Climate change at the local scale

UPDATE: The presentation from the meeting is now here (pdf): SFWI_pres_for_sharing.

I have tried to list all the different people and websites that provided material for this presentation, but if I have forgotten anyone, please do let me know and I will be more than happy to add an acknowledgement. 

Normally I work on the continental or hemispheric scale, concentrating on Greenland and the Arctic. Next week, I have a new challenge, to go much more local than that, to the country and even county scale.

I have been asked by the Staffordshire Federation of Women’s Institutes to give a talk on Climate Change next week. A rather broad subject!

The WI is a very long-standing and well-established institution in the UK and my mother, (who is of course the one who roped me in to it) has been a member since I was tiny wee thing. Outside the UK the WI are probably mostly known from the very successful film Calendar Girls.

These inspiring women have showed themselves to be a formidable lobbying force over the years and subjects as diverse as bees and pesticides to care for people with dementia and the plastic bag tax. Years ago, I recall my mother coming home from a WI meeting and talking about the ozone hole, one of the earliest organisations to start talking about it, so it is not a particular surprise they now have a focus on climate change. They now have a climate change ambassadors programme.

WI_inspirations
Some of the many successful WI campaigners over the years from

Each area has to organise themselves and decide what they would like to do as part of this, so as partly a kick off to that process and as part of their science committee activities (It’s not all Jam and Jerusalem at the WI these days apparently) I will be presenting in Stafford at the county council chambers on the 6th July 1.30-3.30pm.

CountybuildingsChamber
The Staffordshire County Council chambers

As part of the programme, Staffordshire County Council will also be sending a representative to talk about how the County is responding both in terms of managing impacts and reducing emissions towards achieving the UK’s targets.

It’s going to be interesting talking about climate change both observed and projected in the UK, happily, the UK Met Office is a world leader in this and the very friendly Mark McCarthy has provided me with a bunch of data to distil down and prepare some visualisations from (see graph below for a quick and dirty look at some data)

I also plan to talk about the basic science of climate change, how it has developed, how it is observed and how we make projections and what we expect for the UK and Europe over the next decades to centuries. I have called it questions and answers since I hope that people will ask questions as we go through. From talking to people everyday, it’s clear there are a lot of questions people have about climate change and the impacts and the sciense. I also hope to talk about some of the options we have for tackling emissions and how to deal with the impacts. Copenhagen is a great case study for both of these elements. This is quite a lot for a short hour or so talk, but let’s see how we get on!

Staffs_Temp
A quick and dirty plot of avergae observed temperatures in Staffordshire (annual and seasonal means 1910 – 2015/2016) with thanks to UK Met Office and Mark McCarthy for providing the data.

It’s open to the public so if you happen to be at a loose end on a Wednesday afternoon and fancy it, I believe you can get tickets via the following secretary@sfwi.org or telephone 01785 223838.

In the mean time, should any members of the WI or indeed other Staffordshire residents who happen to be reading this, have any questions or ideas that they would like addressed specifically, please do feel free to leave a comment or ask me on twitter.

 

 

A Sea-Ice Free Arctic in 2016?

UPDATE: The Arctic Sea ice Outlook I mention in the post below has just been published for 2016. We will follow this up in September when the final results will be known, but here are the 30 entries using a rage of different techniques including sophisticated computer models, statistical estimates and what is kindly called “Heuristics” but which may be characterised as an educated guess by people who have been studying this field for a while…

sio_2016_fig_1_30june

Professor Wadhams has not contributed an estimate this year but it can easily be seen that none of the estimates reach as low as the putative 1 million square kilometres. Nonetheless the view of 27 expert climate scientists put forward by Kay, Bailey and Holland (pdf), not to mention the very sophisticated RASM model (one of the most sophisticated in this area, run by the US Naval Postgraduate school), put the September extent at a very low 3-4 million km2, in the same range as the record low of 2012.

It will be interesting to see how low it does go. The latest results from the polar portal show that Arctic sea ice is currently still on the record low 2012 line but a careful look shows also that the 2012 and 2013 curves diverge around mid to late June. The year 2013 is pretty representative of a “new normal” over the last 4 years or so, it is therefore difficult to tell based on simply extrapolating along the curves which path 2016 is likely to follow.

