Exclusive: New NSIDC director Serreze explains the “death spiral” of Arctic ice, brushes off the “breathtaking ignorance” of blogs like WattsUpWithThat

I interviewed by email Dr. Mark Serreze, recently named director of The National Snow and Ice Data Center. Partly I wanted him to explain his “death spiral” metaphor for Arctic ice (see NSIDC: Arctic melt passes the point of no return, “We hate to say we told you so, but we did”).

And partly I wanted his reaction to the blog, WattsUpWithThat, the quintessential victim of anti-science syndrome (ASS), who called his appointment “Bad News.”

But first, let’s look at where the Arctic sea ice extent stands as of June 3 [click for update]:

Note: The satellites only measure ice area. Since Arctic ice has been thinning sharply in the past two years, we might be at record low volume for early June — see 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.”

NSIDC reported Wednesday, the “Melt season gains momentum”:

After a slow start to the melt season, ice extent declined quickly in May. Scientists are monitoring the ice pack for signs of what will come this summer. The thinness of the ice pack makes it likely that the minimum ice extent will again fall below normal, but how far below normal will depend on atmospheric conditions through the summer….

Because the 2009 melt season started out with a thin ice pack, September ice extent will likely be below average yet again. The thinning ice pack, discussed in our April post, has played a major role in the strong decline of September ice extent. Thinner ice requires less energy to melt. It also tends to be fractured, with more areas of open water. Since water absorbs more solar energy than ice, heat from the sun warms up areas of open ocean and promotes even more melt.

Back to Serreze. I’ve been a fan of his since I attended the American Meteorological Society talk he gave in November 2007. He is an impressive cryosphere scientist, who is also a climate science expert:

He studies Arctic climate, and the causes and global implications of climate change in the Arctic. Serreze is well known for his research on the declining sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean.

Serreze has authored over 90 scientific publications, including an award-winning textbook, The Arctic Climate System, which he co-wrote with former NSIDC director Roger Barry. He has also served on numerous advisory boards and science steering committees. In 2004, he testified before the U.S. Congress on changes in Arctic sea ice cover.

But Anthony Watts is one of the hard-core deniers. Not content to simply dispute the science with disinformation, he attacks climate scientists. Watts said ealier this year that NASA’s James Hansen is “no longer a scientist.” But then Watts routinely smears all climate scientists, approvingly reprinting denier manifestos that claim global warming “is the biggest whopper ever sold to the public in the history of humankind” “” see here.

So perhaps it isn’t a surprise that he would attack and misrepresent Serreze, writing:

Last year we had the forecast from NSIDC’s Dr. Mark Serreze of an “ice free north pole”. As we know, that didn’t even come close to being true. Summer 2008 had more arctic ice than summer 2007, and summer 2007 was not “ice free” by any measure.

Yes, Serreze said we might have “an ice free north pole,” but had Watts bothered to read the original story, he’d know that Serreze was simply talking about the physical North Pole — and not using “north pole” to refer to the entire Arctic being ice free!

Climate Progress: The global warming denier site WattsUpWithThat has attacked your appointment, in particular criticizing you for your prediction last year that the North Pole could be ice free in 2008. I’m wondering if you have any comments on that prediction.

Serreze: I have yet to lose any sleep over what is talked about in WattsUpWithThat or any other similar blog that insists on arguing from a viewpoint of breathtaking ignorance.

To set the record straight, I never made a “prediction”. I said the north pole might melt out and I was not alone in making such speculation. It did not melt out and I got some flack for this. So be it. As for the “great recovery” of ice extent in 2008 heard in some circles, it was a recovery from lowest (2007) to second lowest (2008).

I find little room for optimism here.


How anti-scientific is Watts? He puts up this poster of a Serreze talk:

Pretty innocuous stuff, no? Humans are cranking up the Arctic heat by pouring steadily increasing amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which in turn cranks up warming in the Arctic, [due to] a very well documented phenomenon (see “What exactly is polar amplification and why does it matter?”).


