Arctic Death Spiral: New Local Shipping And Drilling Pollution May Speed Up Polar Warming And Ice Melting


Arctic Sea Ice is melting much, much faster than even the best climate models had projected. The reason is most likely unmodeled amplifying feedbacks. Image via Arctic Sea Ice Blog.

We’ve known for a long time about basic polar amplification. Warming melts highly reflective white ice and snow, which is replaced by the dark blue sea or dark land, both of which absorb far more sunlight and hence far more solar energy.

More recently another insidious feedback has become obvious — as the Arctic ice retreats, big oil companies can drill for more fossil fuels whose combustion will accelerate warming and ice retreat. You might call this the “brainless frog” feedback.

Now Reuters reports on yet another feedback:

Local pollution in the Arctic from shipping and oil and gas industries, which have expanded in the region due to a thawing of sea ice caused by global warming, could further accelerate that thaw, experts say.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) said there was an urgent need to calculate risks of local pollutants such as soot, or “black carbon”, in the Arctic. Soot darkens ice, making it soak up more of the sun’s heat and quickening a melt….

“There is a grim irony here that as the ice melts … humanity is going for more of the natural resources fuelling this meltdown,” he said. Large amounts of soot in the Arctic come from more distant sources such as forest fires or industry.

So the direct pollution from shipping and fossil fuel extraction could speed up Arctic melt.

All of these feedbacks combined are likely to have dire consequences (see How The Arctic Death Spiral Favors Extreme, Prolonged Weather Events “Such As Drought, Flooding, Cold Spells And Heat Waves” and Why The Arctic Sea Ice Death Spiral Matters).

For the sake of completeness, Arctic warming is amplified for several additional synergistic reasons, beyond the change in reflectivity. As the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) explains in their 2004 report, Impacts of a Warming Arctic (see figure here and below):

  • In the Arctic, compared to lower latitudes, “more of the extra trapped energy goes into warming rather than evaporation.”
  • In the Arctic, “the atmospheric layer that has to warm in order to warm the surface is shallower.”
  • So, when the sea ice retreats, the “solar heat absorbed by the oceans in summer is more easily transferred to the atmosphere in winter.”

[And as one climate scientist explained to me, it can get incredibly cold above thick ice, but it can’t get much colder than freezing above open water.]

All this leads to more snow and ice melting, further decreasing Earth’s reflectivity (albedo), causing more heating, which the thinner arctic atmosphere spreads more quickly over the entire polar region, and so on and on.

And that in turn threatens a cascade of effects. As the scientists at The International Polar Year noted, this could “speed up melting of the Greenland ice sheet, accelerating the rise in sea levels,” and “Permafrost melting could also accelerate during rapid Arctic sea-ice loss due to an amplification of Arctic land warming 3.5 times greater than secular 21st century climate trends” (see “Tundra 4: Permafrost loss linked to Arctic sea ice loss“).

Yet the destruction of a significant fraction of the permafrost, coupled with the climate-carbon-cycle feedbacks that the IPCC models, would make the task of averting the unmitigated catastrophe of 800 to 1000 ppm even more challenging.

We are headed into uncharted waters.

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23 Responses to Arctic Death Spiral: New Local Shipping And Drilling Pollution May Speed Up Polar Warming And Ice Melting

  1. Mark E says:

    As a kid in the upper (formerly freezing) Midwest, many times I watched wave action rapidly break up thin ice. I wonder how you model the physical effects of increasing waves…. I mean, if there more open water in the arctic ocean for wind to work, and more shipping kicking up wakes, will that be a mechanical feedback (as opposed to the thermal ones)?

  2. Sasparilla says:

    Very good article Joe, thanks for putting up a link to a large size version of the graphic – shows how far our models are from reality – really frightening looking at that and to think we may hit zero on that graphic (one arctic scientist was saying by 2016 or so).

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    That’s quite a chart. Do you know how many members of Congress are likely to have looked at it?

