Arctic Ice Thinning 4 Times Faster Than Predicted by IPCC Models, Semi-Stunning M.I.T. Study Finds

According to new research from MIT, the most recent global climate report fails to capture trends in Arctic sea-ice thinning and drift, and in some cases substantially underestimates these trends….

After comparing IPCC models with actual data, [lead author Pierre] Rampal and his collaborators concluded that the forecasts were significantly off: Arctic sea ice is thinning, on average, four times faster than the models say, and it’s drifting twice as quickly.

I’m technically on vacation, so I don’t have time to respond to every misleading claim or inadequate study.

But it’s very safe to say that two-dimensional analyses of sea ice trends — ones that don’t model ice thickness and hence ice volume — are going to miss crucial feedbacks and dynamic changes.  That is the central point of this new MIT study, which will be stunning only to those who don’t follow either this blog or the recent scientific literature.

Recent statements that we are seeing an “Arctic Death Spiral” focused on volume.  In the words of National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) director Mark Serreze, who is most associated with that phrase:

Serreze (9/10): “There are claims coming from some communities that the Arctic sea ice is recovering, is getting thicker again. That’s simply not the case.  It’s continuing down in a death spiral.  Every bit of evidence we have says the ice is thinning.  That means there’s less energy needed to melt it out than there used to be.”

Serreze (7/11):  “The extent [of the ice cover] is going down, but it is also thinning. So a weather pattern that formerly would melt some ice, now gets rid of much more. There will be ups and downs, but we are on track to see an ice-free summer by 2030. It is an overall downward spiral.“

This new study, “IPCC climate models do not capture Arctic sea ice drift acceleration: Consequences in terms of projected sea ice thinning and decline,” (subs. req’d)  adds to our understanding of  how the two-dimensional models go astray.  Here’s an extended excerpt from the news release:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report, released in 2007, forecasts an ice-free Arctic summer by the year 2100, among other predictions. But Pierre Rampal, a postdoc in the Department of Earth, Atmosphere, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), and colleagues say it may happen several decades earlier.

It’s all in the mechanics

Established in 1988 by the United Nations, the IPCC issues reports that represent an average of many findings, and is sometimes criticized for forecasting according to the “lowest common denominator” of climate research. Still, many policymakers put large stock in its predictions, so Rampal says it is important to continuously evaluate and improve their accuracy.

After comparing IPCC models with actual data, Rampal and his collaborators concluded that the forecasts were significantly off: Arctic sea ice is thinning, on average, four times faster than the models say, and it’s drifting twice as quickly.

The findings are forthcoming in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Oceans. Co-authors are Jérôme Weiss and Clotilde Dubois of France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique/Université Joseph Fourier and Centre National de Recherches Météorologiques, respectively, and Jean-Michel Campin, a research scientist in EAPS.

Part of the problem, Rampal says, may be inadequate modeling of mechanical forces acting on and within the ice in the Arctic basin. Thus far, the IPCC models have largely focused on temperature fluctuations, which are one way to lose or gain ice. But according to Rampal, mechanics can be just as important: Forces such as wind and ocean currents batter the ice, causing it to break up. Ice that’s in small pieces behaves differently than ice in one large mass, which affects its overall volume and surface area.

“If you make a mistake at this level of the model, you can expect that you are missing something very important,” Rampal says.

The seasonal tug of war

Rampal says mechanical forces can play a significant role in winter, when little melting occurs but when strong winds and ocean currents can wreak drastic effects on the ice’s shape and movement.

Traditionally, in winter, most of the Arctic Ocean was covered with a thick sheet of ice. But today’s winter ice cover is thinner, meaning it breaks up more easily under the influence of winds and currents. It eventually looks like an “ensemble of floes,” Rampal says, instead of one large mass. In summer, natural melting due to warmer temperatures opens the door to even more breakup. (Scientists refer to these patches of floes as “pancake ice,” because the small circular pieces look like — yes — pancakes on a griddle.)

During both seasons, ice in this state is prone to escaping from the Arctic basin, most commonly through the Fram Strait, a wide swath of ocean between Greenland and the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. The smaller the floes, the more likely they are to be lost through the Fram Strait, where they melt on contact with warmer waters to the south.

So, several factors are connected in a positive feedback loop: Thinner ice breaks more easily; smaller chunks of ice drift more quickly; and drifting ice is more prone to export and melting at lower latitude. But Rampal also cites examples of negative feedback loops, which may counteract some of the ice loss. For example, large cracks in winter’s ice cover help create new ice, since the extremely cold air in contact with the liquid ocean promotes refreezing, which leads to a sheet with greater surface area than before.

