Frauenfeld, Knappenberger, and Michaels 2011: Greenland ice melt and planned obsolescence

Greenland ice mass anomaly – deviation from the average ice mass over the 2002 to 2010 period. Note: this doesn’t mean the ice sheet was gaining ice before 2006 but that ice mass was above the 2002 to 2010 average.

The satellite data make clear “The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are losing mass at an accelerating pace” — putting us on pace for 1 foot sea level rise by 2050 and 3 to 5 times that by 2100.   A comprehensive multi-nation assessment of the science finds the “the observed changes” in the Arctic and Greenland Ice Sheet “over the past ten years are dramatic and represent an obvious departure from the long-term patterns.”

A widely reported journal study found that 2010 set a “New melt record for Greenland ice sheet.” Lead author Dr. Marco Tedesco, director of the Cryospheric Processes Laboratory at CCNY explained, “This past melt season was exceptional, with melting in some areas stretching up to 50 days longer than average.”


Greenland melting index anomaly (Tedesco and Fettweiss (2011).  Click to enlarge

So if you were writing a journal article aiming to reconstruct annual Greenland ice melt extent and one of your reviewers told you about the 2010 data and why it was important to include, would you include it?  What would it mean if doing so would have affected some of your conclusions — and you decided not to?

What follows is an excellent Skeptical Science piece looking at those questions and Greenland in general.

Frauenfeld, Knappenberger, and Michaels 2011: Obsolescence by Design?

Daniel Bailey

We know the planet is warming from surface temperature stations and satellites measuring the temperature of the Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere. We also have various tools which have measured the warming of the Earth’s oceans. Satellites have measured an energy imbalance at the top of the Earth’s atmosphere. Glaciers, sea ice, and ice sheets are all receding. Sea levels are rising. Spring is arriving sooner each year. There’s simply no doubt – the planet is warming.

And yes, the warming is continuing. The 2000s were hotter than the 1990s, which were hotter than the 1980s, which were hotter than the 1970s. In fact, the 12-month running average global temperature broke the record 3 times in 2010; according to NASA GISS data (2010 is tied with 2005 for the hottest year on record for GISS and tied with 1998 using HadCRUT).  Sea levels are still rising, ice is still receding, spring is still coming earlier, there’s still a planetary energy imbalance, etc. etc. Contrary to what some would like us to believe, the planet has not magically stopped warming.

Humans are causing this warming

There is overwhelming evidence that humans are the dominant cause of this warming, mainly due to our greenhouse gas emissions. Based on fundamental physics and math, we can quantify the amount of warming human activity is causing, and verify that we’re responsible for essentially all of the global warming over the past 3 decades.  In fact we expect human greenhouse gas emissions to cause more warming than we’ve thus far seen, due to the thermal inertia of the oceans (the time it takes to heat them).  Human aerosol emissions are also offsetting a significant amount of the warming by causing global dimming.

The Original Frozen Tundra

In October of 2010, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released the Arctic Report Card. The report contains a wealth of information about the state of climate in the Arctic Circle (mostly disturbing).  Especially noteworthy is the news that in 2010, Greenland temperatures were the hottest on record. It also experienced record setting ice loss by melting. This ice loss is reflected in the latest data from the GRACE satellites which measure the change in gravity around the Greenland ice sheet (H/T to Tenney Naumer from Climate Change: The Next Generation and Dr John Wahr for granting permission to repost the latest data).

[JR:  I reposted Figure 1 at the top of the page.]

Additionally, Tedesco and Fettweiss (2011) show that the mass-loss experienced in southern Greenland in 2010 was the greatest in the past 20 years (Figure 2 below).


Figure 2: Greenland melting index anomaly (Tedesco and Fettweiss (2011))

The figure above shows the standardized melting index anomaly for the period 1979 – 2010. In simple words, each bar tells us by how many standard deviations melting in a particular year was above the average. For example, a value of ~ 2 for 2010 means that melting was above the average by two times the ‘variability’ of the melting signal along the period of observation. Previous record was set in 2007 and a new one was set in 2010. Negative values mean that melting was below the average. Note that highest anomaly values (high melting) occurred over the last 12 years, with the 8 highest values within the period 1998 – 2010. The increasing melting trend over Greenland can be observed from the figure. Over the past 30 years, the area subject to melting in Greenland has been increasing at a rate of ~ 17,000 Km2/year.

