A look at weather extremes and the big-picture climate connections.

Unusual Weather Pattern Freezes Europe, Shifts Arctic Ice

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The cold snap in Europe that has killed more than 600 people and buried communities under record snow cover has had an entirely different impact in the Arctic, which is where you’d normally expect to find frigid weather at this time of year. In parts of the Far North, it has been unusually mild recently, and broad expanses of open water have emerged. This open water has raised questions about whether Arctic sea ice is declining even faster than before.

The open water, located in the Barents and Kara Seas, led one blogger to claim that the developments are “unprecedented” in the satellite era (since 1979), and that the winter buildup of Arctic sea ice had ground to a halt this year — possibly leading to a record low maximum sea ice extent for the winter season.

Sea ice concentration maps for Feb. 11 during the past several years. Arrows in bottom right images point to area of unusually open water. Click on image for a larger version. Credit: Univ. of Bremen/Climate Progress

Neven Acropolis, who writes the Arctic Sea Ice blog, wrote in a guest post for Climate Progress, “I think it’s safe to say that this is unprecedented ever since satellites started monitoring Arctic sea ice in 1979 . . . It’s almost as if the melting season has already started in the Barents and Kara Seas, more than two months earlier than normal.”

That’s not the case, though, according to sea ice expert Walt Meier of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colo. “I can’t say it’s unprecedented, but it’s certainly not something that we see regularly” during the winter, Meier said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s happened before.”

According to Meier, sea ice tends to be present in most areas of the Arctic Ocean during winter unless warm water gets transported into the region, or winds push ice away from the coastline. In this case, persistent southwesterly winds associated with the unusual weather pattern are the prime suspect in causing the area of nearly ice-free waters near Novaya Zemlya, a Russian island at the border between the Barents and Kara Seas. (For more background on what's been driving the cold snap, see my post from last week.)

Monthly average surface temperatures in Europe and the Arctic during February (left); and average monthly sea level pressure (right). Note the cold air and high pressure in Europe, and mild air and lower pressure in much of the Arctic. Click on image for a larger version. Credit: NCEP/NCAR.

“I think it’s mainly a wind effect due to the pressure system,” Meier said. “. . . It’s quite unusual that it’s such a large area and that it’s been there for at least a week right now, almost two weeks.” Areas of wind-driven open water are typically referred to as polynyas, Meier said, although it’s not clear if the current situation meets the technical definition since the area of open water is so large.

The lack of sea ice in the Barents and Kara Seas may lead to a greater summertime loss of sea ice there, Meier said, because whatever ice manages to form before the melt season will be thin and therefore more susceptible to melting.

Meanwhile, on the Arctic’s Pacific side, there has been much more sea ice than average in the Bering Sea, associated with persistent northerly winds there. According to the most recent sea ice analysis from NSIDC, the Arctic-wide sea ice extent was much below average during January, despite the second-highest sea ice extent since 1979 in the Bering Sea. In fact, the drawdown of sea ice in the Barents and Kara Seas held January sea ice growth to the lower level in the satellite record, NSIDC researchers stated.

The bottom line, according to Meier, is that this is not a normal winter in the Arctic, but what’s going on in the Barents and Kara Seas isn't the direct result of climate change. “I wouldn’t read too much into it climate-wise, but it’s definitely a pretty unusual winter for sea ice.”

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Comments

By Bob Wallace (Bridgeville/CA/95526)
on February 15th, 2012

Nevin used the word “unprecedented” in context - “this is unprecedented ever since satellites started monitoring Arctic sea ice in 1979”.  He showed you the satellite record for 2004 to 2012.  How much work would have it been for you or Meier to look at the other five years rather than toss his message by changing the context?

It took me less than five minutes to confirm Nevin’s claim.  You can do it too…

http://igloo.atmos.uiuc.edu/cgi-bin/test/print.sh?fm=02&fd=10&fy=1979&sm=02&sd=10&sy=2012

Just change the left panel year from 1979 to 1980 and hit ‘Submit’.  Repeat for the other four years.

Fact seems to be, there’s little ice in the Arctic along the Atlantic boarder this year.  And while extent is roughly the same as the lowest (recent era) year a lot of that ice is in the Bering Sea and is likely to melt out quickly.  The Bering typically does a total melt and last year was the first part of the Arctic to become ice free.  The Bearing was pretty much ice free by the first of June.

