Arctic Ice May 2011 - Update #1
    By Patrick Lockerby | May 18th 2011 07:48 PM | 23 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Retired engineer, 60+ years young. Computer builder and programmer. Linguist specialising in language acquisition and computational linguistics....

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    Arctic Ice May 2011 - Update #1

    Even if it leaves you too tired to come back and read my own humble offerings - but I hope you do come back  -  there are two very topical blog posts that I want to recommend to you:

    Tell good stories that entertain and are relevant. It is so easy to say “use simple everyday life language”, but for a scientist who are trained to do the exact opposite it hurts. Almost physically.
    Bente Lilja Bye - Taming The N-headed Science Troll: Using New Media As A Communication Tool Within The Science And Technology Community.
    NB: this article has (almost) nothing to do with blog trolls: it's about communicating science.

    ... nothing really spectacular has been happening with the Arctic sea ice in the past few weeks. But this depends on your perspective of course, as there's always more to the eye in the Arctic.
    Neven - SIE update 6: unperturbed

    It is true indeed that nothing much appears to be happening in the Arctic lately - at first sight.  But as Neven and his contributors so astutely notice: there is much more to the Arctic ice than meets the eye.

    Let us try a thought experiment.  On a planet much like Earth there is a cap of sea ice 1000km in radius.  Over most of the last 5000 of its Earth-like years the ice has shrunk in summer and grown back in winter, with minor fluctuations.  However, about 200 years ago there was a minuscule rise in average planetary temperature such that there was a minuscule trend downwards in the sea ice extent.  It is in the nature of many micro-influences in physical processes that their compounded effects over time show an acceleration in the amount of the influence and its effect.

    Our hypothetical circle of ice averages 1000km radius before a constant micro-change in temperature causes a corresponding micro-change in radius.  For example, a change in the average temperature over the ice of a mere 0.01oC might be thought to have no significant effect.  However, where the ice is on the threshold of melting, as at the edge where ice meets open sea, or at the edge of a polyna, that tiny amount of extra energy makes the difference between the ice melting or not melting.  Each year, the ice which would not otherwise have melted is replaced by open water.

    In this thought experiment, or model, if heat is not trapped in Arctic winter then there is no reason why the ice would not recover every winter despite the trivial extra melt.  But let us model some permanent micro-change in the atmosphere which traps at least some heat every winter.  Following an initial constant micro-change in temperature, the micro-changes in ice extent and open water surface accumulate.  At first, the amount of ice loss is entirely trivial, but given enough time the ice will vanish entirely in summer.  Simply put: the volume of ice melted each summer - and not fully replaced in winter - will form a gradually rising percentage of the end-of winter ice.  That rising percentage will show an accelerating trend with the greatest acceleration as it nears 100%.  In the first ice-free summer the 100% melt of the remaining ice will be rapid.

    In summary: in a stable regime the average global temperature and the average extent of ice both fluctuate between upper and lower limits.  A micro-disturbance - an initially trivial increase in global average temperature - pushes the ice inexorably into a new stable regime - one with ice-free summers.  In the new dynamic regime the range between upper and lower bounds of global average temperature are about the same as before, but the global average temperature is raised by much more than the trivial amount that triggered the albedo flip.  The albedo flip - in which a large extent of ice is replaced by open water - magnifies the effect of a trivial temperature rise so as to cause a non-trivial increase in global average temperature.

    If you accept the reality of the butterfly effect - the ability of a micro-perturbation to move a dynamic system from one stable regime to another, then I expect that you will accept the reality of an impending summer-ice-free Arctic.  The notion that we humans are too puny to affect the global climate requires the rejection of tried and tested principles in chaos theory.  It also requires a suspension of the belief that humans are more powerful creatures than butterflies.

    Back in the real world and the real Arctic, the continuing nosedive in sea ice extent is captured by many graphs and images across the web.  Overlaid graphs of annual ice extent do not show this trend: it is only when annual graphs are plotted end-to-end that the long term trend is obvious.  Compare the AMSRE graph with the Cryosphere Today's 'tale of the tape' to see this.

