NSIDC: Arctic is on thin ice — literally — and that means the “perma”frost is too

The National Snow and Ice Data Center reported Monday:

[Arctic] ice older than two years accounted for less than 10% of the ice cover at the end of February.

So it is “thinner and more vulnerable than at anytime in the past three decades,” as the AP reports. “The amount of thick sea ice hit a record wintertime low of just 378,000 square miles this year, down 43 percent from last year.”  Why is that a concern?

That thick ice really traps ocean heat; it keeps the planet in its current state of balance,” said Waleed Abdalati, director of the Center for the Study of Earth from Space at the University of Colorado and NASA’s former chief ice scientist. “When we start to diminish that, the state of balance is likely to change, tip one way or another.”

Sounds like a tipping point to me — and to NSIDC and IPY (see NSIDC: Arctic melt passes the point of no return, “We hate to say we told you so, but we did.” and The International Polar Year: “Arctic sea ice will probably not recover.)

Why should we care about Arctic ice disappearing?  Because, as a major 2008 study found, Permafrost loss linked to Arctic sea ice loss:

We find that simulated western Arctic land warming trends during rapid sea ice loss are 3.5 times greater than secular 21st century climate-change trends. The accelerated warming signal penetrates up to 1500 km inland”¦.

In other words, the recent trend in sea ice loss is poised to triple Arctic warming, causing large emissions in carbon dioxide and methane from the tundra this century. What is especially worrisome is that 2007 provides strong evidence on behalf of this theory:

  • NOAA reported that methane levels rose in 2007 for the first time since 1998 (see here).
  • The tundra can emit vast amounts of methane when it defrosts (see Part 1).
  • Scientific analysis suggests the rise in 2007 methane levels came from Arctic wetlands (see here).
  • And 2007 saw record Arctic ice loss [see “Ice Ice Maybe (not)“] — as did 2008.

David Lawrence of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) has analyzed permafrost loss this century under various warming scenarios:

[Lawrence told me that using the above figure is “still fine as long as one mentions the caveats that permafrost is probably degrading a bit too rapidly in the original” (see discussion, literature links here).]

Note that the B1 scenario is “stabilizing” at 550 ppm atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, but in fact NCAR’s model doesn’t look at the feedback of the CO2 and methane emissions from the tundra loss, which would drive concentrations far higher!  So we must avoid 550 at all cost, since the tundra feedback, coupled with the climate-carbon-cycle feedbacks that the IPCC models, could easily take us to the unmitigated catastrophe of 1000 ppm (see Tundra, Part 2: The point of no return).

We are, of course, on pace to exceed the A2 scenario — U.S. media largely ignores latest warning from climate scientists: “Recent observations confirm “¦ the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised” “” 1000 ppm.

So it will soon be time to retire the word “permafrost” from our vocabulary, along with “polar” bear and “glacial” change.

I’ll end with longer excerpts from yesterday’s NSIDC report on Arctic ice:

Arctic sea ice extent has begun its seasonal decline towards the September minimum. Ice extent through the winter was similar to that of recent years, but lower than the 1979 to 2000 average. More importantly, the melt season has begun with a substantial amount of thin first-year ice, which is vulnerable to summer melt….

How vulnerable is the ice cover as we go into the summer melt season? To answer this question, scientists also need information about ice thickness. Indications of winter ice thickness, commonly derived from ice age estimates, reveal that the ice is thinner than average, suggesting that it is more susceptible to melting away during the coming summer.

As the melt season begins, the Arctic Ocean is covered mostly by first-year ice, which formed this winter, and second-year ice, which formed during the winter of 2007 to 2008. First-year ice in particular is thinner and more prone to melting away than thicker, older, multi-year ice. This year, ice older than two years accounted for less than 10% of the ice cover at the end of February. From 1981 through 2000, such older ice made up an average of 30% of the total sea ice cover at this time of the year.

While ice older than two years reached record lows, the fraction of second-year sea ice increased compared to last winter. Some of this second-year ice will survive the summer melt season to replenish the Arctic’s store of older ice; however, in recent years less young ice has made it through the summer. To restore the amount of older ice to pre-2000 levels, large amounts of this young ice would need to endure through summer for several years in a row.

