As Summer Finishes as Warmest on Record, A Postcard From Global Warming’s Ground Zero

By Tom Yulsman | September 14, 2015 10:05 am
ground zero

The calving front of Esmark Glacier in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, as photographed on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015. (Photo: ©Tom Yulsman)

The summer of 2015 — the months of June, July and August — was the warmest on record for the globe, according to the latest figures from NASA. And at this point, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario that would prevent the entire year from entering the record books.

This news comes as I’m visiting the high Arctic, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, making it ground zero for global warming.

I’m here in Svalbard, a Norwegian Arctic archipelago about 800 miles south of the North Pole, to co-teach a field module of a journalism course focusing on climate change. As part of the course, we visited the Esmark Glacier yesterday. This impressive river of ice flows into a bay that opens onto Isfjorden, a large fjord on Svalbard’s west coast.

We journeyed there by boat, traveling through mist and choppy waters from Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s largest town. You can see the glacier’s calving front in the mosaic of iPhone photos above, which I shot as our boat cruised to within about 100 yards of the ice.

While we watched — and as if on cue — a modest chunk of ice broke free. It was an example of what glaciologist Penny How calls “nibble calving” — little bits and pieces of ice breaking free from a glacier’s face. 

“Calving is how most glacial ice is transferred to the oceans,” says How, who is researching glaciers in Svalbard as part of her PhD work at the University of Edinburgh. This means it has a large impact on sea level rise.

In fact, about 35 percent of sea level rise is currently coming from glacial discharge into the oceans thanks to warming temperatures, according to How.

With NASA’s release of the latest monthly numbers on global warming, it’s worthwhile to keep in mind that no region has seen greater impacts than the Arctic. “Almost all the glaciers and ice caps in the Arctic have lost mass over the last century, and in many places, ice mass loss has accelerated in the past decade,” according to the Norwegian Polar Institute.

Svalbard has not been immune from this trend. Summers here have been warmer lately than at any other time in the last 1,800 years. And the ice has been responding.

About 60 percent of Spitsbergen, Svalbard’s largest island, is covered by glaciers. About 2,100 glaciers, including relatively large ones like Esmark, and much smaller ones in places like mountain cirques, are known to exist here.

Research strongly suggests that glaciers here have been losing mass over the last century. And the impact on sea level rise has not been small.

As a report from the Norwegian Polar Institute puts it:

About half of the global increase in sea levels [is] caused by melting of the “smaller” glaciers, i.e. all glaciers outside of Greenland and Antarctica, but [there are] still relatively large margins of error in these estimates. It is therefore important to quantify the contributions to sea level rise from the various ice-covered areas of the Earth. Svalbard represents a not insignificant contribution, since about 10% of the total ice-covered area in the Arctic (excluding Greenland) [is] located there. Furthermore, melting rates on Svalbard [are] relatively high because of Svalbard’s location in a relatively warm part of the Arctic.

This is the first of what I’m hoping will be several posts based on my reporting here. As part of that, I’ve got lots of images to share, including photographs of one of the strangest places I have ever encountered in my life: the Russian coal mining town of Barentsburg. To find out what makes it so strange, please check back.

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  • Rudy

    2015 was not the “warmest summer ever”. If AGW alarmists moderated their lies somewhat, you’d get more buy in from the general populace. Instead, you peddle ridiculous exaggerations to the point even NASA isn’t credible anymore. Good job.

    • GreatWhiteShirt

      Earth to Rudy: Local weather is not climate. Go back to school.

      • CB

        Scientists to Rudy: You are incorrect.

        “The combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for July 2015 was the highest for July in the 136-year period of record”

        http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/201507

        Pretending a threat doesn’t exist does not keep one safe from it.

    • Science Boy

      It was the warmest in recorded history according to every credible data base on the planet. “Lies”? The only lies we’re hearing on this issue are from the extremist religious antiscience Right, who would have us believe in a massive conspiracy involving all of climate science rather than listening to what the scientific community is telling us. But then, these are the folks that would have us believe in creationism and that vaccines are bad for us. I’ll stick with the scientists, thanks.

