Tag Archives: Arctic

Why Greenland is likely to melt more quickly

Greenland  thawing: A scientist explores the remains of a supraglacial lake after it has drained Image courtesy of Sam Doyle

Greenland thawing: A scientist explores the remains of a supraglacial lake after it has drained
Image courtesy of Sam Doyle

By Tim Radford

Scientists who have examined the role of the bedrock on which the Greenland ice sheet rests think it shows the huge island is more vulnerable than realised to global warming.

LONDON, 1 October – Climate scientists have thought a little more deeply about the state of the Greenland ice sheet and their conclusions are ominous.

They think that the northern hemisphere’s largest assembly of ice and compacted snow is more vulnerable to climate change than anybody had previously thought.

Marion Bougamont of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, UK, and colleagues report in Nature Communications that they factored in not just a mathematical model of the melting ice from Greenland, but also the role of the soft, yielding and absorbent mud and rock beneath.

The Greenland ice sheet is the planet’s second largest body of terrestrial ice. It covers 1.7 million square kilometres and if it were all to melt, the world’s sea levels would rise by more than seven metres.

Right now, about 200 gigatonnes of Greenland ice a year turn to water and run into the sea. This alone raises sea levels at the rate of 0.6 millimetres a year. In fact the increase in sea levels from all causes – glacier retreat worldwide, ice cap melting and ocean thermal expansion -  is now 3 mm a year.

Researchers have repeatedly found evidence of an acceleration of melting, in some cases by looking at what is happening within the ice or on the surface, or by taking a new look at satellite data.

Less stable

But the latest calculation goes even deeper: into the mud below the ice. According to the new model, and to evidence from surveys, melting will be complicated by the conditions deep under the ice.

The ice sheets are moving, naturally and at different speeds, causing the ice to shear or flow, and the assumption has always been that the ice is flowing over hard and impermeable rock. A closer look suggests a different process.

Lakes of summer meltwater tend to form on the ice sheet surface: if the ice below fractures, these lakes can drain in a matter of hours. The meltwater flows down within the ice, and into the sediment below it.

“The soft sediment gets weaker as it tries to soak up more water, making it less resistant, so that the ice above moves faster. The Greenland ice sheet is not nearly as stable as we think,” said Poul Christofferson, a co-author.

And Dr Bougamont said: “There are two sources of net ice loss: melting on the surface and increased flow of the ice itself, and there is a connection between these mechanisms that isn’t taken into account by standard ice sheet models.”

Rapid change

At present, the annual flow of ice meltwater is more or less stable. In warmer years, the ice sheet becomes more vulnerable because more meltwater gets to the muddy absorbent bedrock. Because there is a limit to how much the sediment below can hold, the ice sheet becomes more vulnerable during extreme events such as heat waves.

And, of course, if under such a scenario it is vulnerable, it continues to become more vulnerable as average temperatures rise and extreme events become more frequent, and more extreme. And a closer look at recent geological history shows just how fast change can happen.

In a separate study in Nature Communications, Katharine Grant of the Australian National University and colleagues report that they examined evidence of the melting process at the close of each of the last five ice ages.

They looked at data from wind-blown dust in sediment cores from the Red Sea, and matched these with records from Chinese stalagmites to confirm a picture of pronounced climate change at the end of each ice age, and calculated that sea levels rose at the rate of 5.5 metres per century.

These however were exceptional events, and there were more than 100 smaller sea level events in between the big five.

“Time periods with less than twice the modern global ice volume show almost no indications of sea level rise faster than about 2 metres per century,” said Dr Grant. “Those with close to the modern amount of ice on Earth show rates of up to one to 1.5 metres per century.” – Climate News Network

Ice melt dilutes Arctic sea’s CO2 clean-up role

Cutting edge: climate scientist Dorte Haubjerg Søgaard studies the sea ice in Greenland Image: Søren Rysgaard,  Arctic Research Centre, Aarhus University
Cutting edge: climate scientist Dorte Haubjerg Søgaard studies the sea ice in Greenland
Image: Søren Rysgaard, Arctic Research Centre, Aarhus University

By Tim Radford

New scientific research confirms that global warming is melting increasingly larger areas of Arctic sea ice − and reducing its vital function of removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

LONDON, 26 September, 2014 − The Arctic ice cap has just passed its summer minimum – and it’s the sixth lowest measure of sea ice recorded since 1978, according to scientists at the US space agency NASA.

