Ice is rapidly disappearing from both Poles. Two polar ice experts report latest science. From the U.S. National Center For Atmospheric Research in Colorado, Arctic scientist Laura Landrum: in 2020, the Arctic has reached a new climate state. Thomas Slater from Leeds University UK reports ice loss from glaciers has surpassed the worst case scenarios. Manhattan-size chunks falling away, other ice shelves shatter in unnatural heat and warmed-up seas.
2020! The worst pandemic in a century. Everybody running through that gauntlet of stress, trying to avoid the sickness. We add stunning record fires along the West of North America and a big helping of toxic smoke for much of the Northern Hemisphere, during a viral breathing disease. There are at least 100 million newly unemployed people in the developed economies. In other places, hunger is back. Don’t forget the transcontinental plague of grasshoppers this year. Not enough excitement for you? How about so many storm and hurricanes we run out of names for them. I suppose we still have time for earthquakes and tidal waves to round out the package. (A few days after recording this show, there were two earthquakes in California).
So you can be forgiven if you did not notice Earth’s Poles are going through epoch-making changes these days. Disappearing ice is not sexy, but if you like sci-fi future horror, rapidly disappearing ice at both Poles has plenty of that. We have two polar ice experts reporting on their latest science.
The new water added to the ocean runs away to every country with a sea coast. It runs up estuaries, eats away coastlines, and piles up in every hurricane, high tide and storm. Slater agrees with NASA that in some cases, there is no way to stop these mountains of ice from becoming sea water. This massive change has happened. The tipping point for a grand melting of the world’s second biggest pile of ice, Greenland, was 20 years ago. Like light from the stars, rising seas just take a while to reach us.
Hot in the cold news, this: the Arctic’s largest remaining ice shelf lost a very large chunk of ice, like the volume of mountains, broken away in North Eastern Greenland – floating off into the Atlantic are new melting ice islands twice the size of Manhattan. I won’t try to pronounce the complicated Nordic name. Scientists also call it “79N”. According to satellite images, a portion of the shelf about 110 square kilometers – that’s 42 square miles of thick glacier – just shattered. It fell apart this summer.
Breakaways from Greenland Glacier 79N – courtesy European Space Agency
This follows absolute record hot summers in the Arctic in 2019 and 2020, on top of the whole region warming around 3 degrees C since 1980. The far north has already gone past 3 degrees C of warming, way beyond the supposed safe line of 1.5 or even 2 degrees C. demanded by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and agreed by most governments under the Paris Accord of 2015. The Arctic is already soaring into dangerous warming, and the ice is responding at rates older scientists would never have believed possible.
This is Radio Ecoshock. I’m Alex Smith, welcome to our ice doomsday special. Let’s go to our scientists for the latest.
LAURA LANDRUM – A NEW ARCTIC CLIMATE DECLARED
With 90 degree heat reported in the high Arctic in both Canada and Russia this summer, and sea ice near record lows, has the Arctic changed permanently into a new state? That could alter the weather in the entire northern hemisphere where the majority of humans live – and raise sea levels beyond expectations.
Sure enough a new paper says “Extremes become routine in an emerging New Arctic“. Has the far north already entered a new climate, ahead of the rest of the world? Our guest is the lead author, Dr. Laura Landrum. She is a scientist from NCAR, the U.S. National Center For Atmospheric Research in Colorado.
Dr. Laura Landrum, scientist NCAR
Is there really a new climate active in the Arctic, or is it just part of year-to-year weather variability common to the Poles? Working with satellite measurements and photos since the first in 1979, Landrum and co-author Marika Holland show three ways the Arctic has moved beyond even the last of few decades of the 1900’s. First, says a press release from NCAR, “even an unusually cold year will no longer have the amount of summer sea ice that existed as recently as the mid-20th century.” The amount of ocean covered by summer Arctic sea ice in recent years is down 31% from 1980. This is no blip in sea ice, and we are not going back.
As I point out in the interview, Landrum is a published expert on Arctic sea ice. So I have to ask her whether the low ice levels of 2020 will set a new record and when we might expect to see sea ice more or less gone in the Arctic during the summer. Although official numbers are not yet in as we broadcast, it looks like 2020 sea ice levels will be the second lowest ever recorded, following 2012. An ice-free summer Arctic (except for patches around northern Canadian islands) may come in the decades after 2030. By the end of the century the Arctic could be ice free for somewhere between three and ten months of the year!
Beyond the sea ice, the authors also find “Autumn and winter air temperatures will also warm enough to enter a statistically distinct climate by the middle of this century.”
Thirdly, after that warming, they expect “a seasonal change in precipitation that will result in additional months in which rain will fall instead of snow.” An Arctic rainy season may be up to two months longer than seen in 1980. It made news when there was Greenland in December a couple of years ago. In the near future, it could rain in the Arctic in any month, this study says. Keep that increase in rain in mind, for my upcoming interview with Professor Mike Benton next week.
There are a wide number of impacts radiating out from these three signals of a new Arctic climate. For example, a longer period without snow means less of the Sun will be reflected back into space from a bright white snow cover. More of the Sun’s energy will warm the land, causing the permafrost to thaw. That releases more greenhouse gases as both carbon dioxide and methane. It also destabilizes human infrastructure and the patterns of survival built over ages by animals like caribou.
But the change in sea ice cover is, Landrum says, the single largest driver of big climate changes not just in the Arctic, but around the world. Of course our emissions are forcing that change in sea ice cover, by warming not just the atmosphere, but the seas as well.
Now in the Arctic, the traditional expectations for the seasons no longer work. Aboriginal people can no longer hunt at the same times, and animals are confused or spending energy adapting as they can. Plant life will shift. So will insects.
