Tag Archives: Arctic

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

Svalbard’s reindeer thrive as climate warms

Warm welcome: Svalbard's distinctive reindeer are increasing in numbers. Image: courtesy of Dr Jonathan Codd, University of Manchester
Warm welcome: Svalbard’s distinctive reindeer are increasing in numbers
Image: courtesy of Dr Jonathan Codd, University of Manchester

By Alex Kirby

The rising temperatures that have many negative impacts in the Arctic region are not a problem for a Norwegian subspecies of reindeer whose population increased by a remarkable 30% last year.

LONDON, 21 July, 2014 − There will be winners as well as losers as climate change intensifies, and scientists say they have just found one species that is prospering already.

Far from threatening the reindeer on the Norwegian high Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, rising temperatures appear to be driving a remarkable increase in the animals’ numbers.

Scientists from the University of Manchester, UK, and the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø have found that the numbers of Svalbard reindeer, continuing a trend that has been observed over the last 36 years, increased by 30% in the last year.

Physically counted

The scientists established the population spurt by counting the reindeer in the valley of Adventdalen, in central Spitsbergen. They say their research is one of only very few studies on animal populations and climate change that involves animals being physically counted annually, rather than estimated.

The total number of animals − including all births and all deaths − in Adventdalen has been recorded annually since 1979 by a team led by Dr Nicholas Tyler, of the Arctic University of Norway.

Svalbard’s reindeer population had increased in close parallel with winter warming in the last 35 years, growing from an average of around 600 animals in the early 1980s to around 1,000 today.

Dr Tyler said: “Winter warming is widely held to be a major threat to reindeer across the Arctic, but, in Svalbard, global warming has had the opposite effect. Our data provides remarkable confirmation of this counter-intuitive observation.”

This summer, a team from Manchester, led by Jonathan Codd and Nathan Thavarajah, helped with the annual census of reindeer in Adventdalen.

Dr Codd, the programme director for zoology at the university, said: “The results revealed a remarkably successful year for Svalbard reindeer. Despite very high numbers in 2013, the population increased by almost 30% and reached a new record of just over 1,300 animals − more than three times the population size in 1979, when the present series of counts began.”

The team found very little winter mortality and very high calving. There were over 300 calves in the valley, the second highest number recorded.

Streets awash

“The substantial increase in the numbers of reindeer is linked with frequent and pronounced periods of warm weather last winter,” said Dr Codd. “In February, the temperature rose above freezing for six days, reaching a maximum of +4.2°C, and the streets of the Norwegian settlement at Longyearbyen were reported awash with melt water.”

Dr Codd told the Climate News Network: “We count the reindeer by walking the same set routes every day, and there is no possibility of any double counting.

“There are signs that Svalbard’s predators are in good shape. I think most of the polar bear populations are at least stable, and the Arctic foxes are doing pretty well too.

“But neither seems to be bothering the reindeer. The foxes will eat dead deer, but don’t attack live ones. And the main prey of the bears is seals.

“And the reindeer can move fast if they need to. I’ve heard reports that they have been known to reach a speed of 50 miles an hour (80 kph).” − Climate News Network

Hi-tech quest for Arctic sea ice answers

Walrus surfacing through sea ice off the Alaska coast Image: Joel Garlich Miller/USFWS via Wikimedia Commons
Breakthrough: walrus surfacing in sea ice off the coast of Alaska
Image: Joel Garlich Miller/USFWS via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

A sophisticated array of automatic sensors will allow scientists to conduct the longest ever monitoring programme to determine the precise physics of summer sea ice melt in the Arctic.

LONDON, 20 July, 2014 − An international team of scientists plan to spend months watching ice melt. But although it will take longer and cost a lot more than watching paint dry, it will be much more interesting and rewarding.

They plan to discover just how the Arctic ice retreats, the rate at which it melts, and the oceanographic processes at work.