For three decades, the shrinking Arctic ice – and the growing area of clear blue water exposed each summer – has been a cause of increasing alarm to climate scientists.

Polar seasonal changes are measured annually by NASA, but reliable satellite data goes back only to 1978, For much of the 20th century, the Arctic was part of the Cold War zone, so only Soviet naval icebreakers and US nuclear submarines took consistent measurements − and neither side published the data.

But studies of 17th and 18th century whaling ships’ logbooks and other records make it clear that the ice once stretched much further south each summer than it does today.

Steady decline

In the last 30 years, the thickness and the area of the ice have both been in steady decline, with predictions that in a few decades the Arctic Ocean could be virtually ice free by September, opening up new sea routes between Asia and Europe.

This year could have been worse, although the area of ice fell to little more than 5 million square kilometres − significantly below the 1981-2010 average of 6.22 million sq km.

“The summer started off relatively cool, and lacked the big storms or persistent winds that can break up ice and increase melting,” said Walter Meier, a research scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre. “Even with a relatively cool year, the ice is so much thinner than it used to be. It is more susceptible to melting.”

Warming in the Arctic is likely to affect climate patterns in the temperate zones, and the state of the polar ice has become of such concern that researchers are using ground-based and sea-based monitors to explore the physics of the phenomenon.

But there is another reason for the attention: as polar ice diminishes, so does the planet’s albedo − its ability to reflect sunlight back into space.

So, as the ice shrinks, the seas warm, making it more difficult for new ice to form. And greater exposure to sunlight increases the probability that permafrost will thaw, releasing even more greenhouse gases locked in the frozen soils.

Now researchers have found another and unexpected example of climate feedback that could affect the cycle of warming. Climate scientist Dorte Haubjerg Søgaard, of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources and the University of Southern Denmark, and research colleagues have discovered that sea ice itself is an agency that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

That the oceans absorb the stuff, and tuck it away as calcium carbonate or other marine minerals, is old news.

“But we also thought that this did not apply to ocean areas covered by ice, because the ice was considered impenetrable,” Søgaard said. “However, new research shows that sea ice in the Arctic draws large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere into the ocean.”

The research is published in four journals, Polar Biology, The Cryosphere, The Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres and Marine Ecology Progress Series.

Two-stage pattern

The Danish research team observed a complex, two-stage pattern of gas exchange as ice floes formed off southern Greenland. They measured the role of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the formation and release of calcium carbonate crystals form in the sea ice, and kept a tally during a 71-day cycle of the carbon dioxide budget.

In the course of this complicated bit of natural cryo-chemistry, they found that some CO2 was carried deep into the ocean with dense, heavy brines, as the ice froze and some was captured by algae in the thawing ice.

They also identified a third factor: the “frost flowers” that formed on the new ice had an unexpectedly high concentration of calcium carbonate.

The profit-and-loss accounting meant that every square metre of ice effectively removed 56 milligrams of carbon from the atmosphere during the 71-day cycle. Over an area of 5 million sq km, this would represent a significant uptake.

But the real importance of the discovery is that scientists have identified yet another way in which the ice – while it is there – helps keep the Arctic cold, and yet another way in which carbon dioxide is absorbed by the oceans.

“If our results are representative, then the sea ice plays a greater role than expected, and we should take account of this in future global CO2 budgets,” Søgaard said. – Climate News Network

Bluefin tuna follow prey to warming high Arctic

Large bluefin tuna that were caught among mackerel near Greenland Image: Greenland Fisheries License Control Authority
Large bluefin tuna that were caught among mackerel near Greenland
Image: Greenland Fisheries License Control Authority

By Alex Kirby

A research ship’s surprise catch of bluefin tuna further north than ever recorded indicates that climate change is restructuring the food web as the waters of east Greenland get warmer.