    Sea ice extent

    Sea ice extent detail
    Note that the graph shows current extent as 3rd lowest in the series for this date.  In the context of everything we know about the Arctic, however, the current extent is the 3rd lowest in human history.

    Cryosphere Today Tale of the Tape 1979-2011

    Tale of the Tape 2007 - 2011 detail
    The trend in Arctic ice since 1979 is obvious at a glance from this graph.  Also obvious at a glance is the extremely anomalous behavior of the ice this year.  The decline in Arctic ice seems to be accelerating.  As an aside - there are some people who would prefer to believe that before the age of satellites the ice extent went up and down to the same extent.  That is wishful thinking.  We have many hundreds of reliable reports of ships with ice in the rigging, ships crushed by ice and men dying from the cold.  When we compare that with the number of reports of leisure craft sailing in the same waters - ice free waters - in recent years, we hardly need temperature records to tell us that the Arctic climate has changed.

    The decline in Arctic sea ice volume is captured in some detail in this graph by FrankD - from a post at Neven's blog.  Please note that FrankD does not use this graph as a predictor of an ice-free Arctic.  However, if, as I expect, the loss of Arctic ice begins to accelerate, then the graph lends weight to the suggestion of a first substantially ice-free Arctic Ocean in summer 2016 at the latest.

    Arctic ice quadratic trends by month
    Source and discussion:

    If the globally averaged temperature of our planet has risen by even a fraction of a degree, the physics of the polar ice regime dictate that ice loss will be greater than a simple projection based on a micro-change in average temperature would indicate.  The climate is a chaotic system in which disturbances propagate and can amplify the original effect.  That is what feedbacks do.  That is the essence of the butterfly effect.

    We know - from isotopic studies - that the current excess of CO2 in the atmosphere comes from the burning of fossil fuels.  We also know - from direct experimental proofs - that CO2 is a greenhouse gas.  Given that the amount of atmospheric CO2 is, and has been, increasing since the industrial revolution it is no surprise that globally averaged temperature has been increasing also.  The amount of human-caused temperature increase, although small in the general scale of things, is so great in its effects that it can be extracted from the mixed signal of all drivers of our planet's climate system.

    A trivial but constant increase in global temperature is sufficient to bring about an Arctic ice-free-summer.  Human influences on climate have provoked a climbing temperature increase.  Our emissions of soot also promote ice melting through albedo change.  If a simple and entirely trivial rise in temperature can lead to an ice-free summer in the Arctic, how much more confident we must be that our non-trivial and constantly rising CO2 emissions - amongst other things - will bring about a much swifter end to Arctic sea ice than could nature unaided.  The puny human sure is one powerful butterfly!

    For more of my Arctic-related articles, please see:
    The ChatterBox Arctic Index


    Good update, Patrick. :)

    One thing, which is in all likelihood people interested in this already know but which is something that I only worked out last night: if the amount of energy in the Arctic is increasing in a linear fashion, volume will (assuming that this excess energy is evenly mixed throughout the Arctic) axiomatically decline in a parabolic (or second order polynomial) way.

    This is because the excess energy adds to the previous total, and an additive function based on a linear function is the same as the integral of that linear function, which results in a second order polynomial.

    In other words, Arctic sea ice volume is set to crash, taking area/extent along with it. And that is in what I consider the best case scenario. With Arctic amplification of rising temperatures, it may well be that the rise in energy in the Arctic is faster than linear ...