The Arctic ice cap is a vital part of the climate machine, and the basis of an important ecosystem. But although the polar ice once stretched far further south, it has been both thinning and shrinking for more than three decades. This melting shows signs of accelerating, with consequences for nations far to the south, but researchers still don’t know much about the physics of the process.

Suite of technologies

So the US Naval Research Laboratory, oceanographers from France and the US, the British Antarctic Survey, the Korean Polar Research Institute, the Scottish Association for Marine Science, and the Universities of Cambridge in the UK and Yale in the US have co-ordinated a suite of technologies to monitor every detail of this summer’s ice retreat from the Alaskan shoreline, northwards.

They will use an array of floats, buoys, sensors, thermometers, tethers, GPS receivers and automated weather stations to measure every detail, such as the flow of warmer water, growth and pattern of waves, the wind speed and direction, air pressure, and humidity.

There will be buoys fixed in the ice to record both the melting and – later in the year – its refreezing, and an array of ice-tethered profilers to monitor the changes in the upper ocean. Autonomous sea gliders, too, will be released to explore below the ice shelf and report back every time they surface.

The Arctic summer ice is an example of positive feedback. Ice reflects sunlight, so it is its own insulator, and keeps itself cold. But as it melts and retreats, the exposed darker ocean waters can absorb more radiation, and bring more warmth to the edges of the retreating ice, thus accelerating the process.

It freezes again, but – on average – each year the ice cap becomes thinner, and the total area frozen continues to shrink. Researchers think they understand the big picture, but now they want the confirmatory fine detail.

Melt season

“This has never been done at this level, over such a large area and for such a long period of time,” said Craig Lee, of the University of Washington, who leads the Marginal Ice Zone Programme project. “We’re really trying to resolve the physics over the course of an entire melt season.”

The project began in March, when researchers planted an array of sensors along a line 200 miles to the north of Alaska. In August, a Korean icebreaker will install more equipment, and a team from Miami is studying high resolution satellite pictures of ice floes in the region. Biologists will also want to understand the effect of temperature changes on marine micro-organisms.

“The field programme will provide unique insight into the processes driving the summer melt of Arctic ice,” Dr Lee said. “It’s the automation and unprecedented collaboration that allows us to be out there for the entire season. You couldn’t afford to be out there at this intensity, for this length of time, any other way.” − Climate News Network

Atlases reveal climate and weather impacts

NASA says Arctic sea ice thickness in some areas has halved since 1980 Image: Hannes Grobe 20:05 via Wikimedia Commons

NASA says Arctic sea ice thickness in some areas has halved since 1980
Image: Hannes Grobe 20:05 via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Two new atlases provide clear visual evidence of the effect climate change and extreme weather can have on people and property.

LONDON, 12 July 2014 – For people who find it hard to believe the Earth really is warming, new visual evidence will soon be available – two atlases, one showing graphically the retreat of Arctic ice, the other the human and economic price exacted by extreme weather.

The 10th edition of the National Geographic Atlas of the World is to be published on 30 September. The publication’s geographer, Juan José Valdés, says the reduction in multi-year ice – ice that has survived for two summers – is so noticeable compared with previous editions that it is the biggest visible change since the breakup of the USSR.

“You hear reports all the time in the media about this,” he said. “Until you have a hard-copy map in your hand, the message doesn’t really hit home.” He believes atlases “open people’s eyes to what’s happening in the world.”

The Arctic sea ice has been retreating in the last 30 years or so by 12% each decade, NASA says. (On land the change is even more marked. Spring and autumn on the Greenland icecap have warmed by more than 3°C, although summer temperatures have not changed)

According to NASA’s Operation IceBridge the sea ice is now as much as 50% thinner than in previous decades, falling from an average thickness of 3.8 metres (12.5 feet) in 1980 to 1.9 m (6.2 ft) in recent years. May 2014 represented the third lowest extent of sea ice for that month in the satellite record, the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) says.

Self-supporting

The ice loss is accelerated by what scientists call a positive feedback: the warming in effect fuels itself. Thin ice reflects light less effectively than thick ice, allowing more sunlight to be absorbed by the ocean, which further weakens the ice and warms the ocean even more.

