Ok Arctic, You Can Take Your Ice Back. You Need It Badly.

By Tom Yulsman | February 21, 2014 5:57 pm
Great Lakes Ice False Color ice

A false-color image captured by NASA’s Aqua satellite on Feb. 19, 2014, when ice covered 80 percent of the the Great Lakes. This color scheme helps distinguish ice from snow, water, and clouds. Ice appears pale blue. (Source: NASA)

If I had to pick a word of the week it would probably be “ice” — an abundance of it in the Great Lakes and a lack up in parts of the Arctic.

That icy dichotomy pretty much captures the essence of the strange winter we’ve been having this winter.

The satellite image above, acquired by NASA’s Aqua satellite on Feb. 19, shows the Great Lakes in false color (bands 7-2-1 on the MODIS instrument). Ice cover shows up pale blue, open water is navy blue, snow is blue-green, and clouds are white or blue-green.

In mid-February, ice cover on the Great Lakes reached 88 percent, according to NASA, well above the average maximum extent of ice: 50 percent. Ice cover over 80 percent is very rare, having occurred only five times in the past four decades.

Temperature outlook ice Warming temperatures have caused the ice to pull back a bit to 80 percent as of Feb. 19. But now, another Arctic blast appears to be taking aim on the U.S. midsection, with frigid temperatures forecast to hit the north central United States this weekend. (Click on the thumbnail at right to see the temperature outlook for Feb. 27 through March 3.)

Meanwhile, up where all this cold air is supposed to be coming from, the normal wintertime expansion of Arctic sea ice has slowed dramatically. Climate Central reports that sea ice extent as of Feb. 18 was at a record low level for mid-February.

Here’s why:

surface air temperature anomaly ice

Air temperatures over a large part of the Arctic have been abnormally warm through most of February. (Source: NOA/ESRL)

The map shows how temperatures have departed from the long-term average from Feb. 1st through the 18th.

One anomalously warm area stands out: the red and orange spot located in the Barents Sea by Svalbard. (Click here for a Google map pinpointing Svalbard.) At the heart of this area, temperatures have averaged more than 20 degrees F warmer than normal. The unusual warmth also has extended into the Sea of Okhotsk off the northwest coast of Russia. (A map.)

Arctic sea ice extent

Source: NSIDC

These areas are typically covered in sea ice in February. But they are ice free now, as the graphic to the left shows (click on the thumbnail for a larger version). The orange line marks the median extent of Arctic sea ice for Feb. 20, 2014. Open water is present near Svalbard and in the Sea of Okhotsk.

As Brian Kahn notes in his story at Climate Central:

The decline in sea ice is one of the key indicators of climate change. Sea ice in January, the last full month for which data is available, has declined 3.2 percent per decade since 1979 compared to the 1981-2012 average. That equals roughly 18,500 square miles in ice lost per decade, the same area as Vermont and New Hampshire combined. This past January ranked as the fourth-lowest year on record, with 2011 being the all-time record lowest.

As Arctic sea ice has shrunk, its average age has also gotten younger. Younger ice tends to be thinner, and thus more prone to breaking up and melting.

Click to watch this animation of sea ice age from 1987 through the end of October 2013. By the end of the animation it’s clear that very little of the oldest ice remains.

Even as human-caused climate change causes Arctic sea ice to shrivel, that in turn seems to be enhancing warming in the region. It happens through something called “albedo” — the amount of light that a surface reflects.

Ice has a high albedo. This means it tends to reflect a large proportion of the sun’s energy that hits it back into space. When there’s a lot of ice present (and snow too), that albedo effect tends to reinforce cold temperatures.

But when the ice melts, dark water with a low albedo is exposed. Much of the incoming solar energy is absorbed by the water, which then gives part of it back to the atmosphere in the form of heat. This tends to reinforce warming. And that appears to be what has been happening in the Arctic region, which has been warming faster than other parts of the globe.

New research published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that this so-called Arctic amplification effect, hypothesized nearly 50 years ago, is considerably larger than climate models have predicted. The researchers found that thanks to shrinking sea ice, the albedo of the Arctic has decreased by about 50 percent since 1979. This in turn has resulted in a considerable amount of solar energy being added to the Arctic Ocean region (6.4 ± 0.9 W/m2).

