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Arctic future: not so permafrost

Will the Arctic summer soon be longer? (Pic: I.Quaile, Greenland)

Will the Arctic summer soon be longer? (Pic: I.Quaile, Greenland)

A glance into the future of the Arctic” was the title of a press release I received from the Alfred Wegener Institute this week, relating to the permafrost landscape.

“Thawing ice wedges substantially change the permafrost landscape” was the sub-title.

“I felt the earth move under my feet…” was the song line that came to my mind.

The study was led by Anna Liljedahl of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. And Fairbanks is, indeed, where I would like to have been this past week, with Arctic Science Summit Week taking place.

Arctic Council in Fairbanks

Clearly the Arctic Council thought the same and actually managed to put their wish into practice by holding a meeting of the Senior Arctic Officials (SAOs) there from March 15th to 17th. The agenda focused to a large extent, it seems, on climate change, and “placing the Council’s overall work on climate change in the context of the COP21 climate agreement” reached in Paris in December, according to a media release.

“The Council needs to consider how it can continue to evolve to meet the new challenges of the Arctic, particularly in light of the Paris Agreement on climate change. We took some steps in that direction this week”, said Ambassador David Balton, Chair of the SAOs.

Arctic freswater systems are changing with the climate. (Pic: I.Quail)

Arctic freshwater systems are changing with the climate. (Pic: I.Quaile)

Now what exactly does that mean? The Working Groups reported “progress on specific elements”. They include the release of a new report on the Arctic freshwater system in a changing climate, “cross-cutting efforts aimed at preventing the introduction of invasive alien species”, strengthening the region’s search and rescue capacity, efforts to support a pan-Arctic network of marine protected areas and promoting “community-based Arctic leadership on renewable energy microgrids”. I suppose those could be part of the process. Clearly there are a lot of interesting things going on.

NOAA’S latest – not so cheery

Against the background of NOAA’s latest revelations on global temperature development, though, they may have to speed up the pace. The combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for February 2016 was the highest for February in the 137-year period of record, NOAA reports, at 1.21°C (2.18°F) above the 20th century average of 12.1°C (53.9°F). This was not only the highest for February in the 1880–2016 record—surpassing the previous record set in 2015 by 0.33°C / 0.59°F—but it surpassed the all-time monthly record set just two months ago in December 2015 by 0.09°C (0.16°F).

Overall, the six highest monthly temperature departures in the record have all occurred in the past six months. February 2016 also marks the 10th consecutive month a monthly global temperature record has been broken. The average global temperature across land surfaces was 2.31°C (4.16°F) above the 20th century average of 3.2°C (37.8°F), the highest February temperature on record, surpassing the previous records set in 1998 and 2015 by 0.63°C (1.13°F) and surpassing the all-time single-month record set in March 2008 by 0.43°C (0.77°).

Here in Germany, the temperature was 3.0°C (5.4°F) above the 1961–1990 average for February. NOAA attributes it to a large extent to strong west and southwest winds. Now that is a big difference, and I can certainly see it in nature all around. But the difference was more than double that in Alaska. Alaska reported its warmest February in its 92-year period of record, at 6.9°C (12.4°F) higher than the 20th century average.

Permafrost structures in Greenland (Pic: I.Quaile)

Permafrost structures in Greenland (Pic: I.Quaile)

Why worry about wedges?

So, back to Fairbanks, or at least to the changing permafrost in this rapidly warming climate, which was on the agenda there at the Arctic Science Summit Week. (See webcast.)

The study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, conducted by an international team in cooperation with the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research (no wonder we prefer to call them AWI), indicates that ice wedges in permafrost throughout the Arctic are thawing at a rapid pace. The first thought that springs to my mind is collapsing buildings, remembering seeing cooling systems in Greenland to keep the foundations of buildings in the permafrost frozen and so stable. Of course that only affects areas which are built upon (certainly bad enough). The new study looks at what the melting ice wedges will mean for the hydrology of the Arctic tundra. And that impact will be massive, the scientists say.

