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“Cheers” to a cool Arctic in 2017

reindeer no snow

As 2016 draws to an end, the shortest day has passed in the northern hemisphere, and it should normally be a “cool” time of the year, in more ways than one, especially in the Arctic. But with temperatures at a record high, sea ice at a record low and feedback loops springing into action, the Arctic is hotting up – and I wish I could say the same for efforts to halt climate change.

Ice expert Jason Box tweeted this morning:

Meteorologist Scott Sutherland writes on Dec. 22nd:

“(…) North Pole temperatures have climbed to 30oC hotter than normal for this time of year.

(…) Now, in late December, in the darkness of the Arctic winter, air temperatures at the North Pole have actually reached the freezing point, as recorded by weather buoys floating within a few degrees of the pole. As of the morning of Thursday, December 22 (3 a.m. EST), the International Arctic Buoy Programme (IABP), operated out of the University of Washington, recorded temperatures from these buoy up to 0oC or slightly higher.”

“(…) Right now, Arctic sea ice extent is at the lowest level ever recorded.”

Arctic in need of tlc?

It looks like the Arctic is urgently in need of some tlc – or maybe intensive care would be more fitting.

The Arctic Report Card for 2016 recently published by NOAA should have set alarm bells ringing. Based on environmental observations throughout the Arctic, it notes a 3.5 degree C increase since the beginning of the 20th century. The Arctic sea ice minimum extent tied with 2007 for the second lowest value in the satellite record – 33 percent lower than the 1981-2010 average. That sea ice is relatively young and thin compared to the past.

The Arctic winter is dark and normally icy! (Pic. I.Quaile, off Svalbard)

The Arctic winter is dark and normally icy! (Pic. I.Quaile, off Svalbard)

A “shrew”d indicator of Arctic warming

Let me quote what are described as the “Highlights”:

“The average surface air temperature for the year ending September 2016 is by far the highest since 1900, and new monthly record highs were recorded for January, February, October and November 2016.

After only modest changes from 2013-2015, minimum sea ice extent at the end of summer 2016 tied with 2007 for the second lowest in the satellite record, which started in 1979.

Spring snow cover extent in the North American Arctic was the lowest in the satellite record, which started in 1967.

In 37 years of Greenland ice sheet observations, only one year had earlier onset of spring melting than 2016.

The Arctic Ocean is especially prone to ocean acidification, due to water temperatures that are colder than those further south. The short Arctic food chain leaves Arctic marine ecosystems vulnerable to ocean acidification events.

Thawing permafrost releases carbon into the atmosphere, whereas greening tundra absorbs atmospheric carbon. Overall, tundra is presently releasing net carbon into the atmosphere.

Small Arctic mammals, such as shrews, and their parasites, serve as indicators for present and historical environmental variability. Newly acquired parasites indicate northward shifts of sub-Arctic species and increases in Arctic biodiversity. “

Arctic foxes face increasing competition from southern relatives (I.Quaile, Greenland)

Arctic foxes face increasing competition from southern relatives (I.Quaile, Greenland)

Getting the message across

The NOAA website sums it up in a video, saying:

“…Rapid and unprecedented rates of change mean that the Arctic  today is home to and a cause for a global suite of trillion dollar impacts ranging from global trade, increased or impeded access to land and ocean resources, changing ecosystems and fisheries, upheaval in subsistence resources, damaged infrastructure due to fragile coastlines, permafrost melt and sea level rise, and national security concerns.

In summary, new observations indicate that the entire, interconnected Arctic environmental system is continuing to be influenced by long-term upward trends in global carbon dioxide and air temperatures, modulated by regional and seasonal variability.”

Margaret Williams, the managing director for WWF’s US Arctic programme had this to say:

“We are witnessing changes in the Arctic that will impact generations to come. Warmer temperatures and dwindling sea ice not only threaten the future of Arctic wildlife, but also its local cultures and communities. These changes are impacting our entire planet, causing weather patterns to shift and sea levels to rise. Americans from California to Virginia will come to realize the Arctic’s importance in their daily lives.

