Arctic sea ice: is the minimum maximum the new normal?
If you blinked, you might have missed it. The confirmation came this week that the Arctic sea ice reached yet another all-time low this past winter. It came and went, without too much ado.
Maybe the excitement was just past. The maximum extent was actually reached on March 7th, but of course you can only be sure it is really not going to spread any further once it has definitely been retreating for some time with the onset of spring.
I was waiting for the NSIDC confirmation, but not with any doubt in my mind that it would tell us officially the maximum for this season would be a minimum.
The danger is a “so what?” kind of reaction, or resignation, with the feeling that nothing short of some kind of unprecedented experimental geo-engineering could save the Arctic summer sea ice in the coming years, as the world continues to warm.
Lowest on record
The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, and NASA confirmed this week that Arctic sea ice was at a record low maximum extent for the third straight year.
It reached the maximum on March 7, at 14.42 million square kilometers (5.57 milion square miles). Since then, it has started its annual decline with the start of the melt season. Some time in September it will reach its minimum.
This year’s maximum is the lowest in the 38-year satellite record. NSIDC scientists said a very warm autumn and winter had contributed to the record low maximum. Air temperatures were 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over the Arctic Ocean. Against the background of overall warmth came a series of “extreme winter heat waves over the Arctic Ocean, continuing the pattern also seen in the winter of 2015”, NISDC said in a statement.
The air over the Chukchi Sea northwest of Alaska and the Barents Sea north of Scandinavia was even warmer, averaging around 9 degrees Fahrenheit (five degrees C) above the norm.
NSIDC director Mark Serreze said in his statement: “I have been looking at Arctic weather patterns for 35 years and have never seen anything close to what we’ve experienced these past two winters.”
The winter ice cover was also slightly thinner than that of the past four years, according to data from the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 satellite. Data from the University of Washington’s Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimiliation System also showed that the ice volume was unusually low for this time of year.
Record summer melt ahead?
“Thin ice and beset by warm weather – not a good way to begin the melt season,”, said NSIDC lead scientist Ted Scambos.
A low maximum does not necessarily mean the minimum to be measured in September will also be a record low, as it depends on summer weather patterns. But Julienne Stroeve from NSIDC and professor of polar observation and modeling at the University College London said “Such thin ice going into the melt season sets us up for the possibility of record low sea ice conditions this September”.
“While the Arctic maximum is not as important as the seasonal minimum, the long-term decline is a clear indicator of climate change”, said Walt Meier, a scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory and an affiliate scientist at NSIDC. Iceblog readers might wonder if that is stating the obvious, but given the attitudes of the US administration, you can’t take anything for granted.
The September sea ice measurements began to attract attention in 2005, when the ice extent first shrank to a record low over the period of satellite observations. It broke the record again in 2007 and in 2012. There used to be little interest in the maximum extent of the Arctic sea ice at the end of winter. I can remember reading with concern and writing a piece about the maximum extent also reaching a record low in 2015.
“Arctic sea ice extents have followed a steady downward trajectory since the start of the 21st century – at the same time global temperatures have reached new record highs. Betides setting multiple record low summertime minimum extents, Arctic sea ice began to exhibit a pattern of poor winter recovery starting around 2004.”
Living on thin ice
I remember an expedition to Alaska in 2008, when locals at Barrow told me about their personal experiences of the sea ice becoming thinner and less dependable. Some years later I heard similar reports from people in Greenland, who were selling their sled dogs and buying boats in preparation for changing from ice to open water fishing. The data backs them up.
Yereth Rosen, writing for Alaska Dispatch News, draws attention to the problems of continuing to collect that data. She quotes NSIDC’s Serreze:
“Just how well the center will be able to track sea ice in the future remains unclear. No new satellite is expected to be in place until 2020, and there are concerns about potential interruptions in the record that goes back to 1979… We’re at a situation where the remaining passive microwave instruments up there are kind of elderly. If we have satellite failures, we could lose that eye in the sky”.
Now there is a worrying thought.
Against the background of budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration, that – to put it mildly – does not regard tracking climate change as a high priority – scientists are understandably worried about the future of scientific research on climate and environment related issues.
Method in the madness?
Without reliable continuous satellite data, it would be much harder to track how climate change is affecting the polar regions, the ocean and our planet in general. This may well be the intention of climate-change deniers behind the scenes. But climate change itself will not go away – and the impacts will be increasingly evident.
Tim Ellis, writing for Alaska Public media, quotes Serreze as saying the polar ice cap will not last long if the region continues to warm at this rate.
