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North Pole poised to be largely ice-free by 2020: “It’s like the Arctic is covered with an egg shell and the egg shell is now just cracking completely”

By Joe Romm  

"North Pole poised to be largely ice-free by 2020: “It’s like the Arctic is covered with an egg shell and the egg shell is now just cracking completely”"

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It’s the ice thickness, stupid.

The Arctic ice cover, which has endured for at least 100,000 years, will be all but gone within a decade according to a volume-based projection by a leading British scientist, the BBC reports.  At the same time, “a gruelling 73-day” survey of sea-ice thickness found “the average thickness of the sea ice was 1.774 m” [5.8 feet].

One surveyor said the data “seems to suggest it was almost all first-year ice.”  And that confirms what the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported in April:

http://nsidc.org/images/arcticseaicenews/20090406_Figure5_thumb.png

The view of the Arctic from above tells you only ice area, not volume.  So even as the climate science deniers (temporarily) crow about the latest two-dimensional data, those who think three-dimensionally know that the Arctic is a cracking eggshell (see NSIDC: Arctic melt passes the point of no return, “We hate to say we told you so, but we did.”).

Peter Wadhams, head of the polar ocean physics group at the University of Cambridge, “believes the ice, which has been a permanent feature for at least 100,000 years, is now so thin that almost all of it will disappear in about a decade“:

“By 2013, we will see a much smaller area in summertime than now; and certainly by about 2020, I can imagine that only one area will remain in summer.”

Although this bleak forecast is reinforced by the survey team’s data, Professor Wadham’s new assessment is based on analysis of nearly 40 years of sonar data gathered on Royal Navy submarines patrolling beneath the ice – the first, HMS Dreadnought, was in 1971….

Now Professor Wadhams, who has studied the Arctic for the past 40 years, says that there is “almost a breakdown” in the ice-cover….

Much of what is left of this ice accumulates in an area north of Greenland and Ellesmere Island in Canada, and may form what he calls “a last holdout, a kind of Alamo”.

Yes, well, if we remember the Alamo, it is not a pretty picture.

The recently finished survey was very thorough:

“In our time here we have captured around 16,000 observations and [taken] 1,500 measurements of the thickness of the ice and snow as well as its density.”

… Typically, about 40% of the Arctic Ocean is covered with older, thicker ice, but that has been greatly reduced.

Referring to the direct measurements taken by the Catlin team, [Canadian ice service analyst, Trudi] Wohlleben said: “It is very nice to have ‘ground-truthing’ of what you’re interpreting from the satellite data.

“So when we look at the imagery, we’re expecting the first year ice to be between 1m and 2m thick and it’s nice to have those numbers confirmed.”

The end — of a year-round ice-free Arctic — is nigh.

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22 Responses to North Pole poised to be largely ice-free by 2020: “It’s like the Arctic is covered with an egg shell and the egg shell is now just cracking completely”

  1. paulm says:

    “…almost all of it will disappear in about a decade“:

    Well he’s going to be proved wrong. Just like all the projections before.

  2. FredT34 says:

    Ice receded so much these last years that’s such a title, “ice-free by 2020″, isn’t astonishing anymore.

    In 2006 (or was it 2007 ?) Pr. Maslowski published a prediction by 2013 ; recently NSIDC’s Stroeve wrote about 2050 as a deadline ; and now Wadhams announces 2020.

    The IPCC prediction about 2100 now seems to have been optimistic – but it didn’t /couldn’t take in account a lot of retroactions.

    I just wonder on this: how many predictions, once far away, will prove to happen much faster than initially computed ? Things seem to go faster and faster…

  3. ecostew says:

    A key point is that they just encountered first-year ice for most of their journey, which was quite unexpected.

  4. Gail says:

    Today I had an appointment at the little local beauty salon. OKAY! It’s vain and stupid!

    Anyway, I got into a conversation with the sweet young lady who was plastering chemicals on my hair and wrapping it in foil.

    She clearly believes that global warming is real, and it’s bad. She just as clearly believes, since she brought it up herself, that it’s in the distant future. She said, “I’m lucky because it won’t happen to me, but in 100 years, there is going to be a problem.”

    We MUST get rid of the 100 year meme if there is to be a groundswell of support for dramatic and necessary action before it’s too late (assuming it isn’t already).

    As I continue to delve steadily into “With Speed and Violence” there is no question that we have already swamped the climate with CO2 and if nothing else, the ice caps and glaciers melting will all by themselves alter the habitability of critical regions of earth, as well as destroy crucial agricultural sources, and displace so many that social unrest and warfare will prevail.

    Please, are there any deniers out there to provide some comic relief here??

  5. paulm says:

    the 100yr toll rings loud.