Averaged over the globe, the heat buildup from the decrease of Arctic albedo, if averaged over the globe, is equal to 25 percent of the warming due to the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since 1979.

That’s huge.

  • Buddy199

    Meanwhile, Antarctic ice is increasing, another real world climate phenomenon that contradicts the models’ predictions and fundamental assumptions of AGW theory. Climate models are like broken clocks; that they’re occasionally exactly right doesn’t mean they are above skepticism.

    • callmebc

      Sorry, but your kind of “thinking” is, as it’s always been, is limited to scientific illiterates. The Arctic ice extent is at a record low for this time of year, and in general we are talking about *global* climate effects and not just what you’re seeing on your local weather forecast or even in your favorite right wing news source.

      • Buddy199

        Which model predicted an increase in Antarctic ice?

        Oh, wait. If Antarctic ice had increased that would be sure proof of AGW.

        And since Antarctic ice has decreased that is sure proof of AGW.

        Science marches on.

        • callmebc

          Ummm, for one, the Arctic and Antarctic ice extents have cyclical cycles of expansion and contraction, especially but not only by year, so you have to average the extent over several years. And also pretty much all current models predict more and more erratic swings in regional weather patterns, which also include the polar caps, but with still an overall degradation due to warming. And if you had even the slightest of clues, you would know this.

        • Tom Yulsman

          Buddy, you make a valid point about what we might call the “consistency” argument. We hear this quite frequently — something like: “This pattern of [fill in the blank, perhaps cold in the U.S. and storms in the U.K.] is consistent with our understanding of climate change.” And it is not a very meaningful statement. The climate is changing, and so if a storm does or does not happen, it the summer is or is not brutally hot, then it is consistent with climate change. Pointing that out tells us very little.

          But climate scientists do much more than make “consistency” arguments. They make observations and document things that are really truly happening and seek to understand the physical processes at work. So in Antarctica, they are observing the changes I described above. They didn’t make up these changes. And no one made a “consistent with climate change argument.”

          Lastly, you seem to be fixated on modeling in your arguments. It is true that models are imperfect representations of nature, and their outputs come with varying degrees of uncertainty. No one denies this. But scientists’ understanding of how the climate system is changing, and what might happen in the future, is by no means built on modeling alone. Not even close. It is based on a basic understanding of physics and chemistry, research into past climate change, detailed observations of myriad physical systems and how they are changing over time, and — in addition to all of these things as well as others I haven’t mentioned — modeling. If, after more than three decades of this work, these things were telling broadly different stories, then we’d obviously have to doubt our overall understanding of what’s going on. But broadly, and over a long time frame, they do not tell a different story.

          If you’re looking for certainty, you won’t find it in this realm. The climate systems is as big and complex as the whole world. It would be hubris to think that scientists could gain a perfect understanding of it, and that there will therefore be no surprises. But this work has produced a fairly consistent picture of what’s happening. (In this context, use of that word is meaningful.) How you interpret it, and what you decide should be done about it, if anything, is something else — something that will based on your values.

          So if you said something like the following, I would respect it, but also offer my own opinion: “The climate system is so complex, projections of dire future changes so uncertain, and our need to invest our limited resources in other things (education, infrastructure, development, etc.), that we can wait to see how things unfold before intervening artificially in the free market.”

          True skeptics, whom I respect (as opposed to “deniers,” for whom truth is besides the point), make arguments like that.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Sorry Buddy, but the increase in Antarctic sea ice extent does not contradict “fundamental assumptions of AGW theory.” The climate system is incredibly complex, and no climate scientist I’ve ever heard has said that warming and the resulting changes to climate would happen in a completely straightforward way. They’ve long said there would be surprises.

      In recent years, research has begun to offer explanations for why sea ice is growing even as the waters of the Southern Ocean around Antarctica have been warming faster than the global average.

      First, the Antarctic polar vortex — the winds that circle the continent — has strengthened significantly in the past 30 years. Greater windiness at the surface seems to be pushing water away from the coast, opening new areas to freeze over. The winds also have piled up ridges of sea ice, causing polynyas to open up — stretches of open water that also are prone to freezing.

