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Fingerprints of Arctic Warming Seen Throughout Region

The Arctic may not have smashed records for sea ice loss and land-based ice melt in 2013, but the region is still clearly undergoing rapid changes as a result of manmade global warming, scientists reported Thursday. The release of the annual Arctic Report Card, which was written by 147 scientists from 14 nations, shows that spring snow cover throughout large parts of the Arctic remains in free-fall, that older, thicker sea ice cover is a thing of the past, and that commercially valuable fish species, such as Atlantic cod and mackerel, have already moved northward in response to ocean temperature trends.

Thanks to a relatively cool summer across much of the Arctic Ocean, Arctic sea ice extent at the end of the melt season was greater than the 2012 record low. But it was still much below the long-term average, having declined to the sixth-lowest level on record since satellite observations began in 1979.

The map shows where sea surface temperature in August 2013 was warmer (red) or cooler (blue) than the 1982-2006 average. August 2013 sea ice extent (areas with at least 15 percent ice cover) is solid white. 
Click image to enlarge. Credit: NOAA.

The seven-lowest sea ice extents have occurred in the past 7 years, and scientists expect further declines in summertime sea ice extent and volume to occur as global warming continues. Studies have shown that the Arctic could become seasonally ice-free by mid-century, with some scientists saying that could occur much earlier.

“The Arctic caught a bit of a break in 2013 from the recent string of record-breaking warmth and ice melt of the last decade,” said David Kennedy, the deputy under secretary for operations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), at a press conference in San Francisco.

“The relatively cool year in some parts of the Arctic does little to offset the long-term trend of the last 30 years: the Arctic is warming rapidly, becoming greener and experiencing a variety of changes, affecting people, the physical environment, and marine and land ecosystems," he said.

In Greenland, the ice melt area was drastically reduced from the record large melt area observed in 2012, and was instead closer to the recent average, the report found.

The Arctic climate during the past year featured sharp swings between warm and cold extremes. For example, Eurasia had an unusually cold winter, but that was followed by spring air temperatures that were as much as 7°F above average. Meanwhile, unusually warm winter temperatures over the central Arctic Ocean, Greenland, and Baffin Bay were followed by unusually cool spring temperatures.

The topsy turvy nature of Arctic weather patterns during the past year are best illustrated by what happened in Alaska, the only U.S. state that crosses the Arctic Circle. Alaska had its coldest April on record, but that then gave way to one of the warmest summers. In Fairbanks, temperatures reached or exceeded 80°F for a record 36 days.

Map showing the surface melt extent on the Greenland Ice Sheet at the summer peak during the 2013 melt season. During the summer of 2013, the maximum area of melting on the Greenland ice sheet was 44 percent—the 14th highest in the 33-year record (1981-2013), but nowhere near the “extreme” 97 percent in 2012.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: NOAA.

Northern hemisphere snow cover extent during May and June was well below average in 2013, continuing a recent trend, the report said. Snow cover extent reached a record low in Eurasia, despite a frigid and snowy winter. The rapid melt of snow cover accelerates warming in the Arctic, as dark land surfaces absorb more solar radiation, and that warming also helps contribute to sea ice melt.

“Widespread, sustained changes that are driving the Arctic sytsem into a new state. Some would say that this has already happened, that the Arctic has shifted into a new normal,” said Martin Jeffries, science adviser for U.S. Arctic Research Commission and a professor at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.

One major theme throughout the report is how much scientists still don’t know about the Arctic, particularly when it comes to marine life. A lack of observations of fish populations, for example, prevent researchers from understanding how global warming is shifting fish species at different layers within the ocean.

Scientists seeking more observations

As the Arctic Ocean has rapidly opened in recent years due to sea ice loss, scientists have been scrambling to deploy observing systems to keep pace with the environmental changes. But they have bumped up against budgetary challenges and logistical constraints. “We have almost no observations of the currents, of the census of life” in new areas of open water, NOAA's Kathy Crane said at the press conference.

The insights that scientists have been able to glean about changes to the oceans in the Far North show the same thing that is occurring on land — widespread, rapid change.

The report found that 25 percent more heat and freshwater is now being stored in the Beaufort Gyre, which is a clockwise-moving ocean current that circles around north of Alaska and Canada. Much of that heat has been added during the summer and fall, coinciding with the most rapid time of sea ice loss.

