Saturday, December 15, 2007


In the summer of 2005, the Arctic Ice drew back, to reveal a record amount of northern ocean. The summer melt of 2007 was 23 percent bigger. We are losing the annual white reflective cover over the Arctic Sea.

The whole climate system of the Earth could be affected.

This is Alex Smith. Wecome to Radio Ecoshock. Today we'll try to find out why the summer ice is disappearing in the Arctic at a record rate. And what it means. Expert scientists were surprised and shocked at what happened in the Arctic last summer. And you should be too.

Humans are already scheming to use the new Arctic Ocean. Oil and gas companies - the very same multinational corporations, fat with profits from climate change inducing products, - are impatient to start drilling, and extracting more fossil fuels from the far North. The whole shipping industry wants to cut across the Arctic, from Asia to Europe, saving millions of gallons of fuel, but risking a semi-permanent smear of oil, from even small accidents.

Right now, there are super-sized container ships and tankers too large to fit through the Panama Canal. They must go all the way around the stormy tip of South America to connect between Asia, the new location of the world's factories, and markets in the Eastern United States, and Europe. Going across the Arctic would cut about 10,000 miles off that trip.

The summer ice melt of 2007 created a new ocean surface over one million square miles - an area six times the size of the state of California. In just 6 says of September, ice the size of Florida, 69,000 square miles of it, disappeared. That's almost 18 million hectares of new ocean.

American science, censored and driven as we know by a denier White House, find new sub-causes, which are seldom linked to the forbidden words of climate change. For example, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has a new study saying the ice didn't just melt, it moved away.

Published in the Journal Geophysical Research Letters in early October, the research led by Son Ngheim employed a system of buoys and satellite imagery to show that heavy winds since the year 2000 drove older, thicker ice Eastward out of the Arctic basin, right past Greenland. These heavy ice sheets, developed over years, left thinner ice, which melted fast this past summer, they say.

Another NASA study found that the thick ice, as measured in 1987, had dropped from 80 percent, to 2 percent this spring. That may be due to a phenomenon known as the Arctic Oscillation. But surely the steadily rising average temperatures in the Arctic, which goes up much more than the global average as the climate shifts, is a part of the picture.

As Andrew Revkin of the New York Times found, in his October 2nd article, a check-in with scientists found their theories were as unsettled as the ice. If we really knew what caused the record summer ice melt of 2007, someone might have predicted it. No one did.

In part, this comes from the lack of resources and interest in a financially sterile environment of the frozen North. The other problem: the Earth is changing so fast that our patient scientific measurements can't keep up.

One thing Revkin did find: scientists who previously argued for natural variability in the Arctic were stunned by the recent massive ice melt. A majority now feel climate change is at work.

And the date when the Arctic ocean will be all-blue moves ever closer. An open ocean was once suggested for a future century. Now some scientists, like Wieslaw Maslowski of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif suggest it could come as early as 2013. Others say 2030. We dont' know, and this year's rapid melt shows just how much we don't know.

The big melt of 2007 could be a convergence of many causes. There was a high pressure system hovering overhead, which may have drawn warm winds from Siberia. The skies were unusually sunny during June and July. Increased water vapor may be a factor.

Another team of American Arctic researchers, Dr. Maslowski in Monterey and Igor V. Polyakov at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks found that more warm water is entering the Arctic Ocean through the Bering Strait - that body of water between Alaska and Russia. Still more warm currents coming in from the Atlantic, near Scandinavia.

Of course, this begs the question: why is the ocean warmer? And why have the currents changed? Not answered in official government-funded research - which always seems to lead to the conclusion that natural shifts are responsible, not human-made global warming. Not our smokestacks and tail-pipes, oh no.

There are exceptions. Mark Serreze, as senior scientist at the National Snow and Ice Date Center in Boulder Colorado admits natural factors are contributing, but, quote, "the effects of greenhouse warming are now coming through loud and clear." We'll be hearing more from Mark Serreze later in the program, as we bring you the highlights of a panel of Arctic experts reporting to a Congressional Committee at the end of November.


James Hansen of NASA is another brave exception, defying government gag orders. Hansen told Reuters, quote, ""The reason so much (of the Arctic ice) went suddenly is that it is hitting a tipping point that we have been warning about for the past few years."