SICE_curve_extent_LA_EN_20160711.png
The area covered by at least 15% sea ice in the Arctic from 1981 to present, the black and red curve shows the year 2016 and is updated daily on the Polar Portal 

The current weather plots on the Polar Portal (based on weather forecasts produced by the European Centre for medium Range Weather Forecasting, probably the best numerical weather model in the world) show no unusual temperatures in the Arctic Ocean right now, though parts of Arctic Canada and Siberia certainly look warm.

Wthr_Anom_SM_EN_20160711.png

We’ll have to wait and see until September…

Original post below from June, 14th, 2016. 

The Polar Portal has become part of our daily life at DMI where I work in the last few years, it combines detailed observations and models from the Greenland ice sheet, the Arctic sea ice and, soon hopefully, permafrost. I am particularly involved in the Greenland pages where we daily calculate the amount of snowfall and snow melt which gives us a surface mass budget and which we sum up over the year to work out what it means for the health of the Greenland ice sheet. This year has been especially interesting with an extraordinarily early start to melting driven by warm Arctic temperatures. Many records in Greenland have been broken in April, May and June. Spectacularly, last week Nuuk set a new temperature record for June that managed to last only 24 hours, before it was broken again.

This is the new reality in the Arctic. And it is also having an effect on sea ice. The Arctic sea ice extent has long been used as a bellwether of climate change with much effort exerted by both activists and sceptics in trying to prove or dismiss claims about climate and its effects on sea ice.

DSC02322.JPG
Crossing the sea ice in front of Paulabreen, a surge type glacier with a calving front in Svalbard

I trained as a glaciologist originally,  but even then I came across sea ice and was first of all unnerved by it, crossing on scooters to visit glaciers in Svalbard, and then fascinated by it. Recently I have been working pretty closely with my colleagues in DMI who are sea ice scientists and I have learnt quite a lot. We even published a paper together in the journal Polarforschung earlier this year. Not only that, I am now part of a big ERC Synergy project known as ice2ice  with scientists at four institutions in Bergen and Copenhagen working on the complex connections between sea ice, ocean, atmosphere and ice sheet in the Arctic. More on that another time, but suffice to say it’s fascinating work and I know a hell of a lot more about sea ice than I did even three years ago.

So when this news story crossed my email this evening courtesy a BBC researcher and journalist I knew pretty well straight away what it was about. Basically the scientist Professor Peter Wadhams had made some statements about the extent of Arctic sea ice which might be considered somewhat eyecatching.

Capture-wadhams

Professor Wadhams is a well-known scientist who did some incredibly valuable and indeed ground-breaking early work on sea ice. More recently he has also done some very valuable work reconstructing thickness based on submarine observations during the Cold War (see below on why this is important). I well remember seeing him talk about this as a young graduate student, he is an excellent speaker and gave a very interesting and compelling talk. In the last few years he has made several statements that have been widely reported and perhaps misinterpreted, with regard to the future fortunes of the Arctic sea ice.

Now, I need and want to be clear about this. Most of the global climate models we use are not very good at reproducing the observed historical sea ice extent. They have improved significantly in the last few years but still struggle to reproduce the actual observed decline in sea ice area from satellites. And there are actually very good reasons why this should be. There are some very good stand alone sea ice models which have done a very good job and the key difference between these models is our clue. Sea ice models are generally partly forced with actual observations, or climate reanalyses which assimilate observations, so the atmosphere and the ocean are close to reality. Basically sea ice responds to weather, and if you have a more accurate weather driving your sea ice model you will get a better fit to the observations.

So, is Professor Wadhams correct? Will the sea ice “disappear” this year.

Well, it is pretty clear that given the changes we have already observed in the Arctic, as well as what we know about Arctic amplification and the general direction that anthropogenic emissions are heading in, that unless something changes pretty soon, we will likely see an end to a significant cover of sea ice in the Arctic at some point in the next few decades. But was does that actually mean?

Reading his actual comments in the article he appears to define 1 million km2 as “no sea ice” and that partly reflects how we define sea ice extent. Since most of the data sets use a cut-off figure (typically 15%) to define when a grid square or pixel is or is not a sea ice point. This is known as sea ice concentration and is really something of a hangover from the days when sea ice was observed from ships and an attempt was made to estimate how much sea ice in the area  was around the vessel.

