Understanding The Human-Caused Arctic Death Spiral

Arctic Sea Ice Extent

by Dana Nuccitelli, via Skeptical Science

The record Arctic sea ice decline this year has predictably and deservedly received a fair amount of media attention.  Jonathan Leake of the Sunday Times recently penned an article on the impending sea ice record.  The bulk of the article was quite good, but at the end succumbed to the standard mainstream media practice of seeking “balance,” thus including some comments by John Christy.  Christy has become very reliable for arguing that anything and everything related to climate change probably just boils down to natural variability, as he recently told US Congress was the case with regards to the frequency of extreme weather events, contrary to the body of peer-reviewed scientific literature.

As we will see in this post, Christy once again misrepresented the body of scientific literature with regards to Arctic sea ice extent in his efforts to paint the Arctic sea ice death spiral as nothing out of the ordinary.

2012 vs. 1940

In Leake’s article, Christy was paraphrased as saying that there is

“…anecdotal and other evidence suggesting similar melts from 1938-43 and on other occasions.”

Christy’s comments to Leake via email slightly differed from Leake’s paraphrasing, as Christy claimed that evidence suggests summer melts during 1938-43 were “very low extent.”  This is a rather vague and subjective statement – very low relative to what?  Given the context, Leake understandably appears to have assumed that Christy meant very low relative to recent years, and perhaps he did, but it is also possible that he meant ‘very low’ relative to the early 20th Century, for example.

This begs the obvious question – in the scientific literature, how does Arctic sea ice extent during the period 1938-43 compare to the rest of the 20th Century and current levels?  One of the most widely used long-term estimates of Arctic sea ice extent comes from Walsh and Chapman (2001), whose data are available from the University of Illinois (updated through 2008).  A description of the vast array of data used by Walsh and Chapman is available via tamino here, and the data are plotted in Figure 1.

summer sea ice extent

Figure 1: Average July through September Arctic sea ice extent 1870-2008 from the University of Illinois (Walsh & Chapman 2001 updated to 2008) and observational data from NSIDC for 2009-2011 (blue), with a fourth order polynomial fit (black soiid line).  Black vertical dashed lines indicate the years 1938-43.

Clearly the extent of Arctic sea ice during 1938-43 was nowhere near as low as current levels, based on these data.  According to this reconstruction, the minimum extent during that timeframe (9.8 million square kilometers in 1940) was higher than it has been at any time since 1979.  In other words, Arctic sea ice extent has been lower than it was in 1938-43 during the entire satellite record, and the current average summer extent is approximately 4.3 million square kilometers lower than the 1940 minimum.

It’s true that according to this dataset, 1940 was a local minimum – the lowest Arctic sea ice extent of the 20th Century up to that point, and a minimum that was not repeated again for another 20 years.  In that sense one could argue that Arctic sea ice extent at least in 1940 was “very low” compared to the early and mid 20th Century, but compared to the past 20 years it was actually very high.  This is also clear from a visual comparison of sea ice extents in 1938 and 2012 (Figure 2).

1938 vs 1943

Figure 2: Arctic sea ice extent from August 2012 from NSIDC (purple) overlaid on a map of sea ice extent in August 1938 from the Danish Meteorological Institute. Red symbols indicate direct observations in 1938.

Henry Larsen, who sailed the Arctic from 1922 to 1948 (including 12 times surviving being stuck in the Arctic ice all winter), tried to sail the St. Roch through the Northwest Passage in 1940.  The voyage took more than two years to complete, as the ship struggled through the ice.  Larsen gave this firsthand account of the state of Arctic ice at the time:

“The three seasons of the short Arctic Summers from 1940-42 had been extremely bad for navigation, the worst consecutive three I had experienced as far as ice and weather conditions were concerned, and in my remaining years in the Arctic I never saw their like. Without hesitation I would say that most ships encountering the conditions we faced would have failed.”

On the other side of the Arctic, Russian martime operations using icebreakers on the Northern Sea Route began in 1932 and give no evidence for improving ice conditions in this period; rather the opposite, as 1937 and 1940 were noted for heavy ice in the Laptev Sea.

Greenland Temperature and Arctic Dominoes

So what was the basis of Christy’s claim of “very low extent” in 1938-43?  Christy provided two references to support his assertions, Box et al. (2009) and Kobashi et al. (2010).  However, neither of these papers involve reconstructions of Arctic sea ice extent; rather, they deal with reconstructing Greenland temperatures, which are not necessarily representative of Arctic temperature as a whole – after all, the continent is covered in a large ice sheet, and the reconstructions are from the summit of the Greenland ice cap, not at sea level.

We contacted Jason Box (lead author of Box et al. 2009), who also noted that local temperatures are not the only factor at play in determining Arctic sea ice extent.  During the past two decades, Greenland temperatures have climbed rather steeply, surpassing local temperatures in the 1930s (Figure 3), and even moreso over the whole Arctic (Figure 4).  These rising temperatures have been accompanied by unprecedented Greenland ice sheet surface melt.  Greenland glaciers have declined (Bjørk et al. 2012) as have Greenland’s ice shelves (Falkner et al. 2011).  For example, the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, which was a least 3,000 years old, split off in 2002 (Mueller et al. 2003England et al. 2008, and Antoniades et al. 2011).

All of this regional ice loss has decreased the local surface reflectivity (albedo), causing the Arctic to absorb more solar radiation, and thus we can expect that similar temperatures now will have a larger impact on sea ice extent than in the past.