“We are on course sometime in the next few decades, maybe even earlier, to have summers in the Arctic where, you go up there at the end of August, say, and there’s no ice at all.”
“The view from space in the fall of around 2040” , he went on – assuming we still have satellites to take the pictures – “will be of a blue Arctic Ocean, aside from some scattered icebergs and clusters of pack ice”.
I don’t know about you, but I find that a rather depressing thought.
Implications for the rest of the globe
Andrea Thompson, for Climate Central, writes “even in the context of the decades of greenhouse gas-driven warming, and subsequent ice loss in the Arctic, this winter’s weather stood out.”
She also reminds us of the global impacts of a warming Arctic and decline in sea ice:
“The Arctic was one of the clear global hotspots that helped drive global temperatures to the second- hottest February on record and the third-hottest January, despite the demise of a global heat-boosting El Nino last summer.”
This week the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) said 2016 had been the hottest year ever recorded, and that the record-breaking heat had continued into 2017, sending the world into “truly uncharted territory”.
“The dramatic melting of Arctic ice is already driving extreme weather that affects hundreds of millions of people across North America, Europe and Asia, according to emerging research”, Damian Carrington writes in the Guardian.
On March 15th, Carrington published an article entitled “Airpocalypse smog events linked to global warming”, referring to extreme smog occurrences in China.
Optimism – the only way to go?
This week I interviewed German oceanologist and climatologist Mojib Latif. I wanted to find out whether the highly unusual extreme rainfall and flooding happening in Peru could be explained by natural cycles or was likely to be a climate change impact which could reoccur. You can read the interview here or listen to it on my Living Planet show this week online or on soundcloud.
The professor stressed that the scientists are baffled, because it is not really the time for an el Nino, although this seems to be a “coastal el Nino”, driven by exceptionally warm water off the coast. Of course he is reluctant to attribute any single event to climate change. He stated unequivocally, though, that the warming of the ocean worldwide was absolutely inexplicable without anthropogenic CO2 emissions, that this is all in line with climate models and that we should all be preparing for an increasing number of increasingly extreme weather events, as the world warms.
He says the governments of the world (apart perhaps from the new US administration) are in no doubt that climate change is happening and they need to halt it. But they have so far failed in their attempts.
When I asked Professor Latif if he still felt optimistic, he told me we really had no other choice. While critical of the lack of government action, he is convinced the world will realize that renewables are ultimately far superior to fossil fuels and will ultimately prevail. The question is whether that will happen in time. As far as the Arctic summer sea ice is concerned, I have to go with a Scots expression: “A hae ma doots”.
DateMarch 24, 2017 | 2:31 pm
TagsAlaska, Arctic, Barrow, China, Climate, el Nino, Emissions, Greenland, ice, IFM-Geomar, Living Planet, polar bears, research, science, sea ice, Sea level, Warming, weather
Arctic Council: business as usual with USA under Trump?
As the USA comes to the end of its two-year Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the organization’s “Senior Arctic Officials” met in Juneau, Alaska, last week to prepare for a final ministerial meeting in Fairbanks in May 11th, before Finland takes over the chair. US Ambassador David Balton is currently Chair of the SAO. At a press briefing in Juneau on Friday, it comes as no surprise that one of the questions that interested journalists most was how US Arctic policy might change under the Trump administration and whether that was already happening.
Climate skeptics at the helm?
Given that the Arctic is one of the regions of the globe being affected most rapidly and dramatically by climate change, it does not seem unrealistic to imagine that the climate skeptical views of President Trump and some of his key advisors will have more than just a little impact on the high north.
President Trump’s environment chief Scott Pruitt recently hit the headlines when he again denied that global warming is caused by fossil fuel emissions. The incoming head of the key Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told the American television channel CNBC he “would not agree” that carbon dioxide from human activity was the primary cause of global warming.
When Pruitt was attorney general in Oklahoma, he helped sue the EPA 14 times. He told CNBC that “tremendous disagreement” remained over human impact on the climate and said the Paris accord amounted to a “bad deal.”
When the foreign ministers of the eight Arctic Council states get together in May, it is US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former CEO of the energy giant EXXON, who should be the man in the chair. One of the three priorities of the US chairmanship has been climate change. An interesting combination. So will the ex fossil fuels chief be there?
“We have recommended to Secretary Tillerson that he attend the Arctic Council Ministerial. He is the Chair of the Council. We don’t have a decision yet, as Secretaries of State are busy people. But the last three times the Arctic Council met at the ministerial level, a US secretary of state attended. So it’s my hope that he will come. Certainly the government and people of Alaska would like him to be here.”
Continuity or change of direction?