There are however lots of things that can affect sea ice extent, including winds and currents and melt ponds. The latter also affects how different algorithms assess the area that is or is not covered by sea ice. As there are a number of different sensors in use and a number of different algorithms processing that data, it is not entirely surprising that there actually a number of different estimates (I will use OSISAF) for how much of the Arctic is covered in sea ice. And this number will vary in years with more winds for example, or stronger ocean currents, sea ice will disperse faster. It is quite likely that much of the variability in sea ice area in recent years is at least partly attributable to different winds, as well as, for example in 2012, big storms that have arrived at just the right moment (or wrong one depending on how you look at it), to break up the sea ice into smaller, more easily transportable pieces.

As an aside, a better measure for how much Arctic sea ice there is actually present is sea ice volume. Unfortunately this is very difficult to measure, especially outside the winter freeze up season, though a research group at the UCL, centre for Polar Observation and Monitoring have developed a way to do so. Here for example is the most recent plot, which as you can see has not been updated since May 2016 due to the presence of melt ponds on the surface of the sea ice which the Cryosat radar cannot penetrate.

So 1 million km2 is probably a reasonable cut off for assuming an “ice-free” Arctic in the sense that it indicates that there will still be some sea ice drifting around (it always forms surprisingly quickly when the winter begins) in summer, even if it is dispersed.

Over the last 40 or so years (we have good observations going back to 1979, it gets patchy after that), in September, when the area covered by sea ice is at it’s lowest, that extent has been between about 7 and 9 million km2, more recently that has dropped and 2012, the lowest on record had an extent of about 4 million km2, which you can see on the latest polarportal sea ice chart below.

SICE_mod

I well remember 2012, we had a large melt event over Greenland that year also, but it was still quite a long way from the 1 million km2 quoted by Professor Wadhams. Again, let me be clear, we are pretty sure that at some point on a time scale of a few years to a few decades, the Arctic will become “ice-free” in the summer time. We can predict this, even if we don’t know exactly when, since, as I hope is clear now, sea ice conditions are very dependent on the weather. The weather this year so far, at least this Spring has been very warm and congenial to sea ice melt. The big dive shown on the graph above is no mystery when considering some of the temperature anomalies in the Arctic, as shown also on the Polar Portal.

Nevertheless, the recent plots seem to show that the 2 metre air temperature in the Arctic is returning to close to normal and there is little reason to suppose that will change significantly anytime soon.

meanT_2016

Having said that, weather forecasting has improved massively in the last few decades, a true quiet revolution, but we still do not know how the weather will pan out over the whole of this melt season. I am sure that at some point Professor Wadhams will be proved correct, but we do not know when and it is even possible or rather likely that we will have a few years where we switch back and forth between ice free and not ice free conditions. So, the answer to the question I pose above is probably no. But don’t bet on it remaining so for too long.

UPDATE: I recalled this morning on my way in to work that I had somehow failed to mention the Sea Ice Prediction network. This group of people under the auspices of ARCUS, gather predictions on y´the end-of-season sea ice extent ever year. The call for predictions for the 2016 season is now open. Many different research groups as well as one or two enthusiastic amateurs will post their predictions over the next few weeks. It is an interesting exercise, as you can see based on last year’s report (see also figure below), it is not the first time that Profgessor Wadhams has predicted a 1 million km2 extent in September, and his is the lowest (and least accurate) in the rankings.

figure_5
Downloaded from the ARCUS SIPN website

So keep an eye out on this and if you think you can do better, consider submitting a prediction yourself… 

Endnote: There has been quite an absence of posts from this blog recently. I have been too busy with work, family, travel and more recently the EU Referendum (for which I have been threatening a post for quite some time and may yet get around to before polling day). However, a question about Arctic sea ice has been flickering on the edges of my consciousness for a while now so this was a quick (EDIT: not so quick!) blogpost to try and address it when I should actually be writing something else…

 

How pristine is the Arctic?

“The Arctic is one of the last great pristine ecosystems, a safe haven for endangered species and home to Indigenous Peoples whose lifestyle has survived in harmony with nature for thousands of years.”

This quote in the wake of COP21, extracted  from a celebrity I’ve never heard of (sorry, I’m just not that interested in actors)  raised my hackles as it repeated yet again the idea that the Arctic is “pristine”.

Even without contemplating climate change, it is most certainly not, as the polar portal season report I was vaguely involved in compiling this year made clear.

