Earth's attic is on fire: Arctic sea ice bottoms out at a new record low

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 3:46 PM GMT on September 20, 2012

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The extraordinary decline in Arctic sea ice during 2012 is finally over. Sea ice extent bottomed out on September 16, announced scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) on Wednesday. The sea ice extent fell to 3.41 million square kilometers, breaking the previous all-time low set in 2007 by 18%--despite the fact that this year's weather was cloudier and cooler than in 2007. Nearly half (49%) of the icecap was gone during this year's minimum, compared to the average minimum for the years 1979 - 2000. This is an area approximately 43% of the size of the Contiguous United States. And, for the fifth consecutive year--and fifth time in recorded history--ice-free navigation was possible in the Arctic along the coast of Canada (the Northwest Passage), and along the coast of Russia (the Northeast Passage or Northern Sea Route.) "We are now in uncharted territory," said NSIDC Director Mark Serreze. "While we've long known that as the planet warms up, changes would be seen first and be most pronounced in the Arctic, few of us were prepared for how rapidly the changes would actually occur. While lots of people talk about opening of the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic islands and the Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast, twenty years from now from now in August you might be able to take a ship right across the Arctic Ocean."


Figure 1. Arctic sea ice reached its minimum on September 16, 2012, and was at its lowest extent since satellite records began in 1979. Image credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

When was the last time the Arctic was this ice-free?
We can be confident that the Arctic did not see the kind of melting observed in 2012 going back over a century, as we have detailed ice edge records from ships (Walsh and Chapman, 2001). It is very unlikely the Northwest Passage was open between 1497 and 1900, since this spanned a cold period in the northern latitudes known as "The Little Ice Age". Ships periodically attempted the Passage and were foiled during this period. Research by Kinnard et al. (2011) shows that the Arctic ice melt in the past few decades is unprecedented for at least the past 1,450 years. We may have to go back to at least 4,000 B.C. to find the last time so little summer ice was present in the Arctic. Funder and Kjaer (2007) found extensive systems of wave generated beach ridges along the North Greenland coast, which suggested the Arctic Ocean was ice-free in the summer for over 1,000 years between 6,000 - 8,500 years ago, when Earth's orbital variations brought more sunlight to the Arctic in summer than at present. Prior to that, the next likely time was during the last inter-glacial period, 120,000 years ago. Arctic temperatures then were 2 - 3°C higher than present-day temperatures, and sea levels were 4 - 6 meters higher.


Figure 2. Year-averaged and 3-month averaged Northern Hemisphere sea ice extent from Chapman and Walsh (2001), as updated by the University of Illinois Cryosphere Today. I've updated their graph to include 2011 plus the first 9 months of 2012.


Figure 3. Late summer Arctic sea ice extent over the past 1,450 years reconstructed from proxy data by Kinnard et al.'s 2011 paper, Reconstructed changes in Arctic sea ice over the past 1,450 years. The solid pink line is a smoothed 40-year average, and the light pink areas shows a 95% confidence interval.  Note that the modern observational data in this figure extend through 2008, though the extent is not as low as the current annual data due to the 40-year smoothing. More commentary on this graph is available at skepticalscience.com.

When will the Arctic be ice-free in summer?
So, when will Santa's Workshop need to be retrofitted with pontoons to avoid sinking to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean in summer? It's hard to say, since there is a large amount of natural variability in Arctic weather patterns. Day et al. (2012) found that 5 to 31% of the changes in Arctic sea ice could be due to natural causes. However, the sea ice at the summer minimum has been declining at a rate of 12% per decade, far in excess of the worst-case scenario predicted in the 2007 IPCC report. Forecasts of an ice-free Arctic range from 20 - 30 years from now to much sooner. Just this week, Dr. Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University predicted that the Arctic will be ice-free in summer within four years. A study by Stroeve et al. (2012), using the updated models being run for the 2014 IPCC report, found that "a seasonally ice-free Arctic Ocean within the next few decades is a distinct possibility." Of the 21 models considered, 2022 was the earliest date that complete Arctic sea ice occurred in September.


Video 1. A powerful storm wreaked havoc on the Arctic sea ice cover in August 2012. This visualization shows the strength and direction of the winds and their impact on the ice: the red vectors represent the fastest winds, while blue vectors stand for slower winds. According to NSIDC, the storm sped up the loss of the thin ice that appears to have been already on the verge of melting completely.Video credit: NASA.

But Antarctic sea ice is growing!
It's a sure thing that when Arctic sea ice hits new record lows, global warming contrarians will attempt to draw attention away from the Arctic by talking about sea ice around Antarctica. A case in point is an article that appeared in Forbes on Wednesday by James Taylor. Mr. Taylor wrote, "Antarctic sea ice set another record this past week, with the most amount of ice ever recorded on day 256 of the calendar year (September 12 of this leap year)...Amusingly, page after page of Google News results for Antarctic sea ice record show links to news articles breathlessly spreading fear and warning of calamity because Arctic sea ice recently set a 33-year low. Sea ice around one pole is shrinking while sea ice around another pole is growing. This sure sounds like a global warming crisis to me."