The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research agrees with him. The Arctic ice system has already tipped. Possible impacts, and we don't know yet, include changes to the Indian monsoon, a slowdown of the Gulf Stream, and more melting of the Siberian permafrost.

Here is yet another European scientific institute saying the Arctic tipping point is behind us. Paal Prestrud of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo told Reuters, in an article September 28th, quote: "I'd say we are reaching a tipping point or are past it for the ice. This is a strong indication that there is an amplifying mechanism here."

Another minor detail: almost every climate model has predicted a growing Arctic ice melt as one of the effects of climate change, due to increased greenhouse gases. Scientists said it would happen, as a key indicator the big change is arriving. The problem is that these models underestimated the amount and timing of the big ice melt. Now it's here.

The fact that a tipping point escaped all our study and computer modelling is very worrying. The same could be true for the time of the melt of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets - those vast stores of water that could drown our coastal cities. All bets are off when it comes to how soon that could happen.


Remember that sea ice melting does not lead to rising sea levels. That is counter to common sense, until you think of ice cubes melting in your drink. They don't cause your glass to overflow as they melt, because their weight had already displaced the same amount of water.

The real impacts are several. New flows of water impact ocean currents which are the largest single driver of our climate. Air currents are also changed, and the dark open ocean absorbs much more heat from the sun, leading to more ice melt - the positive feed-back loop.

Aboriginal people, like the Inuit of Northern Canada, are seeing their lifestyles, developed over countless thousands of years, wiped out. And without the ice buffer, some villages in Alaska are being pounded into the Sea.

Somewhere down the ladder of human worries, animals like polar bears will likely go extinct without the ice shelves for hunting. In early September 2007, the United States Geological Survey predicted that if ice declined at the current rate, two thirds of the polar bears will be gone by 2050.

As we'll hear later in the program, that's just one of the impacts of the new hot Arctic on the ecosphere. This one hot summer of 2007 had lasting impacts on the land species, as well as the ice. Stay tuned for Canadian research on this year's sudden re-arrangement of the Northern landscape.

We've been counting up various reasons why this ice melt occurred at all. Another amplifying factor is the black soot coming from out-of-control and unreported forest fires burning across northern Canada and Siberia, in Russia. Please download our November 19th program "Burning Down the West" (56 MB 1 hour) - on wildfire carbon, to get the latest information on this. Not only do these massive fires (with much more to come in the next few years) add carbon dioxide to the air, resulting in more fires - the soot is so thick that it creates a darkening hue to the ice, which speeds up melting. We can see the greying of world ice from satellite images - and coal burning isn't helping. The black soot factor is likely minor, but it all adds up.

Meanwhile, Alaska's Senator Ted Stevens told a US Senate Committee that the Arctic ice melt is due to increased sunspots. Mr. Stevens and his son are under investigation for taking bribes from energy companies. But if you read the flamers in various Internet news groups, you can still find a whole host of deniers with fatuous reasons why the top of the world is melting away fast.

Let's look at one last scientific theory that could explain the speed of the melt. Jennifer Francis, an associate research professor at Rutgers’ Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences says that rising sea surface temperatures are driving the melt. Her paper, along with Elais Hunter, was published in Geophysical Review Letters. They found that sea surface temperatures in the winter time - not summer - have gone up in the Barents Sea by up to 3 degrees Celsius since 1980.

This hotter winter sea surface water could hinder the development of thick ice, and thus help a faster melt in the summer. Note that Francis and Hunter don't think the sea temperature change is just some natural change. They attribute a warmer sea to greenhouse gases - to global climate change.

The whole Arctic system is so complicated, and so under-studied, we can get as complex as you can stand. In 1997, American scientists borrowed a Canadian ice breaker, and set it to freeze in the Arctic Ice. They wanted to measure ocean currents under the ice. Dr. Robert Pinkel of Scripps Institution of Oceanography led the team, which used Doppler Rader, bouncing signals off masses of plankton drifting by under the ice, to determine what goes on down there.

If you are interested in Arctic oceanography, you can still find a Google Video of Pinkel's lecture on May 9th 2005, available online from UCTV, Berkeley.

Pinkel's scientists found a bed of relatively warmer water, a few hundred feet down below the ice. Just under the ice, they found what could be called waves, and some mysterious large eddies. Pinkel wondered, if something should cause mixing under the ice, bringing up the wamer water held below, then the surface ice could melt in no-time.

