Thursday, July 12, 2012

Snow and Ice Cover in the Arctic - The Canary in the Coal Mine?

Recent very hot and dry weather throughout much of North America and torrential downpours in the United Kingdom seem to stir up the mainstream media's coverage of global climate change.  In this posting, I'll take a brief look at a recent update on the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) website.  Many scientists feel that the Arctic region will act like the canary in the coal mine for the global climate situation since it is the area that will see the most dramatic climate shift.

NSIDC notes that the extent of sea ice in the Arctic declined quickly in June 2012, setting record daily lows in the middle of the month and ice loss was particularly noticeable in the Kara, Bering and Beaufort Seas as well as Hudson and Baffin Bays.  The extent of sea ice is measured using the area of ocean that is covered by at least 15 percent sea ice.  On top of these changes to the rate of ice melt, snow extent was unusually low in the months of May and June, part of a repeated pattern of rapid spring snow melt seen in the last six years.

Here is a map showing the extend of Arctic sea ice for June 2012:

The areal extent of sea ice for June averaged 10.97 million square kilometres or 4.24 million square miles.  This is 1.18 million square kilometres or 456,000 square miles less than the average over the period from 1979 to 2000 as shown in pink.  Based on the data from those two decades, the ice extent noted on June 30th, 2012 would not normally be experienced until July 21st.  The last three years have seen June ice extent reaching their lowest values since satellite record-keeping began.  The only part of the Arctic region that has seen the extent of sea ice grow is along the east coast of Greenland.

Here is a satellite composite showing the changes in the extent of sea ice in September 2008 compared to the median between 1979 and 2008, once again, in pink:

Here is a graph showing the decline in the areal extent of Arctic sea ice for the month of May since 1979:

On average, sea ice extent has declined an average of 3.7 percent per decade.

Here is a graph showing the extent of sea ice for the months of March through July for the years 2007 to 2012 compared to the median from 1979 to 2000 (in dark grey):

In June 2012, a total area of 2.86 million square kilometres or 1.1 million square miles of ice was lost, the largest June melt on record.  Air temperatures at a level of about 3000 feet above the ocean's surface was 1 to 4 degrees Celsius higher than the 1981 to 2010 average and 7 to 9 degrees Celsius higher over northern Eurasia and southern Baffin Bay.  These warm temperatures, including a high temperature of 19 degrees Celsius (66 degrees Fahrenheit) on June 17th and 18th, caused the ice to melt 11 centimetres or 4.3 inches in a 24 hour period.

Not only is the extent of sea ice declining, this change is being accompanied by dramatic losses in the area covered by snow.  June 2012 set a 45-year record low for snow extent by a significant margin.  Snow extent for June 2012 was 1 million square kilometres or 386,000 square miles less than the previous record set in 2010.  The concept of albedo states that darker coloured exposed land will absorb more of the sun's energy and will warm faster whereas lighter coloured snow covered land will reflect more of the sun's energy resulting in slower heating and resultant melting.  Just think how hot a black asphalt roof becomes on a hot sunny day compared to a lighter coloured surface.  Here is a diagram explaining albedo and how it could lead to more rapid Arctic melting, particularly since even meltwater-covered surfaces will absorb more of the sun's energy than snow covered surfaces:

While the weather extremes that we are seeing and the pattern of shrinking Arctic snow and ice cover may be part of long-term climate change, they may also be reflecting temporary changes in shorter term weather patterns, unfortunately, we may not know for many years whether we are truly experiencing a permanent shift in the global climate and by then, it could well be way, way to late to reverse the process.  Unfortunately for all of us and what particularly concerns me is that our futures lie in the hands of our elected and terribly ill-informed officials.  These non-scientists are using this very sensitive issue to build their voter base and divide and conquer by splitting the world into two climate camps rather than actually implementing policies that could protect our world for future generations.


  1. What policies do you suggest they should implement? Even if there is agreement that we are seeing global warming there is no evidence that it is man-made. The earth has warmed and cooled many times before over the ages when it had nothing to do with man. Who can prove that it is anything different today?

    Our future could be tied to sun activity and sun spots. What is any elected official going to do about that?

    Until someone can show why anything is different today compared to other warming periods I am not in favor of any "policies by elected officials" to fix anything.

