms to intensify droughts, heat waves and flooding in more populated lower latitudes.

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Siberia’s overall temperatures were more than 9 degrees Fahrenheit above average from January to June. The prolonged heat wave would have been impossible in a climate that had not been warmed by human greenhouse gas emissions, according to research released Wednesday by World Weather Attribution, a team of scientists that studies how warming influences the intensity and frequency of meteorological extremes.

At the current level of warming, about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit above the pre-industrial era, such a heat wave could be expected once every 130 years, but if emissions aren’t cut, they could be commonplace by the end of the century, the scientists concluded in their study, which hasn’t been peer reviewed yet.

Lead author Andrew Ciavarella, of the United Kingdom’s national weather service, said the findings, which showed that the changing climate increased the chances of the prolonged Siberian heat by at least 600 times, are staggering. Global warming not only increased the likelihood of the six-month Siberian heat wave, but also increased its temperatures “by at least 2, and probably 3 degrees Celsius (3.6 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit),” he said.

A containment boom deployes during a major cleanup operation following a fuel spill at combined heat and power plant in Siberia. Credit: Kirill Kukhmar\TASS via Getty Images

Regional impacts of the heat wave included large swarms of silk moths that, along with the soaring temperatures, made forests more fire-prone, said co-author Olga Zolina, with the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology. The heat wave also melted permafrost, which caused roads to crumble and a storage tank to collapse, spilling 21,000 tons of oil into a river.

“The heat wave is not only important because of people,” she said. “The Arctic is important for forming weather and circulation. The high temperatures are really important for the whole globe.”

Siberian Temperatures Climbed Off the Charts—Again

Persistent wind patterns contributed to the unusually warm winter and spring over western Siberia and the extreme early summer heat over the Arctic portion of the Russian province. That fits with recent research showing that the jet stream, which carries weather systems from west to east, is looping farther north and south more frequently, and even getting stuck in those areas, said Susan Conard, a climate researcher at George Mason University and the editor of the International Journal of Wildland Fire.

Those atmospheric patterns are changing and intensifying Rossby Waves—slow-moving ripples in oceans and air circling the globe that form as a result of the rotation of the Earth and affect the planet’s weather. “Over time, it seems quite apparent that these atmospheric patterns that change and intensify the Rossby waves have changed,” she said.

Other studies have shown that changes in the jet stream and Rossby Waves have contributed to extreme ice melt in Greenland, as well as to floods, heat waves and droughts in more temperate regions of the planet.

“When you have an ‘upward’ loop in the jet stream, the air masses are drawn up inside the loop,” said Conard, who spent years studying Siberian forests. “In most of the U.S., that brings moist air from the Gulf of Mexico. In Asia and Eastern Europe, however, the result is warm, dry air coming across desert areas, or further east across tall mountains that dry the air.”

In addition to its warmth, the last winter in Siberia was so dry that, by June, soil moisture was at a record low. That’s another factor heating the region, because if soil is moist, incoming heat energy dissipates through evaporation. If it’s dry, the ground absorbs the heat energy and warms the air above it, said Felix Pithan, a scientist with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research.

The warm and dry conditions continued from winter through early summer, priming the forests and tundra for wildfires that, in just two months, emitted about 60 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, more than the annual emissions of mid-size countries like Hungary and Portugal. In the last two years, Siberian fires emitted more carbon dioxide than all the fires in the region during the previous 16 years, according to Thomas Smith, a climate researcher and geographer with the London School of Economics.

Along with direct greenhouse gas emissions, the heat and fires are speeding the thaw of permafrost in some areas, and the warmth over Siberia has accelerated the summer melting of sea ice to a record pace in the adjacent Arctic Ocean. Last year, parts of Alaska experienced similar extreme conditions, and the year before that, northern Scandinavia was blistered by extreme heat and fires.

The effects of this year’s persistent Siberian warmth are likely to last so long that it may be misleading to call it a heat wave, said Anders Levermann at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research.

“The idea of a heat wave is that, at some point, it ends and that you’re going back to normal,” the researcher said. “But if, for example, you thaw the permafrost, you are not going back to normal. You leave a scar, in a sense.”