  6. ecostew says:

    Gail, yes – but, what is the message crafted in such a way that the media reports it and the public is informed?

  7. Gail says:

    The message must be more immediate. Katrina is a good start. Scientists must start equating disasters like this:

    http://www.themudflats.net/2009/05/13/flood-relief-for-interior-alaska-how-you-can-help/

    which isn’t even related to, there, in that story, but is connected to climate change and should be reported. The ice flows are breaking up earlier due to warmer temps, and creating jams that make for floods.

    It is time for scientists to start coming forward and to connect the dots between disastrous weather events to climate change. Come on, guys! We need you to step up and tell the lay people what is really happening!

  8. paulm says:

    The message has to come from responsible professional bodies in addition to the climate scientist.

    This has been a long time in coming from the medical guys, bit it has arrived …

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/health/article6283681.ece

  9. paulm says:

    and

    Climate change biggest threat to health, doctors say
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/may/13/climate-change-health-impact

  10. Gail says:

    Paulm, thank you for those links.

    Sea level rise is going to overwhelm all other effects once it gets underway in earnest.

    According to studies of the past, ice sheets do not melt slowly and gradually – they break up wildly. They are more like volcanic eruptions. Melting water, like magma, works into fissures and then at a critical point explodes.

    The historical record of how climate flips is instructive. Turns out, due to positive feedbacks and tipping points, it happens fast – which is why it causes mass extinctions. What hasn’t existed in past events is people.

  11. Lou Grinzo says:

    Gail: I respectfully disagree. Sea level rise will indeed be Very Bad, but drought will hit us even sooner. The disappearance of glaciers plus shifting rain patterns threatens the drinking and irrigation water supply for a billion people around the world, plus the hydroelectric output in many areas; heck, it’s already having a serious effect.

    If we want to reach typically US-centric Americans, we can start by telling them (1) how bad the water situation is in California already, and (2) how much of the US’s food is grown in California.

    And I second your mention of “With Speed and Violence”. It’s easily one of the best books in the field, and I constantly recommend it on The Cost of Energy.

  12. Wonhyo says:

    My unwitting audience members generally acknowledge the general concept of climate change, but there’s an implied assumption that “It’s not happening now” and “It won’t happen to me”. People are concerned about how they will be affected by Social Security, health care, and swine flu, but climate change is not a reality in people’s minds.

    I say, “Aren’t you concerned about the fresh water supply?”. They say, “Desalinization”. I say, “If we carpool four to a car, we’ll cut vehicle emissions 75%, immediately, AND save money, AND slow climate change”. They say, “Nobody’s going to do that”.

    It’s that last statement that worries me. The policy changes being pushed by the new Administration are encouraging, but I realize the political process is slow. A bottom-up, grassroots level change (like voluntary 4-person carpooling) can have a much more immediate effect (and serve to raise awareness, which will accelerate the policy changes).

  13. paulm says:

    Price of gas has to go back up!

  14. Gail says:

    Lou, I do agree with you but what I was getting at is I think sea level rise might be the one effect that people just won’t be able to ignore or pretend isn’t happening or blame on something else. For instance, I just read an article about the farmers in the Central Valley of California, who are holding meetings because they are no longer allowed to divert water to irrigate. The farmers seem to unanimously blame the government for their plight. Not one of them interviewed believe drought let along climate change has anything to do with it!

    The next book I read is going to be “Heatstroke: Nature In an Age of Global Warming” by Anthony Barnosky who appears to express Mmuch more succinctly than I what I have been observing:

    “Barnosky likes ecosystems just as much as the next scientist, but in Heatstroke: Nature in an Age of Global Warming, he argues brilliantly that conservation biology can no longer focus on saving them. The reason is simple: Thanks to global warming, the ecosystem we work to save today will have a different climate tomorrow.” from The Washington Post

    I would just amend that to say, we already have a different climate.

  15. An ice-free Arctic ocean will warm up tremendously, minimizing the winter freeze-over and further destabilize the Greenland climate – the more it rains instead of snows in Greenland just means a faster de-glaciation. These are all tipping point accelerators. Very, very interesting times.

    And Gail, you are spot on about the year 2100 target – it is too bad that is such a convenient number… First we should note that it is now 91 years away, and most important that year does not see the end of warming and destablization…I would prefer to see more near term projections… 2030 and 2050. As well as a two hundred year forecast.

    Other than IPCC – which is outdated – Where can I read of the informed projections?

  16. Dorothy says:

    Considering the 100 year meme, in 2002 Robert Hunter was asked to write a book about the IPCC Third Assessment. It was published in Canada under the title, “2030: Confronting Thermageddon in Our Lifetime;” in the US, “Thermageddon: Countdown to 2030.”