The ice wedges go down as far as 40 metres into the ground and have formed over hundreds or even thousands of years, through freezing and melting processes. Now the researchers have found that even very brief periods of above-average temperatures can cause rapid changes to ice wedges in the permafrost near the surface. In nine out of the ten areas studied, they found that ice wedges thawed near the surface, and that the ground subsided as a result. So, once more, humankind is changing what nature created over thousands of years in a very short space of time. I am reminded of a recent study indicating that our greenhouse gas emissions have even postponed the next ice age.

A dry future for the Arctic?

“The subsiding of the ground changes the ground’s water flow pattern and thus the entire water balance”, says Julia Boike from AWI, who was involved in the study. “In particular, runoff increases, which means that water from the snowmelt in the spring, for example, is not absorbed by small polygon ponds in the tundra but rather is rapidly flowing towards streams and larger rivers via the newly developing hydrological networks along thawing ice wedges”. The experts produced models which suggest the Arctic will lose many of its lakes and wetland areas if the permafrost retreats.

Measuring CO2 emissions from summer permafrost at Zackenberg, Greenland (Pic: I.Quaile)

Measuring CO2 emissions from summer permafrost at Zackenberg, Greenland (Pic: I.Quaile)

Co-author Guido Grosse, also from AWI, says the thaw is much more significant that it might first appear. The changes to the flow pattern also change the biochemical processes which depend on ground moisture saturation, he says.

The permafrost contains huge amounts of frozen carbon from dead plant matter. When the temperature rises and the permafrost thaws, microorganisms become active and break down the previously trapped carbon. This in turn produces the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide. This is a topic already well researched, at least with regard to slow and steady temperature rises and thawing of near-surface permafrost, the authors say. But the thawing of these deep ice wedges will lead to massive local changes in patterns. “The future carbon balance in the permafrost regions depends on whether it will get wetter or dryer. While we are able to predict rainfall and temperature, the moisture state of the land surface and the way the microbes decompose the soil carbon also depends on how much water drains off”, says Julia Boike.

Now the results of the research have to be integrated into large-scale models.

The study of the impacts of thawing ice wedges seems to me like a good metaphor for the relation between Arctic climate change and what’s happening to the planet as a whole. Something changes in a localised area, which turns out to have far greater significance for a much wider area of the planet (or even the whole).

 

 

Date

March 18, 2016 | 3:08 pm

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Trudeau and Obama’s Arctic Endeavours

I photographed this ship amongst the icebergs of Ilulissat in 2009

Obama and Trudeau want to protect the Arctic against climate change and harmful development (Pic: I.Quaile

Sometimes there are pleasant surprises to end the week. An announcement by the US and Canadian leaders that they are joining forces to take measures to protect the Arctic would come into that category.

Given the US role as a top emitter and Canada’s extremely negative position on climate action under the old Harper government, this seems to me a very important announcement. Obama, unfortunately, is on his way out. Trudeau, we know, has just come in.

I was interviewing Frida Bengtsson from Greenpeace on the phone this morning about a campaign to keep industrial fishing out of the Arctic. I asked her how she judged the announcement. This was her response:

“I think it shows some good, clear leadership on Arctic protection. Now it’s up to the implementation. We’re hoping they will set the bar really high on protection and that fishing will be included and that areas of the Arctic will be off limits to any industrial activity, including oil and gas.”

As always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

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Keeping a wary eye on the politicians (Pic: I.Quaile)

In the background, the two countries have pledged to sign the Paris climate deal “as soon as feasible”. Hm. That sounds a little wishy-washy to me. But they also say they want to improve cooperation on energy issues. If it means cutting emissions rather than building something like the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline to bring heavy Canadian oil to the US, it’s extremely good news for the climate. Obama rejected the project last year. It was promoted by Trudeau’s predecessor, Stephen Harper.

Canada and the USA have now committed to cut emissions of methane by 40 to 50 percent below 2012 levels by 2025. Given that methane is around 20 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, that is an important step. The oil and gas industry is the single largest source of methane emissions in the US and globally. Obama and Trudeau also announced they plan steps to fight climate change in the Arctic, and to speed development of green technologies.

