Arcticane: Massive Storm Batters Melting Sea Ice

by Neven Acropolis

Whoever said watching the Arctic during the melting season is boring, needs to put his glasses on. After a record low reflectivity of the Greenland ice sheet (with accompanying floodings on the west coast of Greenland), the calving of another enormous iceberg from Petermann Glacier, and the general rapid decline of Arctic sea ice despite adverse weather patterns, we can now add to the 2012 melting season bonanza the appearance of a cyclone the likes of which are rarely seen in winter, let alone in summer.

The storm came in from Siberia, intensified and then positioned itself over the central Arctic, reaching sea level pressures of below 965 mb in the storm’s centre, engendering 20 knot winds and 50 mph wind gusts:

Data source: Danish Meteorological Institute

The storm is now losing its strength and dissipating, but its effect on the sea ice has been enormous so far. In this phase of the melting season when decline starts to slow down, large swathes of sea ice just disappear from one day the next, and the next, and the next (which is why I refer to it as flash melting). It can clearly be seen on this animation of sea ice concentration maps that are updated daily on the Cryosphere Today website, showing the sea ice decline of the past couple of days:

Although technically not all of the ice that disappears on these maps is completely melted (some of it doesn’t get picked up by satellite sensors due to clouds and waves submerging ice floes), the gale-force winds displace and break up ice floes, and churn the waters below causing warmer, saltier layers under the thin film of fresh water to mix upwards and melt the ice some more from the bottom. This storm is the worst thing that could have happened to an already weakened and dispersed ice pack.

One development on these sea ice concentration maps that stand out particularly, is the detachment of a large swathe of ice floes from the main ice pack. I’ve never seen such a thing before, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is unprecedented in the satellite era. But I guess that is what highly unusual Arctic summer storms can lead to.

The effects on the ice pack are also staring to get picked up on sea ice area and extent graphs. The most remarkable decline can be seen on this sea ice extent graph from the Danish Meteorological Institute:

That massive decline will probably get revised upwards in days to come (DMI has said it will be revised), but it is visible on other graphs as well, such as the IJIS sea ice extent graph:


And on the Cryosphere Today sea ice area graph the 2012 trend line has been in first place for the past 38 consecutive days, and 54 of the last 59:

It’s an amazing sight to see this year’s trend line so much ahead of record years 2007 and 2011, at this stage of the melting season. Suffice to say that this year’s melting season is well on its way to breaking all records on all graphs out there. It’s not a done deal yet, it never is in the Arctic, but chances are greater than ever.

So back to the storm. How unusual is it? Very unusual. The strength, the size, the location, the duration, all of it is highly anomalous. Someone on the Arctic Sea Ice blog proposed to call it the ‘Great Arctic Cyclone of 2012’, but this can probably only be done in retrospect. For who’s to say that we won’t be seeing more of these Arctic summer superstorms in the near future? Although scientific research on (mostly winter) cyclones dates back many decades, there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to phenomena such as these, if only because things are changing so rapidly in the Arctic.

This storm saw its genesis in north-eastern Eurasia, and that has to do land with snow cover, as explained by this 2006 research paper by NSIDC director Mark Serreze (of Arctic Death Spiral fame):

While there have been no trends in the strength or persistence of the summer cyclone pattern over the period of 1958–2005, it is natural to speculate on its future behavior. Climate models are in near-universal agreement that Arctic warming in response to greenhouse gas loading will be especially strong. Results from the present study suggest that, at least in part, the summer cyclone pattern owes its existence to differential atmospheric heating between the Arctic Ocean and snowfree land. If patterns of differential heating change substantially, such as through earlier springtime loss of snow cover over land, or through changes in the presently strong summer net surface heat flux over the Arctic Ocean as the sea ice cover disappears, this may invoke changes in the summer circulation.

Earlier springtime loss of snow cover on land? It certainly looks like it in recent years:

Another factor are the sea surface temperatures of Arctic waters surrounding the cold ice pack. These have been extremely anomalously warm everywhere except in the Bering Strait and Chukchi Sea this year, and this probably helped the storm feed and sustain itself:

I’m not so sure that we’re going to see smaller snow cover and sea surface temperature anomalies in coming years, and so I’m not sure either that we won’t be seeing more cyclones of this magnitude. Hopefully not, as it would be the death blow for the ever more fragile ice pack. If the Arctic keeps coming up with unpleasant surprises such as these, an ice-free Arctic in September is a definite possibility before the decade is out. And no one wants to think about all the potential consequences this entails. But we must….

