This is a new study that makes the dramatic claim that as the ice melts in summer in the Arctic, then because ice reflects away more sunlight than water, this will have a dramatic warming effect on the whole planet, equivalent to 25 years of anthropogenic emissions. It's been scaring many people but there is nothing here to worry about. Short summary: The study did not take account of the way the melting ice causes cloud to increase (because of all the extra water vapour it puts into the atmosphere). They assumed constant cover. But the paper they cite for that only found constant cloud cover as the ice melts in mid summer. Minimum sea ice extent is in September.

Another paper also published in July 2019 found that the cover increases to an average of about 81% over the melted regions (average over the season), and this fraction is constant, no matter how much ice melts, based on satellite observations. That greatly reduces the effect. Another study from january finds that year round, clouds contribute 2–3 times as much to the albedo than the surface albedo.

Also while the Arctic gets darker slightly in a warming world, other areas especially in the Southern hemisphere get brighter, and the combined effect so far has actually been that the Earth is smidgen brighter overall due to climate change. For example global albedo changes from 2000 to 2012 lead to a reduction in the global flux by 0.14 watts per square meter rather than an increase. Even averaged over the northern hemisphere the change was a reduction in 0.03 watts per square meter and over the southern hemisphere by 0.26 watts per square meter.

So the paper is misleading because it only looks at albedo changes in the Arctic. It also underestimates the cloud cover effects with its assumption of constant cloudiness. But worldwide the Earth is getting brighter not darker. E.g. there is a major increase in brightness in the southern Pacific. You get a false picture by taking the albedo change in the Arctic and assuming constant albedo for the rest of the world. If you took the south pacific and used that instead, region around Autralia / Indonesia you'd find a major change in the opposite direction. You need to look at the world as a whole which is a minor increase in brightness / decrease in solar flux. .

The global change in the brightness (albedo) of our planet is in the opposite direction to what they found in the Arctic.

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This shows Greenland on a clear day to the left ,and the very next day, covered in cloud, to show how the cloud albedo effect is to make it nearly as bright as if covered in ice, though the cloud is not quite as bright as ice.

Figure from: How Much Do Clouds Mask the Impacts of Arctic Sea Ice and Snow Cover Variations? Different Perspectives from Observations and Reanalyses

The press release that scared people that I’m debunking is here

The paper itself is here

It is a scary read at first, it claims that the change in the ice albedo effect of the summer ice melting completely will increase the warming to a level equivalent to adding 1000 gigatons of CO2 to the atmosphere. That’s equivalent to 25 years at 40 gigatons a year (our current rate).


This may help you if you come across a study like this when browsing the internet. If it was truly as major as it seems, the experts would be talking about it.

However, nobody else is responding to it. Just “meh”. I found nothing on it in Carbon Brief which normally covers major climate change news and is one of the most reliable sources I know of.

It is a bit soon to expect google scholar searches to return citations of it. But a google search for the title of the paper comes up with no discussion of that title at all except some threads in reddit where the commentators do not seem to be knowledgeable on the topic. Reddit is rather infamous for the uninformed comments on climate change in r/collapse. This is in r/climate but there was nobody commenting there who had done a basic reliability / sanity check of the paper, that I could find, I have just added a comment myself.

Loss of Arctic's reflective sea ice will advance global warming by 25 years, new study says

If it was as major a result as it claims to be in the abstract it is just not credible that it is not being talked about everywhere. It would completely undermine any chance of staying within 1.5 C for instance if it was true.

So there has to be some way in which they are making striking claims that other researchers are not paying much attention to. This is something that happens.

This paper was over a month ago. It can't be as startling a result as it seems to be. You need to think of this as part of a conversation. This is clearly an outlier.


There is a big IPCC review again to be completed in 2021. They will look into all this new research again at the highest level and we'll get a good idea of how progress has gone since the 2018 review then. The reason we have the IPCC review is because it is so complex, so much going on that it is hard to evaluate individual articles without that context of a systematic review of the whole field involving hundreds of scientists taking part to get a proper overview.

IPCC Working Group II starts preparing their contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report

The IPCC report in 2018 found that there are no tipping points from Arctic ice melt (see Sea Ice). As soon as we reach zero emissions the Arctic ice then is in steady state and will slowly being to heal as some of the excess CO2 leaves the atmosphere.

The ice only melts in summer and if the entire Arctic melts some year, then that means it freezes much faster the following winter (the ice forms an insulating layer which stops the oceans from freezing so quickly in winter).