      Another contributor seems to be changes to ocean circulation and precipitation. In the Southern Ocean off Antarctica, a layer of cold water sits atop relatively warmer water below. Ordinarily, ocean currents cause warmer water to rise up, contributing to melting during the summer. But there has also been an increase in snowfall concurrent with warming air temperatures. (Warmer air can carry more moisture.) This tends to freshen the surface waters. This strengthens the cold/warm stratification, inhibiting warm waters from flowing up to contribute to melting of sea ice.

      If you’re willing to put politics aside for awhile to see what science is actually saying about these issues, and you have a way to access subscription-based journals, you can read more about this here: http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v5/n12/full/ngeo1627.html

      There’s also this paper, which you can access without a subscription: http://psc.apl.washington.edu/zhang/Pubs/Zhang_Antarctic_20-11-2515.pdf

      I’d also recommend this article by my colleague Michael Lemonick: http://www.wunderground.com/news/why-antarctic-sea-ice-growing-20130923

      Scientists have by no means answered the question definitively. Because of its remoteness and harshness, there are gaps in data and understanding about the Antarctic region. But those gaps are slowly being closed.

      Most important, the overarching point is that it is simply incorrect to say, as you did, that growing sea ice around Antarctica disproves anthropogenic global warming. Quite to the contrary. There are good explanations for why sea ice would be expanding there in a warming world, even as it shrinks in the Arctic — where a different set of factors are at play.

      • Buddy199

        If I’M willing to put politics aside? When did I mention politics? I’m addressing a scientific issue, with the healthy measure of skepticism that drives science. One of the criticisms I have with AGW is that it has fallen prey to the same dogmatic stagnation, resistance to alternate ideas and ferocity toward perceived heretics as the God-based religons that it’s most vocal adherents so abhor and preen themselves to be so far above.

        However, I have to go bowling and support the pizza and home brew industry tonight so I’ll have to postpone my more extensive response to you and the other Inquisitors until Monday. Have a good weekend!

    • Zeph

      Buddy – you are correct that climate models are not “above skepticism”. In fact, if there wasn’t functional “skepticism” internal to the scientific community, there would be only one climate model, and other groups would not be trying different modeling approaches to see if they can do a better job. And there are other critiques in the scientific literature, which along with ongoing data gathering, cause the models to be updated and adjusted as they should be in a non-dogmatic world of science and discovery.

      However your assumption that increasing antarctic ice somehow simplistically contradicts the models in some fundamental way is not informed skepticism, rather it reflects a limited and distorted understanding of both the measured evidence and of the models. You will need to dig deeper and inform yourself more of the existing research before you understand enough to make intelligent and genuinely skeptical critiques. Tom points to some of it, and there is much more available if you look around (even without paywall access).

      Just for starters, are you aware that there are at least 4 aspects of “Antarctic ice” – East Antarctic icefield which is gaining mass, the West Antarcic ice field which is losing mass, the Arctic Peninsula which is losing mass, and sea ice that floats on the oceans around Antarctica, which is gaining area. Each of these has different dynamics and different drivers and is being studied in great detail with a good deal of existing studies and more coming out all the time. A good part of the why and how is partially understood now, but research is ongoing and there will be surprises as that’s the nature of real science whether it involves antarctic ice or Jupiter’s moons.

      Some of the trends in Antarctica may be natural variation, some may be driven by climate change. Skeptical scientists don’t assume one or the other, they look for evidence and gradually build a deeper understanding. For example some of the research attributes the melting of the West Antarctic ice field to natural variation rather than climate change – real scientists have to follow the evidence, rather than assuming that anything that shows an increase – or decrease – in temperatures is automatically due to global climate change. There is FAR more genuine skepticism and objectivity involved in real science than you yet appear to comprehend.

      On the other end, you need to understand climate modeling better. While the greenhouse gas physics and satellite measurements even without climate models indicate a net warming, that warming is far from uniform and the overall effect is better described as climate change or even climate destabilization. (And no, this is not a recent concept – look up what IPCC stands for and why it was not IPGW).

      It’s ironic that some people think that record cold spells or record antarctic sea ice extent (alongside record heat waves and dramatic arctic ice melt) are somehow evidence that climate is NOT changing, that it is stable rather than increasingly destablilized. In practice, mixtures of warming and cooling, more precipitation and less precipitation, are all predicted by models, even as the globally averaged air+sea temperatures gradually rise in a longer term trend.

