Q&A with Peter Wadhams

Peter Wadhams, Professor of Ocean Physics and Head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physic at the University of Cambridge, looks at sea ice models, how to improve them, and how to improve the quality of the IPCC’s assessment reports.

Sea Ice Melting Season started late, but not slow

It looks like someone pulled the trigger. While extent and area are still hundreds of thousands square kilometers behind 2012, Siberia and Alaska enjoy already sunny temperatures above 30°C. Also sea ice concentration on the Asian side is significantly lower from pole to coast than along the western part of the Arctic Basin.

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Brinicles and the Origin of Life

Brinicles are the most bizarre phenomena below sea ice. They grow like stalactites, but much faster and in absent of other forces eventually touch the sea floor freezing all creatures to death in their path. In 2011 the BBC team filming for 'Frozen Planet' captured these 'icy fingers of death' for the first time.

In a recent paper Julyan Cartwright at the University of Granada in Spain and colleagues describe in detail the chemistry of brinicles, and their most interesting observation is that brinicles also create chemical gradients, electric potentials and membranes - all the conditions necessary for the formation of life.

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Good Question

Recently accepted paper by James Overland and Muyin Wang poses a challenging question: When will the Summer Arctic be Nearly Sea Ice Free?

The abstract says, it depends: Three recent approaches to predictions in the scientific literature are: 1) extrapolation of sea ice volume data, 2) assuming several more rapid loss events such as 2007 and 2012, and 3) climate model projections. Time horizons for a nearly sea ice free summer for these three approaches are roughly 2020 or earlier, 2030 +/-10 , and 2040 or later.

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British Parliament Audit: Arctic Ice free within a Decade

Tldr; between 2003 and 2011 the Arctic sea ice volume decreased by 50% or 900km³ per year. Latest PIOMAS volume reads 3,400 km³.

With a tremendous effort and more importantly in a public way the Environmental Audit Committee invited and interviewed experts and scientists to collect all evidence about the conditions in the Arctic.

Topics cover everything from methane, permafrost, black carbon over sea ice to polar bears and more. The report went online earlier this day and is the most extensive and actual reader available now.

Here is the paragraph concerning volume and the conclusion:

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NSIDC Extent Sees 2012 Five Days ahead of 2007

	2007	2011	2012
 8.4	6,19	6,49	6,06
 8.5	6,04	6,37	5,87
 8.6	5,90	6,24	5,81 
 8.7	5,88	6,14	5,67
 8.8	5,81	6,05	5,47
 8.9	5,73	5,97	
8.10	5,59	5,90	
8.11	5,57	5,88	
8.12	5,51	5,80	
8.13	5,45	5,66	

Latest loss is close to 200,000km². And - completely unrelated - Reuters reports from a different planet having his own weather: "July was the hottest month in the continental United States on record".

Melting, Burning, Eddying, Swirling, Rejuvenating and Draining

A lot of things happened in the Arctic below the clouds a huge cyclone brought into the North weeks ago. I took the opportunity of a relatively thin cloud cover to zoomify a full Arctic mosaic mega image with all 24,000 x 24,000 pixel.

There was much to discover: The Nares Strait opened in the meantime letting the oldest and thickest sea ice escape out of the Lincoln Sea into warmer Baffin Bay. Last year's phytoplankton bloom in Barents was colorful and spectacular, looks like these microscopic lifeforms the foodchain is build upon meet again at same place.

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Yearly Sea Ice Volume Loss

The question: "When will the Arctic be ice free?" can be posed differently as: "When will we have 100% ice loss during the melting season?". The interactive chart above tries to answer second question. The yearly loss is defined as the difference between maximum and minimum volume.

'Ice free' and 'ice loss' are slightly different concepts or metaphors. A loss of 100% means the Arctic is ice free and a loss of 0% there was no Summer. Ice-free-ness implies the sheet starts phasing out somewhere in the future. Actually this is already happening and it is accelerating. The real question is when will it hit the ground? Having 100% ice loss eliminates all room for discussion, because there is no such thing as 110% loss, 100% loss simply means game over.

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Hudson Bay Break Up

In May 2005 NASA's Earth Observatory reported:

With the coming of spring, the ice on Canada’s Hudson Bay has begun to break up. Large chunks of ice float near the eastern shore of the bay, while to the west, the center of the bay remains frozen.

Earlier this month a similar photo was taken by the Aqua satellite. I leave it as an exercise to visitors to decide which of the above megapixel zooms was taken 2005-05-21 or 2012-04-06. It seems the thin ice can not withstand usual April weather any longer. At least the Chukchi Sea tells ...

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MYI buying ticket to Fram Strait

Above image taken by NOAA's AVHRR satellite shows active sea ice in the Lincoln Sea and North of Greenland. Current weather pattern support thick MYI drifting towards Fram Strait and Greenland Sea. A huge lead opened already end of February, but was closed later by changing wind directions.

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Burning Sea Ice

My favorite radar image this year so far. It shows Franz-Josef-Land unusually ice free and the ice edge throwing flames direction South. Anybody keen to speculate what's going on?

What's wrong with this image?

In some parts of the Arctic it seems the melting season has already started. Neven Acropolis writes at TP where, why and how much.

