A new low mark has been set for the amount of the Arctic Ocean covered by the ice cap: 2.23 million km2. This new record low beats out the previous, in 2011, of 2.90 million km2, besting the old record by 23%. 2011′s mark was the lowest since 2007: 2.91km2. 2007 appears to have turned out to be a tipping point in the health of the North Pole’s ice cap. The 2.92 million km2 it shrank to destroyed the previous low (in 2006) by 27%. In all years of the satellite record (1979 – present) before then, the size of Arctic Ocean sea ice had not changed in either direction by more than 13%. 2012 is now the 2nd >20% change (loss) in six years. Presented for the world to see, document, take note, and observe is climate change in action – undeniable rapid changes in the environment that are far outpacing the worst case scenarios for potential ice loss in the 21st century.
On the heels of a radically altered North Pole region has come radically altered weather in the top most latitudes of the planet – leading to never before observed violent storms in typically quiet summer months, and jet stream reconfigurations that have caused wildly swinging weather extremes from year to year throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Much in the same way that computer models never in their most dire simulations saw ice retreatment this soon into the future, they have also not foreseen the resulting highly varied weather patterns that have resulted from such a fundamental change. The distance between extremes seems to have merely widened – brutally cold winters being followed by winters that see legitimate summer weather displaced into months as early as March.
We’ve moved past the prediction phase, and have rushed headlong into the observation of the very real effects of our changing climate.
It has been posted a few times before, but once more here is the chart of Arctic sea ice from 1979 – 2012:
The Arctic’s ice has begun to recover for the year as the sun sets for the year at the North Pole and locations further south. It is recovering rapidly, like in every year, with sights set on eventually jumping back into more normal territory by December of this year/January of next year. Unfortunately there is not a direct line between “sea ice crossed three million square kilometers today, that means the weekend will be chilly” – variables acting on our climate are much more complex. For instance, the air temperature just above open water will be higher than the air temperature just above an ice sheet. Warmer air temperatures – even ones that are below zero – can hold more moisture than what would otherwise be expected. Winter storms will still happen, but they’ll have more moisture to work with. The outcome is already going to be different – a conundrum better known as the butterfly effect.
Climate change is quantified in the change of average temperature. The averages can still rise even if the winters turn remarkably cold. An average temperature of 50 degrees can be achieved by extremes of 40 and 60 just as much as it can be achieved by -10 and 110. These highly varied weather patterns might just be the new normal, aided on by the disruption to normal colder weather patterns of a sharply warmer Arctic region.
Speaking of potential new normals, an ice-free Arctic Ocean might occur much quicker than anticipated. Consider the rates of Arctic ice decline:
Ice trends have been down ever since we started observing the North Pole constantly via satellite in 1979. The shift in the trend’s decline is what has been the most alarming. A date in the 21st century at which the Arctic will likely be ice free in the summer months seems to be a given, at present rate. The timing for that potential ice-free date has been shifting quickly closer to now with the more data we’ve observed.
- The average loss trend from 1979 – 2006 pointed to 2091 as the earliest year for an ice-free Arctic Ocean
- The average loss trend from 2000 – 2009, which was a comparably ‘better’ decade for the pace of ice loss, suggested 2053 as the ice-free year
- The average loss trend from 1979 – 2012, which includes the steep drop off observed in 2007 and beyond, moved the goalposts even closer to 2036
- The average loss trend from 2007 – 2012, the potentially scary new normal for rapid Arctic ice loss, now brings that year up to 2020: eight more years until an ice-free Arctic for the summer.
2007 appears to have been the tipping point for ice loss acceleration – with that shocking 27%+ loss in a single year. The loss was so severe that no year since has recovered to see a minimum as large as 2006 or before. There’s a reason for this: it’s rather difficult to freeze an ocean. Oceans have a tendency to have waves, and waves have a tendency to be detrimental to ice formation. By the time it gets cold enough for long enough for ice to finally cap the ocean, it’s almost time to start the warm-up season and a new year’s worth of ice breakup. So while in the sea ice area chart that was posted above shows ice area rebounding to 11 – 13 million km2, the thickness of that ice doesn’t have a shot to rebuild – meaning that new ice can be broken up that much faster in the coming years. It’s a positive feedback loop best summed up by this chart:
Note just how much more thin the ice is in the Arctic than it was decades ago. Now well below 4 million km3 this summer, that represents a decline in volume of roughly 75% vs. the 1980-1989 average while the surface area has “only” shrunk by a little more than 50% in the same time.
All this data and much, much more being a virtual slam dunk for showing that climate change is real, observable, and happening right now, science has the unfortunate headwind of the uneducated. Prodded along by well-funded outfits who stand to make more money in the way things presently are than adapting to new realities, the resistance to reality remains disturbingly high among educated nations – especially the United States.
Nature, on the other hand, has already made up its mind – change is happening now:
The study of 2,000 animals and plants, published in Science, found species are moving around 11 miles (18km) further north every decade, three times the rate previously appreciated.
This is equivalent to the world’s animals slowly shifting 20cm north every hour to escape warmer weather.
At the same time animals are moving to higher altitudes at twice the rate previously realised, at around 40ft (12m) per decade.
The study by the University of York cited examples in Britain like the comma butterfly, that has moved 137 miles (220km) northwards from central England to Edinburgh, in only two decades.
Over the same period the mountain ringlet butterfly has moved 490ft (150m) higher up and become extinct in much of the lower part of its range.
From a Canadian study in 2009:
When it comes to global warming, the canary in the coal mine isn’t a canary at all. It’s a purple finch.
As the temperature across the U.S. has gotten warmer, the purple finch has been spending its winters more than 643 kilometres farther north than it used to — and it’s not alone.
An Audubon Society study to be released Tuesday found that more than half of 305 birds species in North America, a hodgepodge that includes robins, gulls, chickadees and owls, are spending the winter about 56 kilometres farther north than they did 40 years ago.
The purple finch was the biggest northward mover. Its wintering grounds are now more along the latitude of Milwaukee, Wis., instead of Springfield, Mo.
Threats to species seeing a diminishing inhabitable area aside, what happens to human agriculture as growing regions migrate along with the animals by dozens or hundreds of miles northward in the decades to come? What is the impact as areas that produce corn and soybeans gradually become more hospitable to warmer plants such as rice? What happens when the same corn and soybeans move northward from the rich soils of the Midwestern United States and into lesser quality soils in the Canadian shield? What happens when still occurring violent outbreaks of cold weather cause severe harm to those crops wherever they may be?
These are questions that can be poured over now with plans made decades in advance – even though the migratory effects of climate change are already under way. The same can be said for preparations for increasingly violent weather swings – already observable, but still not as extreme as they may become. Into even more gray areas still – what are the geopolitical impacts of a completely ice-free Arctic ocean? Which countries are going to want rights to the newly uncovered resources on the ocean floor, and eventually underneath retreating glaciers?
As these questions remain unanswered we can only sit back and watch the continuing observable realities – the planet is telling us exactly how this story is unfolding, whether its sentient inhabitants want to believe it or not.