Scientists Predicted A Decade Ago Arctic Ice Loss Would Worsen Western Droughts. Is That Happening Already?

Scientists predicted a decade ago that Arctic ice loss would bring on worse western droughts. Arctic ice loss has been much faster than the researchers — and indeed all climate modelers — expected (see “CryoSat-2 Confirms Sea Ice Volume Has Collapsed“).

It just so happens that the western U.S. is in the grip of a brutal, record-breaking drought. Is this just an amazing coincidence — or were the scientists right and what would that mean for the future? I ask the authors.

Here is the latest drought monitor:

And that drought monitor predates the record-smashing heat wave now gripping the West.

Back in 2004, Lisa Sloan, professor of Earth sciences at UC Santa Cruz, and her graduate student Jacob Sewall published an article in Geophysical Research Letters, “Disappearing Arctic sea ice reduces available water in the American west” (subs. req’d).

As the news release at the time explained, they “used powerful computers running a global climate model developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) to simulate the effects of reduced Arctic sea ice.” And “their most striking finding was a significant reduction in rain and snowfall in the American West”:

Where the sea ice is reduced, heat transfer from the ocean warms the atmosphere, resulting in a rising column of relatively warm air. The shift in storm tracks over North America was linked to the formation of these columns of warmer air over areas of reduced sea ice in the Greenland Sea and a few other locations, Sewall said.

I contacted Sloan to ask her if she thought there was a connection between the staggering loss of Arctic sea ice and the brutal drought gripping the West, as her research predicted. She wrote (back in late March):

Yes, sadly, I think we were correct in our findings, and it will only be worse with Arctic sea ice diminishing quickly. California is currently in a drought (as I watch every day — our reservoirs are at about 50% capacity right now, and I fear for the coming fire season, owning a house that backs up to greenspace and forest).

She directed me to her ex-student, now Assistant Professor of Geology at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania because he had done some additional work.

Sewall wrote me:

I am attaching a more definitive study (multiple fully dynamic models with greenhouse gas forcing) on the topic from 2005. The end result is about the same as the original 2004 study, just nailed down better.

Comparing current changes (2011 summer ice and 2011/2012 winter precipitation season) to the 2004 paper:

(1) Ice concentrations in August 2011 weren’t too far off from the ‘future’ in the 2004 paper. The “future” in the 2004 paper was 2050, so it seems we are moving faster than predictions (which has been seen in multiple studies of Arctic sea ice). That is likely due to the relatively conservative greenhouse gas scenarios that were used for the earlier IPCC assessments and associated simulations. Potentially the forthcoming AR5 will have more accurate/realistic/extreme responses in Arctic ice.

(2) Observed precipitation seems to be lower than in the 2004 simulations (50 – 70% of ‘normal’ in the Sierras vs ~85 – 90% of normal in the simulations) based on snowfall data from 2011/2012.

(3) The pattern of wetter conditions to the north of California is as predicted in the 2004 paper, Washington State reporting 107 – 126% of ‘normal’ precipitation, Southern Alaska reporting 106 – 148% of ‘normal’ precipitation for 2011/2012.

I think the hypothesis from 2004 and 2005 is being borne out by current changes. The only real difference is that reality is moving faster then we though/hoped it would almost a decade ago.

The “more definitive” study is “Precipitation Shifts over Western North America as a Result of Declining Arctic Sea Ice Cover: The Coupled System Response” (available here).

That study found that “as future reductions in Arctic sea ice cover take place, there will be a substantial impact on water resources in western North America.”

I asked NCAR’s Kevin Trenberth to comment on these findings and he was concerned that using an artificially high CO2 level to get the models to explore what happens when Arctic sea ice collapses might conflate the CO2 effect with the ice loss. He also added “Variations from year to year are quite large and depend hugely on ENSO in the west of N America. You can not say whether they have come true at this point.”

I asked Sewall for a reply to those comments and he wrote:

Re. the point that Kevin Trenberth raises below and your e-mail just now:

I am quite confident that the changes are due to the decline in Arctic sea ice. The 2004 study did not alter CO2. The study was done with a prescribed decrease in Arctic sea ice cover (and a corresponding increase in local sea surface temperatures to reflect “non-freezing” conditions). The climate response presented in the 2004 study is, thus, a clean response due only to the imposed decline in Arctic sea ice cover.