[Click the image to zoom.]

Drilling in the Arctic Ocean - December 2011 Update

This is Shell’s vision of drilling in paradise: The ocean is calm, no ice in sight, whales keep distance, the sun is shining, all vessels operate as planned, blow out preventer functions well, contractors are experienced and all damage will be cleansed before winter darkness. The Concerned namely Scott Woodham writing for AlaskaDispatch is not convinced.

BOEM just approved Shells Chuckhi Sea drilling plan, but with strings attached. Most importantly any drilling must stop 38 days before the ice season starts. Based on a 5-year analysis of historic weather patterns, BOEM anticipates November 1 as the earliest anticipated date of ice encroachment.

Just to compare above are the ice conditions as of 2001-11-01. BOEM seems to rule out any possible recovery.

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Sea Ice Decline in Canada's Regions

Statistics Canada just released the Winter report 2011 including detailed information about sea ice shrinkage over a 43 year period. The largest declines occurred in five southern and eastern sea ice regions:

  • Northern Labrador Sea, where sea ice decreased at a rate of 1,536 square kilometres, or 17 per cent, per decade,
  • Hudson Strait (down 4,947 square kilometres, or 16 per cent, per decade)
  • Davis Strait (down 6,581 square kilometres, or 14 per cent, per decade)
  • Hudson Bay (down 16,605 square kilometres, or 11 per cent, per decade)
  • Baffin Bay (down 18,658 square kilometres, or ...
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Natural Variations?

A very popular point puts changes of the Arctic sea ice into a historic perspective and claims 'there always have been natural variations'. Just like ebb and flow sea ice will come and go - nothing special.

The opposite states the abstract of the 'History of sea ice in the Arctic':

The current reduction in Arctic ice cover started in the late 19th century, consistent with the rapidly warming climate, and became very pronounced over the last three decades. This ice loss appears to be unmatched over at least the last few thousand years and unexplainable by any of the known natural variabilities.

The question is how does the signal of recent decline compares to known variations and a new papers by Christophe Kinnard and colleagues nicely visualizes this aspect. 'Reconstructed changes in Arctic sea ice over the past 1,450 years' describes the use of a network of high-resolution terrestrial proxies from the circum-Arctic region to reconstruct past extents of summer sea ice.

Check out the course of the top curve and then try to accept the Deluge as a matter of ebb and flow.

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New Visualizations of Sea Ice Decline

New ways to depict the ongoing sea ice retreat happening at the North Pole are always appreciated. Both of these info-graphics - designed by Rupert Burton and published at the BBC Earth Life Is blog - nicely contain the Arctic Circle as thematic motif. Enjoy and absorb.

Highres files: 1, 2

Sea Ice Thickness Forecast

Just out of curiosity I wanted to know what the average sea ice thickness in the Arctic actually is. So I took the available GSFC Dataset, filled the holes and used the overlapping time range with the IJIS/JAXA data set to perform a least error approach and gained a table starting 1979-01-01 and ending 2010-12-31. This range is also covered by the PIOMAS sea ice volume data set and calculating daily thickness was easy then.

But average thickness is a value which works only within a certain range. Having an average of zero, does no way mean there are any floes with negative thickness. Also, it turns out yearly thickness minimum is not in September, but rather in December when the Arctic is covered with a lot of fresh and thin ice.

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Earliest and Latest Sea Ice Melting Onset Dates

Paper published in the Indian Journal of Geo-Marine Sciences by S R Oza*, R K K Singh, N K Vyas & Abhijit Sarkar. The authors performed a "Spatio-temporal analysis of melting onset dates of sea-ice in the Arctic" and came to the conclusion:

Present study demonstrates that the historical onset-date image derived from the remote sensing data can be useful in the identification of areas that are having anomaly in the sea-ice seasonality.

It is found that the anomalies observed in the onset dates can be used as an indicator of the summer ice-free conditions in the Arctic Ocean which has ...

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See Thick Ice vanishing in the Beaufort Gyre

credit: NOAA

NOAA climate service animation based on the work of James Maslanik, Colorado, showing ice age distribution beginning January 1987 through mid-summer 2011. The Beaufort Gyre no longer fosters multiyear ice, instead it is now a dangerous place for old and thick ice.

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Sea Ice is not flat - Let's discuss Thickness

The season 2011 again revealed sea ice extent is the less informative the lower sea ice concentration is in the Arctic. Actually you may call it a red herring hiding the true nature of sea ice decline. It is time to put on 3D glasses and talk about volume and thickness.

To the end of this season the discussion focused on whether the ocean surface covered by sea ice was less or more this September or in 2007’s. That’s like comparing the buying power of different currencies by measuring the size of the banknotes.

These rose-colored spectacles called extent and area do not tell us winter sea ice currently looses thickness at an averaged rate of 10 centimeters and more per year. They filter out bottom melting during summer easily sums up to a meter during a month with a maximum rate of 10cm per day.

Finally both parameter prevent us from realizing that if melting trends continue or accelerate we’ll witness in a few years how millions of square miles of first year ice a few centimetres thick surprisingly turn into sea water just within a few days leaving only scattered floes of older ice.

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