    According to my model - and ignoring, perhaps, some sheltered bays and narrow channels in the Canadian side, where energy may not be mixing well - 2018 is the latest year at which the Arctic has an ice volume above zero at the end of the melt season.
    "A preliminary evaluation of the measurement results shows that one-year-old sea ice in the Beaufort Sea (north of Canada/Alaska) is about 20-30 centimetres thinner this year than in the two previous years. In 2009 the ice thickness was 1.7 metres on average, in 2010 1.6 metres and in 2011 around 1.4 metres. "I expect that this thin one-year-old sea ice will not survive the melting period in summer," Dr. Stefan Hendricks assesses the situation. In several weeks his colleagues from the sea ice group at the Alfred Wegener Institute will present their model calculations for the sea ice minimum in 2011, which will also include the data now collected."

    In general as I understand now there is no global measurements of the total ice volume.

    PIOMAS and PIPS it's indirect estimates of the total volume of Arctic sea ice.

    Unfortunately, such measurements were made only in 2004-2008 (satellite ICESat-1 worked only 4 years)

    So I am waiting with big interest the new estimates of CryoSat-2 to compare them with the values of ICESat-1.

    As someone who has grown used to reading your ice articles and after reading the introduction,I just wanted to say that your articles "entertain and are relevant".
    I don´t know if you have seen the latest findings from the Polar5 aircraft. I only have a Spanish newspaper link

    "a new stable regime - one with ice-free summers."

    Patrick, much as we might gasp at the implications, a seasonally sea-ice free Arctic Ocean is NOT a stable climate regime. Numerical Modeling and Paleoclimate Studies indicate that there are two stable regimes for the Arctic Ocean in a warming Climate: perpetually ice-covered, and perpetually ice-free.

    These modelling result were published by Eisenman and Wettlaufer (2008) "Nonlinear threshold behavior during the loss of Arctic sea ice". The paper (and it's SI Appendix), is freely available from the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Figure 3 Bifurcation diagram for the full nonlinear model

    The description of "Fig. 3" says in part:

    "Under a moderate warming (ΔF0 = 15 Wm−2), modeled sea-ice thickness varies seasonally between 0.9 and 2.2 m. Further warming (ΔF0 = 20 Wm−2) causes the September ice cover to disappear, and the system undergoes a smooth transition to seasonally ice-free conditions. When the model is further warmed (ΔF0 = 23 Wm−2), a saddle-node bifurcation occurs, and the wintertime sea ice cover abruptly disappears in an irreversible process."

    Above, "ΔF0 = 15 Wm−2" should be read as "Change in Climate Forcings relative to Time Zero" in Units of Watts per square meter. This means that after the first Sea ice free September, Climate forcings need to increase by only 3 watts per square meter until the Arctic Sea Ice disappears permanently, and irreversibly. Methane Clathrates alone have the potential to increase Climate forcing by 5 W/m^2, in addition to our continued release of C02.

    Recent Paleoclimate studies show the Arctic had a perennially sea ice free ocean, an mean annual temperature over 12C, and fossilized Crocodile skeletons found on Baffin Island, the place where many current Commenters speculate will be the last stand for Arctic Sea Ice.

    Under our current Climate Policies, it is not a question of if, only of when.

    Thank-you for your continued Excellence, Patrick, and enjoy your Summer Adventures of Bike Riding!

    Now the rate of ice melting caught up 2010

    Now everything will depend on how quickly establish positive temperature over the Central Arctic.

    I am impressed with the Nares Ice Bridge, it is really stubborn, but I can see the ice in the strait is getting thinner, and snow on top of it is melting, so we are only a few days away from a spectacular Nares flush!

    Record high temperatures Barrow Alaska yesterday 43°F / 6.1C.

    The North West passage could easily be open very early this melting season, maybe even sometime mid June!

    Record high temperatures Barrow Alaska yesterday 43°F / 6.1C.
    Whitehorse has had record warmth, esp. in 2010.

    Meanwhile, just south of Whitehorse, BC's southern areas are record cold, part of a cooler area extending south past Spokane. High of 11oC, low of 3oC, with SNOW forecast above 4000 ft. {sorry for the mixed scales, I get news from both nations}.

    Is heat being shuttled north? Is this happening due to climate changes, including shifting weather patterns?