‘You’d better start now’

…  Although it’s impossible to say for sure when we might see an ice-free Arctic, the IPCC itself has acknowledged that its 2007 report may have painted too rosy a picture. “If you look at the scientific knowledge things do seem to be getting progressively worse,” said Rajendra Pachauri, IPCC chair, in an interview reported by The New York Times shortly after the report’s release. “So you’d better start with the interventions even earlier. Now.”

Hear!  Hear!


Below are old comments from the earlier Facebook commenting system:

  • Prokaryotes – · Top Commenter (signed in using Hotmail)

There is a total disconnect from what is happening to our world and what teh media is reporting.

7 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 11 at 11:37pm

Peter S. Mizla · Top Commenter · Vernon, Connecticut

If the entire arctic melted out this Septmeber I doubt the media would give it much air- they would move on to something their sponsors define as less threatening to their bottom line.

7 · Like · Reply · August 12 at 5:14am

Lou Grinzo · Top Commenter · Friends with Joseph Romm

Peter: No doubt that’s what we’d see. I can imagine Brian Williams on NBC using his, “Gee, wow, would ya look at that!” voice as he talked about what a stunning development it was and then added how “some analysts” predicted this would be a boon to international shipping.

5 · Like · Reply · August 12 at 9:48am

Prokaryotes – · Top Commenter (signed in using Hotmail)

This is from a comment on my blog @

A new report by David Wasdell show that climate sensitivity may be far higher than expected. Both Charney and Hansen sensitivity may be grossly underestimated. I haven’t read over the report fully since it’s late, but it seems interesting.

“A multi-disciplinary approach, independent of any climate model, and supported by a specially designed Graphic Simulator, identifies a (minimum) value for the Earth System Sensitivity of 7.8ºC for the equilibrium outcome of doubling the concentration of atmospheric CO2. That is an Amplification Factor of 6.5 times the effect of the CO2 on its own. The new value has a much higher degree of certainty than the Charney Sensitivity and indicates that the current conservative estimate of climate sensitivity falls far short of reality and m…See More

6 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 11 at 11:39pm

Shaheer Cassim · Victoria, British Columbia

Worth nothing is that once the sea ice is gone, the albedo change has an equivalent effect as all the GHGs humans have added so far. This will help thaw out the ESAS further, which contains about 700 GT of free methane gas below 600 GT of sub-sea permafrost.

3 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 12 at 1:19am

Mike Roddy · Top Commenter · Yucca Valley, California

A good indicator of the state of public awareness is the fact that when someone hears “IPCC”, they think World Government, alarmist scientists, and speculative models.

Meanwhile, those of us who actually read up on the subject have known for years that IPCC is understated, for political reasons and due to the multiyear time lag for review.

The media is so out of it on the most important issue ever that the time is ripe to abandon all six major media companies in the US. It’s critical that new networks, web based television, and quality paperless newspapers replace them ASAP. This should be a movement all on its own. The recent LA Times dismissal of Margot Roosevelt, the best climate reporter around, should be the last straw.

2 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 12 at 10:28am

  • timeslayer1 (signed in using Yahoo)

Agreed Mike.

Frankly, anyone here who still doesn’t see that the NY Times-led mainstream media is our ENEMY hasn’t been paying attention for at least the past five years.


Like · Reply · August 14 at 10:20am

John Poteet · Top Commenter · Chico, California

How come after dozens of papers like this nobody seems to expect “faster than expected” when it comes to climate change effects? It should be pretty clear by now that humanity put a brick on the accelerator of Global Warming.

2 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 12 at 2:26am

George Ennis · Top Commenter · University of Toronto

The reason I expect that much of the “news” is always “faster than expected” is the inherent conservatism in much of the peer reviewed scientific research coupled with the need in the case of IPCC reports to achieve a consensus among different groups. Scientists are loath to make a claim that cannot be substantively proven by the evidence.

From a risk perspective in terms of formulating public policy the ideal approach would be to plan for the worst and hope for the best” It seems however that our current approach is to plan for the best i.e. we are only looking at possible outcomes in the left side “tail”. In any business enterprise this would be considered unacceptable since it will usually lead to insolvency.

4 · Like · Reply · August 12 at 9:33am

Lou Grinzo · Top Commenter · Friends with Joseph Romm

This is something I’ve found puzzling for some time — when does or should the “unexpected” become “expected”. I think part of this effect is the inherent conservative nature of scientists — they don’t leap to conclusions that things are “worse than expected” in their sub-field just because they’ve been shown to be worse in other (sub-)fields. I suspect there’s also a psychological component at work; scientists don’t want to see things go haywire any more than the rest of us do.