Volume/thickness is roughly 85% of what it was this time of year in 2007.  The lack of thick ice in the Barents and Kara Seas means early melt there and that means an early loss of albedo and much more heat absorption by open water.  This is a formula for easy flushing of multi-year ice through the Fram Straights and a possible significant loss of Central Arctic Basin ice.  An assault on the last “frozen” part of the Arctic Sea.

Smart money, I would think, will get placed on the Arctic Death Spiral graph being moved downward from 2015….

https://sites.google.com/site/arctischepinguin/home/piomas/piomas-trnd6.png

Reply to this comment

By Andrew
on February 15th, 2012

Bob - If you’re suggesting that I took Nevin’s quote out of context, I don’t think you’ve got firm ground to stand on, considering that I quoted him as speaking about the satellite record only. Meier was also referring to the satellite record only.

Perhaps Meier is incorrect, and the current situation is unprecedented since 1979. What then? That doesn’t automatically mean a record low will be reached in September, although it’s possible. The system is more complex than the death spiral hypothesis assumes, in my view.

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By Copie (9343)
on February 15th, 2012

What nonsense you “Global Warming” religion people preach. Telling us that record cold weather is a result of global warming is just a sick joke! Do something useful, help someone who is suffering from the extreme cold.

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By Bob Wallace (Bridgeville/CA/95526)
on February 15th, 2012

Well, we have had a couple of quakes here in the last few days so perhaps my ground is less firm than desirable, but the fact remains that either of you could have easily checked Nevin’s claim.  And apparently you also didn’t before replying to my post.  That portion of the Arctic has not been ice free at this time of year since the beginning of the 1979 satellite record.

Furthermore, I did not state that we would automatically set a new record low, I outlined the conditions under which it could happen given the state of today’s ice. 

You might think the system is more complex that the death spiral “hypothesis”, but that’s a plot of the data we’ve got.  Given that conditions proceed as they have over the last many years we’re going to see the end of summer Arctic sea ice soon.

It’s fairly easy to identify multiple accelerating factors (decreased albedo, increased heat absorption by open water, increased wave action on the ice due to longer fetch, thinner/less multi-year ice, lack of a normal choke point at the Fram Straight, warmer air mass leading to stronger summer storms) which could lead us to a summer melt-out by 2015 or sooner.  No one, as far as I’ve discovered, has identified some new force which might retard, much less reverse, the melt.

This complexity of factors is working together to melt ice and to a great extent they work to increase the strength of each.

 

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By Neven
on February 16th, 2012

I admit that I surmised that “it’s safe to say that this is unprecedented ever since satellites started monitoring Arctic sea ice in 1979”. I had only checked the Uni Bremen sea ice concentration map archive, and didn’t look at the comparison maps on Cryosphere Today. I also checked SLP and SST maps for different years in the 2004-2012 period to see if similar patterns back then produced similar results. If I remember correctly 2006 and 2008 had a similar trajectory, but not quite as extreme. In the first week of February 2005 the ice even retreated halfway to the south of Novaya Zemlya because of a big high-pressure system, but that was short-lived.

The reasons I surmised this is unprecedented, is that first of all the ice is probably thinner now than in the past (and with now I mean the new Arctic era since 2005), so it’s easier for the winds to blow it back. Second, the waters in this area of the Arctic have been exceptionally warm ever since the last melting season, warmer than any other year in that new Arctic era I just mentioned (see the end of the ClimateProgress guest blog).

Now that the atmospheric patterns have switched (a low has moved in over Novaya Zemlya), changing the winds and lowering temperatures far below zero again, the open water has finally started to freeze over. It’s extremely interesting to me, exciting even, to see how much will get covered with sea ice and how fast that will melt again in April/May. Also the fact that the winds must have compressed quite a bit of ice in the region, makes it a fascinating unknown to look at.

The bottom line, according to Meier, is that this is not a normal winter in the Arctic, but what’s going on in the Barents and Kara Seas isn’t the direct result of climate change. “I wouldn’t read too much into it climate-wise, but it’s definitely a pretty unusual winter for sea ice.”

I agree, of course. My motto is that nothing is a dead certainty in the Arctic. But it is definitely a very interesting prelude to the melting season, which will start in about 4 weeks at the latest.

Reply to this comment

By Andrew
on February 16th, 2012

Neven,

Thanks for detailing your calculations/thinking. I agree that this is an interesting - and potentially ominous - prelude to the melt season of 2012. I encourage readers to follow your blog, which contains some great insights - http://neven1.typepad.com/.