“The science cannot be clearer. The Arctic is dramatically changing and the culprit is our growing carbon emissions. The report card is a red flashing light, and now the way forward is to turn away from fossil fuels and embrace clean energy solutions. Protecting the future of the top of the world requires us to reduce emissions all around it.”

Cold polar water absorbs CO2 faster and becomes more acidic. (I Quaile

Dwindling ice (I Quaile, Svalbard)

Sack the teacher, kill the messenger?

That was her response to the Arctic Report Card. In my school days, the report card was a business to be taken seriously. A bad report meant you were in trouble and would have to smarten up your act or you would be in big trouble with mum and dad.

The question is – who gets the report, and who has to smarten up their act?

This one should make the governments of this world speed up action on mitigating climate change and getting ready for the impacts we will not be able to halt.

Then again, they could just try to get rid of the messengers who come up with the bad news. If your kid’s report card is bad, do you try to improve his performance – or get rid of the teacher who came up with the negative assessment – based on collected data?

I am concerned that the administration in the wings of the US political stage could be more likely to do the latter. As I wrote in the last Ice Blog post, the new Trump administration is threatening to cut funding for climate research. The proposed new Cabinet is well stocked with climate skeptics.

Concern about research

Financial support for the Arctic Report Card is provided by the Arctic Research Program in the NOAA Climate Program Office. Its preparation was  directed by a “US inter-agency editorial team of representatives from the NOAA Pacific marine Environmental Laboratory, NOAA Arctic Resarch Program and the US Army Corps of Engineers, Cold Regions Research and Engineering laboratory.

Yereth Rosen, writing for Alaska Dispatch News, quotes Jeremy Mathis, the director of NOAA’S Arctic research program and one of the editors of the report card.

“The report card this year clearly shows a stronger and more pronounced signal of persistent warming than in any previous year in our observational record”.

“We hope going into the future that our scientists and researchers still have the opportunity to contribute and make possible the summary that we’re able to present. So we have every intention of continuing to publish the Arctic Report Card as we have in the past and pulling together the resources and the right people that allow us to do that”.

The Report Card needs a wide range of data (Pic. I.Quaile, Alaska)

The Report Card needs a wide range of data (Pic. I.Quaile, Alaska)

Livid and acrimonious

The debate over President Obama’s announcement that he was making a vast area of the Arctic Ocean off-limits to drilling for oil or gas, shows the dilemma of our times – and .. which could influence the living conditions on our planet for generations to come.

Erica Martinson, writing for the Alaska Dispatch News, provides interesting insights into the debate for those of us who do not live in Alaska.

She quotes Alaska’s Republican Congressman Don Young, saying he used “livid language” in his response. Obama’s move means “locking away our resources and wuffocating our already weakened economy”.  He goes on “Alaska is not and shuld not be used as the poster child for a pandering environmental agenda”.

Ooh. Livid indeed.

She also quotes Republican Senator Dan Sullivan  as describing the move as “one final Christmas gift to coastal environmental elites”.  So would those be the indigenous communities being forced to relocate because climate changes are destroying their homes, Senator?

The administration, on the other hand, says it is protecting the region from the risk of a catastrophic oil spill, Martinson writes.

It seems to me that Obama’s parting gift goes rather to the “Alaska Native communities of the North Slope” who “depend largely on the natural environment, especially the marine environment, for food and materials”, and to the many endangered and protected species in the area, “including bowhead and fin whales, Pacific walrus, polar bear and others”.

Inupiat guide and bear guard on the sea ice at Barrow. (Pic: I.Quaile)

Inupiat guide and bear guard on the sea ice at Barrow. (Pic: I.Quaile)

What about the Paris Agreement?

But as well as that regional aspect, the decision not to open up new regions to drilling for oil and gas is in line with the global need to cut fossil fuel emissions to halt the warming of the world.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, CEO of “Defenders of Widife”, puts it:

“It marks the important recognition that we cannot achieve the nation’s climate-change goals if we continue to expand oil and gas development into new, protine environments like the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans”.