Drastic budget cuts affecting climate and environment and changes in personnel at the State Department and elsewhere in the administration were also on the agenda at the Juneau briefing (which was joined online by journalists around the world). So how is this affecting the work of the Arctic Council?
“So far I see no direct effect on participation in the Arctic Council either in the lead-up to our own ministerial or beyond, but the picture is not entirely clear yet,” said Balton.
“So far”, and “not yet” seem to be key words.
When it comes to whether and if so how US participation in the Arctic Council and US goals and priorities relating to the Council and to the Arctic have changed or may change under the Trump administration, Balton expressed optimism about continuity:
“I have been working on Arctic issues for the US government for the best part of 20 years. And what I can say is that US interests in the Arctic and our goals and objectives for the Arctic have not changed appreciably over time. There was a first statement of US Arctic policy issued during the Presidency of Bill Clinton. It laid out 6 basic goals of our nation in the Arctic. When George W. Bush became our President, they reiterated those very same goals, in the context of another Arctic policy statement that was put out. And when Barack Obama became President there was a question of whether the Bush administration policy would stand. And it did. It was reaffirmed during the Obama administration. And we built on top of the policy something known as the national strategy for the Arctic region. What all these documents have in common is more important than what separates them.”
Balton did accept that there had been changes of emphasis, but not in the fundamental view.
“The real interests of the United States in the Arctic have very much to do with the state of Alaska and its needs and interests, and keeping the Arctic a peaceful stable place is certainly a non-partisan issue in the United States.”
America first in the Arctic?
Presumably, as long as this fits with President Trump’s “America first” policy, all will be well. The question is how that plays out when other major Arctic players put the interests of their own countries first.
“One Arctic” was the overall theme of the US Chairmanship over the last two years. But when it comes to reconciling the geopolitical not to mention economic interests of Arctic states, cooperation might just become a little more tricky.
In September 2016, the International Security Advisory Board (ISAB), a Federal Advisory Committee established to provide the Department of State with a “continuing source of independent insight, advice, and innovation on scientific, military, diplomatic, political, and public diplomacy aspects of arms control, disarmament, international security, and nonproliferation” published a “Report on Arctic Policy” in response to a request to “undertake a study of Russia’s interests, intentions, and capabilities as it has been increasing its presence – both military and civilian – in the Arctic.”
Interesting times ahead.
The wind of change?
So far, the new administration has not turned its attention to the Arctic in particular, Balton told the journalists:
“There have been signals about climate change policy, but even those are not – at least not to me – clear yet. We do know that the Finns intend to highlight the Paris Agreement as part of their chairmanship program, but they have many other aspects they hope to highlight as well, including the sustainable development goals that the United Nations has announced.”
It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will keep to the Paris Agreement or not. And when it comes to sustainable development in the Arctic, clearly changes in the climate will play a key role.
Between now and the end of the US Chairmanship of the Arctic Council in May, it looks as if Balton and his team will be able to carry on with “business as usual”.
“So the US Arctic Council Programme was developed in the last administration, and is just coming to fruition now. Of course we are in touch with the new administration, which I’m a member of, and for the most part now our guidance is to keep doing what we’re doing. That could change between now and May, but I don’t actually expect it will.”
The question will be what happens after that.
The Arctic Council has committed to developing a long-term strategic plan. “One of the things I felt strongly about when the US took over was that we needed to get the Council as a whole to be thinking in more than two-year increments”, Balton said. “Many of the issues concerning the Arctic are longer term. And the Council must find a way to think in longer-term. So that will happen. I expect two years from now we will be finalizing the long-term strategic plan for delivery to ministers in 2019, and probably look ahead at least ten years. “
So what effect will the change of US administration have on that? Some of the journalists listening to the briefing seemed skeptical about the idea that nothing appears to have changed, although the new new administration has hugely different policies. Again, this could well be just a matter of time:
“I think it’s fair to say that there has been no fundamental change in the way that the US is participating in the AC yet. This administration like past administrations may wish to put its own stamp on US Arctic policy. That may occur at some point. But it has not happened yet.”
Monitoring a rapidly changing Arctic
In response to a question about ocean acidification, the US ambassador described the increase in ocean acidification by 30% worldwide as “staggering” and said it was quite clearly caused by CO2 emissions.
There are not enough platforms in the Arctic to monitor this fully, he said, describing it as “one of our ambitions” to change that.
That brings us back to the crucial role played by US bodies, especially the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in monitoring the planet.
Today, more than thirty leading Florida scientists published an open letter to President Trump, coming out strongly against White House’s proposed cuts to the earth sciences programs at NASA and NOAA. They call on the President to recognize climate change and resulting sea level rise, which is, of course, of existential importance to Florida in particular.