GIS Summer Temps 1840-2011

Figure 3: Greenland surface air temperature anomalies relative to the 1951-1980 average (Source)

arctic temps
Figure 4:Temperature Anomalies (1951-1981 Baseline) for the Arctic region (64-90°N) over the past 130 years according to ccc-gistemp analysis and NCEP reanalysis data.

In other words, there is a domino effect at play.  Human-caused global warming contributes to the summer Greenland warming (Figure 3), which causes snow to melt earlier, which causes decreased local albedo, which contributes to record Greeland ice sheet decline, which further decreases local albedo, which in turn contributes to the Arctic sea ice decline.

2012 vs. the More Distant Past

Christy also claimed that sea ice extent was low 1,000 years ago, as well as in the more distant past.  However, his reference for the claim of low sea ice extent 1,000 years ago was again Kobashi et al. (2010), which as noted above, dealt with Greenland temperatures rather than Arctic sea ice extent.

It’s important to note that we expect the Arctic to have been cooling over the past ~6,000 years due to the Earth’s orbital cycles.  Thus if we look back far enough in the past, we can certainly find a period during which the Arctic was hotter and Arctic sea ice extent was lower.  However, this actually contradicts John Christy’s argument that the current sea ice decline could be natural, because that long-term orbital forcing has not reversed, and thus cannot account for the sudden and rapid Arctic warming and concurrent sea ice decline.

Kaufman et al. (2009) reconstructed Arctic temperatures even further back in time than shown in Figure 5, and confirmed that the Arctic had been cooling for at least the past 2,000 years prior to the 20th Century, and found an Arctic temperature ‘hockey stick’ (Figure 5).

arctic hockey stick
Figure 5: Arctic temperature change reconstructed by Kaufmann et al. (2009) including data updated for corrigendum and including instrumental measurements for the Arctic region (60 to 90° N) from NASA.

Perhaps the authoritative paper on Arctic sea ice extent over the past 1,450 years is Kinnard et al. (2011), which used a combination of Arctic ice core, tree ring, and lake sediment data to reconstruct past Arctic conditions.  The results are shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6: Arctic sea ice extent over the past 1,450 years reconstructed from proxy data by Kinnard et al., with a 40-year low pass filter applied.  Note that the modern observational data in this figure extend through 2008, and thus it is a close approximation of current conditions, even though the extent is not as low as current annual data due to the 40-year smoothing.

Based on the Kinnard results, Arctic sea ice extent is currently lower than at any time in the past 1,450 years.

Polyak et al. (2010) looked at Arctic sea ice changes throughout geologic history and noted that the current rate of loss appears to be more rapid than natural variability can account for in the historical record.

“The current reduction in Arctic ice cover started in the late 19th century, consistent with the rapidly warming climate, and became very pronounced over the last three decades. This ice loss appears to be unmatched over at least the last few thousand years and unexplainable by any of the known natural variabilities.”

Is the Sea Ice Decline Human-Caused?

The evidence above certainly suggests that humans have played a role in the Arctic sea ice decline, but what does the scientific literature say on the matter?

Vinnikov et al. (1999) estimated the probability that the Arctic sea ice decline could simply be natural.  The authors used very long control runs of both the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) and Hadley Centre climate models (5,000 years for the GFDL model) to assess the probability that the observed and model-predicted trends in Arctic sea ice extent occur by chance as the result of natural climate variability.  They found that large trends in sea ice extent only appeared over short time intervals in the control run, due to natural variability alone.  This suggests that natural variability will not cause large long-term Arctic sea ice trends.

Updating this analysis using observational data through 2011 (not even including the 2012 record low sea ice extent), the 32-year trend (1979-2011) is -530 thousand square km per decade, and the 20-year trend is -700 thousand square km per decade.  Using the Vinnikov et al. results, these trends both correspond to probabilities of well under 0.1% of being due solely to natural variability.

Day et al. (2012) used five climate models to try and quantify the contribution of natural variations in Arctic sea ice changes.  They found that between 5% and 30% of the Arctic sea ice decline from 1979 to 2010 could be attributed to the natural cycles of the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) and Arctic Oscillation (AO), and even less can be attributed to natural cycles since 1953, since these natural cycles tend to average out over longer timeframes (as Vinnikov also found).

“despite increased observational uncertainty in the pre-satellite era, the trend in [Arctic sea ice extent] over this longer period [1953–2010] is more likely to be representative of the anthropogenically forced component.”

Stroeve et al. (2011) noted that in 2009-2010, the AO was in a state which should have resulted in a large sea ice extent; the fact that 2010 was a year of relatively low sea ice extent is indicative long-term human-caused sea ice decline.

“Based on relationships established in previous studies, the extreme negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation (AO) that characterized winter of 2009/2010 should have favored retention of Arctic sea ice through the 2010 summer melt season. The September 2010 sea ice extent nevertheless ended up as third lowest in the satellite record, behind 2007 and barely above 2008, reinforcing the long-term downward trend.”

Notz and Marotzke (2012) also found very poor correlation between the AO and Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and Arctic sea ice extent (yellow and green in Figure 7), concluding:

“the available observations are sufficient to virtually exclude internal variability and self-acceleration as an explanation for the observed long-term trend, clustering, and magnitude of recent sea-ice minima. Instead, the recent retreat is well described by the superposition of an externally forced linear trend and internal variability. For the externally forced trend, we find a physically plausible strong correlation only with increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration. Our results hence show that the observed evolution of Arctic sea-ice extent is consistent with the claim that virtually certainly the impact of an anthropogenic climate change is observable in Arctic sea ice already today.”

notz fig 4

Figure 7: Correlation between September sea ice extent and CO2 forcing (red), solar forcing (blue), PDO index (green), and AO index (yellow).  Figure 4 from Notz and Marotzke (2012).

