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Averaging together antarctic and arctic sea ice hides an important truth

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 2:37 PM GMT on January 15, 2009

Since my last post designating arctic sea ice loss as the top climate story of 2008, I've heard a lot comments like this one: "Jeff, you just can't seem to understand the that man-made global warming is a fable and complete hoax. In all that blathering about the falsified IPCC reports and the study of the arctic ice sheet, you somehow neglected to mention that the ice recovered not only what it lost last year, but is now larger than the previous known record measured in 1978".

Well, I can understand this point of view, given complexity of the climate change issue, and the large amount of conflicting information one sees in the media. Let's look at the facts about global sea ice. You can look at the data yourself at the excellent University of Illinois Cryosphere Today web site. Reliable sea ice records go back to 1979, when satellite measurements began. Antarctic sea ice reached its greatest extent on record during the winter of 2007. Summertime ice coverage also increased in 2007-2008 compared to 2006 levels (Figure 1). However, as one can see from Figure 1, there is high variability in antarctic sea ice from winter to summer, and antarctic sea ice can best be described as having stayed constant since 1979 (as stated in the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC did find that there had been a significant decline in arctic sea ice, in all seasons, between 1979-2006. Despite this decline, there have been three periods during the past two years when the sum of the arctic and antarctic sea ice was the same or even higher than it was at the start of the satellite era (1979). An article published January 1 on Daily Tech noted that "global sea ice levels now equal those seen 29 years ago". This was pretty close to the truth on December 31, 2008, despite the fact that arctic ice was 1 million km^2 below 1979 levels, since antarctic ice was 0.5 million km^2 above 1979 levels. Although arctic sea ice extent has steadily declined since 1979, especially in summer, this decline is not as great during the winter months. One can find periods in winter when summing together antarctic and arctic sea ice area makes it appear that arctic sea ice loss is no big deal.

However, this is the wrong way to look at the issue. We don't care much about global sea ice in winter. We care about arctic sea ice in the summer. Sharp declines in summertime arctic ice are likely to cause significant and damaging alterations to Earth's climate. Cleverly quoting irrelevant facts about global wintertime sea ice data to hide the summertime loss of arctic sea ice is a tremendous disservice. It's like hiding the potential impact of a major hurricane in a one-week forecast by saying, "the average peak wind speed for the next seven days will be 17 mph", and neglecting to mention that the wind will be calm six of those days, but 120 mph on the other day. The loss of arctic sea ice the past two summers, is, in my view, the most important human-caused climate change event yet--even more significant and dangerous than the opening of the antarctic ozone hole in the 1980s. It's great that we're not seeing loss of sea ice in Antarctica. But, both the Antarctic and the Arctic can be thought of as important internal organs in our living Earth. The fact that the Antarctic has not undergone significant warming and sea ice loss in no way diminishes the urgency with which climate scientists view the diseased state of our Arctic. Fully 88 presentations on arctic sea ice were made last month at the world's largest scientific climate change conference, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in San Francisco. None of these scientists averaged together the arctic and antarctic sea ice together to show that the overall state of Earth's cryosphere was a healthy one. There was widespread concern for the health of the Arctic among all the scientists I spoke with, and none of the speakers at the talks I attended expressed the idea that the recent melting of arctic sea ice was predominantly natural, with human-caused climate change an insignificant factor. One view (Stroeve et al., 2007) is that human-emitted greenhouse gases are responsible for 47-57% of the arctic sea ice loss since 1979. Heat-absorbing black soot from fires and pollution settling on the white ice is thought to also be a significant contributor.

Figure 1. Antarctic sea ice area as observed via satellite since 1978. The maximum area in winter has ranged between 14-16 million square kilometers, about the same amount of ocean that the Arctic ice covers in winter. However, the antarctic sea ice almost entirely melts away in summer, something the Arctic sea ice does not do (yet). Antarctica is a huge continent that rises thousands of feet above the ocean. It holds about 90% of the world's fresh water, locked up in its massive ice cap. The presence of such a titanic block of ice at the bottom of the world completely dominates the weather and climate of the region, and the year-to-year fluctuations of sea ice don't have a lot of impact on temperatures there. Image credit: University of Illinois Cryosphere Today.