This is equivalent to adding a melt-region the size of Washington State every ten years. Or, in alternative, this means that an area of the size of France melted in 2010 which was not melting in 1979.

Selective Science = Pseudo-Science

Into this established landscape comes a new paper which presents a selective Greenland melt reconstruction. During the review process the papers’ authors were urged to, yet chose not to, include record-setting warm year 2010 temperatures. Had the authors considered all available data, their conclusion that ‘Greenland climate has not changed significantly’ would have been simply insupportable.

They write:

“We find that the recent period of high-melt extent is similar in magnitude but, thus far, shorter in duration, than a period of high melt lasting from the early 1920s through the early 1960s. The greatest melt extent over the last 2 1/4 centuries occurred in 2007; however, this value is not statistically significantly different from the reconstructed melt extent during 20 other melt seasons, primarily during 1923-1961.”

Designed Obsolescence?

Their selective ‘findings’ were obsolete at the time the paper was submitted for publication in December of 2010. In the review process, the authors and journal editors were made aware that important new data were available that would change the conclusions of the study. Unfortunately, the paper represents not only a failure of the review process, but an intentional exclusion of data that would, if included, undermine the paper’s thesis.

Dr. Jason Box has chosen to share for the record a timeline of important events associated with this article’s publication:

  • 26 August, 2010, I was invited by Dr. Guosheng Liu – Associate Editor – Journal of Geophysical Research (JGR) – Atmospheres to review the article. Sara Pryor was the JGR chief editor ultimately responsible for this paper’s review.
  • 27 August, 2010, I accepted the review assignment.
  • 22 September, 2010, I submitted my review, in which I wrote: “The paper may already be obsolete without considering the extreme melting in 2010. I would therefore not recommend accepting the paper without a revision that included 2010.” I post my review posted verbatim here. At this time, I indicated to the editors that I did not wish to re-review the paper if the authors chose not to include 2010 temperatures. It was clear by this date, from the readily-available instrumental temperature records from the Danish Meteorological Institute and other sources such as US National Climate Data Center and NASA GISS that the previous melt season months were exceptionally warm.
  • 16 October, 2010, a NOAA press release publicized record setting Greenland temperatures. The press release was linked to this Greenland climate of 2010 article, live beginning 21, October 2010.
  • 27 December, 2010, I was invited to re-review the paper. I again stated that I did not wish to re-review the paper if the authors chose not to include 2010 temperatures. By this date, it was more clear that 2010 temperatures were exceptionally warm.

Another very important point: the excuse that the data was not available just is not reasonable given that both the Tedesco and Fettweiss 2011 and Mernild et al 2011 papers each managed to reference this 2010 data in publications that came out prior to that of Frauenfeld, Knappenberger, and Michaels.

Dr. Box:

“The Editor’s decision whether or not to accept the paper would have been made sometime in early 2011. This paper should not have been accepted for publication without taking into account important new data.

Figure 3:  Positive Degree Day reconstruction for the Greenland ice sheet after Box et al. (2009). The “regression changes” presented here are equal to the linear fit (dashed lines in the graphic) value at the end of the period minus the beginning of the period, for example, the 14-year change is the 2010 value minus the 1997 value. The blue Gaussian smoothing line is for a 29 year interval. The dark red smoothing line is for a 3 year interval.  PDDs are the sum of positive temperatures. A PDD sum of 10 has twice the melt potential as a PDD sum of 5. Note that not only is the recent melting convincingly distinguishable from that of the 20th Century, but that summer and annual average temperatures in recent years are increasingly above values in the 1920s-1930s. (Courtesy Dr. Jason Box)

Greenland’s past temperatures

Including year 2010 data reveals (as seen in Figure 5 at bottom), in contrast to the message of the Frauenfeld, Knappenberger, and Michaels paper, that recent Greenland temperatures are warmer than at any time during the 20th Century for the summer, autumn, and annual periods. The 1925-1935 spring season was warmer in 1930 than 2010, but not warm enough to make the corresponding annual average exceed that of the recent times.  Important for a melt reconstruction, what Frauenfeld, Knappenberger, and Michaels neglected to include, was that recent summer temperatures exceed those of any time during the past century.  As a result glaciers in southern Greenland have retreated far behind their meltlines from the early 20th Century.  Evidence of this can be seen in Mittivakkat Glacier (Figure 4 below):