This is not just about Alaska, not just about the Arctic, but the future of the planet as a whole.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says 2016 is on track to be the hottest year on record. According to UN estimates, the global temperature in 2016 was 14.88 degrees C – 1.2 degrees higher than before the industrial revolution began in the mid-19th century.

In an article for the New York Times on December 22, Henry Fountain and John Schwartz quote NOAA’s Arctic Research Program director Jeremy Mathis.

“Warming effects in the Arctic have had a cascading effect through the environment”   “We need people to know and understand that the Arctic is going to have an impact on their lives no matter where they live”. That includes the oil-industry-friendly and climate skeptical team that is set to enter the White House in the New Year,

Cheers! (Pic. I.Quaile)

Ice-cooled drinks. Cheers! (Pic. I.Quaile)

So when I propose a toast to a cool Arctic in 2017, I am not just thinking of my friends in the high north. For all our sakes, we have to kick our fossil fuel habits, save energy and cut the emissions which keep the giant refrigerator that helps make our world a viable place to live well chilled.

Date

December 23, 2016 | 2:58 pm

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Arctic Sea Ice: going, going, gone?

 

Ice, Svalbard

Melting sea ice off  Svalbard (I.Quaile)

July 15th is Arctic Sea Ice Day. You might be forgiven for not realizing that. Every day is the day of something (usually more than just one), the initiator, Polar Bears International, is popular, but maybe not yet a household name, and the world is in turmoil, with terrorist attacks, refugees, Brexit and no shortage of other topics dominating the news agenda.

Still, the Arctic sea ice deserves all the attention it can get.

Another record low

The latest data released by the US-based National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) for the month of June shows the Arctic sea ice reached yet another record low, the lowest extent for June ever measured since satellite records began in 1979.  So far this year, every month except March has seen a record low in the extent of the Arctic sea ice.

Alaska is experiencing a massive heatwave after an amazingly warm first half of the year.

An article on RCI’s Eye on the Arctic says the sea ice melt seems to be attributable to unusual weather patterns over the Arctic. It seems the temperature reached an incredible 29.2 degrees in Kugluktuk, Nunavut on June 5th, 27 on July 6th. Normally, the article tells us, the temperature in western Nunavut varies between 8 and 15 degrees. It is not hard to imagine how this is making the sea ice ooze away. The reflective white ice is replaced by dark ocean, which absorbs even more heat, exacerbating the warming further.

Warmer water, melting ice, warmer water...melting ice (I.Quaile, Alaska)

“Pancake ice”  (I.Quaile, Alaska)

Ice, sea, sky on Living Planet

That is just one of the issues I talked about in my interview with UN science and oceans advisor Susan Avery, which featured in the last Iceblog post. The interview is broadcast in full (well not quite full, but at length), in the latest edition of DW’s Living Planet programme: Ice, Sea and Sky, which I hosted in our Bonn studio. Avery talks about how climate change affects the ocean in general, as well as focusing in particular on what is happening in the Arctic.

“I would say the polar regions are regions where we don’t have a lot of time before we see major, massive changes, where we really need to get our observations and science and models working together”, Avery told me.

Message from Iqaluit

Actually, major, massive changes seem to be already there. Marking Arctic Sea Ice Day, the Living Planet program includes a story by Canadian reporter Elyse Skura, based at Iqaluit, in the northern territory of Nunavut. She talks to local Inuit people about how climate change is affecting their daily lives, and especially traditional livelihoods like hunting and fishing. Hearing the voices of people there talking about the changes in the sea ice and the extent to which their traditional livelihoods are inter-connected with nature, with the environment, land, ocean, ice, atmosphere, I was reminded of my own encounter with the Inupiat people in Barrow, Alaska, back in 2008. The observations are similar. The only difference seems to be that the ice is melting even faster as the Arctic warms more rapidly.