LONDON, 8 September, 2014 − Biologists and fishermen aboard a scientific cruise in the Arctic while they investigated mackerel stocks caught more than they bargained for − three large bluefin tuna, each weighing about 100 kilograms.

The research ship was sailing through the Denmark Strait, which separates Greenland from Iceland. Bluefin tuna are very seldom found near Greenland, and there are no other scientific reports of them venturing that far north. The most recent report of a tuna anywhere near was a stranding in 1900, a long way south at Qaqortoq, on the south-western tip of Greenland.

Details of the find, during a cruise in August 2012 organised by the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate at the University of Copenhagen, have now been published in the journal Global Change Biology.

Expanded range

The lead author, Professor Brian MacKenzie, said bluefin tuna usually search for prey in areas where surface temperatures are warmer than 11°C.

At the time of the catch, the Denmark Strait was unusually warm, and one of tuna’s preferred prey species, mackerel, had already expanded their range into the region.

Professor MacKenzie and his colleagues write: “Regional temperatures in August 2012 were historically high and contributed to a warming trend since 1985, when temperatures began to rise.

“The presence of bluefin tuna in this region is likely due to a combination of warm temperatures . . . and immigration of an important prey species to the region. We conclude that a cascade of climate change impacts is restructuring the food web in east Greenland waters.”

They say their data was too limited to estimate how many tuna came so far north, but because bluefins are a schooling species − with schools having from 10 to 100 individuals − and because the three tuna were caught in the same haul, it is likely there were many more present.

The report says: “Satellite imagery showing the spread of warm water from the south-east towards east Greenland suggests that recent warming and climate change may have opened a migration pathway from the European shelf towards Greenland for migratory species.”

It acknowledges that the fish may have swum to the Denmark Strait from the north-west Atlantic, and concludes: “Our results show that rising temperatures have been progressively leading a . . . trophic [high in the food chain] cascade into east Greenland waters via improved thermal conditions for migratory prey and predator species.”

New fishing quotas

Nobody knows why bluefin tuna disappeared from the waters near Denmark and in the Norwegian Sea during the 1960s, nor when they might return. But Iceland and Norway have been allocated new fishing quotas of 30 tonnes each for the species in 2014.

An adult bluefin tuna is typically 1.5m-2m long, but some have been as big as 4.5m and weighed 650 kg. The fish are highly prized for sushi, especially in Japan.

Further climate-related changes in distributions of commercial fish such as mackerel and herring will mean new fishery and ecosystem management plans are going to be needed, says the report’s co-author, Helle Siegstad, head of the Department for Fish and Shellfish at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources.

The Denmark Strait tuna will be discussed at the annual science conference of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), which starts on 15 September in the Spanish coastal city of A Coruña. – Climate News Network

Sun sheds light on Arctic carbon puzzle

Sun reflects through ice crystals on the Arctic Ocean Image: Mike Dunn/NOAA Climate Program via Wikimedia Commons
The sun reflects from ice crystals on the Arctic Ocean
Image: Mike Dunn/NOAA Climate Program via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Scientists discover that, as the Arctic continues to warm, sunlight will be the major cause of CO2 escaping into the atmosphere from vegetation preserved in frozen soil.

LONDON, 4 September, 2014 − One of the puzzles of the permafrost has been solved by scientists in the US. The key to the carbon cycle in the Arctic north is not the microbe population − it’s the sunlight.

Such a discovery is not, strictly speaking, concerned with climate change, but with the more detailed question of how the world works – specifically, how the carbon that was once plant material gets back into the atmosphere.

However, since the Arctic permafrost is home to half of all the organic carbon trapped in the soils of the entire Earth, the finding is ominous.

The Arctic is one of the fastest warming regions on the planet. As it warms, more and more carbon dioxide is likely to escape from the half-decayed tundra vegetation preserved in the frozen soil and will find its way into the atmosphere, to accelerate still further warming.

For the moment, the study is another piece fitted into place in a wider understanding of the carbon cycle.

Organic carbon

Rose Cory, of the University of Michigan, US, reports with colleagues, in the journal Science, that they measured the speeds at which bacteria and sunlight converted dissolved organic carbon in the lakes and rivers of Alaska.