In the 2005 study, I then moved to look at fully coupled models where the decline in Arctic sea ice cover was the result of warming temperatures, which were, in turn, the result of elevated CO2. This is presumably the same response we are now seeing.

Those coupled simulations showed the same response in storm tracks and western precipitation that we had found earlier in the 2004 study.

Kevin is correct that if I had only looked at the coupled simulations, it would be very difficult to determine if the changes in rainfall were due to the CO2 or to the Arctic ice reduction.

However, because the 2004 study was a clean sensitivity study, I can confidently attribute the exact same changes seen in the simulations I viewed in 2005 as being a direct result of the declining Arctic sea ice (and,thus, an indirect result of elevated CO2).

Kevin is also correct that variations from year to year are large and that the impact of Arctic ice on storm tracks varies significantly with ENSO state.

(1) In unpublished work that a student of mine did, we found that under strong El Nino conditions, Arctic ice concentration had less impact on storm tracks and precipitation in the west. Under more neutral (weak El Nino or weak La Nina) conditions, Arctic sea ice had a larger impact on storm tracks and precipitation in the west.

(2) Both the 2004 paper and the 2005 paper present results as 50 year averages. This, to some extent, takes care of the annual variability issue and suggests that sum total changes on climatic time scales will, indeed, result in dryer conditions in the west.

(3) While neither study employed ensembles, the 2005 study looks at seven different models (all with slightly different parameterizations, resolutions etc. so the effect is similar to that of a seven member ensemble) and the response, in spite of differences between the models, shows declining sea ice and declining precipitation in the American west with increases in precipitation from Oregon on northward.

If indeed this research is being confirmed, it suggests that on average — allowing for yearly variations due to ENSO — the West is going to become hotter and drier faster than people had expected.

NOTE: Top figure (Arctic ice) by Andy Lee Robinson.

Related Posts:

57 Responses to Scientists Predicted A Decade Ago Arctic Ice Loss Would Worsen Western Droughts. Is That Happening Already?

  1. David Goldstein says:

    Thanks, Joe. With the Arctic sea ice melt being the most glaring early ‘tipping point’, it is fascinating to see the growing attention and awareness directed toward that region. We, who are following the situation, may well look back at these days and be able to tell the next generation that ‘we were there and watching when the first pillar of the ‘old climate’ toppled over’. Yep, we were there when the ‘old normal’ simply evaporated!” Also, btw, here is another good and ‘nerdish’ update on the situation:

  2. fj says:

    We must not hold back.

    We must go at this thing at maximum scale at wartime speed.

    We must prepare for the worst and more which will likely happen.

    This is the only way we will have a chance to prevail.

    This is probably how some of our ancestors were able to survive with only minimal knowlege.

    We are in the same situation.

  3. Colorado Bob says:

    DG –
    Thanks for the link by Robert Scribbler.
    The heat he describes surrounding the Arctic is entering it’s second month. I was looking at Canada again last night, 80’s and 90’s all this week, from Alaska to Hudson Bay.
    93F degrees at Churchill , Canada on Wed.

  4. The ice will vanish quickly, and I’m afraid quite soon. It will be an ice-out event over the course of days, when storms and waves shatter the last hundreds of thousands of square miles of thin skim.

    In A Change in the Weather, it happens in 2018. It will be profound and pivotal. Here’s Claire, reflecting on it ten years later as she prepares to blockade a fossil fuel plant.

    Above the slumbering bodies loomed the blank face of a television. In the early days after the ice cap washed away, the networks had poured out stunning images and stunned commentary. The suddenness of the disappearance was like the violent death of a close relative. Her father had said that, in his memory, the effect of the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King didn’t come close, nor did 9/11, nor even the Long Beach bomb. Nature, the very expression of God, had been altered forever. It was as if God himself had withdrawn from the world. She remembered Josh sitting in front of the tv for days, absorbing the endless replays of the satellite views through his ten-year-old eyes. Claire watched, too, transfixed until it began to feel like pure spectacle, pornographic and degrading. The repetition of the images did not add to but detracted from comprehension. The ceaseless commentary morphed from shared shock and grief to feckless speculation from a parade of self-important blowhards, each less credible than the last. Finally, she literally pulled the plug.
    “Hey. I was watching that,” Josh whined.
    “We’ve had enough.”
    “It’s the news.”
    “It’s not news. It’s the same thing, over and over.”
    “But this is history, Mom.”
    History. As if something sensible would follow, and a perspective gained.
    She took her children to church and prayed.

