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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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New report sees Arctic melt on course to tip global climate

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

Svalbard has seen unprecedented high temperatures this winter (I.Quaile)

Scientists say the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard has seen such extreme warmth this year that the average annual temperature could end up above freezing for the first time on record. Ketil Isaksen of the Norwegian Meterological Institute said today the average temperature in Longyearbyen, the main settlement in Svalbard, is expected to be around 0 Celsius with a little over a month left of the year. He called the abnormal warmth “shocking” and beyond anything he could have imagined 10 years ago. The normal yearly average is minus 6.7 C.

And that is not the only shocking thing going on up north. The Arctic sea ice is melting in November. Temperatures in the region are 20 degrees Celsius above usual. Reindeer are dying across Siberia. Polar bears are stranded on land. It’s hard to keep up with the extent and speed of climate change in the far north of the planet. And we in the media have to be aware of the danger that the reports become so commonplace the “new normal” no longer arouses interest.

Svalbard's sturdy reindeer are adapting to climate change. In Siberia, thousands of animals have died of starvation. (Pic: I.Quaile)

Svalbard’s sturdy reindeer are adapting to climate change. In Siberia, thousands of animals have died of starvation. (Pic: I.Quaile)

Warming, warming, hot

Yet the ever faster melting of our Arctic ice could spell disaster even for distant regions of the planet. What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic, as discussed here on the Ice Blog many times before. But a new, key report launched today indicates that the effects of increasingly rapid Arctic warming could be set to push global climate change out of control.

The Arctic Resilience Assessment (ARA) is an Arctic Council project led by the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Stockholm Resilience Centre. It is based on collaboration with Arctic countries and Indigenous Peoples in the region, as well as several Arctic scientific organizations. The ARA (previously Arctic Resilience Report) was initiated by the Swedish Ministry of the Environment as a priority for the Swedish Chairmanship of the Arctic Council (May 2011 to May 2013) and is being presented under the US Chairmanship. It aims to synthesize knowledge on Arctic change and how people and the ecosystem are coping with it, bringing the wide range of different factors together.

“Environmental, ecological, and social changes are happening faster than ever in the Arctic, and are accelerating. They are also more extreme, well beyond what has been seen before. This means the integrity of Arctic ecosystems is increasingly challenged, threatening the sustainability of current ways of life in the Arctic and disruption of global climate and ecosystems”, the report says.

Where's my ice? (I.Quaile, Greenland)

Where’s my ice? (I.Quaile, Greenland)

Beyond the tipping point

The researchers issue a stark warning: “Some changes are so substantial (and often abrupt), that they fundamentally alter the functioning of the system: an ecological “tipping point” has been crossed. The report examines 19 of these “tipping points” or “regime shifts”, as they are also known: “They affect many ecosystem services that are important to people within and outside the Arctic: from regulating the climate, to providing sustenance (e.g. through fishing)”, the experts tell us.

“The consequences of some of these shifts are likely to be surprising and disruptive – particularly when multiple shifts occur at once. By altering existing patterns of evaporation, heat transfer and winds, the impacts of Arctic regime shifts are likely to be transmitted to neighbouring regions such as Europe, and impact the entire globe through physical, ecological and social connections”, the report says.

The tipping points discussed in the report include the replacement of white ice and snow, which reflect heat back into space, by darker green vegetation or ocean water, which absorbs more heat, higher releases of methane and changes to ocean circulation and so weather patterns around the globe caused by an influx of melting snow and ice.

Switching to renewables is more urgent than ever. (Pic: in oil-state Abu Dhabi. I.Quaile)

Switching to renewables is more urgent than ever. (Pic: in oil-state Abu Dhabi. I.Quaile)

Major impacts inevitable?

Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and co-chair of the five-year study said in a statement: “If multiple regime shifts reinforce each other, the results could be potentially catastrophic.… The variety of effects that we could see means that Arctic people and policies must prepare for surprise. We also expect that some of those changes will destabilize the regional and global climate, with potentially major impacts”.