In the standard domestic garden compost heap, the hard work of turning such things as decaying cabbage stalks, potato peelings and grass cuttings back into carbon dioxide and methane is performed by microbes.

But visible and ultraviolet light beams also pack a punch. They too can oxidise organic carbon and turn it back into gas molecules.

In 2013, Dr Cory and colleagues established that levels of dissolved organic carbon in a region that was once permanently frozen were rising, giving microbes and other conversion processes a chance to get to work.

The researchers took samples of flowing and still water from 135 lakes and 73 rivers on Alaska’s North Slope over a three-year period, and then incubated them under differing conditions of light.

More efficient

They found that sunlight was 19 times more efficient than microbes at processing the carbon, and could account for between 70% and 95% of all the carbon released from Alaskan water.

“We’re likely to see more carbon dioxide released from thawing permafrost than people had previously believed,” Dr Cory said. “We are able to say that because we now know that sunlight plays a key role and that carbon released from thawing permafrost is readily converted to carbon dioxide once it is exposed to sunlight.”

Microbes are less efficient in low temperatures. And the sunlight works more efficiently because it can directly degrade the dissolved organic carbon, and can also convert it into a condition that makes it more accessible for the microbes.

“This is because most of the fresh water in the Arctic is shallow, meaning sunlight can reach the bottom of any river – and most lakes – so that no dissolved organic carbon is kept in the dark,” said Byron Crump, a microbial ecologist at Oregon State University, and a co-author of the report. “Also there is little shading of rivers and lakes in the Arctic because there are no trees.” – Climate News Network

Satellite mapping shows ice caps’ faster melt rate

Surface water flows into a 'moulin' shaft in Greenland's ice cap Image: NASA via Wikimedia Commons
Surface water flows down into a ‘moulin’ shaft in the Greenland ice cap
Image: NASA via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Scientists have been able to measure more accurately than ever the thickness of the world’s major ice caps  revealing that melting is causing the loss of 500 cubic kms of ice annually.

LONDON, 1 September, 2014 − German researchers have established the height of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps with greater precision than ever before. And the new maps they have produced show that the ice is melting at an unprecedented rate.

The maps, produced with a satellite-mounted instrument, have elevation accuracies to within a few metres. Since Greenland’s ice cap is more than 2,000 metres thick on average, and the Antarctic bedrock supports 61% of the planet’s fresh water, this means that scientists can make more accurate assessments of annual melting.

Dr Veit Helm and other glaciologists at the Alfred Wegener Institute’s Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany, report in the journal The Cryosphere that, between them, the two ice sheets are now losing ice at the unprecedented rate of 500 cubic kilometres a year.

Big picture

The measurements used to make the maps were taken by an instrument aboard the European Space Agency’s orbiting satellite CryoSat-2. The satellite gets closer to the poles − to 88° latitude − than any previous mission and traverses almost 16 million sq km of ice, adding an area of ice the size of Spain to the big picture of change and loss in the frozen world.

CryoSat-2’s radar altimeter transmitted 7.5 million measurements of Greenland and 61 million of Antarctica during 2012, enabling glaciologists to work with a set of consistent measurements from a single instrument.

Over a three-year period, the researchers collected 200 million measurements in Antarctica and more than 14 million in Greenland. They were able to study how the ice sheets changed by comparing the data with measurements made by NASA’s ICESat mission.

More complex

Greenland’s volume of ice is being reduced at the rate of 375 cubic km a year. In Antarctica, the picture is more complex as the West Antarctic ice sheet is losing ice rapidly, but is growing in volume in East Antarctica.

Overall, the southern continent − 98% of which is covered with ice and snow − is losing 125 cubic km a year. These are the highest rates observed since researchers started making satellite observations 20 years ago.

“Since 2009, the volume loss in Greenland has increased by a factor of about two, and the West Antarctic ice sheet by a factor of three,” said Angelika Humbert, one of the report’s authors. − Climate News Network

Pre-history proof of climate’s see-saw sensitivity

The woolly rhinoceros once roamed wild on the plains of Europe Image: Public Library of Science via Wikimedia Commons
The woolly rhinoceros once roamed wild on the plains of Europe
Image: Public Library of Science via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Computer simulations reaching back deep into the last Ice Age have enabled scientists to put a historic perspective on how even small variations in the climate system can lead to dramatic temperature change.