DSC02183
The “pristine” wilderness of Von Postbreen, Svalbard

There is a whole literature in the humanities on Orientalism and “othering”, about how we define other people and places partly to define what we are not. I’m not sure if there is a term for this narrative of a “pristine wilderness”, let us call it “pristinism ” for want of a better term. But before I list the ways in which the Arctic is not pristine, let me make very clear, I am well aware I also suffer from pristinism, to some extent. What my boss teasingly refers to as “the white disease”, the fascination with snow and ice that makes me want to leave the comforts of house and home and go and live somewhere deeply uncomfortable, and indeed dangerous in order to plumb the mysteries. I have been visiting the Arctic for well over 12 years now, though as most of my work is on  computer, I don’t get the option so often anymore. Maybe that’s a good thing, perhaps the last thing the Arctic needs is more people flying to it.

The ecosystem has been significantly degraded by the loss (hopefully now in reverse) of most of the large cetacean species by commercial whalers. Similarly, walrus and polar bears in Svalbard were almost rendered extinct before hunting was banned. It also appears there were walrus in Iceland when the vikings arrived that, like any polar bear at the present day arriving on Icelandic shores, were quickly dispatched. The Greenland vikings were certainly rich from walrus ivory as their main source of income. Not content with exterminating the walrus the early settlers sent their sheep out and very successfully deforested the 25-40% of Iceland that had been forested, leading to dust storms, soil erosion and the unfortunate inability to build boats to get anywhere else very far away. Deforestation has only recently begun to be reversed. In much the same way Musk Oxen were virtually eliminated from Eastern Greenland by hunting, but then rather too successfully introduced to the west where there has been a population explosion.

Fish stocks have at least been largely preserved in Iceland (sensible given how important fishing is to the economy), but there have been several notorious crashes in different fish species in the North Atlantic and around Greenland. Although, to be fair these latter seem to be at least partly caused by changing ocean temperatures rather than purely overfishing. Then there are the invasive species, largely limited so far to the (admittedly delicious) King crab , an omnivore that will eat everything in it’s path much to the fear of some local ecologists around the Arctic coast of Norway.

And then there are the birds. Different bird species face declining populations due both to loss of habitat outside the Arctic as well as hunting in the Arctic region. I was somewhat surprised, though in retrospect I should not have been, at the very few bird numbers that I saw while on a kayaking trip within an easy boat ride of Nuuk.

DSC03114

I would have seen many more in the Scottish islands, but if a subsistence species is within easy reach of a large town (which in themselves would have been impossible prior to colonisation), it is an inevitable tragedy of the commons waiting to happen. Similarly, seals are incredibly wary and remain as far from people as possible in Greenland, a big contrast to the rather trusting and curious creatures I have been able to paddle very close to around the British Isles. And Heaven help any polar bear that strays too close to any Greenlandic settlements, legal protection or not…

Part of the problem are the difficulties birds have in reproducing. This is at least partly down to the toxic mix of chemicals stored in their fat, which comes out in a rush when these animals and birds have to live on their body fat supplies – as they do each summer when incubating eggs. These eggs also appear to contain high levels of mercury, cadmium, PCBs, organochlorines, dieldrin to mention just a few, with an effect on the developing bird embryos inside and of course anything that eats either bird or eggs.

A report compiled by the WWF in 2006 (pdf) from the peer-reviewed literature lists dozens of such studies like this one.  There are also suggestions that environmental pollution is having a significant effect on cetaceans as well as in seal species.

And this of course is because that “pristine” Arctic has an extremely high concentration of industrial chemicals, heavy metals and other by-products of our manufacturing society. Albeit a long way from most sources of production. I was once fascinated to discover that all sorts of historic events such as the Greek and Roman production of silver (and it’s leaden by-product) could be identified in the Greenland ice cores, as could the introduction of leaded petrol and it’s later phasing out. The atmosphere acts as a kind of distillation column, concentrating these poisons at the top (and bottom) of the world, not to mention the local sources. There are coal mines in Svalbard, aluminium smelters in Iceland and Greenland, the oil + gas fields of Alaska, Newfoundland, Norway and Russia. Not to mention god only knows what hazardous (radioactive?) waste is leaching away from forgotten islands in the Russian sector of the Arctic.

DSC03285
Three polar bears take over an abandoned dog shed for a sleep in the shade, Svea coal mine, Svalbard

In the food chain, the little animals get eaten by the bigger ones, which get eaten by the bigger ones, concentrating and accumulating toxic chemicals all the way to the top of the food chain.