The report stresses that many of the changes and feedback effects in process are poorly understood and in need of much more research.

“Arctic ecological protection is now a global concern, and worldwide monitoring is inadequate”, the authors write.

Political “regime shift”?

To reduce the risk of these tipping points, strong action would have to be taken to mitigate climate change, the authors conclude. Aha. Now there’s the rub.

In the Guardian, Fiona Harvey notes the report comes at a critical time in politics, with Donald Trump’s announcement this week that he plans to take away NASA’s budget for climate science and put it into space exploration. She quotes Marcus Carson of the SEI, co-editor of the report:

“That would be a huge mistake…It would be like ripping out the aeroplane’s cockpit instruments while you are in mid-flight”.

If Mr. Trump also makes good his pledge to revive the US coal industry and abandon the Paris Climate Agreement, the chances of halting warming and the climate feedback mechanisms which could spell disaster would seem to be melting away along with that Arctic ice. Not so tasty food for thought this weekend. Well, I could distract myself by getting out the lawnmower. It has been so warm here this week the birds are chirping like spring and the grass has started to grow again.

 

 

 

 

Date

November 25, 2016 | 2:55 pm

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China, USA climate pledge – all talk, no action?

Chinese Arctic Station in Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen

Arctic interest: China maintains a research station in Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen (Pic: I.Quaile)

In a blog post earlier this year, I mused on the danger of everybody sitting back saying, “Yes, we did”, while the planet continues to break all temperature records and fossil fuel emissions continue to rise, now that all the hype surrounding the Paris Climate Agreement in December has worn off. Back to business as usual?

It’s now September and China and the USA have made the headlines telling us they are ratifying the agreements. Of course nine months (since Paris) are tiny grains of sand in the giant egg-timer of planetary evolution. (Have those egg-timers themselves been consigned to the museum in our digital 21st century? Not important). But then again, we humans have “hotted up” the pace at which our climate, planet, atmosphere, ocean are changing dramatically.

Fireworks display or starting gun?

So how do I feel about the US-Chinese announcement? I wish I could say this makes me rejoice. Sure it’s a step in the right direction. And without action by these two top climate abusers, everybody else’s efforts would basically be worthless.

Polar bears only in the museum? (Pic. I.Quaile)

Polar bears only in the museum? (Pic. I.Quaile)

The agreement must be ratified by 55 parties representing 55 percent of total global emissions to enter into force. We are now at something like 25 parties and 40 percent of emissions, which gives ground for hope the agreement could enter into force by the end of the year.

But the proof, of the pudding lies, as always, in the eating.

The drivers of change

I have been convinced for some time that crippling air pollution will drive China to move away from fossil fuels.

I think back on an interview I recorded with Chinese expert Lina Li from the Adelphi thinktank in Berlin, when she told me she thought China’s air pollution problem would speed up the country’s ratification and implementation of the Paris Agreement. You were right, Lina!

Lina Li from the Adelphi think-tank told me pollution concerns could speed up China's climate action (Pic. I.Quaile)

Lina Li from the Adelphi think-tank told me pollution concerns could speed up China’s climate action (Pic. I.Quaile)

As far as the USA is concerned, the outcome of the forthcoming election is clearly the key factor in determining how fast – or even whether – that country will move forward.

At the same time 2016 is on track to be the hottest year ever recorded. Even the “ice island” of Greenland has seen record temperatures and alarming melting.

Doom and gloom?

Working on my Living Planet show for this week, I have been listening through reports on the Kuna people off the coast of Panama losing their island home to the waves, and how people in northwestern Kenya are starving because of changed rain patterns.

Forest fires, communities getting ready to “abandon home”, more extreme storms and flooding – these are all becoming so commonplace they are threatening to lose “news value”.