The melting ice also triggers another feedback. Thinner ice is flatter and scientists say this allows melt ponds to accumulate on the surface, reducing the ice’s reflectiveness and absorbing more heat.

In National Geographic’s atlas the multi-year ice, which is older, is shown as a large white mass, with the maximum extent of sea ice – the pack ice that melts and refreezes each season – shown by a simple line. This edition shows the area of multi-year ice is strikingly smaller than previously.

Some scientists say the atlas should show the total ice area at the end of the Arctic summer, including the remaining ice newly formed in the previous winter. This total minimum cover is measured in September, while total maximum cover is measured in March, at the end of winter.

Omitting the minimum cover means ice one year old or less is not being shown, the critics say. But the mapmakers say they do not show the minimum extent because there is only so much information they can include without confusing users.

There is also criticism of the atlas’s reliance on a single year (the new edition uses 2012 data, an extremely low year for ice cover). The critics say this probably over-emphasises long-term trends. But if 2013, a year with more ice, is shown, the mapmakers counter, it could under-emphasise the trend towards rising temperatures.

Steep underestimate

The second publication, the Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather, Climate and Water Extremes 1970-2012, is the work of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) of the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL) in Belgium.

Disasters caused by such extremes, it says, are increasing globally, killing people and slowing economic and social development by years or decades. The period covered, the authors say, saw 8,835 disasters, 1.94 million deaths and US$2.4 trillion of economic losses resulting from droughts, extreme temperatures, floods, tropical cyclones and related health epidemics.

Preparations start in Geneva, Switzerland, on 14 July for the third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, to be held in Japan in March 2015 by the United Nations.

Jochen Luther of WMO told the Climate News Network: “It’s not necessarily the number of extreme events that is increasing, but the increasing exposure and vulnerability that turns them into disasters, as well as better reporting of them than in the past.”

The UN’s Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2013 said direct and indirect losses from natural hazards of all kinds had been underestimated by at least half because of problems with data collection. – Climate News Network

Arctic warming upsets birds’ breeding calendar

 

A chick of the Arctic migrant bird, the red-necked phalarope Image: US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons
Early bird: a chick of the Arctic migrant, the red-necked phalarope
Image: US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

As global warming increasingly causes Arctic snow to melt earlier, researchers warn that it could have a long-term adverse effect on the breeding success of migrant birds.

LONDON, 8 July, 2014 − Arctic migrants are nesting up to seven days earlier as the world warms. The sandpiper makes a beeline for the Alaskan shores, to join the phalarope on the beach and the songbirds in the woods − and all because the winter snows are melting earlier.

Conservation scientists Joe Liebezeit and Steve Zack – both then of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) – and colleagues report in the journal Polar Biology that they looked into nearly 2,500 nests of four shorebird species in Alaska – two sandpipers, two phalaropes − and a songbird called the Lapland songspur over a nine-year period.

Nest timing

They recorded when the first eggs were laid. And they also assessed snow melt in nesting plots at different times in the early spring, and took note of predator abundance and the seasonal flush of vegetation − both of which can affect nest timing − to see what mattered most in terms of breeding.

“It seems clear that the timing of the snow melt in Arctic Alaska is the most important mechanism driving the earlier and earlier breeding dates we observed in the Arctic,” said Liebezeit, now of the Audubon Society of Portland, Oregon.

“The rates of advancement in earlier breeding are higher in Arctic birds than in other temperate bird species, and this accords with the fact that the Arctic climate is changing at twice the rate.”

During the nine years in which the scientists conducted their study, they found that nesting advanced by between four and seven days.

“Migratory birds are nesting earlier in the changing Arctic, presumably to track the earlier springs and abundance of insect pray,” said Steve Zack, who is the WCS co-ordinator of bird conservation.

“Many of these birds winter in the tropics and may be compromising their complicated calendar of movements to accommodate this change. We’re concerned that there will be a threshold where they will no longer be able to track the emergence of these earlier springs, which may impact breeding success or even population viability.”

