The International Polar Year: “Arctic sea ice will probably not recover”

Some of the top polar scientists in the world have concluded (boldface in original):

Our main conclusions so far indicate that there is a very low probability that Arctic sea ice will ever recover. As predicted by all IPCC models, Arctic sea ice is more likely to disappear in summer in the near future. However it seems like this is going to happen much sooner than models predicted, as pointed out by recent observations and data reanalysis undertaken during IPY and the Damocles Integrated Project. The entire Arctic system is evolving to a new super interglacial stage seasonally ice free, and this will have profound consequences for all the elements of the Arctic cryosphere, marine and terrestrial ecosystems and human activities. Both the atmosphere and the ocean circulation and stratification (ventilation) will also be affected.

This is what U.S. experts have been saying for a while (see NSIDC: Arctic melt passes the point of no return, “We hate to say we told you so, but we did”). Though not every scientist got the memo (see here). And this is just one in a long line of climate impacts coming up faster than the models projected (see here for a list).

But what I think is quite interesting is that this is the first time I’ve seen such leading polar scientists elaborate so bluntly the potentially dire consequences of an ice-free arctic:

This raises a critical set of issues, with many important implications potentially able to speed up melting of the Greenland ice sheet, accelerating the rise in sea levels and slowing down the world ocean conveyor belt (THC). That would also have a lot of consequences on the ocean carbon sink (Bates et al. 2006) and ocean acidification. Permafrost melting could also accelerate during rapid Arctic sea-ice loss due to an amplification of Arctic land warming 3.5 times greater than secular 21st century climate trends, as pointed out recently by Lawrence et al. (2008). This permafrost evolution would have important consequences and strong impacts on large carbon reservoirs and methane releases, either in the ocean and/or on land.

This isn’t news to CP readers (see “Tundra 4: Permafrost loss linked to Arctic sea ice loss“).

The whole IPY post has an excellent discussion of some of the underlying research and science. The International Polar Year deserves kudos for this and other blunt statements, all available here.

h/t Michael Tobis

22 Responses to The International Polar Year: “Arctic sea ice will probably not recover”

  1. Will Greene says:

    In my opinion this may be good news. We need a “Pearl Harbor” to galvanize support for the energy (r)evolution. Maybe if the arctic is no more during the summer we can move past the idiotic debate.

  2. paulm says:

    “..this is the first time I’ve seen such leading polar scientists elaborate so bluntly the potentially dire consequences of an ice-free arctic:”

    They are just finally realizing the extreme dire situation and the panic that is required of them to motivate the rest of us in this catastrophic situation.

  3. DB says:

    Good news in this research by Turetsky in Canada who looked at the long-term effects of permafrost degradation.

    Humble mosses may help greenhouse gas concerns

    The thawing of vast stretches of Canadian permafrost — widely seen as a “ticking time bomb” of climate change because of its expected liberation of billions of tonnes of pent-up methane and carbon dioxide — may be much less of a threat than previously believed, according to a new U.S. study of freshly unfrozen peatlands across Western Canada’s northern frontier.

    Although the melting of underlying permafrost will release huge amounts of the greenhouse gases blamed for fuelling global warming, researchers who sampled three sites in boreal Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have discovered that the warmer, softer, wetter soil that results also promotes the growth of new mosses that capture and store about as much carbon from the atmosphere as the thawed ground releases….

    On this key climate change battleground, the heroes are proving to be humble plants that the researchers describe as “wet-loving sphagnum mosses.” It turns out they thrive in the melted peatlands and “lock in” massive amounts of carbon that would otherwise build up in the atmosphere.

  4. Lou Grinzo says:


    I wish I could be that “optimistic”. I strongly believe that the “idiotic debate” (nice characterization, by the way) will continue until well after anything anyone here could name as a PH event. The denierbots, who have (or can create, as needed) as many lines of argument as they need, will simply claim that whatever happens would have happened anyway, regardless of the many, many billions of tons of CO2 we’ve dumped into the atmosphere in the last century. And a certain segment of the US population will believe them as long as “respectable” people like George Will and others are willing to keep telling them what they want to hear.

    I sincerely hope I’m wrong. A PH event seems to be our last chance for a Great Awakening, at least here in the US.

  5. Sasparilla says:

    I have to agree with Lou. I personally considered the opening of the northwest passage these past 2 summer’s a Climate Pearl Harbor event – it didn’t make a bit of difference to the people denying this is happening, although its a great talking point.