To us.

Because humans are, in the Arctic at least, the top predator.

It is by now well known that with a diet that is high in meat, much of it derived from marine mammals and fish, Inuit peoples in the Arctic have very high levels of toxic chemicals in their bodies, and in their breast milk. Greenlandic women are in fact advised to reduce their traditional foods in pregnancy (pdf) and eat something imported instead. Then some recent research suggested the high rates of Parkinson’s disease in the Faroes may be down to a whale meat rich diet.

Yet at the same time we in the crowded, populated mid-latitudes project our fantasies of a pristine fairy-tale at the top of the world.

Sorry.

The Arctic is very very far from pristine, and if what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic, the reverse is also true, the Arctic is part of this world for good or ill. There is however, no doubt that it exerts a powerful pull on our imaginations.

There is a reason poor old Ursus maritimus has become the poster children of climate change. Perhaps it’s all the bright white snow and ice, even if the Arctic Report card shows us the browning of the Arctic as snow lies for ever shorter periods at the same time as sea ice cover at the end of summer is similarly declining…

 

From the Arctic report card 2015: "Northern Hemisphere (NH) June snow cover extent and September Arctic sea ice extent. Sea ice extent data for 1979-2014 are derived from the NASA Team algorithm (Cavalieri et al., 1996); ice extent estimates for 2015 are produced from real time data (Maslanik and Stroeve 1999). Bold red and blue lines are 5-year running means of the original snow and sea ice extent records, respectively."
From the Arctic report card 2015: “Northern Hemisphere (NH) June snow cover extent and September Arctic sea ice extent. Sea ice extent data for 1979-2014 are derived from the NASA Team algorithm (Cavalieri et al., 1996); ice extent estimates for 2015 are produced from real time data (Maslanik and Stroeve 1999). Bold red and blue lines are 5-year running means of the original snow and sea ice extent records, respectively.”

I am optimistic but cautious about the Paris agreement at COP21. I hope it will come in time to preserve some remnant of the Arctic wilderness, but even if it does we still have some big challenges to face. Sweeping these under the carpet for the sake of a convenient narrative about a pristine wilderness is not helpful. I have a great affection for the Arctic, the people and the wildlife that lives there. I started this post originally some time ago but failed to finish it as it made me rather depressed to think about, but then I was put in mind of this poem from Seamus Heaney and decided it was worth finishing after all with this piece.

Clearly, the myth of “The North” and “the Arctic” has been with us for some time, but surely we owe it to the Arctic and the peoples who live there to try and see through the “pristinism” and start to fix some of these challenges?

North

BY SEAMUS HEANEY

I returned to a long strand,
the hammered curve of a bay,
and found only the secular
powers of the Atlantic thundering.
I faced the unmagical
invitations of Iceland,
the pathetic colonies
of Greenland, and suddenly
those fabulous raiders,
those lying in Orkney and Dublin
measured against
their long swords rusting,
those in the solid
belly of stone ships,
those hacked and glinting
in the gravel of thawed streams
warning me, lifted again
in violence and epiphany.
The longship’s swimming tongue
was buoyant with hindsight—
it said Thor’s hammer swung
to geography and trade,
thick-witted couplings and revenges,
the hatreds and behind-backs
of the althing, lies and women,
exhaustions nominated peace,
memory incubating the spilled blood.
It said, ‘Lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.
Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.
Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.’

were ocean-deafened voices

Shameless self-promotion…

The annual AGU jamboree starts this weekend, I have never actually attended (I do way too much travelling for work as it is but I would quite like to go one day). However, I and some of my colleagues have contributed to a number of presentations and posters so I thought I’d put a wee list up of those:

https://agu-do.confex.com/agu/fm15/meetingapp.cgi/Paper/82972 this poster presented by Prof. Jason Box on Greenland ice sheet albedo uses my HIRHAM5 simulations.

https://agu.confex.com/agu/fm15/meetingapp.cgi/Paper/59874 this poster presented by Dr Liam Colgan on the life cycle and mass balance implications of crevasses on glaciers relates to this blogpost.