Global Climate Models Struggle to Account for the Death Spiral

Arctic sea ice has declined at a rate significantly faster than global climate models have predicted.  Vinnikov et al. (1999) used the aforementioned GFDL and Hadley Centre climate models, forced by greenhouse gases and sulfate aerosols, to project how Arctic sea ice extent would change in the future.  As is the case with most climate models, they under-predicted the ensuing decline (Figure 8).  In fact, the Arctic sea ice decline is already 27 years ahead of Vinnikov’s projections.


Figure 8: NSIDC annual NH sea ice extent and polynomial fit (red) vs. the GFDL annual NH sea ice extent model and polynomial fit (blue) from 1979 through 2011.

The global climate models used in the 2007 IPCC report also failed to acount for the extent of Arctic sea ice loss (Figure 9).

data vs. models

Figure 9: Actual observations of September Arctic sea ice, in red, show a more severe decline than any of the 18 computer models, averaged in a dashed line, that the 2007 IPCC reports reference (NSIDC)

As Stroeve et al. (2012) discuss, newer climate models have made some progress in this area, but still cannot account for the full extent of the Arctic sea ice decline.

“Previous research revealed that the observed downward trend in September ice extent exceeded simulated trends from most models participating in the World Climate Research Programme Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 3 (CMIP3). We show here that as a group, simulated trends from the models contributing to CMIP5 are more consistent with observations over the satellite era (1979–2011). Trends from most ensemble members and models nevertheless remain smaller than the observed value.”

This may be due to the difficulty in accounting for natural variations, or the physics associated with the domino effect discussed above, or both.  There are some regional models (i.e. see the model of Maslowski et al., also discussed here) which have had success in accounting for and predicting Arctic sea ice changes, but climate models overall have been too conservative in projecting the rapid decline in Arctic sea ice.

Human-Caused Arctic Sea Ice Death Spiral

The scientific literature is clear that the current record Arctic sea ice decline is beyond what has occurred due to natural variability for at least the past several millennia, certainly beyond what occured circa 1940, and that human influences are primarily responsible for the rapid rate of the death spiral.  The rapid Arctic warming appears to have caused a domino effect by resulting in record ice melt and thus a significant decrease in local albedo, and therefore an increase in absorbed solar radiation.  The rapid warming and increased solar radiation absorption have combined to result in younger, thinner Arctic sea ice, which therefore melts more easily, making record low extents more likely to occur.

It is wishful thinking to believe that the Arctic sea ice death spiral could simply be due to natural variability.  The scientific literature clearly shows that human-caused warming is the main driver behind this exceptionally rapid decline.

Dana Nuccitelli is an environmental scientist at a private environmental consulting firm in the Sacramento, California area. This piece was originally published at Skeptical Science and was reprinted with permission.

63 Responses to Understanding The Human-Caused Arctic Death Spiral

  1. dana1981 says:

    Thanks for the re-post, Joe. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it takes some brass to claim that the death spiral is natural and/or nothing to worry about.

  2. chad1989 says:

    I think its fairly obvious that humans have influenced global climate change; however, nothing is reported on the influence of plate tectonics, the slowing of the rate by which the earth is rotating which would strenthen an electromagnetic shield that helps to protect us from solar radiation, the distance of the earth in relation to the sun, the angle of which the axis of the earth is spinning which may expose more radiation from the sun, the acidity,polution or salinity of the ocean, temperture fluctuations of the deep sea currents or how plate tectonics have influenced the flow of deep sea currents…. basically id say the above report showed very little natural fluctations and mearly all human influence and therefore the research is bias.

  3. Fantastic collation of research. I had a look around when I was researching the original article and, having only a short time, wasn’t able to find much. So this is very useful.
    Best wishes
    Jonathan Leake

  4. hugh says:

    Very informative article. Why do climatologists still listen to someone like
    John Christy who seems to be one of the few climatologists who are “deniers of anthropogenic climate change? Christy has become, intentionally or not, a spokes-person for the Marshall Institute & the Heartland Institute, both of which
    represent the views of the petroleum industry
    & financiers such as the billionaire Koch brothers.

  5. The Arctic is far away. People can’t imagine that it will affect them. That’s discouraging.

    Even more discouraging is how difficult it is to impress on people the implications of its disappearance. The ice cap is a vital organ in the biosphere. Once it goes, the jet stream will destabilize, and seasonal weather patterns will be disrupted. Having the ice cap cease to function will be a lot like having your liver cease to function.

  6. dan p says:

    Excellent article, with the best summary of historical evidence on ice extent that I’ve yet seen. I’ve bookmarked it as a reference!

    I can only hope that this story gets even more attention than it has. It seems ideal as a wake-up call for action on climate change: spectacular, easy to understand, and a clear warning of greater dangers. I plan to shout about it a whole lot.

  7. Anony Mole says:

    Thank you for extracting, assembling and compiling this very thorough report on Arctic Sea Ice Extent. Your considerable hard work is much appreciated.

  8. CW says:

    Very thorough article, thank you.

    My only nit-pick is that we should not put the word ‘balance’ in quotes anymore. It incorrectly gives the impression to some that we don’t want to hear opposing or skeptical views.

    Instead, we need to put the word ‘false’ in front of the word ‘balance’ to describe the irresponsible journalistic practice of juxtaposing scientific facts, and quotes from scientists, with disinformation and quotes from industry propagandists and discredited contrarians.

  9. dana1981 says:

    Fair point, I just drafted up a post that uses the term “false balance” several times, as a matter of fact.