  5. Aaron Lewis says:

    I am sorry, but when somebody says that there will be a drought in 46 years and the drought actually occurs in only 8 years, (starts in 7 years) they do not get full credit for their answer. Yes they got the concept correct, but their “rate” numbers were off by a factor of 5.

    Considering the short time frame of the actual event, that is a very large error.

    If they had said that there would be massive drought in the Southwest by 2012, perhaps society would have made more effort to curb carbon emissions?

  6. prokaryotes says:

    In fact it shows again – an underestimation of climate sensitivity.

  7. Jack Burton says:

    That was a great link David. It will be interesting to see if the cliff drop continues. From the temperatures surrounding the Arctic, it seems probable that that Cliff drop is in response to the record heat in the North.
    We need to drop the linear thinking, and accept that the nature of feed backs produces cliff drops or sudden switches from one state to another. The Arctic sea ice melt in recent years is the story of the century, it tells us that the climate HAS shifted already. I understand science must be ultra conservative and only publish on proven data and facts. But I am a civilian, so I can sit back and look at the big picture and make my best guesses without fear of getting too far out front of Data.
    Clearly the Arctic Sea Ice will collapse, and most likely THIS is the summer it does. Feed backs have taken hold of ice processes and there is little chance of going back now.
    Imagine if you will, the Jet Stream this coming Fall and Winter if the big melt does take place this very year!
    Recent study shows the connect between Arctic warming and a new Jet Stream behavior.
    My best guess is that extreme weather will continue and intensify. Look back over Britain’s weather events of the last 12 months. They clearly show the effects of the Jet Stream’s new normal.
    I read with amusement the comments sections of blogs and news sites that are covering the Heat Wave out West. The deniers are out if force, their employers are pulling out all the stops to flood comments sections with trolled posts. These are the work of hired employees of the PR firms big oil and coal have hired at great expense. Trolling weather and climate stories is automated and the denial employees can get to any story in quick time to troll the comments.
    I don’t think many climate change believers understand how HUGE this PR campaign is. I have seen dozens of denial posts appear in minutes in site like Business Insider or any News Paper site. These are professional deniers being paid to post.
    I expect their denial to escalate as the evidence keeping showing global warming is beginning to enter a run away phase.
    The coming of global warming effects seems to be 50 years ahead of the models. This year’s arctic sea ice melt could be the tipping point.

  8. fj says:

    Maybe not in the models but it seems that in the historical records there were indications that things can happen this fast.

    And it is happening and we better get moving.

  9. Jack Burton says:

    The Arctic Sea Ice melt is proof positive of how badly climate sensitivity has been underestimated. Anyone ,a decade ago, predicting the sea ice melt we see in 2012 and 2013 would have been called crazy.

  10. fj says:

    This is not a mature science but what is happening indicates that it had better mature quick.

  11. fj says:

    There was a recent Nature article indicating that we did not have the means to determine when marine ecosystems were ready to collapse and something we should start working on immediately.

  12. fj says:

    Obama will become the real Commander in Chief when he truly starts marshaling all that we have at wartime speed to bring this thing under control on a global scale with all the world’s nations and people.

    It will be extraordinary.

    He must not hold back.

  13. fj says:

    China will likely be a critical ally and optimally with poor people first, eradicating poverty, human power, and “bottom of the pyramid” development since it brought about a quarter billion people out of poverty, unfortunately largely with the wrong stuff.

    It has had the world’s largest bike share (50,000 bikes) for years now and with 500 million cyclists the cost of creating advanced net zero systems will be minimal.

  14. fj says:

    Yes, this has great potential and hopefully will be achieved without fossil fuels.

    This is truly “Capitalism At The Crossroads,” Stuart L. Hart.