This analysis is highly misleading, as it ignores the fact that Antarctica has actually been warming in recent years. In fact, the oceans surrounding Antarctica have warmed faster than the global trend, and there has been accelerated melting of ocean-terminating Antarctic glaciers in recent years as a result of warmer waters eating away the glaciers. There is great concern among scientists about the stability of two glaciers in West Antarctica (the Pine Island and Thwaites Glaciers) due the increase in ocean temperatures. These glaciers may suffer rapid retreats that will contribute significantly to global sea level rise.

Despite the warming going on in Antarctica, there has been a modest long-term increase in Antarctic sea ice in recent decades. So, how can more sea ice form on warmer ocean waters? As explained in an excellent article at skepticalscience.com, the reasons are complex. One reason is that the Southern Ocean consists of a layer of cold water near the surface and a layer of warmer water below. Water from the warmer layer rises up to the surface, melting sea ice. However, as air temperatures warm, the amount of rain and snowfall also increases. This freshens the surface waters, leading to a surface layer less dense than the saltier, warmer water below. The layers become more stratified and mix less. Less heat is transported upwards from the deeper, warmer layer. Hence less sea ice is melted (Zhang 2007). As the planet continues to warm, climate models predict that the growth in Antarctic sea ice will reverse, as the waters become too warm to support so much sea ice.


Figure 4. Surface air temperature over the ice-covered areas of the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica (top), and sea ice extent, observed by satellite (bottom). Image credit: (Zhang 2007).

Commentary: Earth's attic is on fire
To me, seeing the record Arctic sea ice loss of 2012 is like discovering a growing fire burning in Earth's attic. It is an emergency that requires immediate urgent attention. If you remove an area of sea ice 43% the size of the Contiguous U.S. from the ocean, it is guaranteed to have a significant impact on weather and climate. The extra heat and moisture added to the atmosphere as a result of all that open water over the pole may already be altering jet stream patterns in fall and winter, bringing an increase in extreme weather events. This year's record sea ice loss also contributed to an unprecedented melting event in Greenland. Continued sea ice loss will further increase melting from Greenland, contributing to sea level rise and storm surge damages. Global warming doubters tell us to pay attention to Earth's basement--the Antarctic--pointing out (incorrectly) that there is no fire burning there. But shouldn't we be paying attention to the steadily growing fire in our attic? The house all of humanity lives on is on fire. The fire is certain to spread, since we've ignored it for too long. It is capable of becoming a raging fire that will burn down our house, crippling civilization, unless we take swift and urgent action to combat it.

References
Funder, S. and K.H. Kjaer, 2007, "A sea-ice free Arctic Ocean?", Geophys. Res. Abstr. 9 (2007), p. 07815.

Kinnard et al., 2011, "Reconstructed changes in Arctic sea ice over the past 1,450 years".

Walsh, J.E and W.L.Chapman, 2001, "Twentieth-century sea ice variations from observational data", Annals of Glaciology, 33, Number 1, January 2001, pp. 444-448.

Related info
Half of the polar ice cap is missing: Arctic sea ice hits a new record low. September 6, 2012 blog post
Wunderground's Sea Ice page

Jeff Masters and Angela Fritz

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Quoting Hangten:
I just was informed Grothar has received a ban of sort. Probably one of the few real gentlemen here. I am not sure of what is the substance but I would believe it was of not bad intent. He is quite a refined gentleman of good nature and loved by all who know him. Do not be of concern on this grothar. I am sure they know it was by mistake.


Oh my. I think I know what did it. He posted a youtube video of that UK meteor in which the uploader used very "colorful" language. Gro said this was a mistake and that he did NOT have his sound turned on to hear this commentary about the meteor.

That's a shame, but I'm sure it won't last long.

Everyone who uploads these videos needs to make sure it's clean for WU. They don't sound too tolerant of mistakes like this.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
1198. 47n91w
Quoting Neapolitan:
Above-normal temperatures and drier air return to the northern tier of states over the next few weeks, according to these images from the CPC:

Heat

Heat

That may put a lid on talk of snow for at least a few more weeks. And that's either great news or bad news, depending on how one sees such things...