      • OWilson

        There, there. Feel better now?

        Nothing more tiring than knocking down windmills and strawmen.

        Science, without skepticism, is dogma.

        Dogma is the exact opposite of enlightenment.

        And no, I’m not religious, I believe in vaccination, I believe in evolution. I’m not Tea Party, not even a Republican, and I don’t shill for companies, whether it be “Big Oil” or some Kuch Brothers.

        Oh, and I don’t believe in massive conspiracies, unless of course, you define political movements as conspiracies.

        In fact, the only major conspiracy theory I am aware of that has had legs, these past 20 years, comes from the left side of the aisle in the person of the current Democratic Candidate for President.

        She has this Vast Right Wing Conspiracy syndrome.

        She also believes she was running and dodging sniper fire, when in fact little girls were presenting her with floral bouquets, at a formal reception. :)

        • CB

          “Science, without skepticism, is dogma.”

          Right. What’s your point?

          If you think July 2015 wasn’t the hottest July on record, which July was and how do you know?

          “The combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for July 2015 was the highest for July in the 136-year period of record”

          http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/201507

          • OWilson

            My point is very simple.
            Gradual warming (a few hundredths of a degree) like this is perfectly understandable, given that it happens in regular natural cycles, and is to be expected during the interglacial epoch we are currently in.
            And those who do not believe that this slight gradual warming is “Catastrophic”, or the “Greatest Threat to Mankind” are not necessarily anti-science, bible thumping liars. :)

    • Behead The Lettuce

      Alarmists say ridiculous things, true, but most alarmists are erring on the side of optimism. For example, the hope that we can hold the warming in this century to 2 degrees C is pure fantasy. We’re likely to pass that within a decade or two and be well on our way to 4 degrees or more. Things are even worse than the alarmists are saying, the problem is that most alarmists focus on the wrong evidence and this results in people like you thinking there IS no evidence. Get your information from researchers who are directly involved in studying the unfolding calamity, that’s the best way to see what’s really happening. I recommend Paul Beckwith’s YouTube channel, he has many excellent videos in which he explains all the complicated climate dynamics that are at play.

      • Tom Yulsman

        Mr. Lettuce: I did not say anything ridiculous, and I did not “err on the side of optimism.” I reported some very simple facts, as well as my own observations from here in the Arctic. As for what is likely to happen in the future, that’s not what this post is about. In this piece I focus on the here and now.

        • Behead The Lettuce

          I was addressing Rudy in a language I hoped he would understand. Didn’t mean to infer that I think you’re alarmist, not in the least. I respect what you’re doing and appreciate your contribution toward informing journalists as to what is happening.

        • John C

          Mr. Lettuce…Lol

    • Tom Yulsman

      Rudy: You are absolutely correct. 2015 was not “the warmest summer ever.” And I never said it was. Perhaps you should actually read the story and see what I did say. And while you’re at it, click the link I provided to check the primary source — NASA — to check their methodology for yourself.

  • OWilson

    Interesting mix of personal experience, anecdotal material and references to official data.

    But why should it raise the usual alarm in those of us who love science?

    I follow a lot of scientific publications and never feel need to question what they are telling me (although I do feel competent enough to occasional take issue with the comments of other posters:))

    I can accept the opinions of “climate scientists”, and they should leave it at that:)

    It’s when they issue data purporting to “prove” their speculations that it breaks down for us.

    Melting glaciers, rising sea levels are entirely consistent with our inter-glacial epoch, Manhattan was under kilometers of ice, and you could walk from London to Paris.

    The raw data from NASA is interesting given their name, because it goes back to 1880, before there was National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

    We have only had satellite data since 1979 or so, and it is interesting, or disturbing, to note that all the values before 1979 were in the negative range, and all the values thereafter were all positive. That kind of extreme anomaly would raise a red flag for any unbiased scientist.

    As for rising sea levels, even NOAA, certainly not in the skeptical camp say it is around 3mm per year. Now put your thiumbe and forefinger together and look at 3mm. Then contemplate the 30 foot waves and tides on the ocean and what margin of error there could be?