  15. fj says:

    The climate laggards will fall by the wayside.

  16. fj says:

    The climate house of cards is toppling fast.

  17. fj says:

    Virtually complete unity will be achieved when the fossil fuel industry does the divest invest:

    Rapidly divests from fossil fuels and invests in stuff that addresses climate change at wartime speed.

  18. Just to clarify. It’s not certain that this year will see a complete sea ice collapse. At the worst case, it could. So fair warning. But even if it doesn’t, the combination of conditions that is ongoing is disturbing.

    Storms, which usually help preserve the ice by keeping the atmosphere cooler are now, increasingly, resulting in damage to thin ice and to the thin fresh water layer that protects it. Meanwhile, the air beneath these storms is warmer than it otherwise would be (Warm Storm).

    The high amplitude jet stream brings much warmer conditions into the high Arctic, providing much greater energy for sea ice melt.

    It’s a tipping point and, unless interrupted by major negative feedbacks, appears almost certain to continue to bring down Arctic sea ice with risk for ice free conditions from this year on.

    Climate changed…

  19. squidboy6 says:

    In addition to the droughts and polar ice melting the tropical storm season has been really strange, the 4th tropical storm off Baja has already occurred this year and many long before Summer arrived.

    In the past most storms off Baja happened late in the Summer, not in early June. I paid less attention to them in the previous decades but after a couple of years in New Orleans I started watching them a lot closer. Even so I don’t recall so many this early.

    The behavior of the storms is strange as well. Instead of heading out to sea or up the coast they are tending to turn back toward the coast of Mexico as if they would cross over into the Gulf.

    Meanwhile it was 127 deg F in Death Valley yesterday and slightly cooler today in Pasadena, only 100 deg F at noon. Yesterday it was well over 105 here…

  20. fj says:

    Ironic that Obama is now in South Africa the place where apartied fell in a peaceful revolution.

  21. Superman1 says:

    Neven’s blog is addressing this issue in detail. This year’s melt is behind last year’s, but that may say little about what happens a few months from now. But, we know the long-term trend.

  22. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The Master of Guantanamo visiting Robben Island!!! Obama never fails to impress with his sheer chutzpah.

  23. Brooks Bridges says:

    My hope is it has the effect you describe – it could be our long awaited climate change Pearl Harbor.

    My fear is it will receive slightly more attention than Obama’s recent speech – and quickly vanish from public perception.

  24. prokaryotes says:

    Wasn’t it Congress who prevented action? Really getting tired of the Obama bashing… people should direct their issues to the people who are responsible – Obama is not the almighty.

  25. Terry Moran says:

    Sounds as though Calgary’s wounds may have been self inflicted.


  26. Greatgrandma Kat says:

    My first thought after reading both the post and the Robert Scribber wed page was “WHAT HAVE WE DONE?” even though I already know the answer all to well, “WE HAVE PUSHED THE CLIMATE TO FAR” Most climate scientists know that hitting a hugh tipping point like the melt out of the Arctic will change the game significantly, they are doing their best to present only facts they can back-up with data and to develope models for future forcasting as fast as they can. Most of us here know this is true and that they are under attack from deniers all the time. The world would be much farther ahead in understanding what we are doing to our planet without them. I think we need to stop thinking Climate Change and start thinking in terms of Climate Changed. Get ready the ride is going to be rough.

  27. wili says:

    This and the main post immediately below are particularly important messages to get out generally at this point.

    More and more evere, extreme, and even unprecedented weather events are happening in more and more places at more and more frequent intervals.

    But the media is reporting them less and less, and is certainly not making connections between them. And even less making connections between these events and other results of GW.

    Getting scientists on board who have been most involved in the modeling is an excellent way to start to correct these omissions (which really amount to distortions).

    I would be curious to see what Trenberth would say to the cogent response to his objection. In a way it was unfair to assume he had the details of exactly how these models were run at the top of his mind. We can’t expect all these guys to be totally on top of every detail of every study.

    It sounded a bit like he was just giving a boiler-plate answer without having detailed knowledge of just how carefully these studies were performed.