Concern is mounting in the scientific community that the new administration will try to silence efforts to educate the public on climate change.
Christina DeConcini, Director of Government Affairs at the World Resources Institute, whom I interviewed recently about the Trump administration’s climate and environment policies, said in a statement on today’s letter:
“The proposed budget cuts are an affront to the integrity of science and a large body of crucial work on the impacts of climate change that increasingly damage the United States. As the most vulnerable U.S. state to sea level rise, Floridians know this very well; it persistently threatens their infrastructure, communities and homes.
“Research from NOAA and NASA is foundational for assessing and effectively responding to disruptive flooding and costly extreme weather damages.”
In the letter, the scientists write:
“American scientists have historically been at the forefront of scientific discoveries and innovation. America should invest heavily in our effort to understand our homeplanet and be aware of how physical changes will impact industry and society.”
They make a powerful plea for continuing support for NOAA and NASA:
“NASA and NOAA Earth science programs monitor and understand changes in our water resources and our soil. They track the conditions that affect the food and medicines we get from the oceans. These conditions impact agriculture, our military, businesses, and major industries. It is imperative to support programs that explore our planet – at NOAA and NASA and across the government. The work of NOAA and NASA is vital to life on Earth and must be continued”, the scientists write.
“NASA and NOAA’s work capture the history and the present state of the oceans, land, fresh water bodies, and atmosphere. They make it possible for us to observe changes to the planet we live on, from the vantage point of space.
For example, NASA satellites are responsible for providing the first global measurements of aerosols in our atmosphere and for understanding ozone. NASA satellites from the GRACE and ICES missions discovered unexpected rapid changes in Earth’s great ice sheets (…)”
So there we have it. Ultimately, the work of the Arctic Council cannot be separated from the issue of climate change and scientific monitoring.
Perhaps it was fortunate that the US Presidency of the Arctic Council coincided with the Obama period in office, where some decisions were taken in the interests of the region.
It will be up to Finland to direct operations for the next two years, from May onwards. But, clearly, regardless of what happens in the Arctic Council, the overall policy of the new US administration will have a key impact on what happens in the Arctic.
The latest SWIPA, (Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic) report on the cryosphere will be presented to the ministerial gathering in May. It is unlikely to make happy reading. Climate change will have to be a major factor. And given the Trump administration’s policies so far on that issue, the work of the Arctic Council will not be able to carry on regardless.
DateMarch 14, 2017 | 10:44 am
TagsAlaska, Arctic, Arctic Council, Climate, Emissions, EPA, Fairbanks, ice, Juneau, research, Russia, Trump, USA, WRI
Arctic summer sea ice cover could disappear with 2C temperature rise
The Arctic sea ice may disappear completely in summers this century, even if the world keeps to the Paris Agreement. That is the worrying message of a report published on Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change.
The 2015 Paris Agreement set a goal of limiting the rise in global temperature to well below two degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times. Ideally, 1.5C (2.7F) was agreed to be the “aspirational” target. James Screen and Daniel Williamson of Exeter University in the UK, wrote, after a statistical review of ice projections, that a two degree Celsius rise would still mean a 39 percent risk that ice would disappear from the Arctic Ocean in summers. If warming is kept to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the ice was virtually certain to survive, they calculated.
Current emissions targets way too low
If you take the old “glass being half-full rather than half-empty” metaphor, you could see that as a positive option to hang on to. However, the scientists estimated that if we continue along current trends, temperatures will rise by three degrees C (5.4 F.). That would give a 73 percent probability that the ice would disappear in summer. To prevent it, governments would have to up their targets and make considerably larger cuts in emissions than presently planned.
The sea ice will reach its maximum winter extent some time soon. So far, the March figures rival 2016 and 2015 as the smallest for the time of year since satellite records began in the late 1970s.
“In less than 40 years, we have almost halved the summer sea ice cover”, Tor Eldevik, a professor at the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research at the University of Bergen in Norway, told Reuters. Eldevik was not involved in the study.
He predicted that sea ice would vanish in the Arctic Ocean in about another 40 years, on current trends.
Steady melting trend
Scientists define an ice-free Arctic Ocean as one with less than one million square kilometers (386,000 square miles) of ice, because they say some sea ice will linger in bays, for instance off northern Greenland, even after the ocean is ice-free.
Despite fluctuations from year to year, long-term trends in the Arctic clearly show a decline in sea ice. The ten lowest ice extents since 1979 have all occurred since 2007.