The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is still climbing steadily. The global temperature is already one degree Celsius higher than it was at the onset of industrialization. That means very rapid action is needed to keep it to the agreed target of limiting warming to two degrees and preferably keeping it below 1.5 degrees.

A long, long way to go

Yes, the Paris Agreement was hailed widely as a breakthrough, with all parties finally accepting the need to combat climate change by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. But so far, the emissions reductions pledged would still take the world closer to a three-degree rise in temperature.

Earlier this year, the International Energy Agency (IEA), issued a warning that governments can only reach their climate goals if they drastically accelerate climate action and make full use of existing technologies and policies. I wish I could say I could see this happening fast.

In my programme this week, I also have an interview my colleague Sonya Diehn conducted with Luke Sussams, from the UK-based think tank “Climate Tracker Initiative”. That is the group that came up with the term “stranded assets” which, in turn, inspired the Divestment movement.

He explains how it makes sound economic sense to shift investment out of coal and oil and into renewables. He thinks the clear advantages – less pollution, no greenhouse gas emissions, lower costs – are the best arguments to convince developing countries to “leapfrog” the fossil fuels stage and get into green energy – and into decentralized, off-grid solutions in a big way.

The shift from fossil fuels to renewables is not happening fast enough

Fossil fuels catching up with renewables in oil-state Abu Dhabi? (Pic. I.Quaile)

It’s the economy, stupid?

It seems those economic arguments are what we need. He cites the case of Rockefeller divesting from EXXON only after years of trying to convince them to change their policy on climate change. First, he argues, we should try to change things from within. If that fails, divestment may be the next option.

At the risk of seeming cynical, I have long believed that money is the key to saving the climate. The transition to a low-carbon economy is underway, but it will only succeed when governments and companies – and ultimately also consumers – realize it benefits their coffers and their pockets.

The technology is there. I am very doubtful about whether we will manage to get emissions to peak in time for us to keep to the 1.5 degree target which scientists have me convinced is what we need to do.

It seems we will need to move on to take some of the carbon out of the atmosphere using technologies now being tested – but no way ripe enough for mass implementation. I remember a Guardian interview with IPCC chief scientist Hoesung Lee a couple of months ago. He says we can still keep to the two-degree target, even if emissions do not peak by 2020, as ex- UN climate chief Christina Figueres maintained.

But he warned the costs could be “phenomenal”. He believes expensive and controversial geoengineering methods may be necessary to withdraw CO2 from the atmosphere and store it.

Meanwhile, that giant cruise-ship, the Crystal Serenity, is half-way through its controversial trip via the Northwest Passage. The operator says the trip is so successful and interest is so high they will do it again next year. They are unlikely to be foiled by a sudden onset of global cooling.

In scientific circles, the alarm bells are ringing over rising emissions from melting Arctic permafrost.

Did somebody say something about feedback loops and tipping points? Or do we just carry on regardless?

 

Date

September 5, 2016 | 1:27 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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Can Paris avert climate threat to cryosphere?

 

Meltpool on the Greenland ice sheet (Pic: I.Quaile)

Meltpool on the Greenland ice sheet (Pic: I.Quaile)

To those of us who work on polar subjects, there is no question about the relevance of the cryosphere to the annual UN climate negotiations. But in the run-up to the annual mega-event – especially in a year dubbed by some to be the “last chance” for climate – it was not easy to get attention for the Arctic, Antarctic and high-altitude peaks and glaciers of the world.

I had a discussion with some of my colleagues who focus on Africa and Asia. With problems like political unrest, wars, famine and drought to cope with, the fate of polar bears, one told me, is completely irrelevant.

You could say this colleague is suffering from a kind of tunnel vision. But it also prompts me to wonder whether the way we communicate the threat of climate change is partly to blame.

