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Arctic sea ice: is the minimum maximum the new normal?

Even the winter sea ice is waning (Off Svalbard, pic. I.Quaile)

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.

Sea ice going, going, gone? (Photo: I Quaile, off Svalbard)

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.

Data from satellites is key. Reception centre at KSAT in Tromso, Norway, Pic. I Quaile)

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.

NOAA (climate.gov, “science & information for a climate-smart nation”!) said in its statement:

“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.

Sled dog – out of work? (I.Quaile, Greenland)

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.

My kind of sea ice – frozen Chukchi Sea (Pic: I.Quaile)

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.

Professor Latif on a visit to Bonn. (Pic. I.Quaile)

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”.

 

Date

March 24, 2017 | 2:31 pm

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Arctic Council: business as usual with USA under Trump?

Dwindling sea ice (Pic: I.Quaile)

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.”

Polar exploration – close to the Arctic Council secretariat in Tromsö, Norway (Pic. I.Quaile)

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.”

Frozen waves at Barrow, Alaska. (Pic: I.Quaile)

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.

Methane bubbles escape from melting permafrost lake in Alaska (Pic. I.Quaile)

Long-term strategy

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.”

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

Science first

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.

Date

March 14, 2017 | 10:44 am

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Climate change is causing rapid, deeper and more extensive acidification in the Arctic Ocean

Scientists measure ocean acidification off the coast of Svalbard. (I.Quaile)

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.

Arctic residents like shrimps like cooler water – and need calcium to form their shells. (Pic: I.Quaile, Svalbard, on board Helmer Hanssen research vessel)

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.

The icy waters of the Arctic are particularly susceptible to acidification (I.Quaile)

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.”

These mesocosms are used to research the effects of acidification on ocean-dwellers. (I.Quaile)

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.

Ulf Riebesell supervising the deployment of mesocosms off Svalbard. (Pic. I.Quaile)

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.

 

 

 

Date

March 2, 2017 | 10:11 am

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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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Can environmentalists trump Trump’s climate plans?

KSat ground station

Satellite technology is key in gathering climate data (I.Quaile, Tromso)

When it comes to the latest data on the state of the Arctic sea ice, the Greenland ice sheet or other key features of the cryosphere, the chances are NASA will have been involved in providing it. For those of us interested in protecting our icy regions against climate change, US President-elect Donald Trump’s plan to scrap NASA’s climate research and shift the funding to space exploration is alarming, to say the least.

Why the world needs NASA – not just for space

Two of my colleagues at DW talked to leading scientists about Why Trump scrapping NASA climate funding is bad news for our planet. Thomas Hollands from the German polar agency the Alfred Wegener Institute explains the essential role played by NASA’s network of satellites in providing data for climate researchers the world over.

“Scientists around the world depend on NASA for a variety of information – from measuring the state of the Earth’s atmosphere and the shape of its gravity field, to observations on glacier melting, sea ice formation, forest loss and urban growth”, the article says. It goes on to explain how important it is to have continuous measurements over time to be able to establish trends and changes.

Presumably, of course, if the Trump administration makes good on election promises to revive the US coal industry, there are those who would find it advantageous to get rid of any technology that can measure the extent of the impact of fossil fuel emissions on the world’s climate. A scenario to be avoided at all costs.

ice triangle

Higher emissions, melting ice, who keeps track? (I.Quaile, Greenland)

Fighting back

So I was interested to read a piece on the news agency AP this week headlined “Trump rollback of Obama climate agenda may prove challenging”.  I hope “challenging” will turn out to be an understatement.

The story, by Michael Biesecker, says a President Trump would be in a strong position to dismantle some of President Obama’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions:

“But experts say delivering on campaign pledges to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and bring back tens of thousands of long-gone coal mining jobs will likely prove far more difficult for the new president”, Biesecker writes.

