Sea Ice North: The new field of ice-free Arctic Ocean science

By: Dr. Ricky Rood , 10:43 PM GMT on April 28, 2011

Sea Ice North: The new field of ice-free Arctic Ocean science

I recently read a paper in Physics Today entitled The Thinning of Arctic Sea Ice by R. Kwok and N. Untersteiner. (Nice essay by Untersteiner) This paper was written for a general scientist audience, and provides a good summary of the state of the science. The primary focus of the article is on understanding the small change to the surface energy balance required to explain the increased rate of sea ice melt in the summer. Some time ago I wrote a few blogs on Arctic sea ice; they can be found here and this one is most relevant: Sea Ice Arctic.

When the IPCC Assessment Report was published in 2007 the Arctic sea ice was in visible decline. In the summer of 2007 there was a record decline that caught the attention of both climate scientists and the broader public. As suggested in Kwok and Untersteiner immediately following the release of the 2007 IPCC report papers started to appear about how the IPCC synthesis had underestimated the melting of both sea ice and ice sheets. Much of this underestimate could be summed up as simplistic representation of the dynamics of ice melting. For example, brine-laden sea ice floating in salty sea water turns over. Snow gets on the top. It melts, then there are puddles and ponds that can flow down into ice. Simplistically, and I am a simpleton, it’s like a pile of ice cubes sitting in a glass versus stirring those ice cubes, or blowing air over the ice, heat gets carried around and ice melts faster.

The presence of large areas of open ocean in the Arctic is new to us. It motivates new research; it motivates claims to newly accessible oil, gas, and minerals; it motivates new shipping routes; it suggests changes in the relationships of nations; it motivates the development of a military presence. (All things Arctic from the Arctic Council) The natural progression of scientific investigation starts to explore, describe, and organize what is to us modern-day humans: a new environment, new ecosystems, and new physical systems. For example, the Mackenzie River now delivers a massive pool of fresh water into the ocean. Fresh and salt – big differences to flow in the ocean because the density is different; big difference to the formation of ice because the freezing temperature is different; and big differences in the plants and animals in the water.

Compared with trying to attribute the contribution of global warming to a particular weather event, it is easier to link the recent, rapid decrease of sea ice to a warming planet. The freezing, melting and accumulation of ice require persistent heating or cooling. It takes a lot of heat for a sustained period to melt continental-size masses of ice. Historically, the sea ice that was formed in the winter did not melt in the summer and there was a buildup of ice over many years – it accumulated; it stored cold. Around the edges of this multi-year ice are areas where the sea froze and melted each year. The melting of multi-year ice, therefore, represents the accumulation of enough heat to counter years of cold. The movement, poleward, of the area where ice freezes and thaws each year is the accumulation of spring coming earlier. The requirement for energy to persist and accumulate to affect changes in sea ice reduces the uncertainty that is inherent in the attribution of how much global warming has impacted a particular event.

Understanding the detailed mechanisms that provided the heat to melt the ice remains a challenge. (This is the real point of in Kwok and Untersteiner) We know it takes about 1 watt per square meter of energy to melt that much ice that fast. This could be delivered by the Sun, transported by the air, by the ocean, by warm water from the rivers of Canada and Siberia, by snow – yes, snow is energy. Once the ice is gone in the summer, then the ocean can absorb heat from the Sun. If there is growth of phytoplankton or zooplankton, then they might enhance the absorption of energy – yes, life is energy. Ocean acidification might change. The natural question that arises – do these processes that are active in this new environment work to accelerate sea ice melting or might they contribute to freezing of water. What are the local feedbacks? (This is above – see below.)

Another study that is of interest is the paper in Geophysical Research Letters, Recovery mechanisms of Arctic summer sea ice, by S. Tietsche and colleagues. This is a model study. With a model the scientist owns the world and can prescribe what it looks like. In these numerical experiments, the Arctic is prescribed with no ice. Then whether or not the ice recovers is explored. In these studies the ice does recover. The ocean does indeed take up extra heat in the summer, but it gives it up quickly in the fall. This is followed by the formation of first year ice in the winter. The ice-albedo feedback that might let the ice melt runaway is limited. Tietsche et al. conclude that it is not likely that Arctic sea ice will reach a tipping point this century.

This does not mean that summer ice loss will decrease. This does not mean that there will not be huge changes in the Arctic. This only says that it still gets cold in the winter.