  10. dana1981 says:

    Thanks Dan. I agree, we need to keep hammering the sea ice record until people start to pay attention.

  11. Mike Roddy says:

    I agree with CW and Dana.

  12. BBHY says:

    I have a also noticed that the date of the minimum ice extent has shifted. While the minimum typically occurred in the first week of September in the past, now it usually happens in late September. In a few years, will we have to wait until early October to see the minimum? Maybe even this year?

    Yet another sign that this is very, very not normal.

  13. Jamie Ross says:

    That’s an interesting point. Is the ice melted mainly by ocean waters that are above freezing? If the Arctic ocean surface water is warming, it would make sense that the minimum comes later – melting should continue until autumn cooling has pulled ocean surface T below freezing. The warmer the ocean, the later in the year that process would reach freezing point, all other things being equal.

  14. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    If even one half of journalists had the competence and/or integrity to provide balanced reporting of the climate issue since 2000, it seems highly unlikely that the US would have been able to maintain its bipartisan policy of a brinkmanship of inaction with China – public outcry and demand for a mutually binding global treaty would have been irresistible by now.

    Instead, as the Sunday Times article by Johnathon Leake exemplifies, the standard practice of devaluing scientific observation by giving shills like Christie a platform has neatly served the continued pursuit of that bipartisan policy.

    To provide proper balance all Leake had to do was to get Christie’s quote, and then contact Skeptical Science for a debunking by a person as knowledgeable as Dana. Including the Walsh & Chapman graph of summer ice extent since 1870 in the article would have been both a conclusive indicator of Christie’s dishonesty and highly informative for the ST’s readership.

    Instead, Leake himself now appears either incompetent or corrupt, with a weighting to the latter given that he is a Murdoch employee.

    Yet Dana’s post shows up what is to me more troubling than media’ malfeasance, which is the UCAR plot of NSIDC data contrasting observed September arctic ice extent with the average of 18 model runs. What troubles me is not simply that the 2007 IPCC report based its prognosis on patently unsupported models and ignored the clear implication of the observed decline rates, but that the models’ divergence from reality had been clearly discernable ten years before the IPCC was founded.

    As we’ve has neither apology nor explanation from the IPCC secretariat for its massive systemic error in projecting arctic sea-ice loss 100 years late, the fact of its bias to obviously disfunctional models rather than to four decades of observation leaves it open to the same question as Johnathon Leake – is it incompetent or just corrupt ?

    While I see zero probability of the great majority of participating scientists having anything less than exemplary integrity, the stakes involved in keeping IPCC reports utterly bland are of imperial scale – and the process by which the reports are processed to final draft is much less than fully transparent.

    It thus appears that the IPCC may have been molded at its inception by status quo interests to be vulnerable to the obstruction of timely information being provided to its mandated client, the UNFCCC, whose negotiations are, by mandate, based on IPCC advice.

    If so, then short of a ‘palace revolution’ by contributing scientists within IPCC, there is plainly a need for an additional independent global expert body to accurately assess and inform the public of global warming and its resulting destabilization of climate. Perhaps on the lines of ‘WSCCD’, being a ‘World Scientific Council on Climate Destabilization’ ?



  15. dana1981 says:

    Thanks Jonathan. Please feel free to contact us at Skeptical Science if you ever need scientific references. Our team is quick.

  16. Jack Burton says:

    Do you mean to say all these natural variables you mention are acting to influence arctic sea ice melt over the last 30 years? If so, elaborate which natural cycles are responsible for what effects. i.e. has some natural cycle warmed the earth in the arctic over the last 3 decades.
    I believe natural cycles are pretty well understood and accounted for in models. We know that we should be in a long term natural cooling phase, yet we experience a rapid warming instead. Human influence has swamped any natural variability and the fossil fuel burning has put enough co2 into the atmosphere to become the primary bias in the system.
    If you make claims for your varied natural forces you need to explain their effects. Which one’s are warming the arctic, how fast and how much. I am not aware of a natural cycle that is driving arctic warming. Please elucidate.

  17. Jack Burton says:

    I would like to point to the last 40 years or so of the ice formations and melting on the Great Lake Superior as a possible hint of what the arctic will see.
    In the 1950’s and 1960’s when I was very young, the winter ice cover of the lake was very extensive and very thick. As we moved into the 1980’s each year saw less and less ice extent and thinner and thinner ice. By the 1990’s the water warmed and we reached a point where no ice formed, and now we have no ice at all at anytime on the lake. Even the small harbor outside my door no longer gets even the thinnest glaze of ice.
    No in 2012 we have gone to the point where kids swim in the lake from June to the end of August. Since the 50’s we have gone from heavy ice in winter and deadly cold water temps even in mid summer, to in the 2000’s No ice formation ever and to swimming temperatures all summer long. In 1960 any attempt to swim in Lake Superior would have resulted in death withing 10 minutes, I personally know of 5 people who dies in these waters in summer during the 1970’s!
    If the arctic follows the Lake Superior example, I expect the onset of zero ice in summer to happen very fast and once that happens water temps will skyrocket as the long ice free months pile up absorbed solar radiation. I’m not saying you will be swimming up there anytime soon, but the loss of ice puts a strong feed back into effect, as I saw happen to Lake Superior.

  18. Mike Roddy says:

    I’m glad someone else speaks out about IPCC, Lewis. They are irrelevant, both for caution and their always being 5 years out of date.

    The Forestry and land use section is the worst, and was hammered out during junkets of “country representatives” that was skewed toard timber industry scientists. The basic emissions data is inconsistent and corrupt, resulting in poor or nonexistent policy path outlines.