Mittivakkat Glacier

Figure 4: Mittivakkat Glacier in Southern Greenland.  Note the red line indicating the 1931 extent of the glacier relative to the yellow line depicting its position in 2010 (Mernild et al, 2011)

One thing to remember is that the regional warming that Greenland experienced in the early 20th Century came at a time when the world overall was colder than it is today.  And that the warming then was a result of multiple forcings (in which GHG warming played a role) and is thus fundamentally different than the anthropogenic global warming of the most recent 30 years (in which GHG warming plays by far the predominant role).  Additionally, the global cryosphere (the parts of the world covered in ice) has experienced much greater warming (in terms of volume and global extent) in this the most recent period than in the time of supposedly similar warming (the early 20th Century).

Given the thermal lags of oceans and ice, it is clear that Greenland has yet to fully respond to the warming forced upon it, so a reasonable approximation of another 1-2° C is yet in its pipeline.  This will translate into yet greater mass losses to come, which evidence indicates may be experienced in non-linear fashion.


Figure 5: Where 2010 ranks relative to the warm period observed from 1923-1961 by Frauenfeld, Knappenberger and Michaels (Source)

Two lingering questions remain:

  1. Why did Frauenfeld, Knappenberger, and Michaels not include year 2010 data when they were asked to and when the data were readily available, yet the other papers containing the 2010 data published before theirs did?
  2. Why did the journal publish this paper without the requested revisions?

Climate Warming is Real

Dr. Box:

“Multiple lines of evidence indicate climate warming for which there is no credible dispute. No scientific body of national or international standing has maintained a dissenting opinion. I personally have found no credible science that disproves that human activity significantly influences climate.

An enormous and overwhelming body of science leads rational thinkers to the conclusion that humans influence climate in important ways. For decades, the science has indicated that human activity has become the single most influential climate forcing agent.

National and international science academies and scientific societies have assessed the current scientific opinion, in particular on recent global warming. These assessments have largely followed or endorsed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) position of January 2001 which states:

An increasing body of observations gives a collective picture of a warming world and other changes in the climate system”¦ There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.


  • Dr. Jason Box, Assoc. Prof., Department of Geography, Byrd Polar Research Center, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA for his invaluable assistance, advice, knowledge and patience
  • Dr. Mauri Pelto, Professor of Environmental Science, Science Program Chair; Director, North Cascade Glacier Climate Project, Nichols College, Dudley, MA, USA for his timely insights and suggestions

Without the expertise of these two fine climate scientists this article could not have come to pass.

Daniel Bailey

JR:  You can find replies by one of the authors and others in the comments section at SkS here.


11 Responses to Frauenfeld, Knappenberger, and Michaels 2011: Greenland ice melt and planned obsolescence

  1. dorlomin says:

    The real story here is that in the usually glacial paced world of geophysics a paper can be made obselecent by one years data.

    Climate change is something that should only be resolvable over decades. But the Arctic is undergoing some rather sharp changes.

    For anyone with a nerdy interest in following events in the arctic

    Great wee blog.

    I dont think Michaels team did anything wrong, just sloppy and insufficiently agressive in persuit of best practice. I fear the paper will be easily superceded new papers with the newer data, now why would a scientist want that?

  2. Chris Winter says:

    And speaking of nerdy interests, I recently encountered a book which would serve them adequately. It is Volume 75 in the International Geophysics Series, and is filled with equations, color representations of temperature anomalies and the like, scatter-plots of data, and highly technical discussion. It comes with a CD-ROM containing 1) new values of the ongoing glacial isostatic adjustment (Excel 97-2003 format); some data from the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level, and a GIF animation of monthly SST anomalies from 1982 through 1999.

    This is a book that ought to be real popular on RealClimate. Here’s the citation:

    SEA LEVEL RISE: History and Consequences
    Edited by Bruce C. Douglas, Michael S. Kearney, and Stephen P. Leatherman
    San Diego; Academic Press, 2001
    ISBN 0-12-221345-9

    The book costs $95, so I won’t be buying it anytime soon. Fortunately a local library has it. I’m especially liking Chapter 8, on “Social and Economic Costs of Sea Level Rise.”

    Also, if I had the time, and could work up enough expertise, data and equations it contains might let me construct my own computer model of SLR. Now that’s nerdy.