My colleague Christian Rodehacke is presenting some of our work on permafrost modeling (and in particular subsea permafrost on the Siberian shelf and around Greenland) in a presentation on https://agu.confex.com/agu/fm15/meetingapp.cgi/Paper/77877 related to the DEFROST project

Ice2ice work from DMI is represented by a number of posters including this particular highlight on sea ice and surface air temperatures given by my colleague Shuting Yang: https://agu.confex.com/agu/fm15/meetingapp.cgi/Paper/78776

Then there are some good statistical posters based on multimodal ensembles presented by my Research leader Jens Hesselberg Christensen https://agu.confex.com/agu/fm15/meetingapp.cgi/Paper/71989

And while I’m on the subject of ice2ice, did I mention we’re hosting a themed session at the EGU Spring symposium in 2016?

The deadline for abstract submission is 13th January but with Christmas in the way it’s best to start planning your submissions now. I am co-convening the session, titled “Interactions and feedbacks between land ice, sea ice and ocean in the Arctic “ and we’re hoping to invite a couple of keynote speakers, and there may also be an associated social event, so keep watching this space and do consider sending in an abstract to the session!

 

 

Bless the rains down in Africa #DACEA3

An ultra-quick post today. I have been spending a lot of time lately writing a grant proposal (and occasionally tweeting about it  on the #DACEA3 hashtag).  Finally it’s in and after a celebratory beer or two at the famous Mikeller last week I have managed to get around to a very brief summary of what it’s all about… 

Around 17,000 years ago, Lake Victoria more or less completely dried out. I still find this absolutely staggering. In fact, the lake has dried out and reformed at least 3 times since it first formed about 400,000 years ago.

Lake Victoria is the largest lake in Africa and indeed the tropics, containing 2.75 cubic kilometres of water (though compared to the 2,850,000 cubic kilometres of water in the Greenland ice sheet that seems small, which merely goes to prove how much of our fresh water is locked up in the ice sheets), making it the 9th largest lake by volume in the world.

Gratuitous wildlife shot: A raft of hippos chilling out in the river. Photo: Pim Bussink
Gratuitous wildlife shot: A raft of hippos chilling out in the river.
Photo credit: Ruth Mottram

Clearly, the disappearance and later reappearance of the lake, and others in the region speaks to monumental shifts in the climate. The East African Rift Valley lakes are largely fed by the East African rains, long and short, delivered by the shifting position of the Intertropical Convergence Zone as the Earth’s seasons change bringing those life-giving rains.

This grant proposal started as idle speculation around the coffee machine (in the grand old scientific tradition) about how this was climatically possible and could it happen again? My colleague (and talented PI on the proposal) Peter Thejll had been reading a book about John Hanning Speke and Richard Burton (not that one) and their famous search for the source of the Nile and has some personal African connections, which prompted the conversation and it seemed obvious to try and find out what happens to the local circulation to allow the lake to dry out. A quick google search revealed an old friend, Dr. Sarah Davies at Aberystwyth University was researching this topic actively and it all fell into place.

Now, I can guess what you’re thinking – this is usually a glaciology or Arctic Climate blog, where on earth has all this Africa stuff come from? Well what happens in the Arctic does not necessarily stay in the Arctic.

There are a number of hypotheses as to the drivers of these changes in African rainfall, among which is the interesting observation that the periods of greater aridity correlate remarkably well with Heinrich events in the North Atlantic.

Heinrich events were first identified as layers of sediment most likely transported into the North Atlantic Ocean by icebergs, known as ice rafted debris – IRD. The southerly position of many of these layers thousands of kilometres from any ice sheets either at the present day or in the past suggests a truly extraordinary amount of icebergs and cold fresh water were discharged over a relatively short period of time, from a large ice sheet. The source of these sediments is most likely the gigantic Laurentide ice sheet of North America, but there is also some evidence of smaller contributions from the British and Fenno- Scandian ice sheets (which may or may not have been joined together across the North Sea depending on how you interpret the evidence). The physics behind this is that as the enormous amount of cold fresh water was discharged into the North Atlantic, the temperature and salinity changes were sufficient to push, or keep the ITCZ far to the south, preventing the rains one East Africa.

On the other hand, other research has linked the failure of the rains to El Niño and related phenomena such as the Indian Ocean dipole and the Walker circulation. Still other scientists have noted that these drying periods seem to correlate with orbital changes in the earth which would affect the seasonality, that is the annual cycle of seasons. It is known as orbital forcing as the Earth’s seasons are driven by changes in our orbit around the sun (have a look at the excellent Orbit documentary from the BBC for a very easy to follow and beautifully filmed introduction to the importance of our orbit around the sun if you’re not familiar with Milankovitch cycles etc).