Not just polar bears

Earlier this week I read about a study indicating that people were more likely to donate to campaigns which focus on people, on social injustice rather than on conservation and environmental degradation. Somehow, we journalists have to make the connection between the two. When you remind people that increasing sea levels caused to a large extent by changes in our ice sheets pose a huge threat not only to small island states but to many of the world’s megacities, the cryosphere takes on a new relevance. Not to mention the fact that the ice, snow and permafrost covered regions of our planet play a major role in regulating the world’s climate and water supplies.

What life goes on beneath the Svalbard sea ice? (Pic I.Quaile)

Ice off Svalbard  (Pic I.Quaile)

One organization that works to bring the attention of delegates at the UN climate talks to our icy regions is the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, ICCI. In time for this year’s COP21, it commissioned a report from leading scientists: “Thresholds and closing windows. Risks of irreversible cryosphere climate change”. The report summarizes the levels of risk in five key areas: ice sheets loss and related sea-level rise, polar ocean acidification, land glacier loss, permafrost melt, and the loss of Arctic summer sea ice. The report is based on the last IPCC assessment plus literature published in the three years since.

Bringing the ice closer

Pam Pearson is the director and founder of ICCI. I have interviewed her on various occasions, including during visits she made to Bonn, the home of the UNFCCC, to brief delegates. This time we were not able to meet in person, but we have been in Email contact. I asked her how difficult it was to arouse interest within the negotiations at the moment, with so much going on. She told me it was difficult mainly because very few people globally actually live near cryosphere.

“Yet we are all deeply connected to these regions, because of their role in the Earth climate system — especially through sea-level rise, water resources from land glaciers, and permafrost release that will make it harder to meet carbon budgets. “

The Arctic, parts of Antarctica and many mountain regions have already warmed two to three times faster than the rest of the planet, between 2 and 3.5 degrees Celsius up on pre-industrial levels. Climate change is also affecting high altitude areas such as the Himalayas and the Andes, where seasonal glacier melt provides water for drinking and irrigation, especially in dry periods.

When the outside risk becomes the norm

The changes are far more extreme than those forecast in even the most pessimistic scenarios of a few years ago.  In the IPCC’s 2007 Fourth Assessment, the outer extreme estimate for sea level rise (mostly from glacier ice melt) was about one meter by the end of this century.  Today, the experts say even if we could halt warming now, it would be impossible to avoid sea-level rise of one meter from glaciers, ice sheets and the natural expansion of warming waters, within the next two hundred years. Most scientists also agree that the West Antarctic ice sheet has already been destabilized by warming to the extent where this probably cannot be halted, which will increase sea level further.

Pam Pearson, Director of ICCI. (Pic: I.Quaile)

Pam Pearson, Director of ICCI. (Pic: I.Quaile)

Pearson used to be a climate negotiator herself, so she knows the pressures and constraints. She told me that while participants in the climate conferences were broadly aware of issues like ice melt at the poles and on high-altitude glaciers, they tended to lack awareness of two key aspects:

“First, that we have already passed, or are close to passing temperature levels that will cause certain processes to begin; and second, that some of these processes cannot be stopped once they get started.”

She says a “sense of urgency” is lacking, and stresses that although some of the most damaging consequences will only occur in hundreds or even thousands of years, they will be determined by our actions or inactions in the coming few decades. That includes the 2020-30 commitment period that is the focus of the agreement being worked on in Paris Pearson stresses.

The cryosphere needs more ambitious targets

The report analyses the implications of the INDCs, or current pledges put on the table by the countries of the world for the Paris climate talks. The scientists come to the conclusion that these will not be enough to prevent the onset of many irreversible cryosphere processes.

Even the two-degree pathway agreed by the international community translates into a peak cryosphere temperature of between 4 and 7 degrees above pre-industrial levels, according to the ice experts. Yet the UN and others say current commitments would lead to global temperatures 2.7 to 3.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100, rising later to between 3.4 and 4.2 degrees. The peak in global carbon emissions would occur well after 2050. The associated temperatures would trigger permanent changes in our ice and snow that cannot be reversed, including the complete loss of most mountain glaciers, the complete loss of portions of West Antarctica’s Ice Sheets and parts of Greenland. This would ultimately equate to an unstoppable sea level rise of a minimum four to ten meters, the scientists find.