According to the latest figures from the NSIDC (March 6), high air temperatures observed over the Barents and Kara Seas for much of this past winter moderated in February. Still, overall, the Arctic remained warmer than average and sea ice extent remained at record low levels.
Arctic sea ice extent for February 2017 averaged 14.28 million square kilometers (5.51 million square miles), the lowest February extent in the 38-year satellite record. This is 40,000 square kilometers (15,400 square miles) below February 2016, the previous lowest extent for the month, and 1.18 million square kilometers (455,600 square miles) below the February 1981 to 2010 long term average.
Good times ahead for Arctic shipping, trade and tourism? Not much of a future for polar bears struggling for survival, or for people whose livelihood and way of life depends on reliable ice cover.
DateMarch 7, 2017 | 11:31 am
Climate change is causing rapid, deeper and more extensive acidification in the Arctic Ocean
A new study reported in Nature Climate Change this week says ocean acidification is spreading rapidly in the western Arctic Ocean in both area and depth. That means a much wider, deeper area than before is becoming so acidic that many marine organisms of key importance to the food chain will no longer be able to survive there.
The study by an international team including scientists from the USA, China and Sweden, is based on data collected between the 1990s and 2010. Presumably, things have got worse rather than better since then. Unfortunately, it takes a long time for scientific research to be evaluated, reviewed and published, so current developments can easily overtake assessments which are already alarming enough in themselves. So yes, I would say this should make us sit up and listen, and lend even more urgency to the need for reducing emissions and combating climate change.
Acid bath for shellfish
Ocean acidification is a process that happens when carbon dioxide out of the air dissolves in the sea, lowering the pH of the water. This reduces the concentration of aragonite in the water, a form of calcium carbonate which shellfish and other marine organisms use to build their shells or skeletons. If the water becomes too acidic, this cannot be formed to the same extent, leaving the animals without their protective shells.
The latest published research shows that acidification is not only affecting much wider areas of the Arctic Ocean, but also that it is happening down to a much greater depth than before.
Between the 1990s and 2010, acidified waters expanded northward around 300 nautical miles from the Chukchi slope off the coast of northwestern Alaska, to just below the North Pole, the scientists write. At the same time the depth of acidified waters has increased from approximately 325 feet to over 800 feet, or from 100 to 250 metres.
“The Arctic Ocean is the first ocean where we see such a rapid and large-scale increase in acidification, at least twice as fast as that observed in the Pacific or Atlantic oceans”, said Professor Wei-Jun Cai from the University of Delaware and Mary A.S. Lighthipe, Professor of Earth, Ocean and Environment at the same University. Cai is the US lead principal investigator on the project.
“The rapid spread of ocean acidification in the western Arctic has implications for marine life, particularly clams, mussels and tiny sea snails that may have difficulty building or maintaining their shells in increasingly acidified waters”, said Richard Feely, senior scientist with NOAA and a co-author.
Tiny sea snails called pteropods are part of the Arctic food web and important to the diet of salmon and herring. Their decline could affect the larger marine ecosystem.
Among the Arctic species potentially at risk from ocean acidification are subsistence fisheries of shrimp and varieties of salmon and crab.
The polar regions are suffering more than others, because cold water absorbs CO2 faster.
Less ice to hold back warm water
The acidification study published this week used water samples taken during cruises by the Chinese ice breaker XueLong (snow dragon) in the summer 2008 and 2010 from the upper ocean of the Arctic’s marginal seas, right up to the North Pole, as well as data from three other cruises going back to 1994. The data, along with model simulations, suggest that increased Pacific Winter Water, driven by circulation patterns and retreating sea ice in the summer season, is primarily responsible for the expansion of ocean acidification, according to Di Qi, the lead author of the paper.
This water from the Pacific comes through the Bering Strait and shelf of the Chukchi Sea into the Arctic basin. Melting sea ice is one factor which allows more of the Pacific water to flow into the Arctic Ocean. The Pacific Ocean water is already high in carbon dioxide and has higher acidity. As it moves north, its acidity increases further for various reasons.
The melting and retreating of Arctic sea ice in the summer months also lets Pacific water move further north than in the past.
The scientists have observed that Arctic ocean ice melt in summer used to occur only in shallow waters with depths of less than 650 feet or 200 meters. But now, it spreads further into the Arctic Ocean.
“It’s like a melting pond floating on the Arctic Ocean. It’s a thin water mass that exchanges carbon dioxide rapidly with the atmosphere above, causing carbon dioxide and acidity to increase in the meltwater on top of the seawater”, said Cai. “When the ice forms in winter, acidified waters below the ice become dense and sink down into the water column, spreading into deeper waters.”