Models: One of the things I like about the Kwok and Untersteiner paper is their brief discussion of models. They point out that none of the models available for the 2007 IPCC assessment were able to predict the rate of sea ice decrease. Looking forward, they state that the model projections for 2060 range from no sea ice in September to more sea ice than is observed today. The Tietsche et al. paper is a focused model experiment – not a climate projection. It is also a model result that, perhaps, helps to understand the differences in the 2060 projections. That is, how is the recovery of sea ice in the autumn represented in the projection models?

A couple of other points: First, the amount of energy needed to cause the observed melting in sea ice is 1 watt per square meter. If you calculate the amount of energy in the different factors at play in melting of sea ice, then the numbers are 10s of watts per square meter. As suggested above, there are many reservoirs of energy – the Sun, rivers, etc. So when we look at the different ways 1 watt per square meter can be delivered to the sea ice, then there are several paths. The existing models tell us that with the increased heat due to greenhouse gases, energy gets delivered to the Arctic and sea ice melts. The existing models say that there might be several different paths; it is likely, that several of them operate at different times. The second point: Of course the Tietsche et al. paper will enter as an isolated contribution to the political argument, Arctic “death spiral” – as will those of accelerated melt, New warning on ice melt.


Figure 1: Simplistic summary of Arctic sea ice

Useful links
Recent sea ice trends
Sea ice data
Rood’s Blogs on Ice

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Quoting cyclonebuster:

Bob Tisdale and Anthony Watts = Two peas in the same pod.

True--though Tisdale likely has more than a high school diploma, the highest level of education Watts reached before becoming the Big Kahuna of Denialism. (That is, whoever Tisdale may be; I can find absolutely no information on him, so he might just be a manufactured phantom, kinda like the non-existent "Steve Goddard". Denialists invent their own science, so there's no reason to think they wouldn't also invent their own scientists.)
Member Since: November 8, 2009 Posts: 4 Comments: 14846
Well, in other news, a volcano recently just erupted in Ecuador.

The Volcanic aerosoles spewed by this volcano could aid the short term cooling caused by La Nina.
Member Since: April 1, 2010 Posts: 9 Comments: 2699
Quoting RMuller:
My point is that they are nowhere near what he is saying. Read the article.

Debunked numerous times already. We'd like to discuss science here, please, not antiscience nonsense written by non-credentialed antiscientists working as paid members of antiscience organizations and publishing only on antiscience sites. Please.
Member Since: November 8, 2009 Posts: 4 Comments: 14846
Quoting MichaelSTL:

Certainly looks like SSTs have warmed!

According to that graph, it looks like SST Temps were flat from 1950-1970, then rose around the same time the PDO went positive, and then have flatlined since 2000.
Member Since: April 1, 2010 Posts: 9 Comments: 2699
Quoting McBill:

That supposed quote does not appear anywhere in that article. Furthermore, the article doesn't even support your claim that negative feedbacks will predominate in the long run. Maybe you cited the wrong article?

Yeah, you're right. I did cite the wrong article. Ironically, this article is written by the same person who wrote the last article that I accidentally cited.

Member Since: April 1, 2010 Posts: 9 Comments: 2699
oh that RMuller! what a jokester
Member Since: August 24, 2010 Posts: 19 Comments: 4358

Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 439 Comments: 137213
Quoting cyclonebuster:

Correct it is old hat now! We already knew this years ago! They are just trying to pull the blind over our eyes and sugar coat it.

Yea, I just didn't want to leave that out for fear of being called a biased hidden agenda al gore worshiper
Member Since: August 24, 2010 Posts: 19 Comments: 4358
Quoting cyclonebuster:
Get ya'lls facts straight will ya!

Data results from year 2008 and after

In an article from November 5, 2008, Josh Willis states that the world ocean actually has been warming since 2003 after removing Argo measurement errors from the data and adjusting the measured temperatures with a computer model his team developed.[3][10]

Here is a graph with the 2008/2009 Argo network data included.[15]


Yea, well your leaving out a bit of key info from that wikipedia page, let's not cut stuff out.

Here's the full quote from wikipedia's ARGO page on Data Results:

Data results

It is not yet possible to use Argo data to detect global change signals.[9]
[edit]Data results from year 2006 with undetected errors
The Argo Network has[3][10] shown a continuous declining trend in ocean temperatures. The trend was overstated in media reports because of published data with undetected errors in year 2006. In March 2008, Josh Willis of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory did report that the Argo system show no ocean warming since it started in 2003. "There has been a very slight cooling, but not anything really significant," Willis has stated.[11] A lot of media has reported the uncorrected data results[12] and even though the revised corrected data appeared in 2008, many articles and arguments still use and promote the uncorrected data results from 2006.[13][14]
[edit]Data results from year 2008 and after
In an article from November 5, 2008, Josh Willis states that the world ocean actually has been warming since 2003 after removing Argo measurement errors from the data and adjusting the measured temperatures with a computer model his team developed.[3][10]
Here is a graph with the 2008/2009 Argo network data included.[15

Basically data from 2003-2006 showed only a slight, but really insignificant cooling. However, the method used to determine that was apparently faulty, and so, when they published the data from 2003-2008 using proper methods, they found a slight warming.