LONDON, 24 August, 2014 − It doesn’t take much to change a planet’s climate – just a little shift in the Northern hemisphere glacial ice sheet and a bit more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. After that, the response is rapid. The tropical rain belt moves north and the southern hemisphere cools a bit, in some sort of bipolar see-saw response.

Sound familiar? It does, and it doesn’t. It all happened long before the internal combustion engine, or even the new Stone Age.

Researchers from the Alfred Wegener Institute’s Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, Bremerhaven, the University of Bremen, Germany, and the University of Cardiff in the UK, report in Nature journal that they have made climate simulations that agree with observations of historical climate change that date back 800,000 years.

Long before the present alarms about global warming through the emission of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, climate researchers were puzzled by the phenomenon of the Ice Ages and the “interglacials” that punctuated those long periods when the Arctic ice extended from the North Pole to the Atlantic coast of France, and over huge tracts of North America.

Vanished species

Mysteriously, and at great speed, the temperatures would rise by up to 10°C and the vast walls of ice would retreat. Lion, hyena and rhinoceros would invade the wild plains of what is now southern England, and now-vanished species of humans would hunt big game and gather fruit and seeds in the valleys and forests of Europe and America.

Since the end 10,000 years ago of the last ice age – itself a very rapid event – was the springboard for agriculture and civilisation, and eventually an Industrial Revolution based on fossil fuels, the story of climate change plays a powerful role in human history.

So any analysis of the tiny shifts in ice cover that seemed to trigger these dramatic, bygone events can be helpful in understanding the long story of the making of the modern world.

The researchers found a tentative scenario involving weak ocean currents, and prevailing winds that shifted the sea ice and allowed the oceans and atmosphere to exchange heat, pushing warmer water into the north-east Atlantic.

These changes precipitated a dramatic warming of the northern hemisphere in just a few decades, and the retreat of the glaciers for an extended period before the ice returned to claim much of the landmass again. But, overall, such changes tended to occur when sea levels reached a certain height.

“The rapid climate changes known in the scientific world as Dansgaard-Oeschger events were limited to a period of time from 110,000 to 23,000 years before the present,” said Xu Zhang, the report’s lead author.

“The abrupt climate changes did not take place at the extreme low sea levels, corresponding to the time of maximum glaciations 20,000 years ago, or at high sea levels such as those prevailing today. They occurred during periods of intermediate ice volume and intermediate sea levels”

Climate swings

Co-author Gerrit Lohmann, who leads the Wegener Institute’s palaeoclimate dynamics group, said: “Using the simulations performed with our climate model, we were able to demonstrate that the climate system can respond to small changes with abrupt climate swings.

“At medium sea levels, powerful forces − such as the dramatic acceleration of polar ice cap melting − are not necessary to result in abrupt climate shifts and associated drastic temperature changes.”

How much this tells anybody about modern climate change is open to debate. Right now, according to this line of evidence, the planet’s climate could be in one of its more stable phases of the Earth’s history.

But while the conditions for the kind of rapid change recorded in pre-history do not exist today, Prof Lohmann warns that “sudden climate changes cannot be excluded in the future”. – Climate News Network

Arctic warming blamed for dangerous heat waves

Feeling the heat: a wildfire rages in New Mexico during the 2012 heat wave in the US Image: Kari Greer/USFS Gila National Forest via Wikimedia Commons
Feeling the heat: a wildfire rages in New Mexico during the 2012 heat wave
Image: Kari Greer/USFS Gila National Forest via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

Giant waves in the jet stream that often governs our weather are changing as the Arctic warms more rapidly − leading to long periods of soaring temperatures that pose major threats to economies and human health.

LONDON, 16 August, 2014 − Few people have heard of Rossby waves and even less understand them, but if you are sweltering in an uncomfortably long heat wave, then they could be to blame.