Climate chaos – not just for polar bears
In 2010, I spent some time with scientists conducting the world’s first experiments in nature, off the coast of Svalbard, to establish exactly how increasing acidification affects the flora and fauna in the Arctic Ocean.
Mesocosms, or giant test-tubes, were lowered into the sea to capture a water column with living organisms inside it. Different amounts of CO2 were added to simulate the effects of different emissions scenarios in the coming decades.
Similar experiments are still being conducted in different ocean areas. Results so far have been scary to say the least.
Mussels, snails, sea urchins, starfish, coral, fish, “some of these species will simply not be able to compete with others in the ocean of the future”, Ulf Riebesell from the Helmholtz Institute for Ocean Research in Kiel, GEOMAR, told me in an interview back in 2013, when he was a lead author of a report by the International Programme on the State of the Oceans (IPSO). He was also one of the scientists in charge of that first Arctic acidification in situ experiment I witnessed back in 2010. He is currently coordinator of the German national project Biological Impacts of Ocean ACIDification (BIOACID).
Riebesell says the sea water in the Arctic could become corrosive within a few decades. “The shells and skeletons of some sea creatures would simply dissolve”, he told me.
Those feedback loops
February 27th was Polar Bear Day. Attention focused on how the decline of sea ice is having devastating impacts on those iconic creatures, who have become a key symbol of the effect of our human-induced climate change on the Arctic. Sea snails may not be quite as charismatic, but the related threat to all these tiny organisms in the water is no less worthy of our attention. Journalist Chelsea Harvey of The Washington Post writes:
“The Arctic is suffering so many consequences related to climate change, it’s hard to know where to begin anymore (…) The study highlights the interconnected nature of climate consequences in the Arctic – the way that greenhouse gas emissions, rising temperatures, ice melt and ocean acidification are all linked and help to reinforce one another. And it points to yet another example of a climate effect that’s not just a concern for the future, but is already an issue – and a growing one – today.”
Indeed, Chelsea. Climate change is already changing our lives and our planet. And, of course, what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. The scientists studying ocean acidification and its impacts are also concerned about a feedback effect that will further exacerbate global warming.
When the IPSO report on the state of the oceans was published, I interviewed the organisation’s scientific director Alex Rogers, a professor of conservation biology at the University of Oxford. He told me the oceans were already taking up about a third of the carbon dioxide we are producing. The report said sea water was already 26 percent more acidic than it was before the onset of the Industrial Revolution – and it could be 170 percent more acidic by 2100. In the long run, the ocean will become the biggest sink for human-produced CO2, but it will absorb it at a slower rate.
“Its buffer capacity will decrease, the more acidic the ocean becomes”, Kiel-based scientist Ulf Riebesell told me.
The IPSO report also drew a very unsettling comparison between conditions today and climate change events in the past that have resulted in mass extinctions:
“On a lot of these major extinction events we see the fingerprints of high temperatures and acidification, similar effects to the ones that we are experiencing today”.
Now there is a frightening possibility.
It is not too late to do something about this, although the experts stress the CO2 will remain in the oceans for thousands of years. The scientists tell us the key step would be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also to reduce pollution and other pressures on the ocean ecosystem, which reduce its resilience. High time for the Clean Seas initiative, to reduce ocean pollution from marine litter, especially from plastic, launched this week by the United Nations Environment Programme.
DateMarch 2, 2017 | 10:11 am
Tags#CleanSeas, Arctic, BIOACID, Climate, Delaware, Emissions, ice, IFM-Geomar, mesocosm, Nature Climate Change, north pole, ocean acidification, polar bears, research, Svalbard
Will new climate scientist on board influence Exxon?
Last year I had an interesting guest in the studio here at Deutsche Welle. We talked for a good half hour about climate change and the ocean and the need for the Paris Agreement to be put into action, and whether we can still save the Arctic ice as we have known it in our lifetimes.
Excerpts from the interview were broadcast on Living Planet and published online.
Susan Avery is an atmospheric scientist. She was President and Director of the renowned Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute from 2008 to 2015, and became a member of the scientific advisory board to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in 2013. She was in Bonn for a lecture organized by Björn Müller-Bohlen from the department of strategic partnerships at the Forum of International Academic Sciences in Bonn, to explain to people here how climate change is affecting the ocean.
I was surprised to say the least when I saw that from the beginning of February Dr. Susan K. Avery had been elected to the board of directors of ExxonMobil.