[JR: Update: WattsUpWithThat has just run an entire post pointlessly attacking the previous sentence. Somehow, they are trying to accuse me of suggesting that polar amplification is caused by greenhouse gases when I’m linking to my own post, which clearly explains the polar amplification is not caused by greenhouse gases. PA occurs whatever any external forcing triggers warming in the Arctic. PA then accelerates that warming at a greater rate than would be predicted by simply looking at the initial forcing. WattsUpWithThat is obviously grasping at straws to go after me based on a willful misreading of what I wrote. But for clarity’s sake I have added the two words in brackets to make crystal clear what I would have thought was obvious from reading the sentence and then going to the link — humans are cranking up the Arctic heat by pouring steadily increasing amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which in turn further cranks up warming in the Arctic due to be very well documented phenomenon of polar amplification.]

But for Watts, who is apparently in the tinfoil-hat and black helicopter club, that poster reveals dark purposes:

Does anybody live in Maryland that can attend this talk? I’d just love to see what sort of “heat” he’s talking about “cranking up”.


Back to the interview:

CP: You have used the term “death spiral” to describe the loss of Arctic ice — I’d be interested if you had any further comments or elaboration on what is happening in the Arctic and what you think its implications are for humankind.

Serreze: The downward trend in September sea ice extent seems to be accerating. That reflects the combination of three things:

  • Spring is increasingly dominated by thin, first-year ice prone to melting out in summer;
  • As the thin ice now starts to melt out earlier in summer, the albedo feedback is stronger meaning even more summer melt;
  • Arctic is warming in all seasons, meaning that recovery through a series of cold years is becoming less and les likely. Take these three together, and you are probably looking at ice-fee summers by 2030. I’d call that a death sprital.

Serreze is it taking a somewhat conservative line here, I think, since we are probably looking at very close to ice-free summers by 2020 — but then again, just two or three years ago, this prediction that would have been quite alarmist, given that essentially every climate model the IPCC had been predicting the Arctic would not go ice free until about 2100. Such is the rate of change of our understanding of how dire the climate situation is.

CP: I was hoping you might say in a sentence or two what you hope to accomplish as Director.

Serreze: My vision is for NSIDC to become an indispensable asset through providing the U.S. and global research communities, the public and decision makers the data, products and information needed to understand and prepare for the consequences of the earth’s changing cryosphere. My job is to achieve this vision.

The NSIDC is in very good hands.

The cryosphere, however, is not. If we stay on our current emissions path, if we keep listening to the science deniers of WattsUpWithThat, the planet is headed toward an ice free state. Future generations will wonder how there ever could have been such a thing as a “cryosphere scientist” or a National Snow and Ice Data Center.


Note to regular CP readers: As you know, I normally moderate long-debunked denier talking points more, since they are designed to sow confusion and waste everyone’s time and they are, of course long-debunked. But every few months, I think it’s worth hearing what new talking points the deniers are pushing. They do carry sway with a substantial number of conservatives and anti-science types as well as large segments of the status quo media.

UPDATE: One of the commenters below asked why NSIDC shows a slightly different sea ice extend plot than Roos. I queried NSIDC, and Research Scientist Walt Meier explains that NSIDC uses a different algorithm and processing measure:

One major difference is in the type of algorithm used. Sea ice area or extent is not directly measured by satellites. Satellites are actually measuring the amount of energy coming from the surface at certain parts of the electromagnetic spectrum (in this case microwaves). The amount of energy emitted depends on the type of surface and there is a difference between ice and water. But to get from energy to sea ice extent/area, you need to use an algorithm to make that conversion. Several different algorithms have been developed using various methods. In a general sense they all yield similar results, but they do differ in the details, which can result in offsets between algorithm estimates….

There are also other processing features that differ. Sometimes energy from locations without ice that are right along the coast or in areas of strong ocean waves can resemble the energy from ice-covered regions and be counted as ice. There are are various approaches used to filter out these known erroneous ice zones. Different approaches may yield different numbers.

The key point is that for a given algorithm and processing method, if one is careful to account for differences in the series of sensors used over the years, one can get a very consistent timeseries of sea ice extent and area that one can use to track changes in the ice cover.

However, one cannot “mix-and-match” algorithms or processing methods.

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