Well, these authors already had a paper about their earlier results in 2014, so the basic idea is nothing new. It’s here:

The main new thing is the forwards projection. Otherwise its the same research - they use figures from that earlier paper in this new one.

With that earlier paper, there is a reply listed, it says “Article has a letter”

This letter explains one potential issue with their approach. They share this map, which shows the change in total solar energy input from 2000 to 2012 where red means it got hotter, blue cooler, yellow is a slight reduction.

There you can see that the Arctic did have a big increase in solar flux. But at the same time some areas, especially in the Pacific had major decreases in solar flux shown in blue. Presumably they are becoming more cloudy in the warming world.

Averaged over the whole world the changing albedo since then has lead to a reduction in the global flux by 0.14 watts per square meter. Most of that reduction is in the southern hemisphere (reduction of 0.26 watts per square meter average). However even the northern hemisphere has had a net reduction in the solar flux (reduction of 0.03 watts per square meter). The increasing cloudiness elsewhere has more than compensated for the Arctic albedo effect.

So, it is not a valid way to argue, to say that an increase in solar flux over a small region in the Arctic should be averaged out as a global increase.

For instance if you focused on the NE Great Barrier Reef area of Australia, for some reason it has a major decrease in the flux (perhaps changes in cloud cover?). You couldn’t average that out over the world and say the whole world was cooled down by the blue patch over NE Australia. In a way it was but only locally, in other parts it warmed.

Now they must have read that response to their 2014 paper, but in this new 2019 one as far as I can tell they did not mention this criticism.

So, it’s not surprising experts are ignoring them and not giving their dramatic claim much attention.

There is another effect as well, not mentioned. Increased greening in the Arctic will absorb more CO2 so when you work out the total effect of climate change in the Arctic area on global climate you need to take that into account. So far and for a while at least into the future the extra vegetation is taking up a lot of CO2.

This is how that earlier letter concludes:

Our point is that although Arctic changes may be important, they are small compared with the larger picture of changes in cloud cover in the tropics. Although the change in total solar energy input is large in the Arctic over the 2000–2012 period, global solar energy input actually decreased by (−0.14 Wm−2), with a majority of the decrease resulting from the Southern hemisphere (−0.26 Wm−2) rather than the Northern Hemisphere (−0.03 Wm−2). Thus, we argue against Pistone et al.’s conclusion that Arctic darkening “is not offset by cloud albedo feedbacks.”

Arctic albedo changes are small compared with changes in cloud cover in the tropics

So one problem is their narrow focus on the Arctic without considering global effects of ice melt and cloud cover changes.

So, now they have published a new report that continues with their previous claim, but now goes on to say that with the Arctic free of ice in summer the averaged solar flux year round will increase so much as to warm the Earth up by the equivalent of 1000 gigatons of CO2.

But they do not address the issue of this letter of how this relates to global albedo changes from clouds, ice melting, land use changes (deforestation and desertification makes the Earth brighter for instance) etc.

Another big gap in their paper is that they didn't know how the clouds would respond. They explain this in their diagram and they assume the same level of clouds over the ocean as over the ice. That's in their abstract as "assuming constant cloudiness".

Radiative Heating of an Ice‐Free Arctic Ocean - Pistone - 2019 - Geophysical Research Letters - Wiley Online Library

The article is also available online here from their research institution

Radiative Heating of an Ice-Free Arctic Ocean

You can see what a difference the cloud assumptions make:

As you can see their graph has the Arctic suddenly darken rapidly starting from this year, with no explanation of why it would happen this year especially (the ice has already retreated a lot in summer in previous years without following their line).

Remember that the ice has already melted a lot in summer. You’d think the most natural assumption is that the graph continues in a straight line along the same line it followed so far. That’s what they label as “overcast” but they project along the “constant cloudiness” path instead.

They give as motivation three previous studies (including their own) that were consistent with the assumption of constant cloudiness.

Their main cite there is this one from 2018

Isolating the Liquid Cloud Response to Recent Arctic Sea Ice Variability Using Spaceborne Lidar Observations

However, they do say that it is only for summer, and indeed, it found that there was more cloud over open water for most of the year but that in summer the amount of cloud over open water is the same as over ice.

The minimum sea ice extent however is in autumn, in September (melts through the summer to early autumn then starts to freeze again).

I found two papers from 2019 on this paper in a Google scholar search of cites of the 2014 paper

One was the one on the masking effects of clouds from January of this year that the cloud cover over Greenland image comes from. It found that clouds contributed 2-3 times as much to the albedo (how much light it reflects) than the surface throughout the year.