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By Terry Moran (Cambridge,ON,CA)
on February 16th, 2012

Neven appears to be correct - as usual

It is not difficult to confirm that Neven’s statement is accurate were Meier’s is not. But it is difficult to see why Meier would compare this to a polynya as this event is driven more by temperature than wind speed.

I fear that Meier is far to cautious in not attributing a weather phenomena that falls this far from the statistical norm to climate change. Didn’t Hansen in a paper this year show that with global warming we should expect, and have experienced, a much greater number of anomalous weather events that fall far from the middle of the flattening bell curve that represents unusual weather events?

I’m overjoyed that Neven’s site is being noticed and commented upon, but would ask that in future a little more research be done before refuting claims made there.

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By Peter Ellis (Cambridge)
on February 16th, 2012

Terry, I don’t think you can be that dogmatic about wind vs temperature events. The two are connected in that if wind blows an area clear of ice, the exposed water will warm the air above it. Besides, there are multiple types of polynyas including latent heat polynyas, so the criticism is misplaced in any event.

There is however a much simpler reason why this isn’t a polynya. A polynya is an opening within the ice pack, while this region of open water is continuous with the Atlantic. If it constitutes a polynya, then you might as well say the Atlantic itself is a huge polynya between the northern and southern ice caps. It robs the word of all meaning!

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By crandles
on February 16th, 2012

To be 100% sure “unpresidented” is fully justified, you may feel you need to check 13 weeks from 1 Jan to 31 Mar for each of the years 1979 to 2011 (or maybe 1972 to 2011). That is some 429+ checks to be done not 4 as suggested by by Bob. (Where does 4 come from???) Everyone involved may have better things to do than make those 429+ checks. Consequently if you ask Meier it seems perfectly likely he cannot immediately provide confirmation that it is unprecedented and you get a reply like ” “I can’t say it’s unprecedented, but it’s certainly not something that we see regularly”. Note even Neven only wrote “I think it’s safe to say that this is unprecedented”. I see Meier’s reply as supporting the idea that it is highly likely to be unprecedented.

Therefore, I think it is clear that “That’s not the case, though, according to sea ice expert Walt Meier” is badly and misleadingly wrong.

If several people think it isn’t unprecedented then maybe they will each do some of the 429 checks. I wouldn’t hold your breath while you wait for their simple proof that it isn’t unprecedented. Their proof is simple just post a relevant date when it has occurred before.

I agree Meier is being cautious as to whether “unprecedented” is fully justified and also in “not attributing a weather phenomena that falls this far from the statistical norm to climate change”. However rather than fearing he is too cautious, I think this is appropriate and the correct position for a scientist to take until the evidence is available and that is going to take some considerable time for a new phenonena. A good example of scientists being careful and not jumping to conclusion which might be somewhat dodgy.

Of course, when the evidence is in, they should report (as they do in IPCC reports) things like that global warming is happening and is highly likely to be caused by greenhouse gases.

Jumping to conclusions before evidence is in would undermine scientists careful reports and should be done so it is good to scientist are being appropriately cautious.

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By crandles
on February 16th, 2012

Sorry last paragraph in my post should have read

“Jumping to conclusions before evidence is in would undermine scientists careful reports and should not be done. So it is good to scientist are being appropriately cautious.”

missing not was rather important. (Also apologies for spelling errors)

Reply to this comment

By Neven
on February 16th, 2012

Well said, crandles. And thanks for that last comment, Andrew.

What has just happened in the Barents and Kara Seas doesn’t say anything definitive (a priori) about AGW influences on the Arctic or about the coming melting season. But to me it was definitely spectacular. And ominous because of everything that has happened in just these few years.

I’m very eager to see what this melting season brings…

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By zahraa (aberdeen wa 98520)
on April 4th, 2012

OMG!! right or wrong this argument is AWESOME!! It’s like reading an episode of “The Big Bang Theory”. YES!! ill check back on the blog definatly. Thanks guy!!

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By nofreewind
on March 22nd, 2013

The Kara sea ice is completely normal.  It has reached it’s maximum area the same as every other year
http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/IMAGES/recent365.anom.region.7.html

and forget about the Barent sea.  I’m more woried about the Bering Sea, which set a record last year and has been gradually increasing in ave area the past 10 years.  Overall there has been Bering Sea ice the past 6 yrs than ever on record.  It’s worse than we though.

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