But conditions may not always favor the survival of second-year and older ice. Each winter, winds and ocean currents move some sea ice out of the Arctic ocean. This winter, some second-year ice survived the 2008 melt season only to be pushed out of the Arctic by strong winter winds. Based on sea ice age data from Jim Maslanik and Chuck Fowler at the University of Colorado, since the end of September 2008, 390,000 square kilometers (150,000 square miles) of second-year ice and 190,000 square kilometers (73,000 square miles) of older (more than two years old) ice moved out of the Arctic. View animation (1.1 MB).

The time to act is yesterday.

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29 Responses to NSIDC: Arctic is on thin ice — literally — and that means the “perma”frost is too

  1. jorleh says:

    There is a big thing going on above us, and people are making business as usual. It`s a mystery. Are most of us idiots? Why don`t they see where we are going?

    We have lost the case.

  2. John McCormick says:


    It might be a fact that warming the Arctic/Siberian tundra and releasing trapped methane and CO2 will be the climate ‘show-stopper’.

    But, another aspect of Arctic ice metback deserves attention.

    Exposing the Arctic ocean and it’s above freezing temp lifting into the atmosphere is bound to alter convective currents coming up from the Gulf and crossing the planet’s grain basket in western North America. How that will affect temp and precip patterns in the midwest remains to be seen…but it must be studied now.

    Then, add increasing deforestation of the Amazon and the US midwest – and the planet – will be impacted from the north and the south. All this happening in less time than ever thought possible.

    Clearly, climate modeling is not taking these two dynamics into account because we haven’t had the time to gather enough data to write the codes.

    John McCormick

  3. Lou Grinzo says:

    John: That’s what worries me the most on the environmental front, the possibility that we’re triggering not just feedbacks, but feedbacks that interact with and amplify each other.

    I’m no climate scientist, but I have to wonder if this compounding of feedbacks could explain the rapid climate shifts in the geologic record — some exogenous kick to the system (orbital change, CO2 from volcanoes or humans, etc.) shoves the climate just a bit out of its equilibrium state and a host of feedbacks are triggered that send us racing to another, much less human friendly, equilibrium state. We may find out that, from a climate standpoint, we’ve been living balanced on a knife edge for thousands of years, and not even known it.

  4. paulm says:

    hey joe, your mentioned over at accuweather….

    Debating global warming fears

    [JR: Hmm. Yes, my twin brother “Jim Romm” debated Morano. So much for “accu”weather! Seriously have people there never heard of Google?]

  5. paulm says:

    We are definitely at a tipping point. But this is not just the Arctic Ice. I am afraid with complex systems one indicate is just that. This is a system wide state change in progress.

    An look at other indicators point to this. Storm energy, precipitation and forest fires etc. Have a look at William H. Calvin’s slides and talk at

    You will come away with an eerie (scary) feeling. We are less than a degree rise above 280ppm. We are in for another couple of degrees whatever.

    Look what is happening – the Climate is moving right this moment to a new state.

  6. PeterW says:

    Hi Joe,

    When the next El Nino hits, how much of this young ice will survive through the summer? It sounds like there’s a possibility of a weak El Nino this year.

    Has there been any studies on the Treeline moving north somewhat offsetting the carbon and methane releases in the Arctic?

    I’ve tried not to be a pessimist about this but the more I hear (or not) from our world leaders, the more pessimistic I get. Won’t this change in the Arctic Ocean be permanent for the foreseeable future once the Arctic is ice free in the summer?


  7. paulm says:

    More startling news in the pipe line…have to wait on report for details..

    Wet stalagmites show sea level
    The world’s ice sheets might melt much faster than previously thought, according to a new study that used submerged stalagmites to provide some of the first firm evidence of ancient sea level rise.