    Real analysis would mean a carbon price on deforestation, too, something that is not even talked about. Especially here in North America, where it is as bad as anywhere outside of maybe Indonesia.

  19. john c. wilson says:

    Check the DMI or Navy HYCOM sea surface temperature maps. Each has easy access to daily temps this past summer. Large areas of the Beaufort, Laptev, Barents have had swimmable water temperature for much of the past summer. Closer to home Lake Michigan hit 80F in midlake and had bathwater temperatures at the beach.

  20. Henry says:

    But why is it a “death spiral”? What is dying? And please don’t say ‘the ice is dying’, what living things are actually dying?
    Serious question here..

  21. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    “what living things are actually dying?”

    Try the entire ice-dependent ecology, plus all of the dependents on those dependents, and their dependents too.

    The remaining fraction of the once vast caribou herds are just one creature in the firing line – without sufficient cold the biting flies breed to such numbers that the herds cannot browse, but must keep walking to try to lose the flies, till they drop from starvation. The calves are most afflicted – by the cut in milk-yield plus their thinner skins being more easily penetrated, so the herds’ breeding success can be affected quite rapidly.

    A bit further off, here in Wales in fact, due to the loss of ice-cover disrupting the jet stream, I had swallows sitting in the barn and starving for about three weeks last spring, because the absurd weather meant there just weren’t any midges for them to feed on. So the few that survived the exceptional drought in North Africa on their migration northward have only had one brood this summer.

    But be assured, because the whole ecosphere is a network of myriad intricate interdependencies, the arctic death spiral is the death of your prospects too – if we fail to turn government to negotiating the global agreement of commensurate action.



  22. wow-pretty amazing comment for me to read- I just finished an 18 minute script and PowerPoint presentation I am hoping to make into a TedTalk interweaving my personal health story of liver disease and a liver transplant with the story of the climate (with, of course, plenty of mention of the arctic ice melt)

  23. Spike says:

    What a fantastic article. It beggars belief that science correspondents could negate the value of an entire article by allowing some hand waving contrarian to market their FUD at the end. When such excellent science is available it really does raise the question of whether the newspaper involved is trying to report the reality or obscure it.

  24. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Lewin, I think the explanation is much simpler. The now dominant model of science and how to do it is mechanistic and reductionist – specialize in the effects of one variable at a time and then build a model to try and put all the bits back together again, well those we know anything about. That is not the way the world works. All the old work that established how to work with systems which is what our universe consists of has been basically relegated to the dustbins of history, to our detriment, ME

  25. Jonathan Leake says:

    Interesting comments. Just picking out one or two .. Christy does actually make a good point that there is a lack of direct data on the Arctic’s past ice-cover. That issue of uncertanty has been raised with me by others including some at places like the Met Office and NCAR. It does seem likely we are witnessing something extreme on a geological as well as a human time-scale but it’s also important for scientists to be super-cautious.
    People like John Christy are valuable for forcing others to address this and assemble their evidence rigourously. His academic record shows he is a good scientist so maybe its important to address his arguments (as in the article above) rather than just dismiss him and other scientists with emotive terms like ‘deniers’.

    It’s also pretty dubious to blame the media for a lack of action on climate. If you look in records like Factiva there have been thousands of articles on climate change. I checked this a while ago and so can’t remember exact figures but, from memory, the UK print media had put out several thousands of articles, maybe more than 10,000, on climate change in the last five years. The majority, based on a sample, were setting out the scientific issues clearly, although many questioned the political response. There isn’t much else the press can do really. Printing or broadcasting stuff is what we do. And the media are not meant to be campaigning organisations. So maybe the real failures are with our political leaders? Well in Britain our government has the Climate Act with defined long term legally mandated carbon reduction targets reaching 80% by 2050. And cross party support. That’s fairly amazing when you think about it – although achieving those targets is proving another matter. And that was achieved partly through the media highlighting the issue but also by NGO’s and scientific organisations like the Royal Society taking advantage of that space by working hard behind the scenes to convince politicians what was needed. There’s a long way to go but there is progress. And the so-called skeptics have in some ways contributed to that, firstly by making scientists sharpen their arguments and now that the science is largely accepted, by doing the same for policy-makers. There’s still many tensions and unmet targets but its progress of a sort.
    In America it’s another matter. Climate seems to have become a toxic issue for politicians of all parties. Isn’t that odd in what is after all a science-based technocratic country? I’d suggest that part of the reason for that may lie with the media but there has also been a collective failure among America’s political parties, its environment groups, NGOs covering development issues and perhaps its scientific establishment. Why has Jim Hansen been driven to become a street protester? Working out the complex issues underlying America’s weird and unscientific stance on climate will take some really hard thinking and a more co-ordinated response, especially from scientists.
    But maybe its just easier to blame “the media”?

  26. Mike Roddy says:

    Climatologists actually don’t pay much attention to Christy, since his reputation as a scientist is rock bottom. It’s the media that features him.

  27. Mark E says:

    Although I too am frustrated by the conservative nature of IPCC reports, please see this image Joe recently posted

    IMO, flaws and all, IPCC provides the useful functions of (A) at least bringing media coverage to inside the bellcurve albeit on the low end, and (B) they provide a very useful baseline of UNDERESTIMATES.

    If we had the systems-based smarts to approach science any other way, we’d also be able to see that all capitalism-based solutions are at best temporary stopgaps, because the study of systems tells us that nonstop growth – something all capitalist economies require – does not exist in any natural or artificial system. Lacking the ability to work well with systems, we’re left with the dodgy reductionist approaches of western science on the one hand, or every one’s gut feelings in a “truthiness” battle on the other.