New discoveries about what is going on in the atmosphere are helping to explain why heat waves are lasting longer and causing serious damage to humans and the natural world. These events have doubled in frequency this century, and the cause is believed to be the warming of the Arctic.

The weather at the Earth’s surface is often governed by high winds in the atmosphere, known as jet streams. In 1939, Carl-Gustaf Arvid Rossby, a Swedish-born America meteorologist, discovered waves in the northern jet stream that were associated with the high and low pressure systems at ground level that form daily weather patterns.

Jet streams travel at up to 200 kilometres an hour, frequently wandering north and south − with cold Arctic air to the north, and warmer air to the south.

Rapid variations

When the jet stream develops Rossby waves and they swing north, they suck warm air from the tropics to Europe, Russia or the US. And when they swing south, they do the same thing with cold air from the Arctic. The waves constantly change shape, and so cause rapid variations in the weather.

But new research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, has discovered a tendency for these waves in the jet stream to get much bigger and to get stuck – particularly in July and August. This causes heat waves that last not just for a few days but for weeks.

This is a serious health and economic threat. A recent example is the record heat wave in the US that hit corn farmers and worsened wildfires in 2012.

Close study of records shows that, from 1980 to 2003, there were two such heat wave events every four years on average. From 2004-07, there were three events, and between 2008-11 there were five.

Ice shrinking

Theory and the new data both suggest a link to processes in the Arctic. Since 2000, the Arctic has been warming about twice as fast as the rest of the globe. One reason for this is that ice is rapidly shrinking in the White Sea − a southern inlet of the Barents Sea on the north-west coast of Russia – and so less sunlight gets reflected back into space, while the open ocean is dark and hence warms more.

“This melting of ice and snow is actually due to our lifestyle of churning out unprecedented amounts of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels,” says Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, co-author of the study and founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

As the Arctic warms more rapidly, the temperature difference to other regions decreases. Yet temperature differences are a major driver of the atmospheric circulation patterns that in turn rule our weather.

“The planetary waves topic illustrates how delicately interlinked components in the Earth system are,” Schellnhuber concludes: “And it shows how disproportionately the system might react to our perturbations.” – Climate News Network

Norway fails to tap new Arctic oil and gas

Melkøya gas plant, 110km south of Statoil’s latest Arctic drilling site Image: Joakim Aleksander Mathisen via Wikimedia Commons
Melkøya gas plant, 110km south of Statoil’s latest Arctic drilling site
Image: Joakim Aleksander Mathisen via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

The Norwegian company conducting some of the most northerly drilling operations in the world admits that it has failed so far to find commercially exploitable hydrocarbon reserves in the high Arctic.

LONDON, 12 August, 2014 − Statoil, the Norwegian state-owned company, has announced that it has failed to find commercial quantities of oil and gas in the Barents Sea this year.

The Arctic remains one of the oil industry’s most promising exploration areas. The US Geological Survey says a large part of the world’s remaining hydrocarbon resources − perhaps as much as a quarter of its reserves − is thought to lie in the high northern latitudes of Russia, Norway, Greenland, the US and Canada.

Statoil hoped to find oil in the three test wells it drilled this summer in the high northern Arctic, having made finds in the area in 2011 and 2012.

Dry reservoir

But it has admitted to being disappointed at its latest results, which included a small quantity of natural gas at one site and a dry reservoir at another.

Statoil announced in February this year that drilling in the Johan Castberg oilfield − also in the Barents Sea, off northern Norway and Russia − had produced no oil and little gas.

Irene Rummelhoff, Statoil’s senior vice-president for exploration on the Norway continental shelf, said of the latest drilling operations: “We are naturally disappointed with the results of this summer’s drilling campaign in the Hoop area.”

But the company reaffirmed its confidence in the potential of the area, where the latest drilling was conducted. Rummelhoff said the wells were three out of just six drilled so far in an area measuring 15,000 sq km. Even negative results provided valuable information for further drilling, she said.

“Non-commercial discoveries and dry wells
are part of the game in frontier exploration.”

“We do not have all the answers about the subsurface yet,” Rummelhoff said in a Statoil statement on the exploration programme. “Non-commercial discoveries and dry wells are part of the game in frontier exploration.”