  8. DB says:

    Not all research on permafrost is so negative. For example:

    Permafrost thaw: New exam yields healthier prognosis

    A reexamination of projected melting of Arctic permafrost from global warming indicates that massive releases of methane from permafrost degradation are unlikely in this century. During the 20th century, humans’ increasing greenhouse gas emissions have made Arctic regions warmer, causing permafrost to melt. Model projections indicate that, as the climate warms, permafrost will continue melting and methane bound in frozen sediments could escape to the atmosphere. Because methane is also a greenhouse gas, this would exacerbate global warming. One permafrost model, presented in late 2005, indicated that near-surface Arctic permafrost will completely degrade during the 21st century.

    Now, Delisle has critically reviewed this model, finding it to lack necessary initial parameters. He offers an alternative model designed to have a more complete mathematical formulation of the physical processes in permafrost. It projects that surface permafrost will persist in areas north of 70ºN latitude. Permafrost will also endure at depth between 60ºN and 70ºN. Delisle notes that ice-core analyses previously made by other scientists indicate minimal release of methane during warm periods in the last 9,000 years. Based on the new model and the ice-core findings, he concludes that scenarios calling for massive releases of methane in the near future from degrading permafrost are questionable.

    [JR: Had you read the link, “Permafrost loss linked to Arctic sea ice loss,” you’d have seen NCAR responded to that analysis, fixed their model and still find, “Even at the depressed rate, however, the warming is enough to drive near-surface permafrost extent sharply down by 2100.” And that is with emissions scenarios that must now be considered wildly optimistic.]

  9. ecostew says:

    DB – that references is almost two years old. One needs to look at the newer empirical data, etc.

  10. Sasparilla says:

    )) Won’t this change in the Arctic Ocean be permanent for the foreseeable future once the Arctic is ice free in the summer? ((

    Great question and it would seem that it would be permanent (outside of geo-engineering or some other unforeseen natural event leading to cooling of the environment’s temperature to allow reformation of the ice).

    I’ve read that once the summer ice is gone that there are processes that would reinforce the loss of winter ice as well, with implications for the Atlantic thermo conveyor belt (based on past archaeological events, it would start diving much further south with low oxygen warm water) & eventual anoxic ocean impacts (canfield ocean areas probably resulting eventually).

    The last time we had an ice free arctic and concentrations of CO2 where we’re headed was the Eocene extinction, I believe, – crocodiles, tropical fauna and palm fronds in Canada at the time.

  11. Roger says:

    Most people are so “science dumb,” things will likely only continue to worsen for a long time to come.

  12. Leland Palmer says:

    One reason we have gone slow on reacting to climate change is that huge financial interests in the U.S. appear to want to drill for oil under the existing polar icecap. I know this seems incredible, and incredibly foolish, but there are numerous well documented reasons to believe this is the case.

    Scott Borgerson of the Council on Foreign Relations recently testified before Congress, after a series of articles in Foreign Affairs (the official magazine of the CFR) and at least one op-ed in the New York Times.

    His message to the House Foreign Relations Committee (paraphrasing):

    The arctic is melting and may be ice free in the summer by 2013. It doesn’t really matter why the Arctic is melting. This uncovers huge amouts of resources, including maybe 90 billion barrels of oil, and much of the remaining undiscovered oil on earth. So, the Senate should ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty so that we can carve up these resources with other polar nations including Russia. The Russians have a fleet of nuclear powered ice breaker ships, and wouldn’t it be nice if we had such ships, too? At a billion dollars each, and taking many years to build such ships, we really ought to get started building them.

    The polar icecap is melting mostly because of fossil fuel use. Why it is melting does indeed matter. If it melts, we may be doomed to a methane catastrophe.

    We need to implement carbon negative energy schemes on a massive, emergency basis, IMO, to keep it from melting.

  13. Harrier says:

    The last time we had an ice free arctic and concentrations of CO2 where we’re headed was the Eocene extinction, I believe, – crocodiles, tropical fauna and palm fronds in Canada at the time.

    Also referred to as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, which bears a rather remarkable resemblance to current human-induced warming. The major difference is that we’re bringing about warming at a much faster rate.