Milankovitch cycles shown from ocean cores and an Antarctic ice core at the bottom compared with the theoretical cycles. Image: By Incredio (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Milankovitch cycles shown from ocean cores and an Antarctic ice core at the bottom compared with the theoretical cycles.
Image: By Incredio (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
All of these hypotheses can be supported by correlations with palaeo evidence,  but to really disentangle the connections between different regions of the world and how they affect each other’s weather and climate, we need to use a climate model. Luckily, at DMI we have the perfect tool to hand, a global climate model including ice sheets, EC-Earth. Furthermore we also have a high resolution regional climate model, HIRHAM5, my usual tool of choice. Our friends Morten Dahl Larsen and Martin Drews at the Danish Technical University are experts in using hydrology models so the answer is obvious.

We want to use these model tools and an extensive archive of observations, helpfully curated by our project partners Sarah Davies and Henry Lamb at Aberystwyth University to test all these different ideas. As an extra spinoff from the project, the Aberystwyth group have been intensively involved with the collection and analysis of a new lake sediment core from Chew Bahir in Ethiopia, so it’s going to be pretty exciting seeing if we can get the models to replicate  these kind of records.

There is of course an extra urgency to this project. It’s not just a somewhat obscure academic question. A recent paper showed that the long rains have significantly reduced over the last decade, and about 300 million* people live in this region and rely on these rains for drinking water, hydroelectric power and agricultural production. During this period we have also seen rapid changes in the Arctic. Of course the two trends may not be connected, or may be linked via a common third factor which is why the physics of climate are so important to understand.

UPDATE 2: I had no time originally in the writing of this to add a little about our other project associate. One of the best things about doing science are the very smart and friendly people  you meet along the way. Social media has really helped here to keep in touch as it is a nomadic lifestyle. By sheer chance I noticed a familiar name in a tweet that seemed to have some direct relevance to the proposal as we were writing it.

Hycristal

John Marsham was an old friend from my student days at Edinburgh University who I had slightly lost touch with. Thanks to the efforts of facebook we were soon back in touch and he is one of the Investigators on the HyCRISTAL project, part of the hugely important Future Climates for Africa Project, funded by the Department for International Development (DFiD) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in the UK. DACIA has some really obvious parallels with this project, though where we would like to concentrate on past climates, they will be focusing on present day and future climates. We hope therefore to send our PhD student to collaborate with the HyCRISTAL and FCFA projects where our insights from palaeomodelling palaeodata can make a real difference to the way future climate change is adapted to in East Africa. It will be very nice to collaborate with John’s group at Leeds as well as the Aberystwyth group, now we just have to hope we get the money to do it..

Or, to put it another way, “bless the rains down in Africa” ** (As an aside, for years I had always heard this as “I miss the rains down in Africa”, assuming it was about someone from Africa who missed being there).

UPDATE 1: Having viewed the original pop video again, I am rather troubled by the casual racism, sexism and naked orientalism on display (yes it was the 70s but still…) so I think I prefer to post instead this particularly witty deconstruction courtesy of @spaceforpootling

*(based on a back of the envelope calculation based on population statistics from Wikipedia if you know the correct number do let me know).

**(Apologies if you now have cheesy 1970’s pop music going round your head all day…:) )

The poetry of climate change

A slightly different topic today – not purely scientific but rather a purely opinion piece. Happy National Poetry Day!

Today is National Poetry Day in the UK and I stumbled across an article on the Guardian website by Britain’s Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.

In it she argues that science and information is not enough to convince people of the problem or solutions to climate change. There is, she suggests much work to be done on an emotional or aesthetic level. As part of the Guardian’s “Keep it in the ground” campaign she has therefore curated 20 poems from different writers especially commissioned on the subject.

I think it’s a very intriguing idea. I have never been a subscriber of the idea of “two cultures [pdf]”, most scientists I know are well read, musically gifted, artistically inclined, culturally engaged and often all four together.

Equally, though I know very few professional artists, those I do know are often deeply interested in the products and processes of scientific thought across a broad range of subjects. Although they may fail C.P. Snow’s criteria of understanding the Laws of Thermodynamics, this seems a rather crude measure of engagement with scientific endeavours on a par with perhaps being able to recite Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech (and how many people can do that by heart?)