Ecology changing

The calendar of Arctic life is shaped by ice, and the ecology of the region is beginning to change as the area of sea covered by ice shrinks with successive summers.

But Ingrid Onarheim, of the University of Bergen’s Geophysical Institute, and colleagues warn in the journal Tellus − published by the International Meteorological Institute at Stockholm University − that the Arctic ocean is losing ice even in winter, at least north of the island of Svalbard, Norway.

A study of satellite records shows that this region is losing winter ice at the rate of almost 10% per decade, and the north Atlantic water that enters the Arctic ocean at this point has been warming at 0.3°C per decade. At the same time, the surface air temperature has been warming at 2°C per decade, and researchers have recorded an average rise in winter temperatures of 6.9°C in the last 34 years.

They believe that winds have not caused the long-term warming or loss of ice, so it must be warmer ocean temperatures pushing into the region west of Svalbard. The ice, furthermore, has thinned with the decades, making it more likely to melt and retreat with each succeeding winter. – Climate News Network

Whalers tale sheds new light on Arctic ice

Oil painting by John Wood (1798-49) of British whalers circa 1840 Image: Lee and Juliet Fulger Fund via Wikimedia Commons
Oil painting by John Wood (1798-1849) of British whalers circa 1840
Image: Lee and Juliet Fulger Fund via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Vital data on the Arctic ice sheet before extensive fossil fuel use began to impact on climate has been gleaned from a new study analysing the log books of British whaling ships’ journeys more than 200 years ago.

LONDON, 5 July, 2014 − British whaling ships from Tyneside in the north-east of England made 458 trips to the edge of the Arctic ice between 1750 and 1850. Their log books contained detailed records of perilous journeys, whales caught, and the tons of blubber and barrels of oil they brought home.

For Matthew Ayre, a PhD student at the University of Sunderland, UK, and Dennis Wheeler, the university’s Emeritus Professor of Climatology, these log books and other records by merchant ships and Arctic explorers such as Sir John Franklin − who tried in 1845 to navigate the icy North-West Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific − represent an extraordinary resource.

They give an account of the southern edge of the ice sheet, the prevailing weather, the spring and summer extremes, the storms, and the condition of the Arctic ice shelf.

Planetary climate

And the log books offer a snapshot of conditions in the century before the first systematic use of fossil fuels began subtly to alter the planetary climate.

The catch, of course, is that the log books were composed in the technical language used by the masters of sailing ships more than 200 years ago, augmented by the jargon appropriate to a trade abandoned by the British more than a century ago.

For Ayre, the first great challenge was to compile a systematic sea ice dictionary and translate it into the language used by scientists today. He then validated his data with five weeks on the US Coastguard ice breaker and research vessel, USCGC Healy, exploring the edge of the polar ice at first hand. His study, which is part of the collaborative ARCdoc project, concentrates on the Davis Straits between north America and Greenland, and the north-west Atlantic.

The evidence confirms satellite observations made in the last three decades that the extent of the polar ice was once far greater, and that the Arctic ice is in historic retreat.

“Significantly, this is the first time we have ever had direct observational information on the ice fronts in the north Atlantic and the Davis Straits area before 1900,” Dr Wheeler said. “Until the introduction of satellite information from the 1970s, we didn’t know what the ice was doing.

“These log books contain absolutely vital
climatological information”

“Well, now we know it was more advanced − therefore, the retreat of the ice in the last 30 years is part of a more recent and new pattern of climate change. So these log books contain absolutely vital climatological information.”

All systematic weather records are relatively recent. The oldest continuous temperature series dates from England in 1659, but records from most of the world, until the last century, were random or simply sparse.

So climate researchers go for what they call proxy data – such as ice cores, lake sediments and tree rings – that provides overall clues to changing patterns of climate during the millennia.

There are other secondary sources – such as monastery and historic estate archives recording farm yields − that offer clues to bygone summers.