    We might have some wiggle room because temperatures at the end of the Paleocene were higher than the temperatures we have at this moment. But the fact that the methane in the Arctic is getting loose is a sign that we can’t push too much farther. Otherwise, we really will see a repeat of what happened with the PETM: sufficiently warm temperatures triggered a release of methane clathrates from the sea floor, rocketing global temperatures up by 6 degrees Celsius within several thousand years.

    Oh, and the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere during the PETM was… I’ve seen estimates between 900 and 2000 PPM. Once I even saw 3000 PPM somewhere.

  14. DavidCOG says:

    jorleh: “Are most of us idiots?”

    Spend some time at Digg or reddit or the comments at the Guardian – never mind visiting somewhere like WattsUpIdiots or – and the inescapable conclusion is that the sane, rational, reasonable people are in a minority.

    And the recent G20 brought no solace – climate was an afterthought and the big plan for economic recovery was to spend and consume our way out. The lunatics are running the asylum.

    On that basis I’m struggling to shake off the idea that we’re totally f%cked. I used the analogy somewhere else that we’re playing Russian Roulette with tipping points (and used the URL that ecostew just provided, above) – and the conservatives are pulling the trigger with grim determination.

    I think we’re slow motion tumbling in to the abyss.

    Time to open a bottle of wine….

  15. Gail says:


    For me, learning about climate change has been like watching a slow-motion train wreck that is rapidly accelerating. I can’t take my eyes off it.

    I can see why so many ignore it completely because to acknowledge it is unimaginably soul-crushing. Somebody soon is going to come up with a special word for the horrible emotional turmoil that ensues when contemplating the preventable but unprevented destruction of all that is civilized.

    I found some solace in reading this:

    and of course here at climateprogress where most everyone is reasonable, is is very reassuring even if it is illusory.

    Meanwhile I try to enjoy being at the epitome of luxury of all time, where we have ample food, water, shelter and heat, not to mention hot showers, the internet, and imported wine. I plan to do the best I can for my children when they realize the futures they are so excited about – being an equine vet, and a biologist studying coral reefs – are going to quite likely be nothing like they imagine.

    And I just go day to day trying to be the best person I can be because knowing I am, is pretty much the most comfort I find.

    [JR: Gail — Gilding is not known for giving people solace. But I agree with this: “As for me, I have new work to do. I now understand my highest purpose is to motivate large numbers of people from all walks of life to act. We all now need to personally engage, in whatever way is appropriate in our circumstances, to slow down the crash and to get our society as ready as we can for the challenges ahead. So I’m going to talk, write, guide and support people, to help them do so.”]

  16. Cait says:

    I’ve asked this before, but the major question I have is: the MIT study, the British Metereological Office work – are we *already* looking at those estimations looking optimistic at best?

    Joseph – could you investigate doing a few posts interviewing the scientists involved with these reports? Particularly with a view to finding their thoughts on what the limits of their analyses were?

    This would be particularly useful for those of us unable to dedicate as much time as we would like to the reports themselves.

  17. David B. Benson says:

    Lou Grinzo — We already know that we were living on a climatic knife’s edge. It used to be a bit blunter, but has sharpened recently.

    All — Somebody might care to find the pressure-temperature graph which shows the limits for methyl clathrate stability. This is important regarding the cathrates in the Arctic Ocean and the rapidly proceeding loss of rctic ice, methinks.

  18. Harrier says:

    David, is something like this what you want?

  19. Gail says:

    From my reading, Gilding has long since faced down the prospect of the worst-case scenarios – and decided to soldier on. This gives me courage. He describes himself as a realistic optimist who finds himself “…soberly accepting the scale of the coming challenges and all the sadness this entails, but still confident we will come through this and rebuild.”

    In response to my email, he sent me a message in which he said, more or less, that losing biodiversity (that would be all sorts of trees, and polar bears, and lovely fish and on and on) is tragic and wrenching – but that he has moved past that and believes it is now about “us”. Which I took to mean, how we people can manage to survive and also preserve some vestiges of what makes the human imagination, our culture and history, so unique and beautiful.

