Death Spiral Watch: Arctic Sea Ice Takes A Nosedive

Arctic sea ice area for June in recent years. Source: Cryosphere Today

By Neven Acropolis

If you want to mislead people into thinking that there is nothing weird going on in the Arctic, you have to do it during winter. In winter things almost look normal on some graphs, with gaps between trend lines and long-term averages not as ridiculously big as during spring and summer.

If you’re lucky, anomalous weather patterns can make those trend lines come real close to the long-term average, and you’ll have a couple of weeks of shouting ‘recovery’, ridiculing scientists and suggesting graphs are being cooked. It’s an annual ritual on pseudo-skeptic blogs, which is only logical. The Arctic is becoming ever more problematic for their life work, ie denying AGW could ever be a problem and thus delaying any meaningful action on mitigating the consequences of AGW. Thank God water still freezes in winter.

Sea ice extent maximum on the left and how it looks now on the right (source: NSIDC)

But what happens in winter is only interesting in so far as it influences the melting season that comes after it. The fact that this year saw a late finish to the freezing season, with an extreme expansion of sea ice into the Bering Sea, was far from irrelevant, but it didn’t tell the whole story either. Another part of that story was covered in a guest blog on ClimateProgress in February (Arctic Sea Ice Update: Spectacular and Ominous), and the whole story as I saw it was told in the 2011/2012 Winter Analysis on the Arctic Sea Ice blog. It quite simply came down to this: “Sea ice on the Atlantic side of the Arctic looks vulnerable, sea ice on the Pacific side should be thicker.”

The melting season is well underway now and in the last two weeks sea ice has been disappearing so fast that 2012 is leading all other years on practically all sea ice extent and area graphs. Take for instance the top graph I’ve made, based on Cryosphere Today sea ice area data.

That looks pretty spectacular, doesn’t it? Sea ice area has never been so low for this date in the satellite record, not even close to it. 2012 has over half a million of square kilometres less ice than record minimum years 2007 and 2011.

There was a distinct possibility this would happen, although I didn’t expect it to happen quite this early. But now that it has happened, it’s not difficult to see what the causes are. First of all, the extra ice in the Bering Sea that caused the late maximum, was wafer-thin and so has now virtually disappeared (I compared this year’s situation with previous years in this post on the ASI blog). All the easy ice is as gone as the easy oil.

Second, that vulnerability on the Siberian side of the Arctic is becoming ever more visible, with the Northern Sea Route possibly opening up for commercial shipping very early this year. Here’s a comparison to previous years for the western part of the Northern Sea Route (the eastern side doesn’t look so great either):

A third reason for the recent rapid decline is the widespread formation of melt ponds on ice floes. These are fooling satellite sensors into believing that there is open water where there actually isn’t, causing sea ice area to go down faster than sea ice extent. The NSIDC FAQ page explains it well:

A simplified way to think of extent versus area is to imagine a slice of Swiss cheese. Extent would be a measure of the edges of the slice of cheese and all of the space inside it. Area would be the measure of where there is cheese only, not including the holes. That is why if you compare extent and area in the same time period, extent is always bigger.

One could say those melt ponds are making the trend lines artificially low, especially on sea ice area graphs. Although this is true, it isn’t the only reason for the recent nosedive and at the same time it’s an indication of how much the Sun is beating down on the Arctic right now. We are approaching Summer Solstice, meaning that the Sun shines practically all day in these northern latitudes, and thus heat will accumulate everywhere where there are clear skies and no ice to reflect the incoming sunshine.

This effect has started to become visible on the sea surface temperature anomalies all around the Arctic:

Source: Danish Meteorological Institute

The water seems to be warming up big time in the polynyas that recently opened up, especially in the Kara and Barents Seas, that are ‘coincidentally’ thought to be a source for some of the blocking patterns that cause outbursts of cold air to spill out from the Arctic and cause extreme winter conditions further down on the Northern Hemisphere (also known as WACC, Warm Arctic Cold Continents).