In satellite observations, the atmosphere contributes 2–3 times more to the TOA albedo than the surface throughout the year.

But they do find a measurable difference due to changing ice cover on the land or ocean beneath the clouds - the clouds dampen the effect of the albedo change but do not eliminate it completely.

While clouds have higher albedos than open ocean, there is still a measurable difference (∼0.15) in TOA [Top of Atmosphere] albedo between land with and without snow cover and ocean with and without sea ice cover. Clouds may reduce the ice-albedo feedback, but the radiative effects of clouds at the TOA are unlikely to be large enough to prevent the ice-albedo feedback from continuing and contributing to Arctic amplification.

It's "work in progress"

This work has shown the behavior of surface and TOA albedos with changing surface cover in the Arctic. Because the atmosphere contributes more to the TOA albedo than the surface, we have found that clouds have a damping effect on the TOA albedo. While we have touched on the sensitivity of albedos and TOA albedo contributions to SIC [Sea Ice Cover] and SCF [Snow cover fraction], more work should be done to quantify these relationships.

How Much Do Clouds Mask the Impacts of Arctic Sea Ice and Snow Cover Variations? Different Perspectives from Observations and Reanalyses

Then I found another that did new direct measurements of the cloud cover with satellites.

It focuses particularly on what they call the “sensitive zone” which is surrounded mainly by land. Outside of it, the oceans are kept largely ice free year round by the Atlantic currents in the open Atlantic but within it, they remain covered in ice through to the summer when they melt. In this diagram then red means there is a big variation of sea ice cover (SIC) throughout the year, blue means not so much, mainly stays frozen:

They find a big increase in cloud over melting areas, and that over the liquid water the cloud cover varies a lot. And yes in the middle of the summer the cloud cover over the melted area is similar to the cover over the ice. But averaged throughout the period when sunlight can get to the surface, it is around 81%.

They also find that this is independent of how much of the ice melts. If a little melts or a lot, it’s always about 81% of the melted ice that gets covered in cloud.

What causes this cloud is the water vapour from the melted ice which increases the water vapour content over the entire Arctic region.

This makes a big impact on the albedo effect.

The abstract of this paper says:

The observations suggest that when sea-ice retreats, cloud fraction of the ice-free region remains fixed at nearly 81%. The high cloud coverage over melted areas significantly reduces the albedo feedback.

As the ice melts then the water vapour content of the entire Arctic region increases, and a loss of 0.1 million square kilometers would increase the water vapour content for the Arctic region by 10 - 20%.

High cloud coverage over melted areas dominates the impact of clouds on the albedo feedback in the Arctic

The clouds cool the Arctic most of the year due to albedo effect (February to November) and warm it all year round by trapping heat. But there are often temperature inversions which makes it very complex, sometimes the clouds are warming, sometimes cooling.

The albedo change of the water is from 0.65 for ice to 0.1 for water. But the albedo of clouds is not far off that of ice ,and worldwide contributes about 88% of our planetary albedo.

They do not go into details of how this affects the climate as a whole, but just end the paper saying

Potentially, this cloud damping effect mechanism can enlighten the study of “white Arctic versus blue Arctic” concerning diverging stakeholder responses to environmental change

That last bit is about a paper on whether you want to restore the white Arctic if it melts in summer .

Of the Arctic lands, 80% lie within northern Canada and Russia, and both nations have previously expressed strong interest in the development of nonrenewable resources, tourism, and civil infrastructure

They give this table about competing interests if we eventually have a blue summer Arctic, and various industries grow up there, including perhaps exploiting oil and gas

It would have a fair few positive effects. Already is. E.g. the navigation of the North West passage by shipping.

For some other positive effects of warming: they don’t mention this, but gray whales will be able to return to the Arctic and swim around to the Atlantic from the Pacific as they haven't done for thousands of years.

The warming generally also is greening some of the lands around the Arctic ocean:

One-third of Earth’s vegetated lands are greening, while 5 percent are growing browner. The study was published on February 11, 2019

This shows the greening or browning from 2000 to 2017 - the change not the overall greenness. China and India stand out and account for a third of the greening, although they have only 9% of the area of vegetation in the world. But there is a fair bit in the northern latitudes as well.

Generally then an ice free Arctic will have many beneficiaries, to the extent that if we have a few decades with the Arctic ice free in summer, entire industries and large groups of people are likely to develop a dependency on it, as well as the wildlife that comes to expect an ice free summer there.

If climate cooling leads to the ice returning to the Arctic there may well be many who are not keen on that prospect by then.


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