  28. wili says:

    Or as Betty Davis put it in “All About Eve”:

  29. Obama: disappointing

    Bush and the neocon Republikooks: culpable

  30. Merrelyn Emery says:

    It is a systemic response and cannot be measured accurately by reductionist methods, ME

  31. Omega Centauri says:

    Even though my career went otherwise, at heart I’m a scientist. I get nervous with coming to conclusions about the jetstream & ice, the data set isn’t that long yet. generally most of the modelers missed it. There is still a chance its simply bad luck.

    With every new event the plausibility of the thesis (ice retreat equals serious climate changes including especially wild weather swings) looks more and more credible. But, there is still a chance luck will change, and we could be forced to eat our words. Seems to me the one thing deniers are really good at, is finding some prediction or study that is flawed, and using it to tar the whole notion of AGW.

  32. If the weather is this weird with reduced ice cover and diminished albedo, imagine what it will be when the Arctic inverts from white heat reflector to black heat absorber.

    The the long knives will appear in the hands of the blamers, the ones who have been crying about taking the country back. The weather then will be a sign from God. He will have been offended, and the guilty will be searched for, just as the Jews were blamed for Germany’s defeat and the Treaty of Versailles.

  33. wili says:

    I am sorry, but not every scientist can be responsible for knowing all things at once. As far as I can see, these guys were taking _other_ scientists’ findings on the likely rate of Arctic melt and determining what some likely consequences of that would be.

    It is really asking too much–and ultimately would be impossible–for every scientist to redo all the science of the others they are drawing on in making their own conclusions.

    If you feel the need to blame someone on the research side, you should blame the folks who did the modeling on the expected rate of Arctic melt (and, yes, they were apparently all way, way off, as the main post here points out).

    And of course the main blame goes to the people eagerly getting rich promoting fossil-death-fuels and massively spreading lies about their lethal effects on the planet; as well as to the rest of us who eagerly burn up said death fuels at rates far higher than necessary for a basic, decent life.

    Scientists–who are doing their darndest to estimate the rate of damage we are doing to our doomed world but sometimes are themselves astounded at how much faster things are flying apart than they could have ever imagined–should be, in estimation, pretty far down on the blame list.

    As for the folks we are talking about here, we should be thankful that, in spite of the long time scales wrongly predicted for Arctic melt out, someone was still starting to look at likely consequences of this eventual result.

  34. Paul magnus says:

    There has always been a worse than predicted scenario with the climate problem and the science. A lot has to do with the reticance and reluctance of scientist to …. panic.

  35. Colorado Bob says:

    The Calgary Herald had an article this week about the Calgary floods, in it they quote Prof. Jennifer Francis , she says the jet stream has slowed by 14% since the 1990’s.

    With all the records being smashed in the Southwest, here’s two that are very telling .
    Corpus Christi, Texas set it’s all time record high of 107F, and Tucson, set a new record of 30 days in a row of above 100F degrees.
    One thing in these patterns we’re seeing, if it’s gets really hot for days on end, it rains like hell, ‘downstream’ from the high.

    It rained 5 to 8 inches today southwest of Raleigh, North Carolina, and it’s still raining.
    As for the week , it was 88F degrees at Ft Smith, Northwest Territories , Tues high there. 99F degrees.

  36. Mossy says:

    Yup, Jack, you hit the nail on the head: paid trolls. I keep thinking this would be a great news story, if some newscaster only had the courage to rock the boat. But money talks, and no one will reveal the truth. It’s pointless to respond to them, as they’ll keep attacking with the same false baloney. Notice how often the comments sound alike! (Been drinking that algore Kool Aide?)

  37. Colorado Bob says:

    “generally most of the modelers missed it. ”

    They have always said the resolution near the poles is very difficult to refine.

  38. Joe Romm says:

    Yes, of course!

  39. Mike Roddy says:

    In Barstow, here in the Mojave, rainfall has been 30% of normal for three years. This is really dry, since normal is 4.3″ a year. Just the megadrought that has been predicted.

  40. AZLobo says:

    Now the ultimate tragedy in a season of incredible heat and no precipitation. We here in Prescott, AZ., just one week after they helped save our town from a large forest fire, have lost 18 members of out beloved Granite Mountain Hotshots. Please spare a moment of thought for these hero’s and their family’s.