    Then take Tom’s 35% contribution to this official record, and that input is 1mm.

    As an issue hardly makes a blip on the radar, when you look at what else is going on around the world.
    As for “Nth warmest on record” stuff, they will never tell you what the actual temperature gain is (0.48 degrees above 1979) That stuff is hidden in arcane web sites, that require a fair amount of literacy to search, find, and understand, or on skeptical websites, and heaven forbid they should tell you the margin of error, in this Greatest Threat To Mankind coming catastrophe.
    AGW climate science (a political promotion) still doesn’t pass the sniff test, and that’s a shame because there is legitimate science to be had there.

  • http://www.usgossips.com Suresh

    yes, 2015 is warmest summer ever

  • Mark Stephens

    Seems the dinosaurs lived in a much warmer time than now so I am quite sure this summer is not the warmest ever. Perhaps it is the warmest ever in the tiny little minds at NASA where they have manipulated the data but facts would say otherwise, and so would the dinosaurs.

    • OWilson

      Grapes in Roman Britain, Grapes in Newfoundland, lush forests in Greenland, Amundsen sailing through the Arctic in a little wooden boat a hundred years ago.

      But statistic never lie, right? :)

      And what’s this?

      “”time.com/4018386/obama-arctic-ice-breakers/

      Sep 1, 2015 – President Barack Obama will call for an expanded fleet of Arctic ice breakers on Tuesday, warning that the U.S. risked losing control of shipping …””
      Isn’t the ice supposed to be gone by this year?
      It is to laugh!

      • Mark Stephens

        Yes, back when my ancestors moved to Greenland, well they remembered many warm summer days. Today, not so much! LOL!!!

      • Mike Richardson

        The reason we’re trying to catch up with the Russians is because thanks to melting at the margins of the ice cap, more of the area is within range of the ice breakers. No realistic estimate was for an ice free Arctic by this point. As for the examples in your first paragraph, all were confined to portions of the Northern Hemisphere and had more to do with shifting ocean currents, volcanic activity, and other short-term climate variations, unlike warming based on an ever-increasing load of greenhouse gases. Apples and oranges. Or grapes, to use your example. 😉

        • OWilson

          I was responding to an article primarily about the “Northern Hemisphere”. You might have “missed” that. :)

          But I’m glad you agree that predictions by a Nobel Prize winner, and a current Secretary of State, about the Arctic being Ice Free by 2015, were not “realistic”. :)

          • Mike Richardson

            You even lower info types seem to be the ones having trouble with accepting reality; I don’t, even if it means contradicting someone from a party I generally agree with on most principles. But I’m not an unyielding ideologue, like some feisty folks around here. 😉

          • OWilson

            Anything on topic yet Mike?

            Let us know, ya hear?

          • Mike Richardson

            Well, actually yes. According to NASA satellite observations (you like those, right?), this year’s summer sea ice minimum was the fourth lowest on record since the satellite observations began.
            http://www.nasa.gov/press-release/arctic-sea-ice-summertime-minimum-is-fourth-lowest-on-record
            And this without any known exacerbating factors. So thanks for asking. :)

          • OWilson

            Only the 4th?

            Glad to see you have moved into the satellite era.

            But there is a well known “exacerbating factor”, and that’s the gradual warming to be expected since the ice has been retreating after our last major and minor ice ages.

            It’s quite a common concept:

            Wiki on Mars:

            “The pits in the ice continue to grow by about 3 meters per Martian year. Malin states that conditions on Mars are not currently conducive to the formation of new ice.
            A NASA press release has suggested that this indicates a “climate change in progress”[108] on Mars.
            In a summary of observations with the Mars Orbiter Camera, researchers speculated that some dry ice may have been deposited between the Mariner 9 and the Mars Global Surveyor mission.
            Based on the current rate of loss, the deposits of today may be gone in a hundred years.”