Greenland's glaciers are all ready discharging huge amounts of ice into the ocean (I.Quaile)

Greenland’s glaciers are already discharging huge amounts of ice into the ocean (I.Quaile)

In addition, the increase of CO2 being absorbed in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica and the Arctic Ocean is turning the water more acidic and so threatening fisheries, marine ecosystems and species.

Another of the key issues which is often neglected is that of permafrost. About a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere’s land area contains ground that remains frozen throughout the year. This holds vast amounts of ancient organic carbon. So when it thaws, carbon dioxide and methane are released, which fuel further warming. Even a temperature rise of 1.5 degrees could result in a 30% loss of near-surface permafrost. This would mean 50 Gigatonnes of additional carbon emissions by 2100. Given that the total carbon budget allocated to a two-degree temperature rise is only 275 Gigatonnes, that would be a huge factor. The ICCI experts say this thaw would not be reversible, except on geological time scales.

Dwindling Arctic sea ice

Arctic summer sea ice has declined rapidly, especially since 2000. Only about half the sea ice survives the summer today compared to 1950. This is “both a result and a cause of overall Arctic and global warming”, according to the ICCI report. White ice reflects heat into space. When it melts, it is replaced by dark water, which absorbs the heat, exacerbating warming further.

The Arctic sea ice has a tempering effect on global temperatures and weather patterns. It would only be possible to reverse the disappearance of the ice in summer with a return to regular global temperatures of 1 to 2 degrees above pre-industrial times, according to the report.

Andes and Himalayas

Receding mountain glaciers in the European Alps, American Rockies, Andes and East Africa were among the first identified, visible impacts of climate change, originally from natural factors. Sometime in the past 50 years, anthropogenic climate change surpassed natural warming as the main driver of retreat, and caused about two-thirds of glacier melt between 1991 and 2010, according to the ICCI report.

Glaciers - beautiful but highly endangered, like this one I visited in the Swiss alps. (Pic. I.Quaile)

Glaciers – beautiful but highly endangered, like this one I visit regularly  in the Swiss alps. (Pic. I.Quaile)

Glaciers are important to nearby communities as a source of water for drinking or irrigation. Some are especially important in dry seasons, heat waves and droughts. Melting glaciers provide an increase in water for a limited time. But ultimately, the lack of water could make traditional agriculture impossible in some regions of the Himalayas or the Andes.

So unless governments in Paris move fast to increase their commitments and bring the deadlines for emissions reductions forward, the windows to prevent some of these irreversible impacts on the polar and high mountain regions may close during the 2020-2030 commitment period.

It is not too late

However, the scientists stress that it is still possible to reduce emissions to the required level, if the political will becomes strong enough. Pam Pearson says the world has to get onto the path towards the two-degree goal now. Like many experts, she says this in itself is risky enough for the cryosphere, and a 1.5 degree pathway would be safer:

“So if countries indeed agree with UNFCCC chief Christiana Figueres’ proposal to meet every five years to strengthen INDCs, moving onto these lower-temperature pathways should be a concrete goal.  Perhaps even more important, I understand the French COP presidency may be aiming at strengthening actions PRIOR to 2020, in the 2015-2020 period. This kind of earlier action is really vital, and will make the job of keeping temperatures as low as possible easier”
Without much more ambitious targets, the ICCI study concludes it will be “close to impossible” to avoid rapid deterioration of our snow and ice regions.

The challenge is to make the delegates in Paris understand that that does not just mean cosmetic changes to distant parts of the globe, but that it would also destabilize the global climate, displace millions of people and endanger food and water supplies in many parts of the world.

 

 

 

 

Date

December 1, 2015 | 3:00 pm

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