The US Environmental Protection Agency, EPA is to start developing regulations for methane emissions from existing oil and gas sources immediately and “move as expeditiously as possible to complete this process”. Obama has made extensive use of the EPA during his time in office, in his attempt to combat opposition to his pro-environment and climate moves from Republicans.

Last month the US Supreme Court ruled to delay the implementation of Obama’s Clean Power Plan to fight emissions from power plants. But the President says the plan to cut methane emissions is on secure legal grounds.

In the Arctic, the countries agreed to set standards on shipping, fishing and oil and gas exploration and development, and to base decisions on scientific evidence. Development is only to occur “when the highest safety and environmental standards are met”.

In the Washington Post, mark Brownstein, vice president of climate and energy at the Environmental Defense Fund, said the proposed cut in methane emissions would be like “closing a third of the world’s coal plants”.

“This is arguably the single biggest, most impactful, most immediate thing we can do to slow the rate of warming right now”, Brownstein said.

Obama and Trudeau pledged to safeguard the Arctic with initiatives to protect more than 10 percent of the marine areas, designate shipping corridors with low environmental impact, and establish new offshore oil and gas leasing plans.

Clearly, both governments are recognizing the Arctic as a priority. Of course full Arctic protection requires action by other Arctic nations, like Russia, Denmark and Norway.

Ice is a problem for shipping and other activities in the dark season

Shipping is risky in the cold, dark, Arctic (Pic: I.Quaile)

Increasing industrial activity in the Arctic brings an increased risk of potential collisions, oil spills, pollution, black carbon and underwater noise to disturb wildlife.

This joint announcement is a clear demonstration of how much political leadership can do when it comes to climate issues,and just how important is to have people in power who understand what drives climate change and why it is dangerous, and are willing to commit to climate action in the face of opposition from fossil-fuel-based industries, demonstrating at the same time that climate protection is actually good for the economy.

I interviewed Alexander Ochs, Senior Director for Climate and Energy at the Worldwatch Institute recently about implementing the Paris Agreement and the “Energiewende”, the transition to renewable energy. We also discussed the US position on climate.

“If we talk about the US, there is not one US player. Unlike many other countries where there is a consensus across parties, across people of different ideologies, that does not exist in the US, it’s a highly partisan issue. Candidates for presidency and US congress take positions almost exactly along party lines.”

Clearly, the result of the US presidential election will have major implications for climate action.

“The results of the elections on the federal level, as well as their impact on international cooperation on climate and energy, will be very dramatic. Having said that, even under Republican leadership, – which would have dramatic impacts – there will be many actors in the United States that will continue their action on the ground. Whether it’s municipalities or cities –more than a thousand mayors are supporting the Kyoto goals for example, widely unnoticed by Europeans – or on the state level, or individuals. So you do see a lot of things happening on the ground in the United States, so it’s often unfair to these people if we reduce the US to the presidency.”

That is an encouraging thought. Leadership is essential. But so, too, is action from the bottom up.

 

 

Date

March 11, 2016 | 3:29 pm

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Arctic winter: warm, wet, weird

Melting ice, north and south? (Photo: I Quaile)

Ice on the melt  (Photo: I Quaile)

Here in Germany, the winter has seemed strange enough. We had flowers in bloom at Christmas, and people sneezing with pollen allergies. Overall it was extremely mild. Now we are just having the odd flurry of sleet, with the magnolias getting ready to bloom and much of nature said to be three weeks ahead of schedule. But that is nothing compared to what’s been going on in the Arctic.

This poppy was growing near my home at Christmas. (Pic: I.Quaile)

This poppy was growing near my home at Christmas. (Pic: I.Quaile)

The Old Normal is Gone”, is the headline of a piece on Slate by Eric Holthaus, sub-headed “February Shatters Global Temperature Records”. He says the record warmth is so dramatic he is prepared to comment using unofficial data, before the official data comes out mid-March. February 2016, he says was probably somewhere between 1.15 and 1.4 degrees Celsius warmer than the long-term average, and about 0.2 degrees above last month, which was itself a record-breaker. This, Holthaus calculates, means while it took us from the start of industrialization until last October to reach the first 1 degree C. of warming, we have now gone up an extra 0.4 degrees in just five months. Paris target 1.5 degrees maximum – here we come!