          • Mike Richardson

            Really? Mars? It’s got an entirely different atmospheric composition than Earth, with gravity too meager to maintain a thick atmosphere over the eons without outside intervention. If water or carbon dioxide ice warms enough to transition from solid, it usually just boils away into the thin CO2 atmosphere. According to the best information we’ve gathered from our orbiters and landers on Mars (money well spent, for those of us interested in our neighbor worlds), the planet’s been in an ice age for over a billion years. There’s simply no correlation with what’s happening on Earth, unless you believe some of the more far-out theories of people like Immanuel Velikovsky, who subscribe to sensational notions of cosmic events not well supported by the nature of the planets as our scientific probing of these worlds has shown them to be. Interesting side note for Mars, which might be of interest to future colonists and/or terraformers, but not particularly relevant to discussion of Earth’s climate.

          • OWilson

            If NASA suggests Climate Change on MARS, that’s good enough science for me. :)

            Your frequent science fiction talk of “terraforming” Mars notwithstanding.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Mr. Stephens: Perhaps you should actually read the story with an open mind — I did not say that this was the “warmest ever.” And while it is certainly legitimate to question the methodology of the science behind NASA’s global average temperature analyses, your ad hominem attack on the scientists is not. And it says much more about you than it does about them.

      • OWilson

        Well said!

      • Mark Stephens

        Yes it does say more about me.

        The earth is 4.543 billion years old. Given 365.242 days a year for that period of time means 1.6583 X 10^12 possible weather observations during that period of time. NASA and other scientific organizations use weather recorded since 1914, so for the last 101 years at 365.242 observations which gives us 36,889.442 observations. If you look at the grand scheme of things, 36,889.442/ (1.6583 X 10 ^ 12) then you arrive at .0000022232 % of the possible data being used to determine the possible outcome.

        What this tells me is NASA and others have a political agenda, not a scientific one.

        The amount of data they are using to run their political agenda is so statistically insignificant that it literally doesn’t exist.

        Any group using this as a basis for curbing human activity, telling others how to live or even implying an outcome, have no basis in my opinion.

        Given the fact that NASA weather models are using finite variables in their system to describe infinite possibilities, it’s just more about hype than reality, just like the accuracy of your local weather forecast, at best it’s a guess. If NASA is so accurate, how come your local weather forecast is never right?

        Anyone believing what they have to say,notice I use the word believing, is no different than those who believe the academics during the dark ages when they were told the earth was flat.

        BTW, I also don’t believe the sky is falling, chicken little.

  • John C

    Global warming could be a long term problem, but personally I’m much more concerned about a near term $1.5 quadrillion global derivatives melt down. Climate change is real, but also really over-hyped in my opinion.

  • mememine

    #Lazycopyandpastenewseditors!

    Polar bears were indigenous to as far south as Minnesota upon settlement but called the Yellow bear because it retained its summer coat longer but still the same bear and Canada’s natives are allowed to hunt them and guide American hunters to hunt polar bears (and behead) and the biggest single population of polar bears is just outside the city of Churchill Manitoba’s municipal dump.

    • OWilson

      The indigenous folks have a great racket selling their licenses (originally given by liberal governments to maintain native practices) to Americans, who use jeeps, snowmobiles, ATVs and any kind of motorized, fossil fuel burning equipment to ride them down and slaughter them.
      Don’t ask what happens to the cubs!
      Then these same liberal groups complain about how they tired the poor polar bears are from swimming to find food.
      You really can’t make this stuff up!

  • http://careersreport.com Debbie Barvey

    Follow path of number of people who are earning profit monthly by doing an online jobs… Get informed (more on my Disqus

  • nik

    Deep ocean core drillings show that for about the last million years, the Earth has had regular cycles of cold ice age and inter ice age warm periods.

    Roughly, 10,000 years warm, and 90,000 years cold for the last 800,000 years..

    The last ice age came to an end about ten thousand years ago.

    The end of this inter ice age warm period is inevitable, and wont be very long arriving. The end can be very abrupt, and can occur in as little as 20-50 years.

    In the Carboniferous age CO2 levels were twelve times the current level, but it was an ice age.

    I dont think anyone needs to worry about CO2 causing a runaway greenhouse, especially as CO2 is not a significant greenhouse gas.

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ImaGeo

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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