    I hope an ice free summer arctic will make a difference when it happens (5 years by some guesses), but I’m not optimistic. Maybe when we have that happen and Lake Mead goes dry and Hoover Dam can’t generate electricity we’ll see some minds changed on this issue. We’ve certainly got a bunch of PH events coming up….

  6. Will Greene says:

    I believe the disappearance of the arctic would be enough to kick everyone in the pants. The north pole is such a visible image in American culture (it’s where Santa lives for goodness sake!). The Larsen B ice shelf break up, the heat wave in Europe, Katrina, opening of the NW passage (I’m sure I’m missing a bunch more) were all enough for people like you and me, but to break into the average American and then conservative’s focus it’s gonna take something pure and simple. The North Pole is GONE. It think that will be enough, but will it be too late?

  7. DB says:

    Will wrote: “…the heat wave in Europe, Katrina, opening of the NW passage (I’m sure I’m missing a bunch more) were all enough for people like you and me…”

    Will, you’ve been scammed on Katrina. The problem was the poor condition of the levees, not a run-of-the-mill Category 3 tropical cyclone.

  8. Will Greene says:

    You may be right DB, but obviously warm ocean temperatures contributed to the disaster and it is an example of what can happen as ocean temperatures continue to rise. I agree with Sasparilla that the opening of the NW passage was our best chance at a galvanizing event. Unfortunately, crickets are what come to mind when I think of the media coverage.

  9. john says:


    I see a lot of countries (ours included) salivating at the opening of the Northwest passage and the prospect of drilling for oil in the Arctic ocean.

    What you and I may see as PH, they see as economic opportunity … reminds me of an old Country Joe and the Fish song (yes, I’m that old) lyrics went something like this: “why come on general don’t move slow; there’s plenty good money to be made, by supplyin’ the army the tools of the trade; Just hope and pray that when they dropthe bomb, they drop it on the Viet Cong …

    that might go something like this, today:

    Why come on ‘Mericans, drive that car, till it’s hotter than hell under the northern star; open that pass gotta get that gas; just hope and pray that we’ll survive the day. or something equally lemming-like

  10. Harrier says:

    Say, with regard to DB’s first post… is there anything humans could do to, maybe, encourage the spread of these sphagnum mosses?

    A lot?

  11. Andrew says:

    Whoa, not so fast regarding Katrina. The saffir-simpson scale for determinng the relative strength of hurricanes is based on wind speed and fails to provide an accurate gage of storm surge, the most dangerous part of a land-falling hurricane. Hurricane size (diamter), speed, pressure, wind and the nature of the coastline all play a role in determining the height of a storm’s surge (the heaped up pile of water that comes ashore with a hurricane and causes the most damage and loss of life).

    Katrina had the highest recorded storm surge of any U.S. hurricane, almost 30′. New Orleans recieved a glancing blow, but Waveland MS was hit head on.

    H. Ike was a mere category 2 storm and yet had a 16′ storm surge that devasted over a 100 mile stretch of coastline.

    An additional scale for measuring hurricane damage potential is in the works.

  12. jorleh says:

    Of course Arctic ice is melting away before 2020 in summer. Have a look of Baltic Sea, which is a good model for this trend.

  13. Mike D says:

    Run of the mill? After entering the Gulf, Katrina strengthened from a tropical storm to Category 5 monster in just over 24 hours! It had the fourth-lowest central pressure of all time, at least for a few months until Rita and then Wilma dropped it down to sixth.

  14. DB says:

    Global and Northern Hemisphere Tropical Cyclone Activity [still] lowest in 30-years

    “Tropical cyclone (TC) activity worldwide has completely and utterly collapsed during the past 2 to 3 years with TC energy levels sinking to levels not seen since the late 1970s. This should not be a surprise to scientists since the natural variability in climate dominates any detectable or perceived global warming impact when it comes to measuring yearly integrated tropical cyclone activity….”

    And a 30 year graph:

    [JR: That’s La Nina for you.]

  15. lgcarey says:

    Not to get sidetracked into an argument over cyclones, but I would note that the posted link from COAPS does note that there is significant regional variability, and, of interest to us in the U.S., observes that “With the continuation (persistence) of colder Pacific tropical sea-surface temperatures associated with the effects of La Nina, the upcoming 2009 Atlantic hurricane season should be above average, as we saw in 2008.” Since Atlantic activity is only 10-15% of the global total, that gets smoothed out in a global average.

  16. Chris says:

    Sadly, I agree with those that do not think an ice-free summer Arctic will have much popular impact.