Levermann said the rapid dwindling of sea ice is another strong sign the entire Arctic system is collapsing. When all the sea ice is all gone in 20 years or so, the Arctic will be in a quantitatively different state. That is likely to affect the climate across large swaths of the Northern Hemisphere, including the mid-latitudes where most people in North America and Eurasia live.

Lingering Heat Impacts in Alaska

Exactly a year ago, Alaska was enduring a heat wave as dramatic as this year’s in Siberia. University of Alaska, Fairbanks climate scientist Rick Thoman said he was astonished when Anchorage broke it’s all-time high temperature by 5 degrees Fahrenheit, reaching 90 degrees on July 4 during a heat wave that re-wrote the record books in many Alaskan communities.

And just like Siberia, the Alaskan summer heatwave followed an exceptionally warm winter and spring. In early February 2019, archaeologist Anne Jensen tweeted about the unusual conditions in the northernmost town in the United States: “It’s February, the coldest month of the year.  We have open water in front of Utqiagvik.  It is 30 F out at 11:20 at night. Strange days indeed.” Just two years earlier the average temperature there changed so fast that the weather station’s official instruments and computer programs couldn’t keep pace.

In spring and early summer of 2019 the intensifying heat over Alaska accelerated the meltdown of bright, reflective sea ice along the Alaska coast, enabling the ocean to soak up heat, which, in turn, magnified warmth over Alaskan coastal areas and spread inland to drive record heat and wildfires across the state.

The year before that, extreme heat and wildfires spread across the Scandinavian Arctic, following two years with repeated heat waves over the Central Arctic. The timeline of extremes includes a 2012 heat wave that triggered unprecedented melting across most of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Overall, Alaska and the Arctic have warmed more since 1990 than in the previous 90 years. This year’s Siberian heat is another dramatic spike in that trend.

“The really outstanding thing in Siberia is that they have been exceptionally warm for months,” Thoman said. “The fact they’ve been running 5 to 10 degrees Celsius (9 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal for most of this year, are anomalies for that kind of time span that are mind-boggling.”

But as shocking as they are, the annual heat waves hopscotching through the Arctic shouldn’t be surprising, Thoman said.

“This is all exactly what you expect,” he said “With the trend of global warming, someplace is going to be really, really extreme nearly every year.”

Thoman said that many areas have crossed thresholds leading to abrupt change. Given the amount of heat going into the ocean, it’s not physically reasonable to expect the system to go back to how it was, he said.

The 2019 Alaska heat wave contributed to “unprecedented multi-species deaths,” reported from western Alaskan coastal communities, he said, but aside from the growing wildfire threat, his biggest concern is its impact on Alaska indigenous cultures.

“Communities are resilient, but changes are happening so fast, on top of the other problems, it’s stretching the capacity to adapt to the limit,” he said, noting that the lack of relocation plans for imminently threatened communities like Shishmaref or Kivalina was an  “Alaska-specific failure”.

The effects of Alaska’s record-warm summer persisted through subsequent seasons, particularly with regard to sea ice.

“We had a cold winter …  and yet, overall, Bering Sea ice extent was near record low much of the winter,” he said. “This year, we saw the greatest March ice loss of record, a direct result of the heat of last summer. The waters were so warm it took a long time to work that warmth off, so the ice that did form was shallow.”

At this point, the warming in the Arctic is so strong that “it’s swamping all other climate signals” like natural ocean warming and cooling cycles.

A Vicious Circle of Melting Permafrost and Global Warming

For climatologists, one of the biggest concerns about persistent Arctic warming is the threat to permafrost, a deep layer of frozen ground that releases vast amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide when it thaws.

The melting has already advanced to the point that, even during colder winters, such as the last one in Alaska, the permafrost won’t refreeze, said Vladimir Romanovsky, a permafrost expert at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Every year, a little more thaws.

“It’s a very tedious process, thawing about 5-10 centimeters (2 to 4 inches) per year, but it’s a completely new situation compared to 15 years ago,” he said.

The thawing also enables water to drain from the surface of the permafrost, leaving it drier and more easy to ignite with wildfires, he said. And global warming also increases the source of ignitions as the moisture and heat it adds to the atmosphere brings more thunderstorms, he added.