For anyone who doesn't like wikipedia, you can find all the same info from ARGO's page
Member Since: August 24, 2010 Posts: 19 Comments: 4358
Quoting Snowlover123:

The total ocean heat content would be the same, however, the total land based heat content would increase, which in turn would rapidly warm the Arctic, due to the warmer than normal Ocean Currents, and in turn would melt the Arctic, and the Arctic would warm faster than everywhere else, due to the patches of ocean that would appear, due to melted ice, warming the Arctic, and adding Heat to the Earth's Global Heat Budget. So effectively, the oceans indirectly add more heat, due to the Arctic Albedo, or "reflectance."

It is also important to note that there has been no increase in OHC over the past several years.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?stor yId=88520025


Some 3,000 scientific robots that are plying the ocean have sent home a puzzling message. These diving instruments suggest that the oceans have not warmed up at all over the past four or five years. That could mean global warming has taken a breather. Or it could mean scientists aren't quite understanding what their robots are telling them.

This is puzzling in part because here on the surface of the Earth, the years since 2003 have been some of the hottest on record. But Josh Willis at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory says the oceans are what really matter when it comes to global warming.

In fact, 80 percent to 90 percent of global warming involves heating up ocean waters. They hold much more heat than the atmosphere can. So Willis has been studying the ocean with a fleet of robotic instruments called the Argo system. The buoys can dive 3,000 feet down and measure ocean temperature. Since the system was fully deployed in 2003, it has recorded no warming of the global oceans.


I agree, but disagree. I agree that if there were NO possible Climate Feedbacks, yes, Man has the potential to warm Earth with doubling co2 by 1 Degree F. However, this is not nearly the case, and there are known documented Climate Feedbacks with doubling of co2. One of those is increased evaporation. The evaporated water condenses to form clouds.

When the total amount of cloud cover goes up, the temperature comes down. This is one of the most prominent negative feedbacks co2 has to deal with if it wants to warm the Earth 1 Degree F when there are doubled amounts of co2.

And as seen here,



the variability of the air temperature at these
stations during the last centuries shows that the influence of growing CO2
concentration in the atmosphere has been totally eliminated by the system's negative


The clouds' negative feedback are enough to cancel co2 warming all together. co2 induced warming in the past had negative feedbacks to deal with, it has negative feedbacks to deal with now. That is why in the paleoclimatological data, the co2 is more than ten times as high as current co2 concentrations, but we were in the midst of an Ice Age.

You are correct- but you have stated what they do when there are no climate feedbacks.

With regards to the 3,000 robots (ARGO project), here is a direct quote from their website

"The global Argo dataset is not yet long enough to observe global change signals.

They've only been collecting data since late 2003. Your NPR news report was issued in 2008. If anyone honestly thinks 4 years is enough time to note climate trends, they're fooling themselves.


But if you really think 4 years is enough time, here's the graph they produced (in black)

looks like warming if anything.

And you claim oscillations don't have any net change on the total heat content of the oceans, but do increase total land heat. What is your proof of this?

Feedback loops
About climate feedbacks of CO2, you point out a negative feedback loop (graeter cloud coverage), but you leave out the fact that water vapor itself is a greenhouse gas, which causes warming.

You also leave out many other positive feedback loops (melting arctic, methane release from deep seas, methane release from arctic tundra, desertification, deforestation, etc, etc).

The subject of feedback loops in climate changes is very complicated. To go outright and claim that the net effect of CO2's feedback loops is cooling is foolish.

In summary...

Oscillations are not proven to have any net change on the total heat of earth.

CO2 feedbacks are not understood well enough to claim that they cause net cooling.
Member Since: August 24, 2010 Posts: 19 Comments: 4358
And yes, as RMuller correctly points out, the GOMEX SSTs have not increased at all since 1930. One who would look at this graph might actually think there is a cooling trend going on with the SSTs.

Member Since: April 1, 2010 Posts: 9 Comments: 2699

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I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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