Life or death

But the richest resource is probably the log books of the naval ships and merchantmen, the whalers and adventurers who took to the seas in the great age of exploration that began in the 16th century. For such men, the state of the ice and the weather at its edge was a matter of life or death.

The challenge was to match what 18th-century observers recorded with the scientific observations to be made now.

Ayre got his chance aboard the US research vessel, using as a guide an epic account of the Arctic regions, written in 1820 by the Whitby whaler and pioneer scientist, William Scoresby.

“I was making observations every four hours aboard Healy, using Scoresby’s definitions and the Healy researchers’ own daily records, testing how accurate our data is to validate what is in the sea ice dictionary,” Ayre said.

“Apart from modern day research vessels, these are the only books in history from ships that seek out the ice edge in great detail and follow it.” – Climate News Network

Underworld threat to melting icecap

 

Concealed beneath the Petermann glacier are towering blocks of ice Image: Michael Studinger/NASA via Wikimedia Commons
Concealed beneath the Petermann glacier are towering blocks of ice
Image: Michael Studinger/NASA via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Radar images of Greenland’s glaciers have revealed a spectacular underground landscape of “skyscraper” ice blocks created by a melt-and-freeze cycle that is accelerating the reduction of the icecap

LONDON, 16 June − Researchers in the US have identified a new reason for the acceleration in the melting of Greenland’s icecap − the ice underneath, as it melts and then refreezes, appears to speed up glacial flow.

The melt-and-freeze-again cycle is not itself new, as a similar process has been diagnosed under the ice cap of Antarctica. Nor is the process itself necessarily connected with global warming. Such things must always have happened.

But Robin Bell, a geophysicist at Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, reports with colleagues in Nature Geoscience that they used ice-penetrating radar to identify ragged blocks of ice as tall as skyscrapers and as wide as the island of Manhattan at the very bottom of the ice sheet. These structures cover about a tenth of the island and seem to form as melted water below the ice freezes again. They then warp the ice around and above them.

Easier to flow

“We see more of these features where the ice sheet starts to go fast,” Professor Bell said. “We think the refreezing process uplifts, distorts and warms the ice above, making it softer and easier to flow.”

Bell and her colleagues looked at the Petermann Glacier in Greenland’s north, which in 2010 pushed a huge chunk of ice into the sea. Observations suggest that the glacier is moving twice as fast as the surrounding ice, and the hypothesis is that the melt-and-freeze-again process is contributing to this acceleration.

Researchers have been troubled for a decade or more by the apparent increase in ice loss from Greenland. Were the whole island to melt, sea levels worldwide would rise by more than seven metres, so the concern is practical.

Recently, researchers have found that the bedrock beneath many glaciers is actually below sea level, making the glaciers vulnerable from ocean inflow. They have identified a process called “dynamic thinning”, triggered by warmer air temperatures, and they know anyway that natural geothermal heat flow mis likely to melt the base of the ice and lubricate any acceleration.

They have measured a fourfold increase since 1997 in summer flow speeds in the island’s Jakobshavn glacier. And they have indicated that the Greenland icecap each summer becomes more vulnerable to melting because the snows themselves are becoming darker, as more dust blows in from areas that are increasingly ice free.

Ice slide

So the discovery of a process that will make the ice slide to the sea more efficiently is not of itself more sinister. The meltwater could come from a number of sources. The friction created by a glacier as it moves must contribute. So could natural heat flow from the bedrock. Surface ice could melt in the summer sun and drain through crevasses to the base.

However, what the discovery helps to offer, literally and metaphorically, is a deeper understanding of the processes at work below the ice.

What is not clear is whether the melt-and-freeze cycle will influence the rate at which ice is lost in future. Nor does anyone yet know what triggers the cycle.

“The conditions under which such switches occur should be investigated, as they directly affect the ability of an ice sheet to slide over its bed,” advises Joseph A. McGregor, of the University of Texas at Austin, writing in the same issue of Nature Geoscience. − Climate News Network