    (See Joe’s discussion of truthiness

    So allow me to just cheer, sort of….

    Long plod the IPCC!
    Long plod the IPCC!
    Long plod the IPCC!

  28. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    Steve Schneider provided an insider’s perspective of the IPCC in his book “Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save the Earth’s Climate.” He was a Working Group lead author on the 2007 report. It’s been a while since I read the book, but I remember him describing arguments over almost everything – sometimes having word-for-word disputes. He singled out the Saudi’s as being particularly hard to deal with.

  29. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    This is a wonderful article in its composition, its completeness, its depth, and in the way it beats Christy about his head and shoulders in all the right ways.
    A minor correction: Dana, you refer to Greenland as a “continent” in the paragraph under “Greenland Temperature and Arctic Dominoes”.

  30. That sounds right to me. Once the air and water reach a certain tipping point, the phase-change is very sudden. Water is solid at 32.00 deg F, liquid at 32.01. The line it crosses is definite.

    You probably remember “ice-out” on the lake, too, when the last of the winter ice disappears within a few days, with lots of crunching and squeaking. I imagine the Arctic will be the same. A final few hundred thousand square miles of it will just collapse over the course of days one summer soon.

  31. More broadly, the disappearance of the ice cap will profoundly alter the jet stream and the seasonal highs and lows that drive precipitation patterns in the Northern Hemisphere.

    Agriculture depends on rainfall consistency. I worry that, instead of raining where it should, when it should, in amounts it should to sustain agriculture at its present scale, it’ll rain where it shouldn’t, when it shouldn’t, in amounts it shouldn’t.

    From the point of view of agriculture, the death of the ice cap will look like total systemic failure of the atmosphere. The “death spiral” of the ice having been realized, will kick of a much broader positive feedback dynamic of human strife.

  32. Mike Roddy says:

    I agree that they are better than nothing, Mark, and succeeded in getting credible science to the media. The problem we have now, more than the corruption and conservatism, is the timeline. It takes years to collect, review, and then vet reports with the members. Given the accelerating pace of feedbacks with weather events and Arctic ice, the 5-7 year cushion is being taken advantage of by the fossil fuel companies.

    More up to date studies may lack the IPCC stamp of approval, but they reflect current knowledge.

  33. BillW says:

    Excellent article! One question I have is whether the methane release caused by melting ice and warming of the Arctic ocean along with the melting tundra has been incorporated into the climate models? This may cause the discrepancy in the warming trends. I know there has been some attention paid to methane release from the tundra, but methyl hydrates on the sea floor trap much more methane. See for release of methyl hydrates. Could this be proceeding more quickly?

  34. David Lewis says:

    Why is it not important that Christy be “super cautious”?

  35. caerbannog says:

    Someone needs to learn the difference between decades and millenia.

    Why are these “skeptics” so math-challenged? Why can’t they understand basic concepts that we routinely expect middle-schoolers to grasp?

  36. caerbannog says:

    Why has Jim Hansen been driven to become a street protester?

    The fairly short answer is: “Hansen has forgotten more than most people will ever know about greenhouse gases and planetary climates. And what he knows is genuinely alarming”.

  37. Carol says:

    Yes, we need a coordinated response —– there is far too much fragmentation among those that want to be a force of positive change.
    I have seen this first hand when I was involved with watershed protection at the local level and in my many years employed in the social service sector.

    You say, “In America—- Climate seems to have become a toxic issue for politicians of all parties. Isn’t that odd in what is after all a science-based technocratic country?”

    No, this is not odd.

    If you didn’t catch it, God was a mandatory component in both DNC and RNC platforms. Science based country?

    Then there was the very unscientific component of Obama’s speech; the lie of clean coal and the unscientific mocking of AGW by the Republicans(which the public cheered).

    Our country is rooted in manifest destiny which has morphed into American imperialism with a heavy dose of religious fanaticism (46% of Americans believe in Creationism according to a recent Gallup Poll).

    We do not have a democracy in the US. We have a plutocratic oligarchy——or the other way around . . . oligarchic plutocracy? In either case, we have a systemic problem!

    For an understanding of current American politics I highly recommend the recent Bill Moyers/Bernie Sanders interview:

    Lastly, I am grateful to James Hansen for his science AND his brave choice to take to the streets. If only we could all be so bold/brave.
    The alternative is to stay in the echo chamber of graphs, statistics and facts that prove over and over again that AGW is indeed upon us. Sadly, the science will not make a difference to the Romneys/Ryans/Fox News/ (too many to mention) and their ilk.

    From Climate Central, April 2012:
    “James Hansen has come out of the ivory tower to join protests against coal-fired power plants (he was arrested outside the White House) and the Keystone XL pipeline (another arrest, same place). And he’s speaking out wherever and whenever he can about the dangers of climate change, along with our responsibility to do something about it — in a recent TED talk, for example, and in an even more recent interview with The Guardian, in which he declared that human climate change is a “great moral issue” on a par with slavery — an “injustice of one generation to others.”
    Some of his colleagues in the mainstream climate-science community are reluctant to go as far out on a limb as Hansen. They aren’t comfortable crossing the line that separates science from activism, although everyone agrees that Hansen keeps his activist views out of his scientific work, which is why his science is still taken very seriously.”

  38. dana1981 says:

    Jonathan, I think it’s entirely fair to blame the media in the USA. Americans are woefully misinformed on climate science, with only ~52% understanding that humans are driving global warming, and only ~58% aware that there is a consensus amongst climate scientists that the planet is warming (let alone that humans are causing it). These are the most recent Gallop poll results.