Which reminds me:

Three scientists are taking a lunchtime walk in a big field near the lab where they worked. One scientist points to an animal about 100 meters away and says, “Fascinating. I didn’t know there were flocks of black sheep around here.”
…See More

1 · Like · Reply · August 12 at 9:57am

Stuart Fischbach

Whatever side, it is important to stay on top of this research.

2 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 11 at 11:02pm

shpilkis11 (signed in using Yahoo)

The role of methane in the Arctic as a GHG: I can find little statistical analysis anywhere of CH4 levels, so I am extrapolating. But I’d say it’s reasonable to expect that the process by which CH4 breaks down in the upper atmosphere may be getting saturated, since impinging solar energy is a fixed part of that equation. Excess free methane in the upper Arctic atmosphere will serve to extend the summer melt period, which is what recent trends are showing. Meanwhile, methane sequestered under the permafrost and embedded in the glacial ice is getting released in ever increasing amounts, just as the effective half life of atmospheric methane is lengthened signifies serious potential for much more radical changes.

We may be seeing the beginning of catastrophic changes.

1 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 12 at 12:19am

Wesley Rolley · Top Commenter · Northwestern University

There are some who keep looking for good climate news and thus focus on finding evidence that all of the models and prediction, even our actual data have over estimated the rate of climate change and they ignored the fact that it is equally probable that we underestimated it. We now know on which side we erred.

OK, then we have to consider this. Faced with significant problems whose solutions may be incompatible, such as restoring historic rates of economic growth and saving the planet from climate change, politicians will opt to solve the problem most likely to get them re-elected.

1 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 12 at 11:15am

Nigel Marit Franks

Serreze’s comment about the North Pole being ice free in 2008 did not mean the whole Arctic.

1 · Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 12 at 12:59pm

Paul Bagne · Securities Investor at PDB Investments, LLC

We should factor into every model how little we know about feedback, like less snow cover, darker ground, more heat absorbed. It seems the more researchers learn, such as smaller more fragile pieces of ice break up in the waves which accelerates melting. Generally, the more learned, the more intense the warming is predicted to be.

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 12 at 2:43am

Dorothy Carlo · Western New England College School of Law

Even if you are among the persons who do not believe in global warming or climate change and do not further believe that these processes have man at their origin, why not start now to fix these problems before we are inundated with them.

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 15 at 8:04am

Paul Hoover · Top Commenter · CSE II at Diebold Inc.

I haven’t checked this but it seems a few years ago I read something about the Ice Age cycle began when the North(?) cap “melted” and the influx of fresh water stopped or slowed the Gulf Stream current from transferring heat to the Northern seas. Its counter-intuitive but plausible. Lets hope is just a “theory” and not a fact supported by data.

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 13 at 10:06am

danallen1968 (signed in using Yahoo)

Joe, a question: Once the summer sea ice is gone, are there models that suggest some specifics on nasty non-linear things that might happen because of it (ex: speeding up of ice sheet decay, clathrate destabilization, tundra melt & degas, etc.)? Or is it just, at this point, “Positive albedo feedbacks will kick in even more — but we have no idea how much”?

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 12 at 7:05am

Christopher Winter · University of Iowa

This may be of interest. It’s a link to a pair of NOAA webcams at the North Pole. Note the comment about ice melt in July.

(And beware FB’s unwanted characters in the URL…)

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 12 at 5:50pm

Ragnhild Lundh · Top Commenter

They show pictures on TV of huge amounts of ice is crashing into the ocean like it is a tourist attaction. Lets take a cruise to Alaska! Better hurry though since it will not be around for long. How sad

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 13 at 12:55am

Jack Savage

Was that the same Serezze who thought the pole would be ice free by 2008?

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 12 at 9:18am

Larry Hayles

Of course the IPCC estimates are going to err on the conservative side as that would be the only way they could get all participates to sign off on it.

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 12 at 9:18am

Ruth Garcia · Kent, Washington

by the time we humans start to actually act on this info, parts of the world as we know it will be under water.

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 12 at 5:15pm

Bob Matsuoka · Principal at Mokamedia Partners, LLC

No more Arctic ice by 2030. Scary.

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 13 at 6:33pm

Alin Vasilas


Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 11 at 11:25pm

Dean Littlepage

Volume is the real deal, obviously. Of course there’s the dissent from the “centrist” NYT blogger who has appointed himself the official arbiter of climate science.

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 12 at 3:18pm

Jack Savage

I am panicking as fast as I can already. How can send more money to Al Gore?

Like · Reply · Subscribe · August 12 at 9:16am

Shaheer Cassim · Victoria, British Columbia

I don’t get it.

Like · Reply · August 12 at 12:55pm

Nigel Marit Franks

I believe that Jack Savage is an inaction man who doesn’t believe that AGW is real.

Like · Reply · August 12 at 1:00p

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