Oh thank goodness. Killing freezes and frosts have been occurring the past few days it's currently snowing in parts of the Iron Range of northern Minnesota right now (link):



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1194. guygee
Quoting KoritheMan:
Don't they just reverse bans within 24 hours anyway?
(Unless you did something terrible, which I know Grothar did not)
Well I was banned last night for three hours...first time ever since 2005...I was just ending a Carl Sagan quote with a silly "in general" afterthought, directed at the weather modification spammers who have been active here lately. It seems the joking needs to be done a lot more carefully. As I was told several posts above, this is a Science Blog, not a social forum.
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OH NO AT THE ABOVE POST
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Quoting coolpapabell2:
Link


000
FXUS63 KDLH 220302
AFDDLH

AREA FORECAST DISCUSSION
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DULUTH MN
1002 PM CDT FRI SEP 21 2012

.UPDATE...

A SPOTTER NEAR CHISHOLM HAD REPORTED THE RAIN HAD SWITCHED OVER TO
SNOW...WITH A QUARTER INCH OF ACCUMULATION. RAP AND NAM BOTH SHOW
LOWEST FREEZING LEVELS ACROSS THE NORTH...AND SINK IT SOUTH AND
WEST OVER THE NEXT FEW HOURS...THEN ACTUALLY INCREASE FREEZING
LEVELS LATE TONIGHT. KHIB/KEVM OBSERVATIONS HAVE ALSO SWITCHED
TO SNOW...AT LEAST BRIEFLY. WE WILL UPDATE AND EXPAND COVERAGE OF
SNOW. WE STILL THINK ACCUMULATIONS WILL BE QUITE LIMITED AS THE
GROUND SHOULD MELT MUCH OF THE SNOW...PERHAPS WITH SOME MINOR
ACCUMULATION ON GRASSY SURFACES/DECKS.

Tonight it snows up there, cold air mass to work with. Places in lower MI are forecasted to get sleet and rain.
Member Since: March 16, 2012 Posts: 127 Comments: 7928
Snow!

Link


000
FXUS63 KDLH 220302
AFDDLH

AREA FORECAST DISCUSSION
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DULUTH MN
1002 PM CDT FRI SEP 21 2012

.UPDATE...

A SPOTTER NEAR CHISHOLM HAD REPORTED THE RAIN HAD SWITCHED OVER TO
SNOW...WITH A QUARTER INCH OF ACCUMULATION. RAP AND NAM BOTH SHOW
LOWEST FREEZING LEVELS ACROSS THE NORTH...AND SINK IT SOUTH AND
WEST OVER THE NEXT FEW HOURS...THEN ACTUALLY INCREASE FREEZING
LEVELS LATE TONIGHT. KHIB/KEVM OBSERVATIONS HAVE ALSO SWITCHED
TO SNOW...AT LEAST BRIEFLY. WE WILL UPDATE AND EXPAND COVERAGE OF
SNOW. WE STILL THINK ACCUMULATIONS WILL BE QUITE LIMITED AS THE
GROUND SHOULD MELT MUCH OF THE SNOW...PERHAPS WITH SOME MINOR
ACCUMULATION ON GRASSY SURFACES/DECKS.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting KoritheMan:


Don't they just reverse bans within 24 hours anyway?

(Unless you did something terrible, which I know Grothar did not)

Hi Kori, I think/hope it is only temporary.
Member Since: March 16, 2012 Posts: 127 Comments: 7928
WHOEVER BANNED GROTHAR NEEDS TO UNBAN HIM NOW, PLEASE.

THANK YOU WUNDERBLOGADMIN
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Quoting Hangten:
I just was informed Grothar has received a ban of sort. Probably one of the few real gentlemen here. I am not sure of what is the substance but I would believe it was of not bad intent. He is quite a refined gentleman of good nature and loved by all who know him. Do not be of concern on this grothar. I am sure they know it was by mistake.


Don't they just reverse bans within 24 hours anyway?

(Unless you did something terrible, which I know Grothar did not)
Member Since: March 7, 2007 Posts: 558 Comments: 20027
1184. sheople
Link

Terribly interesting story of the Inuit knowledge of their environment. Thought some might be interested.
Member Since: September 12, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 35
Quoting Astrometeor:


I don't like including rainfall as a measure of the strength of a storm, ex: Tropical Storm Allison. It should just be surge and wind speed, but if a storm is capable of producing extreme amounts of rain, then the public would need to be alerted.

I say the two main factors are wind and surge but rainfall is a factor. Maybe lowering the emphasis on rain but that is something to do later.
Member Since: March 16, 2012 Posts: 127 Comments: 7928
1182. Hangten
I just was informed Grothar has received a ban of sort. Probably one of the few real gentlemen here. I am not sure of what is the substance but I would believe it was of not bad intent. He is quite a refined gentleman of good nature and loved by all who know him. Do not be of concern on this grothar. I am sure they know it was by mistake.
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The arrogance is sickening.........
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1180. etxwx
Quoting GeorgiaStormz:


But humans won war of the worlds, that wasnt an end, it was just a fight.


And in the end it was the littlest things...