    The reason people are unaware of the consensus (which is one of the main reasons why they don’t demand climate action) is that there is a false balance in most of our media sources whereby ‘skeptics’ like Christy are given a disproportionate amount of media coverage.

    I agree that in the scientific community, ‘skeptics’ like Christy can be useful in challenging their colleagues to sharpen their arguments. The problem is that when these ‘skeptics’ are constantly in the mainstream media, and will *always* argue that every aspect of climate change is natural even when that’s obviously not the case (as in the current sea ice decline), the public get the impression that there is a major debate amongst scientific experts on subject where in reality there is widespread consensus.

    If the public thinks there is widespread debate, then they have no reason to demand climate action, because they will instead wait for the science to become ‘settled’. So in the USA I think the lack of climate action can be blamed heavily on the media, as well as on the influence of the fossil fuel industry over our politics.

  39. Carol says:

    As Jonathan says—- it would be easier to just blame “the media”.
    “The media” (MSM) is a symptom of a dysfunctional system.
    “Massive corporations dominate the U.S. media landscape. Through a history of mergers and acquisitions, these companies have concentrated their control over what we see, hear and read. In many cases, these companies are vertically integrated, controlling everything from initial production to final distribution. ”

  40. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    “basically id say the above report showed very little natural fluctations and mearly all human influence and therefore the research is bias.”

    This line, which the author may have found at the bottom of a beer can, should be treasured as a classic of the genre – it has everything – self-contradiction, incoherence, grammar, arbitrary assertion, and creative spelling too ! Chad is certainly one that Heartland will be keen to recruit.

  41. Mike Roddy says:

    America is not Britain, Jonathan. Reporters and politicians here squirm when they mention global warming, more so than a few years ago, even as the evidence has become quite obvious. All you have to do is look at public opinion polls, which show global warming denial to be a fringe position in Britain, and common in the US. The reason is media disinformation, funded by fossil fuel companies via media ownership and advertiser relationships.

    As Dana 1981 pointed out, our media still trot out Christy and Lindzen routinely, even as their arguments have very little credibility among scientists. Christy’s statement about a lack of older data on ice cap thickness is pretty irrelevant, for example. Melting in the last 50 years is enough, and given what we’ve observed through old photos of glaciers, it’s unlikely comparable melts occurred in the last few millennia.

    There is also no sense in blaming politicians. Few have integrity, and if their constituents are afraid of change or challenging fossil fuel habits, they will vote accordingly.

  42. Chris Winter says:

    I agree with Dana1981 that the media deserve a large portion of the blame for misinforming the public — on many subjects, climate change being the most momentous.

    The media’s tendency to focus on celebrities and human-interest stories (ably satirized by Jane Fonda, BTW, in The China Syndrome) is well known. Their penchant for false balance in stories — presenting two views on a topic as equally valid when they are not — also contributes to the misinformation. There’s a reason for the existence of the aphorism “If it bleeds, it leads; if it thinks, it stinks.”

    Dan Rather summarized this in a recent interview for the UK Guardian. Max Boykoff has also done good work on describing the problem.

  43. Chris Winter says:

    That’s an accurate summation. He mentions the Saudi Mohammed al-Saban and the Russian Yuri Israel as leading objectionists.

    This is a supplement to my review of Science as a Contact Spot.
    A précis of Dr. Schneider’s career

  44. Merrelyn Emery says:

    We don’t lack the systems ability or the tools Mark, they are just ignored. And with the time-wasting nitpicking inherent in hierarchical bureaucratic systems, we are guaranteed to be overwhelmed by reality, ME

  45. Jack Burton says:

    I do not have a link off hand, but some months back the Russian Academy of Science released information on their discovery of vastly expanded methane plumes in the arctic seas off of eastern Siberia. The Russian scientists expressed shock at the vast size of the plumes, some kilometers across and the number of them. Visiting areas where methane plumes in the past had been meters across they had now expanded exponentially.
    The testing of the air in the arctic also showed, naturally, a new higher level of methane as a component.
    Since this story broke, I have read no follow ups as to what is happening up there.
    Russia is a major fossil fuel producer and many Russian scientists and politicians have been strong climate change deniers. I suspect the Academy may have been told to calm down and quiet down on this story.
    Still, the areas where ice is now melting away earlier and earlier and water soaks up more solar radiation and warms faster and faster are natural areas for these methane plumes to expand. What we have seen up there in this case is just that. Less ice = warmer water sooner in the year = methane hydrates melting and methane plumes rising to the surface. This is a dangerous feed back loop. Since the plumes are now kilometers across, what next? How big can they get?

  46. Sasparilla says:

    Yes, yes, yes! CW and Dana….excellent point…this needs to be SOP from here on out.

  47. Sasparilla says:

    The short answer BillW is for the most part, no – we’re going to be experiencing the feedbacks (clathrate & permafrost melt out) before we can find predictions in an IPCC report.

    The next IPCC report will not incorporate permafrost methane or clathrate thawing feedbacks and very few models do incorporate it (probably because its darned hard to accurately model – since there are so, so many unknowns and we don’t have 30 years of example data to utilize as a starting point and verify a model from).

    Its a very scary, serious barrel of a gun we’re looking down with these as they are starting to melt and it might make action possibly happen a little sooner if we knew just how bad and fast things are going to occur with these feedbacks, but we don’t and its probably going to a race to model what we see from them as they start really kicking in over the coming years.