One could also say that the stage is being set for the latter part of the melting season, as sea surface temperatures play a big role in the final outcome of the melting season. But that’s a worry for later. What can we expect in the short-term? Will trend lines continue to plummet?

Short answer: I don’t think they will. The weather conditions that let all that built-up melting potential come to fruition, are in the process of switching. And although this means that those Siberian Seas are also going to get a good dose of sunshine, and the Northwest Passage (which is still chock-full of ice right now) will start opening up as well, the speed of the decline will probably level off a bit on those sea ice extent and area graphs. Until weather conditions switch again, of course.

Because if one thing is clear after the first phase of the melting season, it’s that there’s a very high chance of records being broken again if this year’s weather conditions resemble those of last year or 2010. If they resemble those of 2007, the year of the perfect storm, it will become clearer than ever that something weird and potentially dangerous is going on in the Arctic.

I’ll report again if and when something worthwhile happens. In the meantime go to the Arctic Sea Ice blog if you want to read more regular and detailed updates. And check the daily updated graphs, maps and webcams on the Arctic Sea Ice Graphs website.

– by Neven Acropolis, who oversees the Arctic Sea Ice blog.

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25 Responses to Death Spiral Watch: Arctic Sea Ice Takes A Nosedive

  1. Doug Bostrom says:

    Don’t worry, just remember Cadbury’s Law:

    “Since the melting point of ice is constant, climate change cannot happen.”

    HT to Russell.

  2. Nick B says:

    Well lets keep an eye out for those methane hydrates. Shakhova and Semiletov now expect an abrupt release of 1% of the carbon pool could occur “anytime”. That is not to say right away but with decline of the sea, that does mean to say it will happen. The fix is in!

    In recent trips the ice that was usually 2 meters thick was 40cm’s thick.

  3. David F. says:

    And yet still they deny. I was reading some of the death threats that Phil Jones received in the wake of the release of the hacked e-mails. Disgusting stuff. It’s a shame that the responsible parties likely won’t be brought to justice.

    Anthony Watts and others whose rhetoric has served to foment this kind of irrational hatred refuse to acknowledge that they are also blameworthy. Instead, they’ll feign outrage over the content of those e-mails, while providing an outlet for their readers to espouse conspiratorial nonsense.

  4. Michael Stefan says:

    The Arctic isn’t the only place that has been really hot in recent days; check out the temperature anomalies over Russia (where all of that permafrost is) here:

    The red areas have been up to 18C/32F above average for the past week (same for Antarctica, albeit not as important based on actual temperatures). That includes actual air temperatures well into the 100s, as shown here:

  5. BBHY says:

    According to my sources inside the Denier Alternate Reality Bubble (DARB), this is caused by weather stations located too close to urban centers.

  6. Paul Magnus says:

    I worry more about volume….

  7. Joan Savage says:

    Thanks for the links.
    The anomaly in northern Russia, to the east of Murmansk, is worth a specific example, too.

    For Novyi Urengoi (USMU), the forecast for 6/22/2012 is for a high of 93F, yet the previous record high for that date is 66F.,76.633333

  8. Artful Dodger says:

    Yes, Paul. Climate change deniers should definitely tone it down. (and Arctic sea ice volume is declining, too ;^)

  9. rjs says:

    i would mail this from my google reader if not for the first two paragraphs…

  10. Doug Bostrom says:

    Try this instead.

  11. EDpeak says:

    That image is great Doug..I needed a good laugh.

    rjs – maybe you have friends who would be put off by any political mention, so I can sympathize (I’ve been there) with the feeling that if only things were toned down, I would forward this article to that person…however in general I like the first two paragraphs…why not copy/paste the rest of the article and then later add comments to summarize what the first two are about.

    MY OWN CRITICISM? “it will become clearer than ever that something weird and potentially dangerous is going on in the Arctic.”

    Where does he get the word “potentially” from?