Neven Acropolis is editor of the Arctic Sea Ice Blog.

18 Responses to Arcticane: Massive Storm Batters Melting Sea Ice

  1. prokaryotes says:

    ”These Arctic hurricanes can develop very rapidly and in a matter of hours produce winds as high as 100 miles an hour, causing very high sea states that are extremely dangerous to shipping in the area, as well as to any off-shore oil activities,” said Melvyn Shapiro of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

    So much for oil exploration dreams and “safety”.

  2. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Wow. Anybody still willing to assume linearity of change? ME

  3. prokaryotes says:

    One factor for the storm and record ice lose, the AO Index (which is positive atm):

    “When the Arctic Oscillation flips from one mode to another, that represents a fundamental change in the circulation of the atmosphere, the way the winds blow.”

    Last year, many scientists blamed the winter storms that blasted the Northeastern United States and Europe on the negative mode of a weather pattern called the Arctic Oscillation.

    This winter, the Arctic Oscillation started out in the opposite mode, which scientists connect to the warmer-than-average temperatures and unusually low snowfall over much of the U.S. The swings of the Arctic Oscillation also help control how sea ice moves in the Arctic Ocean, which is of great interest to climate scientists.

    The more positive direction in recent decades has led to lower than normal arctic air pressure and higher than normal temperatures in much of the United States and northern Eurasia. The National Snow and Ice Data Center describes the effects of the AO in some detail: “In the positive phase, higher pressure at midlatitudes drives ocean storms farther north, and changes in the circulation pattern bring wetter weather to Alaska, Scotland and Scandinavia, as well as drier conditions to the western United States and the Mediterranean.

    In the positive phase, frigid winter air does not extend as far into the middle of North America as it would during the negative phase of the oscillation. This keeps much of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains warmer than normal, but leaves Greenland and Newfoundland colder than usual. Weather patterns in the negative phase are in general “opposite” to those of the positive phase.”

  4. prokaryotes says:

    Cyclone Activity Has Been Intensified in the Arctic

    Cyclones are key weather elements that make a major contribution to climate trends and variability, and that also bring intense high-frequency changes in wind, temperature and precipitation. Given the recent dramatic change of the Arctic climate, Arctic cyclone activity has attracted an increasing amount of attention. We investigated the Arctic cyclone activity in the context of climate change and variability by using a newly defined integrative index, the Cyclone Activity Index (CAI), which is based on cyclone frequency, duration and intensity.

    The cyclones were detected in the NCEP/NCAR reanalysis for the period 1948Ŷ2002 by a modified automated identification and tracking algorithm. Our investigation indicates that Arctic cyclone activity increased during the second half of the 20th century, while midlatitude activity decreased from 1960 through the early 1990s. The number and intensity of cyclones entering the Arctic from the midlatitudes has increased, suggesting a shift of storm tracks into the Arctic. Positive tendencies of midlatitude cyclone activity before and after the 1960-1993 period of decreasing activity correlate most strongly with variations of cyclone activity in the North Atlantic and Eurasia. Our results also provide evidence of interactions between cyclone activity over the Arctic Ocean and the Arctic marginal zone, as well as evidence of significant interannual associations involving Arctic cyclone activity, the NAO, and the regime alternation of Arctic sea-ice and ocean motions.

  5. prokaryotes says:

    Arctic amplification is now recognized as an inherent characteristic of the global climate system, with multiple intertwined causes operating on a spectrum of spatial and temporal scales. These include, but are not limited to, changes in sea ice extent that impact heatfluxes between the ocean and the atmosphere, atmospheric and oceanic heat transports, cloud cover and water vapor that alter the longwave radiationflux to the surface, soot on snowand heightened black carbon aerosol concentrations.

  6. prokaryotes says:

    Scientists have found that retreating glaciers and melting permafrost in Alaska are releasing up to 70% more methane than previously thought. The scientists documented the release of 14C-depleted methane from gas seeps along the boundaries of permafrost thaw and receding glaciers in Alaska and Greenland.