In addition, the report said that Atlantic mackerel and cod have already moved into Arctic seas, with a historically high amount — 2.1 million tonnes of spawning fish — of Atlantic cod in the Barents Sea. Norway and Russia shared a record Atlantic cod quota in 2013, and the report warned that increased industrial fishing could alter local fish populations, especially since no fisheries management limits have yet been put into place for international Arctic waters.

U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Healy, which is one of only two icebreakers that the U.S. currently operates.
Credit: Coast Guard.

Jeffries said new observing networks are urgently needed in the Arctic, and efforts are underway on an international level to deploy more instruments to monitor the oceans and atmosphere in the region. Budget constraints and the lack of currently available observing platforms, including icebreakers that can transport researchers and serve as floating science platforms during the winter and early spring, have hampered activities.

The U.S. currently has just two functioning icebreakers, and Alaska’s senators, Republican Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Mark Begich, along with Washington State’s Democratic Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, have been trying to authorize funding for the construction of up to four new icebreakers for the U.S. Coast Guard.

Rapid Arctic climate change has forced the U.S. military to re-assess its Arctic strategy, with the announcement of a new, more active strategy announced in November, and Murkowski and others said that new icebreakers would help achieve the military’s new goals, although the Pentagon has not requested them.

While the icebreakers would be aimed at increasing the U.S. presence in the Arctic, including for national security purposes, scientists said new icebreakers would be welcomed by the research community.

Given the potential for new oil and gas drilling activities and marine shipping in the Arctic, Jeffries said, “we need to be prepared for new operations in this new Arctic” year-round. “There is always going to be ice in the wintertime.”

Don Perovich, a report co-author and ice specialist at Dartmouth College, said icebreakers offers scientists “a unique platform.”

“It enables us to get out there and make interdisciplinary observations.”

Related Content
No, Arctic Sea Ice Has Not Recovered
All-Time Heat Records Broken In . . . Alaska?
As Sea Ice Declines, Winter Shifts in Northern Alaska
In Rapidly Changing Arctic, U.S. Playing Game of Catch-Up
Study Adds to Arctic Warming, Extreme Weather Debate
Arctic Storms, Warming Mean More Methane Released
A Closer Look at Arctic Sea Ice Melt and Extreme Weather
Arctic Warming is Altering Jet Stream, Study Shows
Astonishing Ice Melt May Lead to More Extreme Winters
Video: Extreme Weather and Rapid Arctic Warming
Arctic Sea Ice Sets Record Low, And It's Not Over Yet


By john harkness
on December 13th, 2013

It was cool to hear you ask a question while I was watching the video of this press conference earlier today. Thanks for staying on top on this topic so well.

I was disappointed with the panels answers to the question about what accounts for the total failure of all the Arctic sea ice models. There answer was basically “feedbacks” and then the walked through the feedbacks that we all know about (to anyone who’s been paying even a smidgen of attention). But that doesn’t really answer the question, as far as I can see. Did none of those modelers know anything about these very basic feedbacks such as albedo?

I still would like to know what the major reasons are that so many models, really every single model, failed so absolutely to come even close to predicting the rate of about the most basic kind of physical change that could be imagined—melting of ice.

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By Eric Peterson (Front Royal, VA 22630)
on December 13th, 2013

The NW passage was open for a week or two only to small ships and cruise ships constructed with stronger hulls.  All the big cruise ships had real time Canadian ice info to avoid getting stuck and Canadian ice breakers on call. 

Russia has a half dozen nuclear powered ice breakers and dozens of diesel.  The British are about the only country to mimic our pathetic Arctic presence with 3 ice breakers.  No surprise since Britain is another declining empire just like the US.

Related to the myopia of catastrophic global warming is the notion that US matters anymore.  We don’t.  We have some momentum having had the been an economic superpower following WWII and carried the military burden of the Cold War.  But we have our role in leadership in applied science and engineering, thanks, in part, to the priority given to political correctness over facts resulting in harmful boondoggles like mercury lightbulbs, ethanol and rooftop solar to name a few.