G'nite, folks. Hopefully we won't be welcoming any alien overlords in the morning.
;-)
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Quoting wxchaser97:

I fixed the graphic, now it labels each column.


I don't like including rainfall as a measure of the strength of a storm, ex: Tropical Storm Allison. It should just be surge and wind speed, but if a storm is capable of producing extreme amounts of rain, then the public would need to be alerted.
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Quoting Civicane49:


I saw it after I posted my comment on your scale.

I fixed the graphic, now it labels each column.
Member Since: March 16, 2012 Posts: 127 Comments: 7928
Quoting etxwx:

Let's hope this is nowhere near Horsell Commons...


But humans won war of the worlds, that wasnt an end, it was just a fight.
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Quoting wxchaser97:

Thanks


Yeah, see comment 1163 as I edited it, thanks.


I saw it after I posted my comment on your scale.
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Quoting Slamguitar:


Either way, I like it.

Thanks

Quoting Civicane49:


Looks good, but it needs labeling.

I assume that the middle column is storm surge and the far right column is amount of rainfall.

Yeah, see comment 1163 as I edited it, thanks.
Member Since: March 16, 2012 Posts: 127 Comments: 7928
1174. etxwx
Quoting CaicosRetiredSailor:

Twitter just exploded with reports, pictures, and videos of an extremely bright fireball moving over the northern part of the UK at around 22:00 UTC. I've seen tweets from folks in Ireland, Manchester, and more. It was traveling east-to-west, and broke up into many pieces as it fell. No reports of it hitting the ground yet, though some pieces may fall all the way down.


FROM:

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/20 12/09/21/very-bright-and-spectacular-meteor-seen-o ver-northern-uk/

Let's hope this is nowhere near Horsell Commons...
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Quoting wxchaser97:

This is what I've been working on for a while, part of me independent study. I would like comments, suggestions, and even criticism so I can make it better.
I am also writing a blog about it and this is my scale that no one else can claim their own.


Looks good, but it needs labeling on each column.

I assume that the middle column is storm surge and the far right column is amount of rainfall.

I like it, though.
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1172. guygee
Quoting CaicosRetiredSailor:
Meteor mania: Watch VIDEO of huge comet spotted over north west England...http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/met eor-mania -huge-comet-spotted-1337427
Hmmm The Mirror, eh. I am not falling for your snark again.
;-)
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1171. Grothar
We are getting very heavy tropical downpours.

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Quoting wxchaser97:

I ran out of room when I was making it, yes they are.


Either way, I like it.
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Quoting Slamguitar:


I assume your middle column is surge and your right most column is total rainfall, but it wouldn't hurt to label them. ;)

I ran out of room when I was making it, yes they are.
Member Since: March 16, 2012 Posts: 127 Comments: 7928
Quoting GeorgiaStormz:


Glad the Aliens finally made it.
Dec 21 is fast approaching.

I guess we have to unite and take down the aliens, yes I am watching Independence Day.
Member Since: March 16, 2012 Posts: 127 Comments: 7928
Quoting wxchaser97:

This is what I've been working on for a while, part of me independent study. I would like comments, suggestions, and even criticism so I can make it better.
I am also writing a blog about it and this is my scale that no one else can claim their own.


I assume your middle column is surge and your right most column is total rainfall, but it wouldn't hurt to label them. ;)
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1166. Grothar
Quoting Slamguitar:


That was some great commentary, haha.


Thank God it wasn't subtitled. I had the sound off. I didn't hear the commentary. Sorry. I guess we have ruined the British as well.
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Quoting whitewabit:
Meteors over UK


Glad the Aliens finally made it.
Dec 21 is fast approaching.
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Quoting TropicalAnalystwx13:

Looks like a tropical storm already.

I think it already is or very close, sure looks like one.
Member Since: March 16, 2012 Posts: 127 Comments: 7928
The left column is rating and wind speed, middle is surge, and right column is rainfall.

This is what I've been working on for a while, part of me independent study. I would like comments, suggestions, and even criticism so I can make it better.
I am also writing a blog about it and this is my scale that no one else can claim their own.
Member Since: March 16, 2012 Posts: 127 Comments: 7928
Quoting TropicalAnalystwx13:

Looks like a tropical storm already.


It looks like it. The structure of 13-E looks organized.
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Quoting Grothar:


That was some great commentary, haha.
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Quoting Civicane49:
TD 13-E:




Looks like a tropical storm already.
Member Since: July 6, 2010 Posts: 113 Comments: 31575
Meteor mania: Watch VIDEO of huge comet spotted over north west England

Twitter goes into meltdown as hundreds report "massive cluster of lights in the sky"



http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/meteor-mania -huge-comet-spotted-1337427
Member Since: July 12, 2007 Posts: 0 Comments: 5999

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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.