    These regions are rich in natural gas, stored in sediment basins below the surface, and are are currently capped by permafrost, glaciers and ice sheets. If the current warming of our climate continues, these frozen areas may disintegrate, releasing large volumes of methane into the atmosphere. This could have serious implications for climate warming feedbacks.

  7. D. R. Tucker says:

    Greenpeace has sent a letter to the infamous Koch Brothers asking whether we can expect a position change on their longstanding denial of climate science now that one of its fundees, Dr. Richard Muller—as heard on The Green Front last week—has acknowledged global warming is a real threat. Aliya Haq, a research specialist at Greenpeace focused on climate change and corporate accountability, will also discuss links between a Romney spokeswoman and denial money. One of the scariest impacts of this summer’s record heat and drought is the massive fish die off due to warm water temperatures and shriveling ponds and streams. Todd Polacek, a “limnologist” at Applied Ecological Services joins us to discuss the implications.

    Read more:
    Under Creative Commons License: Attribution

  8. Anyone note Revkin trying to pour water on this over at his dotEarth blog? I can’t see how anyone looking at recent sea ice declines can say the Arctic Cyclone didn’t have an impact.

    Kudos to Neven for calling this one. Just a shame mainstream media hasn’t picked up on it.

    As for Joe — my bet’s on you winning that bet with Revkin (even though he won’t bet). Looking at current trends, it doesn’t seem likely the Arctic ice sheet will survive in any substantial form by 2030.

    Best to you all and keep up the great work.

  9. BBHY says:

    This is not your grandfather’s Arctic.

    This is a whole different deal.

  10. Paul Klemencic says:

    Technical detail: the blink comparator isn’t working on any of the displays. I tried two different browsers (including Google Chrome).

    Tomorrow’s data will continue to reflect the rapid ice declines.

  11. prokaryotes says:

    Great Podcast! I recommended this to all my followers.

  12. Neven says:

    The first three animations in this post do not seem to be working (could be CP blogging software modifying them and then they’re stuck at the first image).

    You can see the animations on the ASI blog (click my name).

  13. prokaryotes says:

    I’ve noticed the image paths are very cryptic, might be the embedding linkage is not compatible with the *gif animations.

  14. Nick B says:

    Professor Wadhams of Cambridge University predicted an ice free Arctic summer by 2015-16 and was scoffed at by the model makers who still put decades on it. This clearly happening bang Wadham’s schedule and is going to cause a huge albedo flip in the region and we will definitely see those methane hydrates come out.

    As the seriousness of this is so far from the public consciousness it seems that little can be done. We are getting close to the point where “panic geoengineering” becomes the measure of last resort. Enter the realm of the “casino climate”.

  15. Paul Klemencic says:

    Severe Arctic cyclones don’t occur in the summer. Well, at least not until this one.

    And generally they occur in the Bering Sea, Greenland sea (near Iceland), or in the Barentsz Sea. This storm was centered with one side of the 1200 km circulation touching the North Pole.

  16. Artful Dodger says:

    “Denial is a river in Greenland”.

  17. Doug Grandt says:

    Thanks, Joe. And thanks, Neven, for your alert to the ArcticRow team on Sunday. That is how I discovered your Arctic Sea Ice blog (actually, a Facebook friend posted you alert, so it was not really a discovery per se). I have been following the worsening observations and speculations since Sunday when the storm forced the ArcticRow team of rowers into Elson Lagoon near Barrow to wait it out.

    The four ArcticRow rowers launched from Inuvik, ON, on July 17 for what they thought would be a 30-day jaunt to Providenya, Russia. They are obviously delayed due to the southerly winds on Sunday and now going stir crazy while waiting for the winds to subside.

    Imagine three strapping 200+ lb. 6-footers tucked away in a pup-tent-size aft cabin and the fourth in the forward storage locker. Their names are Paul, Neal, Collin and Scott. Follow them at

    ArcticRow’s “first Arctic crossing and plankton research” adventure will certainly give the four more than they had originally anticipated. Who would have anticipated the “floor dropping out” from the SIE and SIA when they already dropped off a cliff in 2007, let alone a rare weather/climate event as this storm and the yet-to-be-observed effects of the ice deterioration?

    Best of luck to ArcticRow and good work, Arctic Sea Ice blog community!!