  41. Joan Savage says:

    They deserve far more.

    News reports say a total of 19 dead.

  42. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You’ve just gotta love being blessed to live in the ‘Free World’, do you not. Entirely hard Right MSM, insidious, inescapable advertising brainwashing around the clock. ‘Lawfare’ waged by the rich to terrorise the rabble into submission. Politics entirely Rightwing, with a ‘choice’ of ideologically identical parties, the average schmuck having no say between elections. Not to forget ‘astroturf’ false-flag NGOs everywhere
    and ‘genuine’ ones led by sell-outs. NSA and other Orwellian Behemoths recording every thought, word and deed. And the internet infested with trolls, imbeciles and ignoramuses, all given preferential treatment by the Rightwing ‘gatekeepers’. Jeez- I’d really hate to live in one of those ‘unfree’ countries.

  43. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I’m growing impatient waiting for the scientific establishment to admit that their worst case scenarios were out by a huge margin, and that we are in deep, deep, trouble. Moral failure one expects from the Right, but one expects much better from the supposed guardians of the scientific tradition and ‘Enlightenment values’.

  44. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Obama is, in my opinion, far more than merely disappointing. I did not even mention his drone missile ‘activities’.

  45. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Almost certainly. Little minds led by the morally insane- a recipe for disaster.

  46. Superman1 says:

    Hasn’t McPherson made this point loud and clear?

  47. fj says:

    Embedded in our hearts forever we must now know we have no more time to waste.

  48. Superman1 says:

    Aaron, Excellent observation. They attribute the error (in part) to “That is likely due to the relatively conservative greenhouse gas scenarios that were used for the earlier IPCC assessments and associated simulations.” Do you agree that is the main source of error? How would more vigorous emission scenarios impact the positive feedback mechanisms were are seeing now?

  49. Superman1 says:

    For important missions in the real world of R&D, development almost always proceeds without the necessary research results having been obtained. Risk is high, and becomes a driver in cost-overruns. Research becomes ‘traction-driven’, pulled along by development needs. Climate change ‘fixes’ cannot wait for all the research to be completed, but must proceed rapidly based on best understanding of the science that exists.

  50. Raul M. says:

    Ice to water is a phase change and with such a large area of phase change we can expect the impact of the area to change. One is that the phase change happens, second is that the Earth responds to the change, then the Earth responds to the Earths response. Given that GHG’s emit naturally in response and that GHG’s are still emitted anthropogeniclly the response should be even more convoluted.

  51. Aaron Lewis says:

    In 2002, I predicted the Arctic sea ice collapse within 10 years using standard industrial statistics. I was called “Alarmist”.

    When I predicted wide spread formation of moulins on the GIS (and wide spread surface melt) I was told to, “go read the literature!” Then, he said some things about my NOT being a scientist. Four years later that fellow published a nice account of a moulin drainage in Science. The moulin formation process was stuff he should have learned as a freshman. It is called melting point depression of ice under pressure.

    I blame the poor quality of modern climate science on Tom Delay and Newt Gingrich, and the budget cuts they pushed through in 1995. The IPCC reports would have looked very different if Tom Delay had not “whacked” the EPA.

  52. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    One man hardly qualifies as ‘the scientific establishment’.

  53. fj says:

    Direct violence is obvious and easy to focus on.

    Structural violence and its equivalent acts on individuals is pervasive on extremely large scales (billions of people) and intrinsic to the “Pathologies of Power, Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor,” Paul Farmer.

  54. Aaron Lewis says:

    The models are good for understanding aspects of climate change. As a modeler, I understand why they left things out of the climate models.

    However, any real understanding of the effects and impacts of climate change must consider ice dynamics and carbon feedback. These factors are still not in the GCM. As a risk manager, I consider the climate models unprofessional and negligent. Any discussion of GCM results without discussion of factors not in the GCM is untruthful.

    The people doing climate science are Joe Romm, “Nevin” (Sea Ice Blog) Hansen, Trenberth and surprisingly few others. Most folks that call themselves climate scientists are actually historians writing about what has already happened with statistical certainty. That is not climate science. Climate science is what is likely to happen in the future so we can make rational choices. If we wait for the history to be written, it is too late to make a choice.