In the Arctic, this is particularly dramatic. Parts of the Arctic were more than 16 degrees Celsius warmer than “normal” for the month of February, which, Holthaus says, is more like June temperatures, although it would normally be the coldest month.

Melting ice off Svalbard  (Pic I.Quaile)

Melting ice off Svalbard (Pic I.Quaile)

Svalbard, one of my favourite icy places, has averaged 10 degrees Celsius above normal this winter, with temperatures rising above the freezing mark on nearly two dozen days since December first.

Correspondingly, the Arctic sea ice has reached a record low maximum. Lars Fischer, writing in the German publication Spektrum der Wissenschaft, notes that January already saw the smallest ice growth of the last ten years. In mid-February, he writes, satellite data showed the ice cover in some parts of the high north was almost a quarter of a million square kilometers less than ever before on this date. This lasted two weeks, than the ice grew a little last week, to draw equal with the previous all time low for a first of March. New ice will be much thinner than the old multi-year ice, a trend that has been increasing.

New satellite data

Researchers are using a new technique to gain data about the thinning ice pack in real time. An article in Nature, “Speedier Arctic data as warm winter shrinks sea ice”, describes a new tool to track changes as they happen and provide near real time estimates of ice thickness from the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 satellite. Previously, there was a time lag of at least a month.

Satellite data is revolutionizing our knowledge of ice. (Pic. I.Quaile, Tromso)

Satellite data is revolutionizing what we know about the Arctic ice. The news is not good. (Pic. I.Quaile, Tromso)

Natural fluctuation, el Nino or human-made climate change?

Of course there are those who say fluctuation is natural in the Arctic. But this year, this fluctuation is extreme. Some researchers say the melt season started a whole month too early. Certainly, at this time, the Arctic should be in the grip of winter.

Fischer titles his article “Absurd winter in the Arctic”. I’m not sure absurd is the best way of describing it. (It could actually seem quite logical if you look at the extent of extra warmth we have been creating with our greenhouse gas emissions). Looking at an article in the Independent by Geoffrey Lean, I see the term “absurdly warm”comes from the NSIDC, National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder, Colorado. The “strangest ever” and “off the chart” are used by NSIDC director Mark Serreze and NOOA respectively. Those figure.

In December 2015, the high Arctic experienced a heatwave. We saw temperatures near the North Pole going above freezing point. January was the warmest month since the beginning of weather data. In February, parts of the Arctic were more than ten degrees warmer than the long-term average.

The Arctic Oscillation is partly to blame. It is currently such that warm air can make its way north. Strong Atlantic storms have been pressing the warm, moist air north into the High Arctic. But surely there can be no doubt that our human-made climate warming is playing a major role in all this?

It remains to be seen how the situation will develop as the spring sets in. Fisher notes that the last winter ice maximum extent was very low, but was not followed by a new record low in summer.

Eric Holthaus notes that although we are experiencing a record-setting El Nino, which “tends to boost global temperatures for as much as six or eight months beyond its wintertime peak”, this alone cannot be responsible for the temperature records.

He quotes scientific studies indicating that El Nino’s influence on global temperatures as a whole is likely small, and that its influence on the Arctic still isn’t well known.

“So what’s actually happening now is the liberation of nearly two decades’ worth of global warming energy that’s been stored in the oceans since the last major El Nino in 1998”, he writes.

 

Soon no longer just fiction?  (I.Quaile, Alaska)

Soon no longer just fiction? (I.Quaile, Alaska)

“The old normal is gone”

Whatever the cause – this record warmth is a major event in our climate system. Holthaus quotes Peter Gleick, a climate scientist at the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California in his article title: “The old normal is gone”. “The old assumptions about what was normal are being tossed out the window”.

“We could now be right in the heart of a decade or more surge in global warming that could kick off a series of tipping points with far-reaching implications”, says Holthaus. Where have I heard this before?

Lean, in the independent, says two new studies by the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts give new evidence of self-reinforcing feedback mechanisms. This is not new. How much more evidence do we need? Permafrost thaws, resulting in emissions of methane and CO2 from the soil. Melting ice means the reflective white surface is replaced by dark water, which absorbs heat.