    In 2002, many scientists were still saying that the Polar Ice Cap could melt by the year 2100. Hunter shocked many people, including me, by predicting that this would happen by 2050. He said that if the world didn’t take action by 2030, all bets were off.

    Three years later, Jim Hansen told us, “The world has less than a decade to take decisive action in the battle to beat global warming or risk irreversible change that will tip the planet towards catastrophe.” We were told that the Arctic Sea Ice could disappear in the summer by 2030.

    Look what we know now, just seven years after the publication of Hunter’s book. Along with the accelerating effects of climate change, it looks like our knowledge of the science is also becoming exponential.

    This gives one hope. At the end of Hunter’s book, you’ll find this text:

    “If government stalls on action…that’s no reason for individuals to throw in the towel, or absolve themselves of responsibility.

    “Nor can we dismiss the possibility of a ‘self-structuring hierarchical jump,’ as biophysicist John R. Platt described “deep” revolutions… (See,’What We Must Do,’ in Science, November 28, 1969) His thesis was that serious change occurs when a collective restructuring is triggered by the accumulation of data which doesn’t fit the old patterns, pressure building up in isolated situations that begin to converge, precipitating a clash between old and new systems. The change, when it comes, moves with the speed of lightning.”

    There’s much more on this. Get the book, which is now available for pittance on Amazon. It’s a great read for the historical perspective and for the personal story of a admirable genius, whose wonderful energy lives on.

  17. paulm says:

    Inevitably with tipping action, its always too late to avert the spillage.

    I believe it bets on now for 2015 for an ice free Arctic. And it could happen earlier!

  18. One of the climate models that has most accurately predicted Arctic amplification suggests that we’ll have our first ice-free arctic summer in 2013.

    And Professor Wieslaw Maslowski at the Naval Postgraduate School has been quoted as saying even this estimate might be too conservative.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7139797.stm

  19. Bob says:

    Sorry folks but sea ice will not ever be a factor in what direction governments take in considering environmental impacts. Commerce always trumps environment.
    As long as profit is the only incentive for corporations, protecting the environment will be low on the agenda. It will be talked about many meetings will take place the corporate press will cover and give the impression of progress. But little of substance will be done until there is a steady continued disastrous environmental impact effecting millions of western people. Only then when the western nations are effected will change happen. The people of asia befalling environmental burdens will never precipitate action by western governments. Emergentant Pollutants cock-tailing into new diseases and conditions on human and wildlife populations has not effected laws, rules, and concerns by governments. Why would the bioaccumulation of multiple chemical compounds in mothers milk reducing IQ by 2% in American population be of no concern? Because profit trumps environmental and human impacts. Sea level rise will change nothing it will happen slowly a few communities at a time washing away and the dance will go on. It might be wise to get a few extra feet above sea level if possible.

  20. Aberdown says:

    Thanks Guys’ Brilliant Article!

  21. Greg says:

    And now for some actual facts from December 8, 2009.

    In the summer of 2009 the Arctic Sea-Ice melt was less pronounced than the low point of 07/08, indicative of an increase in 2 and 3 year old ice for next year and … hence … an increase in ice thickness. If current climate trends continue into next year (as they appear to be doing), the summer of 2010 should see a commensurately diminished melt-rate and a continuation of the thickening of the arctic ice pack (well beyond the “doom-and-gloom” projected levels).

    [JR: Nice try.]

  22. Dingo says:

    Yes, Bob’s Thermogeddon was very prescient. An “ice free Arctic by 2013″ means a subsequent sharp rise in methane release from the tundra and sub-Arctic slopes by 2020, with thunderous explosions that release more heat and may initiate icequakes in Greenland, speeding up the glacial rush to sea. And we know where all that takes us: at least 60m sea level rise by the 22nd century. Goodbye most of northern Europe’s farmlands, southern US, central valley of California, coastal China, Pakistan, central Australia, and goodbye cities with 2+ billion people in them. A starving migrating world, and a heck of a lot more fighting and blaming.

    By 2013, those sunspots may be back, and we’ll probably be running low on denial. The technofixers in all developed nations that cannot handle the prospects of moving cities uphill will be in full swing, mucking about with sun shields, sulfur aerosols, fake volcanoes, yada yada. Meanwhile, we’ll see a gargantuan “40 years too late” push towards “green energy” that still all has to be built with mountains of fossil fuels, so the backside slope of peak everything is likely to be a cliff, and the temperature charts still climbing like a hockey stick.

    Catton calls it Overshoot and Wilson the Bottleneck. Lovelock suggests Gaia’s going into RESET mode. But cheer up progressives, it’s only doom and gloom for certain terrestrial mammals.