Plus: changes in the Arctic will alter teleconnections to cycles, weather and variability further south. The “new Arctic climate” does not stay in the Arctic. Already we have observations, from Jennifer Francis at Rutgers, that reduction of Arctic sea ice and dramatic changes to the behavior of the Jet Stream further south may be linked. Dr. Landrum agrees. Another scientist on Radio Ecoshock, Dr. Ivana Cvijanovic found evidence of a teleconnection between changes in the Arctic and rainfall in California. Could crashing sea ice be a contributing factor to the drought and wildfires in California this year? We probably need more science to be sure.
There is no going back to the old Arctic. Summer sea ice will not return to levels seen in the 1950’s, when a crossing of the Northwest passage was a major newsworthy expedition requiring ice-breakers. Now individuals in yachts travel across the Canadian Arctic by themselves, while tankers and freighters move in the Arctic Ocean above Siberia, significantly shortening the route from China to Europe. From shipping to hope for more oil and gas, big business is betting the new Arctic climate is here to stay.
Will the growing season in the Tundra, formerly about 60 days, get longer? Could the Boreal forests begin to extend into the Arctic? In Siberia, Northwest Canada, and Alaska the treeline extends into the Arctic Circle, (about 66 degrees North). Also, if winters get shorter, that could mean an increase in Arctic wildfires. Even “more” rain does not necessarily mean more rain in the fire season. Rain may not stop wildfires, especially as Mike Flannigan told us that thin northern soils can dry out and be ready to burn just 3 sunny days after a rainfall.
AFTERTHOUGHTS ON THE LANDRUM INTERVIEW
After reaching 91 degrees at Bathurst Inlet in Canada, and over 90 degrees this summer in Siberia, what would substantially warmer air temperatures be in 6 or 8 decades? It sounds like their conclusions, which break into new science, may already be too conservative for heat already on the ground? Does record heat this past summer, judged to be the hottest every recorded, tend to change even their new conclusions? Did models predict so much heat so soon? Why don’t we push at least a few models to the point where they keep up with actual observations, with the new records being set almost every year? Perhaps that is being done, but those results never make it into the IPCC reports which are always years after the fact, and agreed by consensus, including countries like Saudi Arabia.
THOMAS SLATER – GLACIER MELT HIGHER THAN WORST CASE SCENARIO
With a global pandemic and wild weather disasters all over, who has time to ponder the rate of ice melt at the poles? But we said that all through the past few decades, while seas inexorably rise higher. We saw storm surges into New Orleans and lower Manhattan. So yes, even in the current emergencies, what happens in Greenland and Antarctica will reach your world.
The latest science, published August 31st in the prestigious journal Nature, says ice loss is beyond the worst case used by models and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The study, “Ice-sheet losses track high-end sea-level rise projections,” was led by Dr. Thomas Slater, a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds. Thomas works in the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling.
Dr. Thomas Slater, University of Leeds
We are trying to look forward in time, to see what the force of rising seas will do. For me, one of the clearest examples comes with higher storm surges, like the dramatic flooding of lower Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy in October of 2012. Are we already at a point where Polar ice loss is bringing more intense disasters?
Discussing an article in Nature published August 13, Grace Palmer in scitechdaily quotes scientist Marco Tedesco saying the percentage contribution of Greenland to sea level rise could increase from 20 to 25 percent now, to 30 or 40 percent by the end of the century.
We begin our state-of-the-glaciers talk with the sad example of the Okjökull Glacier (simple known as Ok) in Iceland. It is the first world glacier declared “dead” due to climate change. On that site is a plaque reading:
A letter to the future
Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier.
In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path.
This monument is to acknowledge that we know
what is happening and what needs to be done.
Only you know if we did it.
While Eastern Siberia and the Canadian Arctic roasted this year with record high temperatures, it was actually a kind of “normal” year by modern standards for Greenland ice loss so far in 2020. Much more was lost last year, in 2019. Of course this “normal” now is much higher than when satellite records first began in 1979. NASA reports the Greenland melt season started about a month earlier this year, the second earliest in the past 40 year record.
We also talk a bit about the unexpected death of scientist Konrad Steffen, a voice who sounded the alarm on Greenland ice melt. Dr. Steffen fell into a crevasse at his base camp in Greenland in August 2020. It was an important loss for Arctic science.
But the main thrust of our discussion, and the new paper, is that measured loss of ice mass on Greenland has exceeded even the worst case scenario used by climate modelers and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Again, our climate situation is even worse than the best scientists thought. NASA has a mas balance graphic showing Greenland Ice Loss 2002-2016. That graphic reveals a steady staircase down in the balance of Greenland ice.
THE BIG TWO ON SEA LEVEL RISE
When it comes to sea level rise, two key points:
1. more sea level rise is now coming from glacial meltwater than thermal expansion of warming seas
2. about 60% of that added sea level is coming from Greenland – more than from Antarctica.
On September 14, Chris Mooney of the Washington Post reports “Two major Antarctic glaciers are tearing loose from their restraints, scientists say. Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers already contribute 5 percent of sea-level rise.” That comes from another new paper published in PNAS by European scientists.
COMMUNITY RADIO KEEPS THE CLIMATE NEWS COMING…
These polar changes are taking all life into a new age. Driving it all: Earth is retaining more energy from the sun, trapped by greenhouse gases from our tailpipes and smokestacks. Living things experience the change in many ways, but the key is heat. You can find my new book “Surviving the Age of Extreme Heat” at my web site, ecoshock.org. This e-book brings key interviews from Radio Ecoshock, from 16 top scientists and physicians plus authors and activists. It’s over 150 pages with tons of live links to check the facts or find out more. Find out more about “Surviving the Age of Extreme Heat” here.
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I’m Alex Smith. Thank you for listening, and caring about our world.