So the former Exxon chief Rex Tillerson has taken the key post of Secretary of State in the Trump administration, climate skeptic Scott Pruitt takes over the EPA, the world worries about the future of the climate and the environment – and a leading climate scientist has joined the “largest publicly traded international oil and gas company and one of the largest refiners and marketers of petroleum products”, as ExxonMobil describes itself. It is also at the centre of a huge controversy over claims that it denied climate change, covering up facts and funding climate skeptic bodies. Interesting times indeed. (The Dawn of the Trumpocene?) What are we to make of it all?
I emailed Dr. Avery to try to arrange another interview to discuss her motivation and expectations. She did respond swiftly, telling me she was “honored to be elected to the Board and look forward to serving in that capacity.” But interview requests are being handled by Exxon.
Reactions to her appointment have been mixed, ranging from those who see this as a mere greenwashing type of move by Exxon, and those who think this represents a gradual shift in thinking in the corporation (pragmatic shift to renewable energies given the problems ahead for fossil fuel companies?) and the optimists who think this could possibly even be a chance for a climate expert to influence the policies of the fossil fuel giant and a sign that the times are ‘a changin’.
From the “horse’s”mouth
I decided to have another look and listen to the interview I recorded with Dr. Avery last year, to remind myself and those who will be watching her actions with interest, of what she stands for when it comes to protecting the climate, the ocean and the Arctic.
She is certainly in no doubt about the human factor in climate change. When I mentioned that we humans had been “interfering” with the climate, she laughed good-naturedly at my under-statement, and went on to elaborate on how we are increasing the temperature of the atmosphere by infusing carbon into it. She clearly named fossil fuels as a cause. So what, I wonder, will she be telling the board of ExxonMobil?
Our subject was the effect of greenhouse gas emissions on the oceans in particular. She stressed that while 25 percent of the carbon dioxide we release goes into the atmosphere, a stunning 93 percent of the extra warming created is in the ocean. I went on to ask her about the impacts:
“The carbon dioxide we’ve put into the atmosphere already and the heating associated with that means that we’re already pre-destined for a certain amount of global temperature increase. Many people say we have already pre-destined at least one and a half degrees, some will say almost two degrees. That’s why it’s really important to address the warming questions. And I was really pleased to see the Paris Agreement finally signed off on.”
Fossil fuel threat to the ocean
With the future of US participation in implementing the Paris Agreement very much up in the air under the Trump administration, one wonders how Avery is going to push the decarbonisation of the economy necessary to keep anywhere near the two degree limit, on the board of one of the world’s biggest oil and petroleum concerns.
She also stressed in her talk with me the huge threat to the food chain posed by ocean acidification, as carbon dioxide emissions change the PH of the ocean.
“Our coral reef systems and a lot of our ecosystems in the ocean are having a battle with warming, and those ecosystems that involve shell production and reproduction, as in our reef systems, are also battling acidification issues. This is really critical, because it attacks a lot of the base of the food chain for a lot of these eco-systems. “
Another of the threats to the ocean and the creatures in it is pollution, and Avery told me her time as head of Woodshole was a time of “many crises in the ocean” – including the Deep Water Horizon oil spill:
“That was a real challenge for us in terms of looking at the technologies we have in a different way, solving a different type of problem, and from these crisis moments we learned a lot about our science and our technology, and how to improve it and go forward.”
Well, here’s hoping that knowledge and Dr. Avery’s expertise here will help the company where she is now on the board.
Kudos for the journos
Another point that came out of our interview was Avery’s firm belief in the key role the media have to play in explaining what is happening to our climate and environment to “ordinary people”.
“It is things like Living Planet and others that really begin to educate people and involve people in understanding their environment and their planet,” she said in the DW studio.
As host and producer of Living Planet together with my colleague Charlotta Lomas, it was good to have that acknowledgement from a leading scientist and adviser to the UN. Avery also mentioned progress in recent decades in raising public awareness of environmental issues, such as pollution or acid rain, thanks not least to media coverage.
Unfortunately that job is not made any easier – especially in the United States – with an administration that tries to gag journalists and, it seems, any organization that does not spread the information the government think should be spread.
Motives and methods
So what motivates someone like Susan Avery to take on a controversial position like board membership on a company whose main business results in harmful changes to the planet which she has been working for years to publicise? Perhaps another snippet from the interview can shed some light, when I asked my guest Avery how she had come to be a member of the board of advisors to Ban Ki Moon (not that I would compare that to joining ExxonMobil).
“I was intrigued by the opportunity to play on a stage level that was very high politically, and making sure that science was interfaced in a number of dimensions, into the policy and decision-making process at that level. The committee itself is a wonderful board in terms of the different disciplines represented, different countries represented, different perspectives we all have on the science and the environment, and on human health issues, that the UN needs to be cognizant of.”