  4. john c. wilson says:

    Yes, exactly that is in progress. The other mechanism that waves initiate is destratification. The Arctic Ocean as we have known it is highly stratified. Contrary to intuition, deeper layers of water are warmer. The surface water is icemelt (mostly freshwater and lightweight) and river water from Canada and Siberia. The layer immediately below the ice is at 32F. Warm salty water from the world ocean is below. Open water and storms mix the layers. How rapidly mixing will occur and how mixed it will stay is absolutely unknown. We are running that experiment right now. In any event warm salty water melts ice and resists refreeze more than cold fresh water.

  5. Jack Burton says:

    The chart is indeed a dose of very hard reality. Clearly the attempts to model sea ice melting going forward failed badly. Probably due to the difficulty of getting the feed backs right. Hard to know what feed backs will kick in and how fast.
    It just looks to me like a runaway event. Meaning that once a point is reached, then the event runs away on it’s own.
    I noticed this on Lake Superior. Rather than go very slowly from heavy ice in winter to a long slow decline until we got to a no ice situation. We had very heavy ice, then just a few years of decline, and then presto, almost in a couple years time we went to no ice accumulation at all and it has stayed that way now for several decades.
    Once a point was reached we flipped to a new state. The water warms so much now in summer that I doubt ice can ever form again with out a major climate shift to colder temps.
    We witnessed feed back, no ice in spring allowed the water to warm by June, when in the past ice only went out in May. Now by July we are all swimming and in Nov. the winds off of the lake tend to be much warmer than air temperatures. What we once saw as a giant air conditioner, causing a local climate near the lake to be nearly arctic in nature, has flipped to a local climate that is now warmer by far than inland temperatures. The shore areas will see new plant life as they push out the cold weather plants and new warm weather loving plants find a home protected from the extreme cold of Northern Minnesota fall, winter and spring.

  6. Henry says:

    Why do we never hear about the ANTarctic ice levels?
    Serious question here, is the antarctic in a death spiral too?

  7. tpinlb says:

    Antarctic sea ice is at record high levels, and this is not reflected in any of the IPCC climate models.

    A recent paper in the Journal of Climate finds that most climate models erroneously predict that Antarctic sea ice extent decreased over the past 30 years, which “differs markedly from that observed.” As noted in the abstract, Antarctic sea ice has confounded the models by instead increasing over the satellite era. In fact, it is currently at a record extent that is more than 2 standard deviations above the 1979-2000 average.

    Journal of Climate 2012. An Initial Assessment of Antarctic Sea Ice Extent in the CMIP5 Models. By John Turner, Tom Bracegirdle, Tony Phillips, Gareth J. Marshall, and J. Scott Hosking. British Antarctic Survey, National Environment Research Council, Cambridge, UK.

  8. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Yes but accelerating loss from the WAIS and now concern about the Fichner-Ronne on the E side, ME

  9. nyc-tornado-10 says:

    Late winter sea ice is increasing in the southern hemisphere (this time of year), as far as area and extent is concnerned. Ice area and extent (i beleive) is not increasing in the southern hemisphere summer, which is when there is the most solar insolence.

    Northern hem sea ice area and extent decrease the least at the same time of year, late winter, because the ice is thinner than ever, as it starts to melt, it spreads out in area coverage. My question for anyone who studies this is, is southern hemisphere sea ice extent increasing in late winter for the same reason the norther hem sea ice is not declining as fast in late winter as it is in summer, because it is also thinning?

    What are the sea ice volume figures for the southern hemisphere? It would be interesting to see if sea ice volume is increasing or decreasing in the southern hem. in summer and winter. remember that the big drop in arctic sea ice extent, which began 10 years ago, was preceeded by a drop in volume that began 15 years ago, 1998.

  10. catman306 says:

    With drilling in the Arctic we can expect oil pollution from the inevitable spill or blowout. That darkening of the surface waters and ice can’t be modeled either.