    1. You haven't researched this is you think our warming is tied only to sunspot activity, or that "there is no evidence that it is man-made." To say that, you have to be ignoring the evidence.

      Try this graph and tell me there's no evidence.

      How about these graphs?

      Personally, I've got my own life experience, and the non-anecdotal change in planting zones in the US as evidence too. I'd like to hear what evidence you have. So far, you haven't offered anything, but here's your chance.

    2. You are extrapolating the fact that planting zones in the U.S. have changed to mean that warming is caused by human activity? Surely you jest.

      A similar observation could have been made when we came out of the ice age. However, that does not mean that the warming was caused by increased human created CO2.

      I do not know if sun spots activity is tied to warming. Just as I don't know that human activity is tied to warming. I am not sure anyone will ever know. That is why it makes no sense to implement government policies around things that are not known.

      You want facts on CO2? The first thing you need to do is put CO2 emissions in context. When you do, you see that it would seem unlikely this has anything to do with warming. Further, a recent study on CO2 emissions by the Japanese Research Institute shows that the US and Europe is actually a net consumer of CO2. Read my blog post on this subject.

      I enjoy your blog but I think you are offbase on this one.

    3. And I think you are choosing to ignore data. Did you even look at the graphs I linked to?

      The concentration in CO2 in the atmosphere has been rising. Human use of fossil fuels has been rising. The temperature of the Earth has been rising also. Yes, natural processes also contribute a great deal of CO2, but what we are dumping into the atmosphere MAY be the extra amount that tips us into a catastrophic warming cycle. (You also shouldn't ignore that some of the natural CO2 emissions are due to warming of tundra areas.)

      But let me cut to a pointed question. Do you think that global warming is happening and will have dire consequences?

      In my review of the evidence, I see that the overall scientific evidence supports the contention that global warming is happening. Some of the consequences can be predicted.

      I'd like to see our country and the whole world take reasonable actions to reduce those negative impacts. I'd also like to see continued collection of data and continued research into ways to slow CO2 increase in the atmosphere.

      You, on the other hand, seem to say that the northern hemisphere isn't the problem. That's quite an ostrich approach because the impact is, ahem, global. You may not like the politics around global warming, but it is a physical process that is happening whether you like it or not. To dig in your heels and refuse to look at the physics of the problem is not a reasonable response, and I hope that isn't what you advocate.

    4. I would be much more concerned about cooling of the earth than warming. Dire consequences accompany cooling, not warming.

      For example, in 1816 when Mount Tambora erupted and ash veiled a large part of the sky over the earth crops failed around the world and famine followed. How much did the average global temp fall that year---only about 1 degree!

      There has been much more political unrest and human misery when the earth went through cooling periods than during warming periods. People tend to get angry when they are cold and hungry.

      I am not a scientist but I was taught in school that the Scientific Method requires that a proposed hypothesis should be tested and proven with real facts before it is accepted as truth. If the facts don't back up the hypothesis you don't have anything supported by Science. What are the facts of the connection between carbon dioxide trends and global warming? There are none that support the hypothesis.

      Consider these facts as cited by James Taylor,Managing Editor of Environment & Climate News.

      "Global temperature trends during the twentieth century sharply defied atmospheric carbon dioxide trends. More than half of the warming during the twentieth century occurred prior to the post-World War II economic boom, yet atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions rose minimally during this time. Between 1945 and 1977, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels jumped rapidly, yet global temperatures declined. Only during the last quarter of the century was there an appreciable correlation between greenhouse gas trends and global temperature trends. But that brief correlation has clearly disappeared this century."

      A rise in temperatures is actually beneficial for food production. It can extend the growing season further north. You made this very point yourself with the planting zone data. Cooler temperatures do the exact opposite. Given a choice between cooler or warmer there is little doubt where I come down.

      You are correct that it is a global issue. However, the data indicates that we are not causing the problem if it is CO2 related which is highly speculative in the first place. That is why it makes no sense for us to continue to do things unilaterally when our trading partners do nothing. Let's get the Chinese to first conform to our current EPA regulations at a minimum before we take any other steps. If they are not willing to do that, anything we do will be like spitting in the ocean.

      We are also going to cause a lot of economic misery in the process to millions of people for something that is completely unproven and pure speculation.