Clearly, this is a woman who likes to be in influential positions – and to bring different camps and expertise together:
“We talked a lot about science, the policy-society interface, the role and engagement of stakeholders, those are governments at all levels, the business community, and conservation.
What about the Arctic?
Of course one of the Iceblogger’s most urgent concerns is what climate change is doing to the polar regions. With record temperatures in the Arctic and record low sea ice cover, I asked Avery to sum up the impacts for our Living Planet listeners. She expressed her concern that “we are beginning to see a very rapid increase in ice loss in the Arctic”. She cited the melting of the big land ice glaciers as a major contributor to sea level rise. She talked of how not only atmospheric temperature but warming ocean waters are degrounding glaciers and melting ice from below:
“That is a major concern for sea level rise, but also because when the land-based ice comes into the ocean, you get a freshening of certain parts of the ocean, so particularly the sub-polar north Atlantic, so you have a potential for interfacing with our normal thermohaline circulation systems and (this) could dramatically change that. Changes in salinity are beginning to be noticed. And changes in salinity are a signal that the water cycle is becoming more vigorous. So all of this is coupled together. What’s in the Arctic is not staying in the Arctic. What’s in the Antarctic is not staying in the Antarctic. I would say the polar regions are regions where we don’t have a lot of time before we see major, massive changes”.
So let us hope Dr. Avery will be able to convince her fellow board-members and the decision makers at ExxonMobil about that – and about what has to happen. Fossil fuel emissions in general have got to go down. And the fragile Arctic in particular is in need of protection. Clearly, she has her work cut out for her.
Is there still time?
Reporting Avery’s appointment to the ExxonMobil board, the news agency AFP quotes her as saying:
“Clearly climate science is telling us (to) get off fossil fuels as much as possible.”
I asked her whether she believed, given that we have already put so much extra CO2 into the atmosphere and the ocean, that there was any way we would be able to reverse what is happening in the Arctic. Her reply – unsurprisingly – was not too reassuring:
“I don’t have an answer, to be honest. I think we’re still learning a lot about the Arctic and its interface with lower latitudes, how that water basically changes circulation systems, and on what scale. (…)We know so little, about the Arctic, the life forms underneath the ice (…) And I think it’s really important, because the Arctic will be a major economic zone. We’ve already seen the North-West Passage through the Arctic waters, we’re going to see migration of certain fisheries around the world, and we don’t even know completely what kind of biological life we have below that ice. We have the ability to get underneath the ice now. I call these the frontiers, of the ocean, and that includes looking under ice. It’s a really exciting time.”
If that excitement can be put into protecting the fragile polar ecosystems rather than taking advantage of our emissions misdeeds to date to use easier access for commercial exploitation, I am all for it.
ExxonMobil remains a primary target of environmentalists. It has been the subject of investigative reports by environmental news nonprofit Inside Climate News and others, saying it “manufactured doubt” about climate science even while contradicted by research by its own climate scientists. The company says the reports are biased, but faces government investigations over the controversy. In January, a Massachusetts court ruled the oil giant must turn over 40 years of documents on climate change, in a win for Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who has described the probe as a fraud investigation. ExxonMobil has countersued against Healey, arguing she lacks jurisdiction in the matter.
As I indicated above, there are environmentalists who were not impressed by the appointment of a climate scientist to the fossil fuel giant’s board. AFP quotes Shanna Cleveland of Ceres, a nonprofit group that works on shareholder actions to pressure companies to address climate change. She called the move a “really good first step, but not much more than that”, and fears Susan Avery could be a “lone vote in the wilderness” on climate change given ExxonMobil’s record on the issue.
The climate advocacy group 350.org dismissed the appointment as “little more than a PR stunt.”
Scientists to the fore
But at a time when some critics say the Trump administration is threatening environmental democracy in the USA, I would prefer to see Dr. Avery’s new position as a move in the right direction, if a tiny one.
With scientists gearing up to march on Washington in the not-too-distant future, we can do with experts who acknowledge, understand and call for action on climate change on every level, in every corner.
Susan Avery described her time on the UN scientific advisory board in her interview with me here in Bonn as as “a fun exercise.” In the current climate, I cannot imagine the same will apply to being the climate advocate on the board of a controversial fossil fuels giant like ExxonMobil.
DateFebruary 8, 2017 | 3:45 pm
TagsArctic, CERES, Climate, Emissions, EPA, Exxon, ExxonMobil, fossil fuel, Inside Climate News, Living Planet, ocean acidification, Oil, Paris Agreement, Susan Avery, Trump, Warming