Don’t get me wrong, those problems pale in comparison to much more expensive political failures like trillion dollar wars to get people to like us.  And don’t get me wrong about that, the mother of all boondoggles is the most Anglo and American notion that we can borrow and consume our way to prosperity.  Maybe our politically correctly indoctrinated students who learn almost nothing of actual value will save the day, but I doubt it.

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By Daniel O'Donnell
on December 15th, 2013

The NW passage was open for a week or two only to small ships and cruise ships constructed with stronger hulls.  All the big cruise ships had real time Canadian ice info to avoid getting stuck and Canadian ice breakers on call.[endquote]

Apparently you are thinking only of the sea route across the top of continental North America, and not of the sea route across the top of Russia and Europe. In the latter case the China Ocean Shipping Company, (Cosco, China government owned) sent two container ships across the NSR in the season just past. (See link below.) Cosco is planning for more and for regular transits, and the Russian government has approved and is planning infrastructure to support this in the form of more icebreaking ships and numerous coastal SAR stations.

There may be considerable reluctance in the American political class to acknowledge northern sea ice reduction and loss, but other governments are making plans for it.

Note to the article: the USCG has one decent icebreaker, the Healy, and one old and obsolete icebreaker, the Polar Star, which is being held together by parts cannibalized from its decommissioned sister ship the Polar Sea. (See Wikipedia for more info.)

Polar Star is called a heavy icebreaker because it displaces 16,000 tons, but that’s not close to the Russians’ heavy icebreakers, which are 25,000 ton and nuclear powered. The Russian heavies are also newer, and more are being planned.

The US has planned for one new icebreaker, but did not fund it. (Last I checked it is impossible to build a big ship without paying for it.)

Healy is not heavy enough to break through heavy sea ice. Also, its primary mission is research, though it does enforcement and rescue as well. Its Dolphin helicopters are old and nearly obsolete.

The US Navy has no capability whatsoever to operate in sea ice other than submarines popping up from below in thin summer ice.

The planned Russian SAR stations will undoubtedly act as nodes in sensing and research networks. The US has nothing to match this capability. In fact as the Coast Guard’s platforms in ships and aircraft age out, the US will no longer be able to reach northern Alaska or Canadian land stations in winter except by C-130.

China also has an icebreaker, the Xue Long (Snow Dragon) and it is nearly as heavy as Polar Star. It was built in 1993 and received an extensive refit in 2007.

So the Chinese and the Russians are not just planning for the thinning and loss of Arctic sea ice, they are already commercially operational. The NSR across Russia and Europe (Norway) will connect China to its commercial markets in Europe and eastern North America.

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By Eric Peterson (Front Royal, VA 22630)
on December 16th, 2013

Thanks for that info.  I think the passage above Europe and Asia is sometimes called the NE passage to distinguish it from the NW passage.  I think the NE passage is easier due to geography since there are not dozens of islands in the way.

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By Streven Baisdell
on December 14th, 2013

Based on the PIOMAS ice volume record 1979-2013 and trendlines:
Assuming no changes in slope of decline (which seems unlikely – it makes intuitive sense that positive feedbacks would speed loss rather than the opposite or no effect), and using the error bar lower bound for the 2012 record minimum, we would see open ocean at summer minimum for the first time in 6 years. Using the lower bound of the trend line it’s 9 years to first time open seas. It does appear as though the ice is collapsing, however, and if there’s a decline similar to 1980-81 (~3,500 km3), we could possibly see open waters at summer minimum within the next few years. Assuming no surprises (again imo not likely), the Arctic would be ice free at summer minimum 50% of the time (on average) in about 18-19 years, and open ocean every year in ~28 years.  I’m also thinking that once the Arctic is open water with loss of albedo, this will further reduce the amount and extent of refreezing due to radiative warming, Add to warmer water choppier open seas, loss of cooling due to absent ice and freezing winds, increased and increasingly warm runoff from melting tundra, the magnified AGW effect on northern latitudes, and stronger and more frequent polar storms and cyclones, and it sounds to me as though once we see open ocean the onset of ice formation would tend to be significantly later with much reduced extent and volume not implicated by the historical record. In other words, once the seas are open, I’m thinking at that point things start to deteriorate very quickly.

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By Darrell Symonds
on December 15th, 2013

Ur aticle is premature, the middle east is covered in snow, children have died from freezing temps, carbon tax that.

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