So what are we doing about it? In interviews with experts from NGOs including Earthwatch and Germanwatch recently, various experts have been confirming my own feeling that the Paris Climate Agreement may have been a milestone, but not necessarily a turning point – unless climate action is taken very quickly.

I would like to be optimistic. But there is so much evidence suggesting that whatever we do, it is likely to come too late to save the Arctic as we know – knew – it for coming generations. Come on world, prove me wrong! Please!

 

 

Date

March 3, 2016 | 12:22 pm

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Unbaking Alaska?

The frozen waves at Barrow reminded me of the meringue topping on Baked Alaska (Pic: I.Quaile)

The frozen waves at Barrow reminded me of the meringue topping on Baked Alaska (Pic: I.Quaile)

When I first went to Alaska in 2008,  “Unbaking Alaska“ was the title of the reporting project on how climate change is affecting the region and what the world might be able to do about it. I had to explain the title to my German colleagues, unfamiliar with the “Baked Alaska” dessert, while my North American and British colleagues thought it was a quirky, witty little title.

This week, when I saw an article in the Washington Post entitled “As the Arctic roasts, Alaska bakes in one of its warmest winters ever”, I found the “dessert” had become a little stale .

The thing about “Baked Alaska” is that the ice cream stays cold inside its insulating layer of meringue. Unfortunately, all the information coming out of Alaska and the Arctic in general at the moment, suggest that the ice is definitely not staying frozen.

Too hot for comfort?

In the Washington Post article, Jason Samenow refers to this winter’s “shocking warmth” in the Arctic, some seven degrees above average. Alaska’s temperature, he says, has averaged about 10 degrees above normal, ranking third warmest in records that date back to 1925. Anchorage has found itself with a lack of snow.

“This year’s strong El Nino event, and the associated warmth of the Pacific ocean, is likely partly to blame, along with the cyclical Pacific Decadal Oscillation – which is in its warm phase”, Samenow writes. Lurking in the background is that CO2 we have been pumping out into the atmosphere over the last 100 years or so.

Melting sea ice off Greenland

Sea ice extent could be reaching a record minimum (again?) (Pic: I.Quaile)

Sea ice on the wane?

Meanwhile, the Arctic sea ice is at a record low. Normally, in the Arctic, the ocean water keeps freezing through the entire winter, creating ice that reaches its maximum extent just before the melt starts in the spring. Not this time.

Yereth Rosen wrote on ADN on Feb. 24th the sea ice had stopped growing for two weeks as of Tuesday. He quotes the NSIDC as saying the ice hit a winter maximum on February 9th and has stalled since.

“If there is no more growth, the Feb. 9 total extent would be a double record that would mean an unprecedented head start on the annual melt season that runs until fall”.

This would be the earliest and the lowest maximum ever. Normally, the ice extent reaches its maximum in early or mid-March.

The most notable lack of winter ice has been near Svalbard, one of my own favourite, icy places.

The experts say it’s too early to say whether this is “it” for this season. There is probably more winter to come. But even if more ice is able to form, it will be very thin.

sea ice

Just how thick is that ice? (Pic: I.Quaile)

Toast or sorbet?

Coming back to those culinary clichés: Samenow in the Washington post writes of the second “straight toasty winter” in the “Last Frontier”. The links below his online article are listed under “more baked Alaska”. Amongst them I find the headline: “As Alaska burns, Anchorage sets new records for heat and lack of snow” and “Record heat roasts parts of Alaska”.

The trouble comes when these catchy titles become clichés and somehow stop being quirky.

Don’t we run the risk of not doing justice to the serious threat climate change is posing to the most fragile regions of our planet? Sometimes I worry that the warming of the Arctic is becoming something people take for granted, and, even more dangerous, something we can’t do much about. At times I sense a cynicism creeping in.

I for one will be keeping my oven-baked cake and chilled ice cream separate this weekend.

Is it possible to un-bake Alaska? Food for thought.

Picture gallery on “Baked Alaska” expedition.