The possibility and the wisdom of trying to recover oil and gas from the unique and very challenging Arctic environment sharply divide environmental campaigners and the energy industry.

In September 2013, Russian security forces detained 30 Greenpeace activists and journalists and seized their vessel, the Arctic Sunrise, during a protest at an offshore oil rig owned by Gazprom, the Russian energy company. The 30, who included four Russians, were held for around two months before being released.

Old partner

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, had praise for what he called Russia’s “old and reliable partner” Exxon Mobil as he gave the signal on 9 August for the US energy company and its Russian partner, OAO Rosneft, to start drilling a $700 million Arctic Ocean oil well, Russia’s northernmost well.

“Despite current political difficulties, pragmatism and common sense prevails,” he said at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, as he ordered drilling to start.

“Nowadays, commercial success is defined by an efficient international co-operation. Businesses, including the largest domestic and foreign companies, understand this perfectly.”

The facts of climate science support the campaign groups: most of the hydrocarbons that lie beneath the Arctic cannot be burned if the world is to avoid dangerous climate change.

By 2011, the world had used over a third of its 50-year carbon budget. Only 20% of its total reserves can be burned unabated, leaving up to 80% of oil and gas assets technically unburnable. − Climate News Network

Lakes raise new question on Arctic warming

Thermokarst lakes formed in melting permafrost in Alaska. Image: 16Terezka via Wikimedia Commons
Thermokarst lakes formed in melting permafrost in Alaska.
Image: 16Terezka via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Research into the lakes that form when permafrost melts challenges the widely-held view that they are contributing to Arctic temperature rise by releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

LONDON, 4 August, 2014 − Scientists say there is uncertainty over a previously unquestioned assumption about the way in which temperatures are rising in the Arctic.

New research, supported by the US National Science Foundation (NSF), suggests that a rethink is required on the widely-held scientific view that thawing permafrost uniformly accelerates atmospheric warming.

Instead, the scientists say, their findings show that one type of Arctic lake stores more greenhouse gases (GHGs) than it emits into the atmosphere.

But they say the effect is unlikely to be permanent, because increasing Arctic warmth will probably lead to the renewed release of the gases stored in the lakes.

Melted fresh water

The study, published in the journal Nature, focuses on thermokarst lakes, which appear as permafrost thaws and create surface depressions that fill with melted fresh water, converting previously frozen land into lakes.

The research suggests that Arctic thermokarst lakes are “net climate coolers” when observed over millennial timescales.

The Arctic is one of the fastest-warming regions on Earth. Sea ice has been retreating in the last 30 years or so by 12% a decade, NASA says, and spring and autumn on the Greenland icecap have warmed by more than 3°C.

But the new research suggests the lakes have not been contributing to this recent warmth, although thousands of years ago they did release GHGs.

“Until now, we’ve only thought of thermokarst lakes as positive contributors to climate warming,” said lead researcher Katey Walter Anthony, who is associate research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Northern Engineering.

“It is true that they do warm climate by strong methane emissions when they first form, but on a longer-term scale they switch to become climate coolers because they ultimately soak up more carbon from the atmosphere than they ever release.”

The team found, thermokarst lakes in ice-rich regions of North Siberia and Alaska began cooling about 5,000 years ago. They stopped emitting methane and carbon dioxide, and instead started storing CO2 from peat-rich sediments.

The researchers used published data, their own field observations of Siberian permafrost and thermokarsts, radiocarbon dating, atmospheric modelling and spatial analyses to study how thawing permafrost is affecting climate change and GHG emissions.

Over the millennia, they say, several factors stimulated high rates of carbon deposits in lake sediments. These included thermokarst erosion and accumulations of organic matter, nutrient release from thawing permafrost, and slow decomposition in cold lake bottoms that lacked oxygen.

Carbon uptake

The study’s co-author, Miriam Jones, of the US Geological Survey, said: “These lakes are being fertilized by thawing yedoma permafrost [a type of permafrost rich in organic material]. So mosses and other plants flourish in these lakes, leading to carbon uptake rates that are among the highest in the world, even compared to carbon-rich peatlands.”