Environmental groups are gearing up to defend Obama’s environmental legacy in court. Sierra Club Executive Director Michal Brune is quoted as saying “we intend challenging every single attempt to roll back regulations on air, water and climate”, and that his group is already hiring additional lawyers. It does not surprise me that fundraising for environmental causes has also spiked since Donald Trump’s victory.

The question is just how much the President is able to do and what tools are available to opponents to stop him.

Greenpeace Arctic protest in Bonn

Busy times ahead for environment- and climate campaigners (I.Quaile, Germany)

The powers of the President

Many legal experts believe Mr. Trump would be able to cancel the Paris Climate Treaty, as he threatened to do when he was campaigning (although his stance has shifted slightly in the meantime). It is not a treaty and was not approved by the (Republican-controlled) Senate. The future president could also order the EPA – where the transition team is being led by a climate skeptic leading a think-tank funded by the fossil fuel industry – not to take the action required to meet the US commitment to cut emissions.

It seems, though, that it is not that easy to dismantle EPA regulations which have already been finalized and implemented. Jody Freeman, director of the environmental law program at Harvard Law School, is quoted as saying “the agency has already built up a very strong record to support those rules”. Ultimately, “it can be very hard to do an about-face.”

From the legal point of view, the President cannot get rid of the EPA without congressional approval – which could be prevented by filibustering. (He could, of course, slash its budget).

When it comes to abolishing NASA’S climate research programme, Mr Trump will also find himself facing some tricky hurdles.

“NASA’s study of earth science is currently mandated by federal law, which means voiding the program would require congressional action”, AP writes. That too means Democrats could block things using a filibuster.

What happened to common sense?

Ideally, common sense and concern for the wellbeing of people and the health of the planet we live on should ensure that Obama’s environmental and climate policies are not turned around. The advances in renewable energy also mean it makes economic sense to shift away from fossil fuels to wind and solar. In fact, it seems the courts will have to tackle the ins- and outs in lengthy and costly investigations.

Gannets breeding on Helgoland

We need to protect the climate for the next generation! (I.Quaile, Germany)

This past week, in the USA, a group of American youths officially won the right to sue the government of the United States – the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter after China – for failing to curb climate change. The Oregon district court upheld the main argument, that “the government has known for more than 50 years that the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels was destabilizing the climate system in a way that would significantly endanger plaintiffs, with the damage persisting for millennia.” Yet, the court argues, the government has failed to take action, making it responsible for some of the harm caused by climate change.

Here in Germany, there is also a court case in process, which could set a precedent. A farmer and mountain guide in the Peruvian Andes is suing the German energy giant RWE. Saúl Lliuya from Huaraz says his home is at risk of flooding, as it lies beneath a melting glacier in the Andes mountains. He argues that the company’s coal power emissions contribute to climate change, and so RWE should have to pay a share of measures to protect his home. But RWE says there is no direct link connecting CO2 emissions to the danger of flooding. Lliuya is being supported by the environmental organization Germanwatch. In my Living Planet radio show this week I broadcast an interview with the organisation’s policy director, Christoph Bals.

The plaintiff’s argumentation is that because RWE has produced 0.5 percent of all global emissions since the industrial revolution, the company should at least pay 0.5 percent of the measures to protect the farmer and his home town from flooding as the glacier above it continues to melt. Bals sees it as a major achievement that the case is being dealt with in the German court as one that could set a precedent. Even if the lawyers are not able to prove a direct link and win the case, he says getting to this stage is a demonstration that it is possible to go to court against companies like RWE on climate grounds.

“From now on this is one of the options on the table. I am sure that as soon as we see in the world that we will not stay below two degrees or 1.5 as said in the Paris Agreement, those cases will be much more likely – and it will be much more likely also that the individual court will decide you are right. So for the future this would be one major option if we don’t get a political solution”.

There has to be some food for thought in there for Mr. Trump and his advisors. Interesting times, indeed. And environment and climate advocates have their own trump cards in their hands.

 

 

Date

December 2, 2016 | 2:44 pm

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