    Anyone who’s seen the volume graphs through 2011 from the beginning, never mind adding what we know about feedbacks, knows that like driving without a seatbelt, what’s happening is already dangerous, you don’t need the crash to have already happened to call it dangerous.

    He should have said (and maybe meant) “potentially disastrous” not “potentially dangerous”. The danger is not something that might happen; that developments there are dangerous is already true right now. How disastrous or how damaging the consequences, is the parameter that is no known…

  12. john atcheson says:

    Ice volume. Ice volume. Ice volume.

    Aerial extent is irrelevant in Spring, summer, fall or winter.

    Ice volume.

  13. ozajh says:

    1. The NorthWest Passage is looking a heck of a lot less chock full of ice on the Cryosphere Today graphic than it did only a couple of days ago. This could, of course, be a lot of melt ponds as Neven has noted.

    2. It is theoretically possible for extent to be LESS than area, but I acknowledge this is unlikely in practice. To use the Swiss cheese analogy, consider the situation where the holes are large enough so the extent threshold is not reached. Extent will be considered zero for that “slice”, while the actual “cheese” detected will be inclueded in the area.

  14. ozajh says:

    True enough, but area/extent is what gets reported to the general public. The volume decreses since 2007 have been largely ignored, while the big area/extent declines in 2007 DID reach the Mainstream.

    (And were IMHO immediately followed by a redoubled disinformation effort, but that’s another argument.)

  15. B Waterhouse says:

    Yes, volume is most important. But a satellite photo of missing arctic ice is what will get most media attention.

  16. William Fraser says:

    Actually, although it makes sense that it would be possible, it isn’t true. If the extent threshold is not reached for a given region, the area is also considered to be zero.

  17. Tony says:

    Regarding the methane hydrates, shouldn’t scientists be ringing alarm bells like now, rather than waiting for massive releases and then saying “I told you so!”

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Potentially’ used here is just a weasel-word, a cop-out. It goes up there with ‘perceived’ as when you perceive that the copper kicking your head in might not have your best interests at heart. No potential disaster here-just a real un-bleeding-deniable kinetic train-wreck.

  19. wili says:

    I’m surprised they didn’t include Jim Pettit’s “Death Spiral Graph”:

  20. Leif says:

    Nice link wili. Thank you.

  21. Doug Bostrom says:

    The “IWantSomeProof” approach is pretty snappy. It’s almost irresistible to push the button just one more time.

  22. paul h says:

    This won’t be stopped. Maybe future degradation can be slowed, but politics moves more slowly than glaciers. It will be interesting to see what is revealed and how the geopolitics change as new shipping lanes are opened up and new exploitation of resources are tapped. Hey, at least there are fewer polar bears to threaten the drillers

  23. Andrew says:

    I suggest redrawing these and future graphics with shapes or other redundancy. Many of the colors present look identical to my eye, especially in the first graph. Color deficiencies affect a significant portion of the population rendering colors an unreliable identifying feature.

  24. wili says:

    The scientists are there to do the science. It is the job of those of us who have some glimmering understanding of what they are finding to ring the alarm bells.

    Get ringing!!

  25. wili says:

    There are many exacerbating feed backs accelerating warming in the Arctic: albedo change from ice and snow melt; increased water vapor as there is more open ocean; thawing permafrost releasing methane and CO2; thawing seabed methane hydrates; pools of free methane escaping from sea bed, tundra and ice sheets; and many more. All also feed back on each other.

    Two studies I’ve recently seen add up to another pair of feed backs: Afforestation of warming previously-treeless areas in the Arctic is happening much more quickly than expected, because many species of ‘shrubs’ widespread throughout the Arctic are turning directly into trees right where they are. So we don’t have to wait for trees to migrate in from far away. This changes the albedo adding dark tree bark and foliage to an otherwise pure-white landscape.

    But it turns out that the trees also cause more carbon emissions than they absorb. So they are a double feedback.