    5. You have stacked up so many fallback positions I don't know which to attack, so I just ignore them and talk about science, because I AM a scientist (physics).

      First, I'm not going to worry about cooling because there's no evidence of cooling in the last 60 years. Now why did you think we should worry about it? A scientific concern, or just a red herring?

      The atmospheric data we've been keeping (like good scientists) shows a marked warming trend. Scientists will investigate how lots of parts of the Earth are effected, including below the surface and in the atmosphere. They'll do modeling, which works pretty well for weather forecasts, and they'll refine the models.

      Now the best models, as I already linked to, show how close the actual temperatures match a particular model of natural factors and man-made factors over 150 years.

      You, however, quote someone who is looking at just a few years and trying to poke holes in the work, maybe because this supposed scientist doesn't understand how important it is to have large samples and look at the big picture, not a conveniently isolated timeframe. (As a scientist, I think picking and choosing data is pretty dishonest, don't you? Or does he have a 150 year trend graph you'd like to link too?)

      You seem to grant that global warming is happening, which is good because there's really a lot of data to support it. So the next step is what is causing it, what effects will it have, is there anything we can do about it. A lot of that is science, but some is politics.

      I want scientists to be able to do their work without ostriches like you putting up ridiculous roadblocks because you don't want to contemplate the changes that are already happening.

    6. You refer to them as fallback positions. They are facts that you seem uncomfortable in confronting.

      I am keeping an open mind and waiting to see true correlation. Not guesses or suppositions. I have yet to see anything that would suggest any reason why we should do anything from a govt policy perspective.

      There is nothing stopping scientists from doing work in this area. Ostriches likes me are certainly not preventing anyone from doing good scientific work. It is a stacked deck in favor of the "warming" crowd due to the vast amounts of government grants. The only problem is, despite all the money, they have not been able to prove anything.

      Enough said. Good debate.

      I am much more concerned with our insane budget deficit and economic plight anyway.

    7. Odd that you should accuse me of being uncomfortable confronting facts. You seem to run away without any acknowledgement of the strong arguments I've made. Oh well, I've seen that behavior before.

    8. Moderate Poli,

      There is one problem with your argument. You are absolutely convinced of the science such that you want to turn government policies and our economy upside down. However, true science has a true answer. I have shown a number of conflicting facts that don't work with your theory. That means what you are selling is not science, it is supposition.

      You make strong arguments for your position. I have shown strong arguments against your position. If you were right I should not be able to show anything to contradict you. Can I contradict the rules of gravity? Can I show that water freezes above 32 degrees? No. That is science.

      If you want two more counter arguments to "man made global warming" see these blog posts that appeared in PowerLine the last few days.

      The only disagreement I have with you is your attempt to push for government policies for something that is not anywhere close to settled science.

      Keep working on it but if you are going to have any credibility you have to deal with the inconvenient truths I have cited. You can't succeed by complaining about people like me who look critically at all the facts, not just those that fit your theory.

    9. You don't understand science if you think every single datum has to support global warming. Science sometimes deals with more ambiguous data than gravity, such as light as particles or waves or theories of evolution and continental drift.

      By the way, I can freeze water at warmer temperatures than 32 degrees, so even there you know less than you think.

      If you are so suspicious of the scientific work being done, you can't evaluate its accuracy. Nor are you likely to take seriously the dangers that they predict. So of course you won't want to make any sacrifices.

      This a lot like your doctor telling you that you better treat your high blood pressure. You can throw out all kind of doubts as roadblocks, but you may pay a high price in the future. But you'll probably resist this analogy too.

  2. Oh beeline, don't be so the event you have grandchildren they will curse us all...the most entitled, selfish and greedy generation ever, fulfilling our biological destiny of increasing our numbers until they crash...what you think or do is pretty well irrelevant at this point, so party on, baby...

    Presumably, the ice coverage off the coast of Greenland is increasing because of the increased flow of ice from the many glaciers.

  3. As a geoscientist (geologist) who has spent decades studying the earth's recent and ancient history, there is one big difference when comparing the past to the present. Until recent decades, the anthropogenic impact on the environment was negligible; now, the footprint of mankind on the world's ecosystem is massive by any measurement. Things, this time, really are different.

    As Sue says, future generations may well curse us for not seeing what is increasingly becoming obvious.