What is the current state of Antarctic climate?
At the December 2008 AGU meeting, scientists gave Antarctica a mixed bill of health. Isabella Velicogna of UC Irvine reported that satellite gravitational variation measurements of Antarctica's ice cap showed significant loss of ice between 2002-2008, but that the large natural variations in melting with the seasons made it difficult to be confident of the results. A somewhat different result was reported by J. Zwally of NASA. Using data from a higher-resolution satellite-borne laser altimeter, he found that there was no major loss of Antarctica's ice sheet between 2003-2007. Regardless of which data set is correct, Antarctica is in better shape than the Arctic because Antarctica has stayed relatively cool in recent decades (Figure 2). For example, the surface temperature at the South Pole cooled 0.05° C between 1980 and 1999 (Kwok and Comiso, 2002). The majority of Antarctica has shown no statistically significant warming over the past 50 years (Turner et al., 2005), and cooling has just been dominant between 1982-2004. In the period 2004-2007, much of the Antarctic warmed (Figure 3), but it is too early to say if this is the beginning of a warming trend. Check out the January 22 issue of Nature when new results about whether or not Antarctica is warming will be published.

Figure 2. Antarctic surface temperatures as observed via AHVRR satellite measurements between 1982 and 2004. Much of Antarctica cooled during this period. Image credit: IPCC The Physical Science Basis, Figure 3.32.

Figure 3. Antarctic surface temperatures as observed via AHVRR satellite measurements between 1981 and 2007. Note that the cooling trend observed from 1982-2004 reversed, thanks to warming from 2004-2007. Image credit: NASA

Why did Antarctica cool between 1982 and 2004 if there was global warming going on?
The weather of the Antarctic is dominated by a strong band of westerly winds that blow around the pole. This circumpolar vortex extends from the surface to the stratosphere, and can attain very high wind speeds, thanks to the absence of large land masses to slow it down. This vortex tends to isolate Antarctica from the rest of the globe, keeping global warming from influencing Antarctica's weather, and allowing the surface to cool. The Antarctic Peninsula, which sticks out from Antarctica towards South America, frequently lies outside the vortex. This has allowed the peninsula to warm significantly, compared to the rest of Antarctica (Figures 2 and 3). The antarctic circumpolar vortex has strengthened in the past 25-30 years, forming an even stronger barrier than usual. Tree ring records (Jones and Widman, 2004) suggest that the circumpolar vortex has shown similar strengthening in the past, so the current cooling trend in Antarctica may be natural.

Another possibility, favored by climate modelers, is that the strengthening of the circumpolar vortex and recent cooling in Antarctica are primarily due to a combination of the recent increase in greenhouse gases and the opening of the Antarctic ozone hole. The ozone hole opened up at about the same time as the recent cooling began. Ozone absorbs UV radiation which heats the atmosphere around it, so the absence of ozone has led to cooling in the stratosphere over Antarctica. This cooling has been about 10° C in October-November since 1985 (Thompson and Solomon, 2002). This has acted to intensify the circumpolar vortex, leading to surface cooling. If the climate modelers are right, the circumpolar vortex will weaken as the ozone hole diminishes in coming decades. This will allow the Antarctic to begin warming with the rest of the globe, in a decade or two.

References and resources
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2007, The Physical Science Basis.

Jones, J.M., and M. Widman, "Atmospheric science: Early peak in Antarctic oscillation index," Nature 432, 290-291 (18 November 2004) | doi:10.1038/432290b; Published online 17 November 2004.

Kwok, R., and J.C. Comiso, "Spatial patterns of variability in Antarctic surface temperature: Connections to the Southern Hemisphere Annular Mode and the Southern Oscillation", GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 29, NO. 14, 10.1029/2002GL015415, 2002.

Thompson, D.W.J., and S. Solomon, "Interpretation of Recent Southern Hemisphere Climate Change", Science 3 May 2002: Vol. 296. no. 5569, pp. 895 - 899 DOI: 10.1126/science.1069270.

Stroeve, J., M.M. Holland, W. Meier, T. Scambos, and M. Serreze, Arctic sea ice decline:Faster than forecast", GRL 34 L09501, doi:1029/2007GL029703, 2007.

Turner, J. et al., 2005, "Antarctic climate change during the last 50 years", International Journal of Climatology, Volume 25, Issue 3, pp 279-294.

Arctic sea ice

"Antarctic cooling, global warming?" RealClimate.org post, 3 December 2004.

Volunteers needed for disaster relief fund-raising
The portlight.org disaster relief charity is in the process of wrapping up its Hurricane Ike relief efforts, and is looking ahead to the future. According the new wunderground featured blog, Portlight Disaster Relief, "Our goals are to expand our network of supporters, continue to create a sense of ownership and community and create a financial reserve. Achieving these goals is critical to us being able to serve future hurricane victims in a strategic, pro-active and efficient manner." To this end, Portlight is sponsoring a fund-raising effort this March and April in 40 cities--a Spring Relief Walk. Volunteers in twenty cities have already committed to the effort, and more volunteers are needed! Check out the Portlight Disaster Relief blog for more information.

Coming Monday: Inauguration Weather. Wednesday: is the globe cooling? A report on temperatures for 2008, merely the 9th warmest year on record.

Jeff Masters

Climate Change Sea Ice

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.