That seems to co-incide with the research done by Francis and Hunter.

How strange it would be, if the force melting the ice was not the obvious unusual hot and sunny weather in the atmosphere, but the residual build-up of carbon-induced heat, soaked up by the ocean over decades, finally starting to surface in the Arctic.

Likely, it is both, hot air and hot water, the perfect storm of latent and current global warming.

Now I'd like to play you a few clips from a fine Canadian science program called Quirks and Quarks, hosted by the national broadcaster, the CBC. We find out that even if another super warm summer doesn't happen for another decade, that one hot spot has already done lasting damage to the LAND-BASED ecosystems of Canada's North, and likely the same in Siberia. The implications are simply huge.

[Quirks & Quarks feature interview][The research on Melville Island showed that just one extreme summer, in 2007, had permanently re-arranged the landscape. The heat penetrated deep into the permafrost, causing the upper mat of soil and vegetation to slide down into the streams and valleys. This would happen in many places in the Arctic - has already occured, a lasting change, whether we ever get another record hot summer like that, or not. That is how sensitive the Arctic environment really is.]

That interview by host Bob McDonald with Dr. Scott Lamoureux, was broadcast on October 13th, 2007. Quirks and quarks is one of the best science programs around. Find it at

So far, we've been talking about the sheet of sea ice that disappeared over the summer - by far the largest on record.

But the ice covering over Greenland is melting at a staggering rate - and that is new water to the ocean - meaning sea levels will certainly rise.

According to studies led by Colorado University professor Konrad Steffen, the Greenland melt is accelerating. The 2007 melt broke the previous record, set in 2005 by 10 percent - making it the largest ever recorded there since satellite measurements began in 1979. You can find this in their December 10th, 2007 press release at And we'll be hearing from Konrad Steffen directly in our next segment, as he explains the latest science to a Congressional Committee in late November of this year.

This time there's no questions about ocean currents or wind. The Greenland ice is melting off due to a simple rise in temperatures, global warming. According to the press release, quote, "Air temperatures on the Greenland ice sheet have increased by about 7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1991, primarily a result of the build-up of greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere..."

Steffen presented the new research at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Franscisco Dec 10th to 14th. Note that he used several U.S. military satellites to measure the ice melt, as well as 22 stations on the ground.

Apparently the snow and ice on Greenland is actually getting thicker at higher elevations, as the greater humidity of a warmer world gets dumped there as snow. But measurements show that Greenland is losing much more ice than it gains in snow inland. Again, the press release says:

"The amount of ice lost by Greenland over the last year is the equivalent of two times all the ice in the Alps, or a layer of water more than one-half mile deep covering Washington, D.C."

In the Congressional presentation, we'll be hearing about the Jacobshavn Glacier, one of the fastest moving outlets.

Scientist Steffen also warns that meltwater on the surface is finding it's way to the base of the glacier, and acting as a lubricant to move the ice much faster to the sea. There is a possibility that huge amounts of ice could break off quickly, and simply slide into the ocean. Since Greenland holds about one twentieith of all the the world's ice, a total melt there would raise sea levels by 21 feet - that's over 6 meters.

The University of Colorado team says the spring reports of the Intergovenmental Panel on Climate Change greatly underestimated sea-level projections for the year 2100.

I'm Alex Smith for Radio Ecoshock. Join is in the next half hour, as we hear some of the latest. Scientists explain the rapid ice melt to members of a Congressional Committee in late November 2007. We digest the important points, from the CSPAN2 live broadcast. [Search for "Impact of Global Warming on the Arctic][first broadcast 11/26/07]

[Digest version available in audio only. Click title above or:

[Now that the Arctic Sea is melting in the summer, to reveal the fabled North West passage, and a new ocean linking the giant continents of the North, all the oil-funded cranks in the world look even more pathetic, as they try to deny global climate change. Meanwhile, the rest of us need to scramble. Throughout civilization as we know it, the sea level has been stable. Our maps even show different city and mountain elevations as so many meters or feet above "sea level". Re-write the maps - because there is no standard sea level any more. The sea may rise for hundreds of years, or millenia, as the planet enters the new hot state.]