The study also found that when the lakes drain, previously thawed organic-rich lake sediments freeze again, storing a large amount of carbon processed in and under thermokarst lakes.

But the researchers say the new carbon storage will not last indefinitely. Future warming will probably start re-thawing some of the permafrost and release some of the carbon it contains.

Roughly 30% of global permafrost carbon is concentrated within 7% of the permafrost region in Alaska, Canada and Siberia. The study has expanded estimates of how much carbon the circumpolar peat stores in permafrost regions by more than 50%.

And it leaves scientists puzzling over a further question. The thermokarst lakes, according to this study, have been storing GHGs, not emitting them. So what else, despite that, is continuing to warm the Arctic faster than most of the rest of the planet? − Climate News Network

Data adds to confusion over polar sea ice

The expansion of Antarctic sea ice may have been overestimated. Image: Jason Auch via Wikimedia Commons
The expansion of Antarctic sea ice may have been overestimated.
Image: Jason Auch via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Possible errors in the interpretation of satellite data may help to explain scientists’ puzzlement over indications that sea ice cover is apparently increasing in the Antarctic, but is shrinking visibly in the Arctic.

LONDON, 26 July, 2014 − Scientists believe they may have found explanations for two inconsistencies in their understanding of global warming.

One cause for head scratching is in the Antarctic, where the sea ice seems to be getting bigger when it ought to be shrinking, and another has been the apparent slowdown overall in the rate of global warming for the last decade.

Climate scientists around the world have been picking away at both puzzles, and not just because climate sceptics and energy industry lobbyists use them as ammunition to argue that global warming is not a problem at all. Scientists are naturally unhappy when data doesn’t match their predictions − and they want to know the reason why.

The Antarctic problem is hard to miss. The Arctic Ocean sea ice is shrinking visibly, and the entire sea could be ice-free most summers in a few decades. But even though there is clear evidence from separate sources that West Antarctica is responding to climate change, the southern hemisphere ice cover, overall, has been increasing.

Or has it? Ian Eisenman, a climatologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, begs to differ. He and colleagues report, in The Cryosphere journal, that it could be due to an error in the way satellite data is processed.

Spliced together

Scientists have been using satellite data to check sea ice cover for 35 years. But the data does not come from one instrument on just one satellite: observations transmitted from a series of satellites have been spliced together.

One report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the sea ice cover was more or less constant, but a later report said it had grown by 16,500 square kilometers a year between 1979 and 2012.

“When we looked at how the numbers reported for the trend had changed, and we looked at the time series of Antarctic sea ice, it didn’t look right,” Dr Eisenman said.

The researchers think that the difference between the two datasets might be linked to a change in satellite sensors in 1991, and the way the data collected by the two instruments was calibrated. What the Scripps team has done is identify a source of possible error, but it hasn’t settled the question one way or the other.

Since the Arctic and Antarctic are very different places, it would be unrealistic to expect the patterns of melting to be the same. And it may still be that southern hemisphere sea ice is growing.

However, while that question remains open, there is less doubt about the long slowdown in the rate of average global warming during the 21st century.

Missing heat

Separate teams of researchers have proposed a series of possible explanations for the failure of the climate to keep up with the projections of the climate scientists. These have included the suggestion that the missing heat may be “concealed” in the deep oceans, and that a pause in warming was going to happen anyway, but it just happened earlier than anyone expected.

Shaun Lovejoy, professor of physics at McGill University in Canada, reports in Geophysical Research Letters that there is yet another explanation. He argues, from statistical analysis, that coincidentally with the increase in man-made emissions of greenhouse gases, there has been a natural cycle at work, and that the most recent human impact on climate has been damped down by a cooling phase.

He had already ruled out with 99% certainty the possibility that natural variation could explain all the ups and downs of global average temperatures since 1800. This time he used the same statistical approach to the data for the 15 years from 1998 to the present.

His research suggests that there has been a natural cooling of 0.28°C to 0.37°C since 1998, which is in line with natural variations that occur every 20 to 50 years. “The pause has a convincing statistical explanation,” Lovejoy says. – Climate News Network