    Whatever the cause, this cold spring is not good, but the Arctic warming is a major threat. Sooner than later, the methane stored in tundra will add to the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Tundra from Canada to Russia holds mega amounts of methane... we must try to keep it from melting out.

    Now it is getting wet with spring temperatures at Kimmirut, Canada:

    If this comment goes through I'll register a disagreement...

    (Haven't been able to post here due to an issue with Captcha.

    Hello again Patrick.

    Rather than 'spam' your blog with a long post I will, if I may, refer to a post I did setting out my reasons for thinking that the Arctic sea-ice will last a lot longer than many people seem to think.

    In short (for those who find my post daunting/long winded):
    What we have seen is a transition in which the multi-year bulk of the sea-ice has been removed. We are now entering a new phase, one in which the sea-ice (cap) is dominated by first year ice, with only a small amount of multi-year ice off the north of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and Greenland. Because first year ice can grow rapidly and the winters are still cold enough to form a substantial mass of it. And because that ice will not all melt during the melt season: We are reaching a stage where the loss of volume will level out, it will not rapidly carry the Arctic down to a seasonally ice free state this decade. What follows is a period of warming the region and a gradual transition to a seasonally sea-ice free state. I expect that at the earliest this will be next decade, if I am wrong I expect to be calling it too early.

    "And because that [first year] ice will not all melt during the melt season..."

    Why? More heat is now applied to less sea ice. First year sea has lower albedo than multi-year sea ice. It is more likely that sea ice loss will accelerate, with all first year sea ice melting, and a good portion of the remaining multi-year ice melting in addition.

    "Because first year ice can grow rapidly and the winters are still cold enough to form a substantial mass of it."

    That didn't happened this year. Sea Ice Area has been close to 1 million km^2 below average all Winter. The brief spurt of sea ice growth in April rapidly melted and sea ice area is now at a record minimum for this date. There was record low sea ice volume in April 2011, and the downward trend continues to accelerate.

    In summary, there is substantial evidence that sea ice loss continues apace, and you have presented no evidence to show otherwise.

    Artful Dodger,

    Sea ice volume loss continues as evidenced by the results from the recent Alfred Wegner expeditions (reduction in average thickness). I am not saying otherwise and do not have to deny that. However, I argue, to extrapolate this to a sea-ice free state this decade neglects important physics.

    It's worth bearing in mind that the sea-ice maxima is still being set well outside the Arctic Ocean at lower latitudes. This indicates that atmospheric factors are some way from supporting open water in the Arctic Ocean itself. So we can expect the ocean to be filled with ice at the start of the melt-season. Furthermore in 2007 one quarter of the summer area was lost due to extreme weather conditions. There have not been further drops in sea-ice minima, it has merely been maintained and not since matched.

    Ice loss over open water brings into play a powerful negative feedback. Energy is accumulated in the ocean due to ice-albedo feedback (a positive feedback), but under current atmospheric conditions much of that energy will be lost to the atmosphere/space by radiation in the freeze season. This is the reason for the behaviour of Cryosphere Today's areal anomaly plots - skewing the anomalies by keeping water open in the autumn. This is the negative feedback on the process, allowing for atmospheric factors (see below), open water will lose massive amounts of energy by radiation and evaporation once the sun is absent and the temperature drops. It is only once sufficient energy has been lost that the ocean will re-freeze.

    So to assume that the evident gain in energy in the region, as evidenced by volume loss (be it from PIOMAS or observations), will automatically result in an imminent seasonally ice free state overlooks the impact of increased energy loss due to open water. The key issue is whether the entire Arctic ocean can melt it's ice in the melt season: Already we see an ice cap largely denuded of multi-year ice, long gone is the mass of multi year ice that once comprised the ice cap, yet we're still some way off zero in September.

    To clarify my position:
    1) I don't need totally ice-free conditions to accept ice-free, I'd accept an area of <1 million km^2 off the Canadian Arctic Archipelago as near as damn-it ice-free.
    2) I think that what Nghiem 2007 show is the real tipping point transition of the Arctic sea-ice (graphic in my post as linked to above).