 

Date

February 26, 2016 | 2:45 pm

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Rising seas culprit: ice or heat?

IMG_1271

Melting ice off Greenland (Pic: I.Quaile)

My attention was caught this week by a study that ascertained that thermal expansion accounts for a much greater share of sea level rise than previously thought. In fact, quite a few journalists got the message wrong. They thought the researchers had found that climate change was causing sea level rise twice as high as previously thought, which would have been quite a sensation. In fact, what the scientists actually found was that the amount of sea level rise that comes from the oceans warming and expanding has been underestimated and is probably about twice as much as previously calculated. There is a clear difference, which does not make the research – using the latest available satellite data – any less interesting.

Since two of the authors of the study are based here in Bonn, I was able to drop in on them and get them to explain their findings and the implications for our Living Planet programme. That will be broadcast in the near future. I also talked to Professor Anders Levermann from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact research on the phone, to get the research findings into context.

While physicists understand the workings of thermal expansion in the oceans in general, Levermann told me there is still a lot to learn about how the heat from excess warming is transported in the ocean, which is of key importance to understanding sea level rise, amongst other things. He says the new research will help make models of future sea level rise more accurate.

Roelof Riebroek and Jürgen Kusche, University of Bonn

Roelof Riebroek and Jürgen Kusche, University of Bonn (Pic: I.Quaile)

The Bonn researchers explained to me how satellite technology has made huge improvements in the collection of data, especially relating to the very deep areas of the ocean, which are very difficult to reach with conventional measuring gauges. Professor Kusche told me he would like to see the results of the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, being used by governments and coastal planners, as sea level rise will affect a large number of people living in coastal areas in the not-too-distant future. Warming seas are also linked to the occurence of storms, making the findings doubly relevant to those involved in protecting coastal areas.

From an Iceblogger point of view, I was keen to know whether the knowledge about the amount of sea level rise ascribed to  thermal expansion had any implications for the role played by melting ice in raising sea level. If thermal expansion is accounting for a higher share of the sea level rise, is melting ice from Greenland and Antarctica accounting for less? I put that question first to Professor Kusche.

“We think that less of the sea level rise is coming from melting ice and glaciers, that’s actually true,” he answered. He said he and his colleagues had done a very thorough re-analysis of all the measurements available over the last 12 or 13 years, “and we are pretty sure that our numbers are correct”.

Rietbroek came in that that point: “Less, but not that much less. If you look at pubished literature and estimates of glacier melting, and try to add those up, you won’t be that far away from what we get. So the melting of glaciers is not that different from what’s been found previously”, he added.

Ice melts from above and below

Climate change melts ice – from above and below(Pic:I.Quaile)

I put the same question to Professor Levermann from PIK, who runs an ice sheet model for the Antarctic and was lead author of the IPCC chapter on sea level change. He explained to me that the various contributions to sea level rise are measured and modelled separately by different teams of experts in particular fields. The models all have a wide range of possible variation. He told me there is still some uncertainty in the distribution of the “sea level rise budget” between thermal expansion, ice sheet melt, mountain glacier melt and groundwater mining. While the latest findings on thermal expansion could potentially shift the relative contributions and are important for improving models to project future sea level rise more accurately, they do not change the validity of predictions relating to the amount of ice going into the ocean.

Ultimately, Levermann says, one of the IPCC statements with the highest certainty is that sea level will continue to rise for centuries to come. He was one of the authors of yet another study  published in Nature Climate Change this past week, led by Peter Clark from the Oregon State University. It affirms that our greenhouse gas emissions today produce climate change commitments for many centuries to millenia. Unless the Paris climate agreement is put into practice asap and we reach zero or negative emissions, up to 20 percent of the world’s population will find itself living in areas that may have to be abandoned.

We are, indeed, living in the Anthropocene. Recently, I interviewed a scientist who found that we have already postponed the next ice age by 50,000 years through our fossil fuel emissions. The latest sea level study indicates that the next few decades offer a brief window of opportunity to avoid increased ice loss from Antarctica and “large-scale and potentially catastrophic climate change that will extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far”.

 

 

Date

February 12, 2016 | 2:50 pm

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