    The hockey stick of climate warming may soon look more like a carpenter’s square.

  11. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Joe you might want to take a look. The PIG/TW is no longer the only concern about the WAIS.

  12. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Sorry, put the F-R in the wrong sea, ME

  13. Question. If you look at the maps of ice loss that are all over the blogs these days, it seems that most of the loss is from the Siberian side of the Arctic Ocean. The remaining ice is on the Greenland side. Is that because Greenland itself is such a big block of ice? Warm ocean currents from Siberia? What’s the cause?

  14. Mark E says:

    Thanks John, I didn’t know about the water stratification factor.

  15. Mark E says:

    Wonder if one factor is that fresh water is much easier to turn into ice, and there’s a heap more fresh water coming off the continent these days?

  16. john c. wilson says:

    This will be very simplified and less than complete but I’ll try to take that question. Currents in the Arctic, especially late in the melt season, push ice toward Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago. It piles up there and gets thick.

    Much of the melt in recent years has come from warm Atlantic water pushing into the Barents and Kara Seas and then working northwards. On the other side, and especially in 2007, warm Pacific water came through the Bering Strait and melts the Chukchi, Beaufort and East Siberian Seas. There is no remaining ice of any thickness except what has drifted against Greenland and the Archipelago. Once an area is comprised entirely of first year ice it will be easier to melt out in following seasons. I don’t think I’ve made any errors in this short answer but there is much more going on.

  17. pinroot says:

    Still no mention of Antarctica, since it isn’t melting, which the models say it should be doing. Either the models are wrong or…

    From NOAA:
    The August 2012 Southern Hemisphere sea ice extent was 18.36 million square km (7.09 million square miles), 1.57 percent above average and the fourth largest (30th smallest) August sea ice extent in the 1979-2012 period of record. Antarctic sea ice extent during August has increased at an average rate of 0.6 percent per decade, with substantial interannual variability. Antarctic sea ice will continue to expand during its annual growth cycle which typically ends in late September or early October.

    Inconvenient facts like these are usually ignored, because of their inconvenience.

  18. Joan Savage says:

    No need to ignore the Antarctic, but it doesn’t have as big an imminent impact. The current Arctic ice extent is about half of its average minimum areal extent, a condition which is significant.

    The Antarctic has been buffered from some ice loss as it is receiving greater than average snowfall, which contributes to cumulative land and sea ice mass, increases albedo, and may limit net melt rate. Why the Antarctic has received more snowfall in recent years could be a matter of interest regarding climate change.

    Summary of Arctic and Antarctic ice extent:

  19. nyc-tornado-10 says:

    It is winter in antarctica, not summer. The large extent and area of ice may be much thinner, and have less volume.

  20. riverat says:

    There’s a pretty good explanation of ice on and around Antarctica at Skeptical Science:

  21. riverat says:

    Not inconvenient at all, just counter-intuitive.

    It’s a complex explanation. First the Antarctic ozone hole cools the stratosphere which strengthens the circumpolar winds pushes the existing ice around opening up polynyas which subsequently freeze over expanding the ice covered area.

    For the second I’ll just quote Skeptical Science:

    “Another contributor is changes in ocean circulation. The Southern Ocean consists of a layer of cold water near the surface and a layer of warmer water below. Water from the warmer layer rises up to the surface, melting sea ice. However, as air temperatures warm, the amount of rain and snowfall also increases. This freshens the surface waters, leading to a surface layer less dense than the saltier, warmer water below. The layers become more stratified and mix less.”

    Unlike the Arctic the Antarctic sea ice melts nearly completely every year then reforms the next winter.

  22. riverat says:

    Just eyeballing the chart it looks like September Arctic sea ice minimum is 50 years ahead of the model mean and 20+ years ahead of even the most pessimistic model run.

  23. Thanks, John,

    I’ll keep looking into this, but that seems like a pretty good basic explanation. Much to learn about this complex Arctic picture.