    Atmospheric factors:

    I don't think CH4 is a factor that will come into play substantially within decades, certainly not to orders of 5W/m^2. I agree with Archer that CH4 from clathrates in ocean sediments and permafrost is a chronic not acute issue. Before disagreeing with me on this please take the time to read his paper "Methane hydrate stability and anthropogenic climate change." He makes some very strong points!

    I do think there may be surprises. Abbot & Tzipperman "Sea ice, high-latitude convection, and equable climates." is a case in point.
    Whilst it is primarily about paleoclimate issues - temperate conditions in the Arctic's past - it may have relevance for AGW. It is possible that clouds combined with atmospheric heat flux could cause stable sea-ice free conditions in the Arctic at lower levels of GHGs than is commonly thought.

    Craig Dillon
    Great article. I love the chart from FrankD showing 2016 as the year with the first ice free Arctic summer month. It agrees with my projection of 2017. What I find most surprising is the graph projecting the Arctic to be ice free all year around by 2032. My rough projections gave me a range from 2050 to 2150 for a winter ice free Arctic. 

    If the Arctic goes ice free in winters, can we even expect snowy winters? Won't Greenland's melt season also be year around then as well? If that happens, won't Greenland's melt rate increase by several orders of magnitude?  

    Thanks again.  
    Hmm. We had a lot of snow over the UK this winter, even though the North Sea didn't cool enough to form sea-ice. Eventually, with sufficient warming, the Arctic Ocean will warm enough in summer so as not to cool enough to form sea-ice in winter, but winter air temperatures will still be cold enough to produce snow, particularly in extreme events, though this will happen less often.

    With Greenland one has to remember that even when there is melt at the coast there is not melt at the summit, which is so much higher. Certainly a general increase in the length of time that sea-ice is absent around Greenland's coasts will increase the length of the melt season, but you can see even now that the great heat sink of the Greenland ice sheet acts to anchor sea-ice to its coast. The last Arctic sea-ice will be found on the coast of Greenland.

    What could be interesting is what happens to any glaciers that currently terminate in sea-ice. It could be that there is a blip in the Greenland melt when the sea-ice is melted away, before a slower melt then resumes. This is because the removal of the sea-ice would have an effect on the glaciers it is supporting, but the topography of the Greenland ice sheet does not support a catastrophic break-up within a short time period.

    Be careful with the chart from FrankD, it is not to be used as a prediction of when the Arctic will be ice free, it is just a graphing exercise to show what happens if a quadratic curve is fitted to historical data. Please see Neven's web site where FrankD chastises me for applying the graph in a manner similar to the interpretation you have applied.

    Hi Patrick,

    Webcam # 2 from the North Pole, is clearly showing a heavy crack in the ice up there, it is a only about 100 meters or so from the camera, it was not there 2 days ago for sure.

    Regards Espen

    The break up of shore ice at Barrow could be within days, it looks like the ice is being "peeled" of south of Barrow by the currents

    June 12 2011:There is almost no ice left south of Bering Strait, light blue ice is seen several places in the Siberian area, this ice color we see often in Norway, probably because of Sweet water ice, and not because of melt ponds etc.

    I dont understand the silence in this forum. Since we are experiencing a dramatic melt in the arctic at this moment. We are following the same melting path of last year (2010), it remains to be seen if it follows the same path later this month and get into a slower mood, or it even drops further down and contests the 2007 figures, my gut feeling is it will beat the 2007 numbers, because the arctic sea ice at this point more looks like a breakfast meal or more precise as porridge. Looking forward to observations elsewhere!!!

    I must make a correction to my claim that the light blue sea ice seen several places in the arctic ocean, which I have not noticed to the same extend before, it can not be because of sweet water only, it might be because of very thin ice and no currents to break it, even parts of Nares Strait is getting this light blue color now?

    Regards Espen