  48. Greatgrandma Kat says:

    Late sunday night add-on: Shell has drilled the first of many test holes in the Artic Ocean and In their words “We are drilling a lot shallower water than BP was so there is no need to worry about a spill. What a load of old cobblers, the point they always seem to miss is that for them to be there at all took putting so much CO2 from fossil fuels in the atmosphere it is melting the Artic. Could be ice free as early as 2015 according to the latest reports.

  49. Greatgrandma Kat says:

    That should read ice free in summer by 2015

  50. Spike says:

    Not sure I’d agree with the comment that the media in the UK set out the science clearly then debate the politics. perhaps only The Guardian and the Independent do this. The other papers regularly misrepresent and distort the science, concentrate on areas where contarians raise doubt and rehash old none stories like the Himalayan glaciers and UEA e-mails. The respectable process of scientists criticising each other on the detail is regularly spun to suggest little is actually known for certain. Without blogs like this and a few others you could be forgiven for feeling this is just one minor problem that we can get round to addressing in a half baked way when the great Economies are growing at 3% plus again.

  51. Spike says:

    Another Times article on 14 February 2010, 2World may not be warming, say scientists, cites work by Anthony Watts, a climate sceptic, on the location of temperature stations, alleging that some produce poor quality data. However, when the actual data is analysed, the poor quality stations are found to underestimate, not overestimate, any warming trend.”

    Featured with Amazongate in this critique of the UK media here:

  52. perceptiventity says:

    ” The Amazon and the boreal forest burns; massive anoxic events spread across the oceans; billions fight over the last scraps of habitable land even as plummeting agricultural yields kill billions by starvation. The living envy the dead.”

    “While natural global warming during the ice ages was initiated by increased solar radiation caused by cyclic changes to Earth’s orbital parameters, there is no evident mechanism for correcting Anthropogenic Global Warming over the next several centuries. The latter has already begun producing methane and CO2 in the Arctic, starting a feedback process which may lead to uncontrollable, very dangerous global warming, akin to that which occurred at the PETM.

    This extremis we ignore – to our peril.”

    And that, my friends, is a real worst-case scenario.

  53. perceptiventity says:

    Further bit is from a comment thread on Neven’s excellent Arctic Sea Ice Blog at

    Semiletov went on a new expedition 3 days ago (from Murmansk, Northern Sea Route).
    “According to the head of the expedition, Igor Semiletov, the focus will again be methane emissions in the Arctic seas, particularly in the Laptev Sea”. So new results can be expected soon.

    And one more news:

    An international expedition of Russian, Japanese and South Korean scientists on research vessel Academician Lavrentiev went from Vladivostok on August 7 to explore new deposits of gas hydrates.

    The expedition discovered gas hydrate deposits on the slope of the Kuril Basin in the southern part of the Okhotsk Sea.
    On the same slope they discovered a powerful stream of bubbles of methane. It rises to the surface from a depth of 2.2 thousand meters, the first known stream rising from such a depth.
    Large concentrations of gas hydrates were also discovered in the Sea of Japan on the west slope of Sakhalin in the Tatar Strait, with at least 43 plumes of methane bubbles rising from the sea-bed.

  54. Lionel A says:

    Just consider the narrow band of temperatures which species need to not only survive but feed and reproduce. Some species of fish change sex with temperature change.

    Raised temperatures in the Great Lakes and other inland bodies of water across the globe spell trouble for biodiversity.

    Here is a PDF document ‘River and Lake Ice to get you going.

    Other problems can be caused by other human activities such as with the impact, ironically because of ‘clean energy’ production, of the many dams throughout the Mississippi River system on the American Paddlefish ‘Polyodon spathula‘.

  55. Nick says:

    I really can’t figure out why one would consult Christy about the Arctic,he’s hardly an authority on it…and it’s not as if Arctic specialists are thin on the ground.

  56. Nick says:

    …and yes,J.Leake has a rather ‘interesting’ history of larding stories. See ‘Deltoid’ blogs ‘Leakegate’ section.

    ‘Climate Change Data Dumped’ was a particularly ‘interesting’ Leake story during the email theft involving concocting a quote from a line on a web page,then time shifting it forward into the mouths of ‘UEA scientists’.

  57. Lionel A says:

    It’s also pretty dubious to blame the media for a lack of action on climate.

    That is a pretty dubious statement in its own right after all there is a whole section recording your efforts at blowing smoke right here (sadly posts a bit munged WRT links thanks to move to NG).

    We have been watching your story unroll for some time now.

  58. In addition to saying “Amen!” to the replies by others, I would like to add that watching U.S. TV weathermen skirt the climate change issue is laughable. “Oh, the jet stream passed through New Mexico today, and it was 117 in Dallas. Now this message from our sponsors,” with nary a word about WHY the jet stream is wobbling.

    The U.S. media is owned and carefully controlled by mega corporations with heavy investments in the economic status quo, and you will seldom hear climate change mentioned in the daily weather report.

  59. Ric Merritt says:

    For sure, Superior has less ice and warmer waters. But you are telling us there is no longer ANY ice, which is obvious nonsense. If you are referring to a particular spot, you should say so. The lake overall still has considerable ice in winter.

  60. Mark E says:

    Oh, I know the knowledge is lying about. But I was bemoaning our lack of smarts about it. Letting it collect dust on the shelf does not give our society systems-based smarts, much less wisdom.

    Lessons are repeated until learned.

  61. Andy Lee Robinson says:

    I updated my PIOMAS Arctic Sea Ice Volume animated graph that was used last week by the BBC’s Newsnight programme Arctic ice melt ‘like adding 20 years of CO2 emissions’.

    I hope it illustrates clearly and effectively the true magnitude of the effect we are having.

  62. Joe Romm says:

    Nice graphic!