Inupiat guide and bear guard on the sea ice at Barrow. (Pic: I.Quaile)

Inupiat guide and bear guard on the sea ice at Barrow. (Pic: I.Quaile)

The story ends on a kind of optimistic note, suggesting that the Inuit have always been able to adapt to changing environments. Ultimately, people have no choice but to adapt to a climate that is already changing. Susan Avery told me the extra heat produced by our CO2 emissions ends up mostly in the ocean. 93 percent was the figure she quoted. And she explained how it does not stay at the surface, where it will likely hang around for 40 or 50 years, but is also pumped down to the depths in the course of circulation patterns. And there, she says, it will stay for centuries. It is frightening to think that some scientists believe this means we are already committed to a temperature rise of up to two degrees Celsius.

“No job for an optimist”

I remember discussing the issues of “mitigation and adaptation” in detail in connection with climate change – in an interview with the “new” head of the UNFCCC, the climate secretariat, Yvo de Boer, in 2006. I have always been worried that adaptation could mean abandoning the need to mitigate, to change our behavior and lifestyles and shift to a low-carbon (and ultimately zero-carbon) economy. De Boer convinced me then that adaptation was essential, with climate impacts already visible and tangible. He stressed it was not a case of either-or, but of doing both. How right he was.

But of course he resigned in frustration after the disastrous Copenhagen conference. “No job for an optimist” was the title I gave my commentary at that time.

(Looking back at that, it’s interesting to see how web design has changed since then!)

Svalbard reindeer are said to be experts at adaptation.  (I.Quaile )2010)

Svalbard reindeer are said to be experts at adaptation. (I.Quaile )2010)

When the abnormal becomes the norm

So, back to the Arctic Sea Ice, this July 15. A group of scientists studying Arctic systems met in Washington D.C. earlier in the week at an event in the National Press Club sponsored by SEARCH (the Study of Environmental Arctic Change).

Chris Mooney reports on it in The Washington Post, under the title ‘The extraordinary years have become the normal years’. This is something I also hear repeatedly from experts I interview on extreme weather events and similar occurrences.

Mooney quotes Marco Tedesco from Columbia University, a Greenland scientist:

“I see the situation as a train going downhill. And the feedback mechanisms in the Arctic are the slope of your hill. And it gets harder and harder to stop it.”

NASA scientist Walt Meier, who studies Arctic sea ice in particular, is quoted as saying we have lost about twice the size of Alaska in terms of area. He also notes we’ve lost about 50 percent of the thickness. The particularly alarming thing is that all this is happening faster than “even the most aggressive climate models”, says Meier.

Mooney also mentions a 2014 study indicating that in the past three decades, the loss of Arctic sea ice has added 25 percent to the warming caused by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A stunning figure! That indicates the extent of the feedback effects coming out of the high North – which should really make us sit up, pay attention and then get moving on cutting greenhouse gas emissions this ArcticSeaIceDay.

Date

July 15, 2016 | 12:07 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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Record permafrost erosion in Alaska bodes ill for Arctic infrastructure

 

Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the USA

At Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the USA, a whole village was lost to erosion (Pic: I.Quaile)

Sitting in my office on the banks of the river Rhine, I am trying to imagine what would happen if the fast-flowing river was eating into the river bank at an average rate of 19 metres per year. It would not belong before our broadcasting headquarters, the UN campus tower and the multi-story Posttower building collapsed, with devastating consequences.

Fortunately, Bonn is not built on permafrost, so we don’t have that particular concern.

Record erosion on riverbank

The record erosion German scientists have been measuring in Alaska probably hasn’t been making the headlines because it is happening in a very sparsely populated area, where no homes or important structures are endangered.

Nevertheless, it certainly provides plenty of food for thought, says permafrost scientist Jens Strauss from the Potsdam-based research unit of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI). He and an international team have measured riverbank, erosion rates which exceed all previous records along the Itkillik River in northern Alaska. In a study published in the journal Geomorphology, the researchers report that the river is eating into the bank at 19 metres per year in a stretch of land where the ground contains a particularly large quantity of ice.

“These results demonstrate that permafrost thawing is not exclusively a slow process, but that its consequences can be felt immediately”, says Strauss.