  3. Christopher Yaun says:

    Burning Down the House

    From Master’s Blog at Wunderground:

    “The Atlantic had its 3rd busiest season since record keeping began in 1851 and accounted for 28% of all hurricanes in 2010–the greatest proportion since accurate tropical cyclone records began in the 1970s…. the year’s Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) index was 163…A “hyperactive” hurricane season is considered to have an ACE index of >175% of the median…. median ACE measured over the period 1951–2000 for the Atlantic basin was 87.5, so 2010 is a hyperactive year by that definition (183% of the median.)”

    If a hurricane can be accurately described as a heat transfer engine….can it be argued that the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season transfered record amounts of heat from the equator directly to Greenland?

  4. MapleLeaf says:

    Chris Winter @ 2,

    I misread the first author of that book, at first I thought it was Douglass (not Douglas)…phew!

  5. Christopher (#3),
    No, they didn’t transfer it directly to Greenland, because many of the tracks ( went to a lot of other places (although not to the U.S. as the denialists are cherry picking). Not all of it was transferred as heat, in any case, since a lot of the latent energy of heat is converted into kinetic energy in these storms. It was a humongous (technical term) amount of energy, however.

  6. Susan Anderson says:

    Another layperson question about heat transfer: I thought most of it was transferred vertically. Any educational response from someone who respects science (no fake skeptics aka denialist/contrarians please) would be appreciated.

    But what I really want to find, and don’t seem to be able to, is a full list of the world’s major glaciers with moderately recent data on ice loss. I know I saw one.

    Chris Yuan, it’s more complicated than that. Ocean currents, I think, are more critical to west Greenland melt. There’s some stuff about surface versus deepwater as well.

    On hurricanes, you should read Chris Mooney’s Storm World. Please. Great book.

  7. Daniel Bailey says:

    @ Susan

    Try the World world glacier monitoring service

    Also visit Mauri Pelto’s homes on the web here and here for more.

  8. Christopher Yaun says:

    Burning Down the House

    SA: Yes, it is always more complicated than even the most learned scholar can grasp, but us lay folks have to start somewhere.

    Heat Transport…..not heat transfer….heat transfer is a comparison with a Carnot Engine.

    I meant to suggest that hurricanes serve to transport heat away from the equator. Maybe something like keeping the tropical oceans from “boiling” to use an emotional, sloppy, lay term.

    Since we humans replaced natures spirits with the gods and then again with God and then put the Sun at the center and finally ourselves back at the center of the universe….we have this nasty habit of interpreting everything from a totally human (read “selfish”) perspective.

    Since 2010 was an uneventful hurricane season, meaning that no hurricanes made landfall on US soil, we have decided to say it was “record inactivity”. But that would be wrong. In fact, 11 of the 19 Atlantic hurricanes, and maybe some tropical storms that were never named, moved due north transporting enormous amounts of heat from the equatorial Atlantic to the Arctic especially Greenland.

    Now I am just a lay person….but I own two homes that are a few feet above high tide….and if the observed acceleration of the melting of Greenlands ice is a direct result of AGW….I suspect “record inactivity” of the 2010 Atlantic Hurricane Season may have been a total disaster the impact of which creeps in every increasing slow motion.

    Here is reference from RealClimate that might lend a more learned study of the idea of hurricanes as heat transport. Judging by the language it appears to be a new and unexplored idea.

    11. Thomas says:
    24 Apr 2007 at 3:56 PM
    Well, I am only a meteorologist in tiny switzerland. But when I first heard of that study let’s say 4 or 5 days ago one question arose quite fast: As Hurricanes are quite a good way for the atmosphere to move energy near the tropics to the mid-latitudes or, or to put it in another way: get rid of the ‘too much energy’ in the tropics…. well where does this energy go if there were no more hurricanes? Would all be compensated by other means?

    [Response: Excellent question. Actually, there is some interesting work being done by Matt Huber of Purdue, following up on some earlier ideas of Emanuel’s, suggesting that the role of TCs in transporting heat from equator towards the poles may be more significant than previously thought–it also allows for some interesting, though admittedly somewhat exotic, mechanisms for explaining the “cool tropics paradox” and “equable climate problem” of the early Paleogene and Cretaceous periods, i.e. the problem of how to make the higher latitudes warm without warming the tropics much, something that appears to have happened during some past warm epochs in Earth’s history. Feedbacks involving the interaction between greenhouse warming, TC behavior, and its associated impact on poleward heat transport in the ocean, could potentially do the trick. -mike]