      If you are really interested in informed scientific skepticism, you will need to do a good deal more research, which you can begin here and on other science blogs. If you just want political talking points which are driven by something other than a skeptical evaluation of ALL evidence, there are many other blogs for that.

      • Tom Yulsman

        What Zeph said! (Thank you Zeph. Very well put.)

        • Tom Yulsman

          Okay, I’ll add to what Zeph said… Buddy, listen to your language – words like “dogmatic stagnation,” “ferocity toward perceived heretics,” “preen themselves to be so far above…” These are words indicative of passionate opinion, not objective and skeptical assessment of facts.

          Also, do you deny that your values, including your most deeply held political perspectives, influence the way you see this issue and play a role in forging the vehemence with which you express your opinions? There is nothing wrong with that. I don’t deny that my own values influence the way I see the world. That awareness is the first step in being able to take a more empirical approach to assessing scientific evidence. You need to know your own biases first.

          I don’t do this perfectly. Not even close. But I really work hard at it. And I also try to set a tone here that encourages some meeting of those minds that are at least open to what climate science is saying, however imperfect and uncertain it may be. You don’t appear to be. But if I’m wrong, please correct me when you’re done bowling. 😉

          • Buddy199


            What would disprove AGW theory?

            Whenever a prediction is disproven by observation Climate Sages can always explain it very exactly – in hindsight.

            As a person of science, tell me… What the heck good is that?

            If a theory has a flabby predictive value don’t tell me it SETTLED as inscribed on tablets from Moses.

            And as far as politics, do not tell us that flabby science is the basis for upending the global economic structure – planned by the de geniuses who ‘fixed’ the U.S. health care system.

            Some humility, for Gaia’s sake.

          • Tom Yulsman

            Buddy: Do drops in the stock market, including crashes like the one in 2008, somehow indicate that our understanding of how it behaves over the long run is fundamentally flawed and that stocks are therefore a bad investment?

            Also, I would ask that you don’t put words in my mouth. I never said that any theory was “SETTLED,” let alone that it was anything like something inscribed on the tablets of Moses. In fact, no scientist I personally know or have interviewed has ever used the word “settled.” They are fully aware that by definition, science is NEVER settled.

            Similarly, I’d humbly ask that you avoid serving up red herrings. As much as I like to eat pickled herring (strangely enough, I honestly do), it is distasteful in discussion. I’m referring to your claim that I am advocating that the economic structure be “upended.” In more than 30 years of covering climate change, I’ve never once advocated for any such thing. Neither do I know any climate scientist who has done so either.

          • Tom Yulsman

            I’ll conclude with this: We have known the basic physics of greenhouse gases for more than a century. Moreover, your claim about the geologic record notwithstanding, the paleoclimatic record tells us that when CO2 has been high in the past, so have temperatures (although it is also true that it is not a purely simple cause-and-effect relationship). We know that as concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased, so has the global average temperature. Not like the temperature in my house when I raise the thermostat, because the climate system is far more complex than that. But the predictions of decades ago have so far been borne out by reality.

            Might we be surprised going forward? Of course. Might warming be slower and more uneven than predicted? Yes. (It might also be faster and more intense too.) But based on the best science that we have, however imperfect it may be, in all likelihood the world is going to continue to warm over the long run, bringing about potentially disruptive changes to climate. That is far more likely than, say, my house burning down. Yet I, like millions of people and possibly you too, don’t hesitate to purchase insurance just in case.

            When it comes to climate change, beginning a long-term shift toward non-carbon energy sources is best viewed as just that — an insurance policy for something that is far more likely to happen than my house burning down. (Knock on wood!) Should climate change unfold much less quickly and with far fewer disruptions than current predictions, we would still reap benefits from having taken out that insurance policy. Whereas if we don’t, and things turn really bad, we’re simply out of luck.

          • Biologyteacher100

            The main way to disprove the AGW theory would be to come up with an alternative theory for explaining the temperature increases that has better scientific support.

  • rose maryawn

    my Aunty Arianna got a nearly new silver Chevrolet Colorado
    Crew Cab by working part time off of a macbook air. try this C­a­s­h­D­u­t­i­e­s­.­ℂ­o­m



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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