    People feel sad for the polar bears but it’s all very far away and disconnected from them. I don’t think most people see the Arctic melt either as a canary or wholesale change to their home.

    And in some ways it’s already in the popular consciousness. Tom Clancy has already had the Russians boating over the pole to commandeer the tar sands.

  17. Gary says:

    You have got to be kidding me!!!! Look at recent date, Heck, if you live in the northern part of the US or in Canada spend some time outdoors. The data (actual current events for the past 10 years) is proving all of this to be incorrect.
    I spent most of the winter here in the northeast hoping for global warming. I have never heard of anyone dying from starvation or being exposed to the elements in warm climates. I could live without energy in a tropical climate year round. Let’s see you do that in Upstate NY or any of the northern states.

    ‘Visit this web site to get additional information.

    This reminds me of the 5-10 year scare and build up to the Y2K “bug or meltdown” that was going to occur.
    I did nothing to prepare except inform and educate myself and nothing “bad” happened. For the people who bought computer software for everything, generators and fuel, and tons of food and water thanks for creating a false economic surge.

  18. cait says:

    2 things:

    1) we are like lobsters boiling in a pot. The tipping point in terms of major problematic events came long ago and we didn’t notice. It’s only the accumulation of said worrying events / evidence that is persuading anybody that may be it’s time to move. that TTM signal hass been flashing just a little bit too urgently for a little bit too long now.

    Secondly, this evidence is to me a no brainer for active non-faffing around action on some no brainer, easy to impliment measures which could at least help, and very importantly, make people worldwide feel that they’re at least doing *something*. Hashem Akbari’s paper ( (“Increasing worldwide urban albedos” ie: paint all your roofs white) doesn’t support changes in behaviour or the desperately needed reductions in CO2 obviously, but if it helps to mitigate the effect of losing Arctic / Antarctic ice, shouldn’t we all be pressuring our local govts to do this, NOW? As a matter of urgency? I mean this is tangible, action oriented stuff we can really achieve quickly.

  19. DaveW says:


    The Y2K problem was real. It came about by the fact that before the 1980’s computer storage and memory were very expensive and it saved space and money to express the year as 2 digits and assume the 19. That style of programming continued to some extent into the early 1990’s, probably out of habit. If thousands of computer professionals (including me) hadn’t corrected the problem before 2000 a large number of important computing systems could have been seriously disrupted. Things like stock exchanges, banks, the IRS (maybe that wouldn’t have been so bad;) and many other computer else that are date dependent in some way.

    That said there was also lots of hyperbole about possible disasters arising from Y2K, mostly from people taking small concerns to ridiculous conclusions. And news organizations like to sensationalize things to help sell their product which added to the anxiety of people who weren’t knowledgeable on the subject. There definitely would have been at least some financial disasters if it had been allowed to happen but it was almost completely averted so no big deal.

    Back to the subject of this blog, an irony of climate change is if we are successful in averting the worst of it (like we did with Y2K) then people like you will claim you were right and a big deal was made out of nothing.

  20. Taylor says:

    Is there a way to become a content writer for the site?

  21. Walt Robbins says:

    The comments which I posted, and which appeared yesterday, September 23, 2009, have vanished from this page today, Septmeber 24, while all the other comments remain posted. My comments expressed some climatological facts based on my experiences, in the military, in the arctic over 60 years ago. I thought they would be of interest to your readers. I would appreciate knowing why they were removed.

    Walt Robbins

    [JR: You posted a bunch of opinions and called them facts. If there were not an extensive body of published data and peer-reviewed analyses, your stories might be interesting, but we actually know that massive volumes of ice have been lost in the last several years, thanks in part to Navy data.]

  22. Walt Robbins says:

    JR: But you don’t know what the conditions were in 1946. I happen to know about some of them, since we were disseminating climate data at that time. None of your peer-reviewed analysis and published data apply to the Arctic climate situation of 60 years ago in that part of the world.

    For example, your data on ice conditions go back only into the 1970’s. I’m one of the very few people who is still around who spent some time up there over 60 years ago as a young adult in the military. And I say that I observed climate conditions similar to those now prevailing. I expressed no opinions, I simply made an empirical observation. By the way, many of the postings on this article are, indeed, opinions; How come you don’t remove them?

    I’m sorry if you misunderstood my posting. Perhaps I did not do a good job of expressing myself. But I believe people deserve to hear from someone with my perspective. Many thanks,

    Walt Robbins