    It’s a brutal conclusion, and arrogant. But planning for survival may be all we have left, if we are already past the point where, even with a no-holds-barred massive effort, society cannot halt terrible extinctions due to climate change.

    So in a perverse way, I do find solace in Gilding’s approach.

  20. David B. Benson says:

    Harrier — Thank you. Near to shore, in shallow water(250 m), it appears that the Arctic Ocen only has to warm up a little to begin expressing some methane. I don’t know the rate of downward warming, but that is part of the so-called mixed layer above the main thermocline at 400 to 700 meters down.

    Could check ice core records for atmospheric methane during the previous interglacial, the Eemian.

  21. Harrier says:

    I wonder if it would be possible to stabilize the climate at some kind of ‘average interglacial temperature’ that could persist as we face the reality of an ice-free Earth. That’s a particular interest of mine: just as I wonder where the bottom is in this recession, I wonder where the ‘bottom’ might be for climate change as we try to get our emissions under control. If we miss the 2C mark, but do manage to reduce our emissions, where might the climate stabilize? Where does the warming slow and stop?

  22. ecostew says:

    Clearly the AGW forcing is an issue – it’s markedly different than solar cycles, Earth orbits, volcanoes, etc., both, of which, are part of peer-reviewed science. The persistence of GHGs and triggering of feed-backs is a huge issue. We are the forcing issue (GHG emission and other activities), and feed-backs based on peer-reviewed science appear to be intensifying.

  23. Leland Palmer says:

    This could be part of the problem. Scott Borgerson, writing in Foreign Affairs, the official journal of the Council on Foreign Affairs:

    The Great Game Moves North

    As the Arctic Melts, Countries Vie for Control

    March 25, 2009

    Last July, the U.S. Geological Survey released the first-ever comprehensive assessment of the region’s oil and gas potential, and the numbers are staggering. Based on a resource appraisal of technically recoverable hydrocarbons, the Arctic contains about 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and about 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas. Together this represents 22 percent of all untapped but technically recoverable hydrocarbons. More than 80 percent of these resources lie offshore ….

    …The Russian federal government plans to invest more than a billion dollars in the northern port of Murmansk, doubling the port’s capacity by 2015. Moscow also pledged last summer to build at least three new nuclear icebreaker ships to join what is already the world’s largest icebreaker fleet. And much to the chagrin of environmentalists, Moscow completed a reactor vessel for the first floating nuclear power plant in October 2008….

    …To prepare for such threats, U.S. national security strategy should focus not only on efforts to mitigate greenhouse gases but also on how to adapt to their effects. Nowhere is this more urgent than in the Arctic. The United States still needs to ratify the UN Law of the Sea Convention, reach out to Canada on new Arctic cooperative initiatives, and replenish its geriatric icebreaker fleet (the latter doesn’t look to be happening anytime soon, unfortunately, with no money allotted to it in recent U.S. budget plans).

    Wow, what an original approach to dealing with climate change.

    Adapt to it, he says.

    Drill for more oil, he says.

    Build nuclear icebreakers, he says.

    Dr. Borgerson also recently testified before the House Foreign Relations Committee, with a similar message.

  24. paulm says:

    Harrier, we have missed the 2dC mark. Check the science.

    All this drilling in the Arctic is probably going to trigger methane release. So this is really The Age of Stupid.

    Northern Hemisphere climate extending into the last interglacial period

  25. paulm says:

    That should have been…

    Northern Hemisphere climate extending into the last interglacial period

  26. paulm says:

    Harrier, we have missed the 2dC mark. Check the science.

    All this drilling in the Arctic is probably going to trigger methane release. So this is really The Age of Stupid.

  27. P. G. Dudda says:

    RE: the bit about permafrost still being preserved north of 70°N: A quick look at google maps will demonstrate that this is north of most of the Canadian Arctic, roughly midway up Greenland, and most of Siberia is south of that, too. In other words, there isn’t much land to speak of, north of 70°N… so, if the permafrost is gone south of that, it’s functionally equivalent to saying “all of the permafrost is gone”.