With colleagues from the USA, Canada and Russia, he investigated the river at a point where it cuts through a plateau, where the sub-surface consists to 80 percent of pure ice and to 20 percent of frozen sediment. In the past, the ground ice, which is between 13,000 and 50,000 years old, stabilized the riverbank zone. The scientists, who have been observing the location for several years, demonstrated that the stabilization mechanisms fail if two factors coincide. That happens when the river carries flowing water over an extended period, and where the riverbank consists of steep cliff, which has a front facing south, and is thus exposed to a lot of direct sunlight.

Visit to the site of a lost Inupiat village at Point Barrow, 2008 (Pic.: I.Quaile)

Visit to the site of a lost Inupiat village at Point Barrow, 2008 (Pic.: I.Quaile)

Minus 12C average no safeguard

The warmer water thaws the permafrost and transports the falling material away, and in spite of a mean annual temperature of minus twelve degrees Celsius, summer sunlight makes it warm enough to send lumps of ice and mud flowing down the slope, according to Michail Kanevskixy from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, lead author of the study.

Overall, between 2007 and 2011, the cliff – which is 700 metres long and 35 metres high – retreated up to 100 metres, resulting in the loss of 31,000 square metres of land area. That is a large area, around 4.3 football fields, the scientists calculate.

In August 2007, they also witnessed how fissures formed within a few days, up to 100 metres long and 13 metres deep.

“Such failures follow a defined pattern”, says Jens Strauss. “First, the river begins to thaw the cliff and scours an overhang at the base. From here, fissures form in the soil following the large ice columns. The block then disconnects from the cliff, piece by piece, and collapses”.

Infrastructure under threat

Although these spectacular events happened far from populated areas and infrastructure, the magnitude of the erosion gives cause for much concern, given the rate at which temperatures are increasing in the Arctic. The scientists want their information to be used in the planning of new settlements, power routes and transport links. They also stress that the erosion impairs water quality on the rivers, which are often used for drinking water.

But what about those areas of the High North where there are settlements and key infrastructure? Russia is starting to get very worried about the effects of increasing permafrost erosion.

Last month the country’s Minister of Natural Resources, Sergey Donsjkoy, expressed grave concern. The Independent Barents Observer quoted the Minister as saying, in an interview with RIA Novosti, he feared the thawing permafrost would undermine the stability of Arctic infrastructure and increase the likelihood of dangerous phenomena like sinkholes. Russia has important oil and gas installations in Arctic regions. Clearly, any damage would have considerable economic implications. There are also whole cities built on permafrost in the Russian north.

System to cool the foundations of a building in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland

System to cool the foundations of a building on permafrost in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland (pic: I.Quaile)

High time to adapt

In 2014, I interviewed Hugues Lantuit, a coastal permafrost geomorphologist with the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, about an integrated database on permafrost temperature being set up as an EU project. He told me it would be very hard to halt this permafrost thaw, and stressed that permafrost underlies 44 percent of the land part of the northern hemisphere.

“The air temperature is warming in the Arctic, and we need to build and adapt infrastructure to these changing conditions. It’s very hard, because permafrost is frozen ground. It contains ice, and sometimes this ice is not distributed evenly under the surface. It’s very hard to predict where it’s going to be, and thus where the impact will be as the permafrost warms and thaws”.

I remember being shocked to see that people in Greenland were having to use refrigeration to keep the foundations of their buildings on permafrost stable. The scale of the problem is clearly much greater in cities like Yakutsk.

Then, of course comes the feedback problem, when thawing permafrost releases the organic carbon stored within it. Let me give the last word to Hugues Lantuit:

“This is a major issue, because it contains a lot of what we call organic carbon, and that is stored in the upper part of permafrost. And if that warms, the carbon is made available to microorganisms that convert it back to carbon dioxide and methane. And we estimate right now that there is twice as much organic carbon in permafrost as there is in the atmosphere. So you can see the scale of the potential impact of warming in the Arctic.”

 

Date

January 29, 2016 | 3:52 pm

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