Emissions from the burning forests and melting permafrost are feeding an increasingly vicious circle of warming.

“We are going to see more fires and more severe fires,” he said. “They will cover more areas and burn more deeply into the organic layer, and this will trigger more thawing of permafrost.”

“The thawing will accelerate significantly,” he said. In a few decades, permafrost “could be thawing at the rate of 1.6 feet per year, spreading across much of the Alaskan interior. That will be a massive change in the environment.”

Romanovsky also monitors permafrost on remote Nunavut Territory islands in the Canadian Arctic. The changes there, he said, are even more unexpected than in Alaska and Siberia, and show how warming is intensifying and spreading across the entire Arctic.

There, on some of the most northward land of the planet, maximum summer temperatures since 2006 have increased from just a few degrees above freezing to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, the summer permafrost thaw has increased from about six-inches deep to between 15 and 23 inches—”enough to thaw massive ice layers and physically change the landscape,” said Romanovsky, who in that time has seen flat, unvegetated land fill with troughs and plants.

Arctic Warming Scars Scandinavia With Sinkholes, Landslides

In Scandinavia, the extreme heat of recent summers has penetrated even deeper into the frozen ground. At a research site at Janssonhaugen, at 78 degrees north in the Svalbard archipelago north of Norway, permafrost 130 feet deep has warmed by nearly a full degree Fahrenheit since 1998.

But extreme summer warmth has been linked to even more rapid collapse of ice-rich permafrost, said Ketil Isaksen, a senior scientist with the Norwegian Meteorological Institute.

Such abrupt thaws “can be triggered by a single weather extreme, like this year’s warm spring and summer in Siberia,” he said.

The combined effects of warm air temperatures, fires and water spreading through the ground can “thaw through meters of permafrost within a short time—much more rapidly than would be caused by increasing air temperature alone,” Isaksen said.

In the Nordic Arctic, rapid thaw brings huge landslides and sinkholes, he added. About 20 percent of the northern permafrost region appears to be vulnerable to such abrupt thaw, according to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Isaksen said the 2018 heat wave in Scandinavia was most noteworthy not for its impacts on permafrost, but because it fueled widespread, intense and persistent drought.

“The drought started early, in May,” he said. “When the rainfall came in August, it was too late to save the crops. In Norway, almost 200 million euros were paid in compensation for the crop failure in 2018.”

The extreme heat and drought also increased electricity prices, closed power plants for lack of cooling water, emptied reservoirs and led to water restrictions in many communities, he said. They also spurred “the most extreme forest fire period in Sweden and Norway in modern history.”

Arctic warming kicked into high gear in Scandinavia about 15 to 20 years ago, said Lars Holger Pilö, an archaeologist who scours melting snow fields and ice patches for remnants of ancient civilizations.

In addition to bringing floods, landslides and wildfires, the heat is also affecting wildlife, he said. Reindeer, for example, seek out snow and ice patches to avoid biting bugs during the summer. As those refuges melt away, they move around more and eat less, which reduces the weight of calves, leaving them less likely to survive the following winter. The reindeer are also affected by winter melts, which, when they refreeze, form ice caps over the animals’ forage, making it harder for them to find any food at all, he said.

The current pace of warming in the Arctic has generally been underestimated by climate models, said Xavier Fettweis, a University of Liége climate researcher who focuses on polar regions. Only the models showing the highest levels of warming of the climate by greenhouse gases match the current rate of warming, he said.

As if to underscore that point, Fettweis recently posted on Twitter that new record high temperatures may have been recorded near the North Pole on July 5 and July 6. If the current trend in greenhouse gas emissions continues, the Arctic could heat up by as much as 29 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, according to new climate models, he said.

Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann said the heat wave in Siberia is “consistent overall with a slower, wavier jet stream, leading to more persistent weather extremes.” Several recent studies have shown how global warming can cause those jet stream changes, he said.

He also noted that weather extremes in the High North have exceeded most climate models’ projections because those computer simulations are based on broad climate averages over wide areas. They also can’t account very well for the impacts of vicious cycles of warming like those involving permafrost and wildfires.

“This is indeed part of a larger pattern of record weather extremes in recent years that undoubtedly are exacerbated by human-caused climate change,” he said.