So, if the poem a day gets people excited, engaged and somehow involved in understanding and solving the problems of climate change I am all for it, especially with the summit in Paris coming up in December.

Here is “my” contribution. Not my own poetry which I fear is excruciatingly adolescent, but by the master Seamus Heaney, who I studied in school, proof of the inspiring nature of the English literature curriculum if there was any:

Höfn

The three-tongued glacier has begun to melt.
What will we do, they ask, when boulder-milt
Comes wallowing across the delta flats
And the miles-deep shag ice makes its move?
I saw it, ridged and rock-set, from above,
Undead grey-gristed earth-pelt, aeon-scruff,
And feared its coldness that still seemed enough
To ice-block the plane window dimmed with breath,
Deepfreeze the seep of adamantine tilth
And every warm, mouthwatering word of mouth.

Seamus Heaney (2005)

From District and Circle

I used this in my PhD thesis and like to think that it is about the glacier I did my PhD work on, Breidamerkurjokull in Iceland.

The photo below was taken in 2005 at the end of my last field season in Iceland. As a final farewell we took a plane flight over the glacier. In retrospect I wish I’d done it at the start as many processes and features we’d puzzled over became clear when viewed from above.

The 3 lobes of the glacier are clear in this picture (though the ice in the foreground is from a different glacier, Fjallsjokull), the lake with icebergs in the far background is the famous Jokulsarlon, a popular tourist site in Iceland and also, incidentally, a popular film location.

Seamus Heaney’s poem is rather grim in tone, but I think the photo shows just how sparklingly beautiful this area is on a good day

DSC00792

Rain rain go away…

My 2 kids were singing the rain rain go away rhyme during last weekend’s epic rainfall in Copenhagen and it reminded me that I have not yet put up a post about a paper I was a co-author on this summer related to late summer/autumn rainfall and the effects on the Greenland ice sheet, so here goes….

Mostly when we think of precipitation in Greenland we think of snow in the winter, but it does rain quite a lot, as I know from personal experience (see photo taken as the clouds started to clear one September field season in Eastern Greenland…). This paper in Nature Geoscience by Sam Doyle and co-authors including myself shows that when rain falls on the ice sheet at the “wrong” time of year it can have a very far-reaching effect, causing the speed up of a large area across the ice sheet.

Rain clouds over the Stauning Alps of Eastern Greenland after the third day of rain... Exploratory mining camp tents in the foreground.
Rain clouds over the Stauning Alps of Eastern Greenland after the third day of rain…
Exploratory mining camp tents in the foreground.

The important caveat is that rainfall during the main part of the melt season is more or less evacuated away quickly. Glaciers – and the Greenland ice sheet is basically a very big glacier – develop a drainage system more or less analogous to large underground sewers during the melt season. These tend to close down during the colder accumulation season and reopen by the sheer pressure of water running through them when the melt season starts. Rainfall during that crucial late summer/early autumn period when the drainage is closing down and therefore less efficient at evacuating surplus liquid water is therefore not able to move away from the glacier very easily and forces its way through any way it can find.

During this period, most of the snow will have melted off the surface, leaving vast areas of bare ice. By contrast, rain on snow in the early part of the melt season when there is a thick snow pack is more likely to refreeze inside the snow. In late summer however, there will be a relatively short period between rain falling and accumulating in the glacier drainage system.

In practice this means the water makes its way to the bed of the glacier through moulins and englacial channels, where it more or less hydraulically jacks up the glacier over a large region, allowing the ice to flow to the margins faster. There may then also be a knock-on effect with increased calving of icebergs at outlet glaciers. in 2011, the field team were able to measure both the rain fall and the following cascade of processes in a range of different datasets as shown below:

Rainfall (a,b) over the ice sheet runs off the bare ice quickly as shown by discharge stations on a number of rivers in western Greenland (c). This triggers acceleration  across a wide area, shown by GPS stations on the ice sheet at 10 different locations (d). Figure taken from the paper
Rainfall (a,b) over the ice sheet runs off the bare ice quickly as shown by discharge stations on a number of rivers in western Greenland (c). This triggers acceleration across a wide area, shown by GPS stations on the ice sheet at 10 different locations (d). Figure taken from the paper

My contribution to the paper was in the form of some HIRHAM5 model runs for Greenland which show the last decade has seen a significant increase in rainfall events in the summertime compared with the previous decade. We chose as a study region the K-transect of weather stations in western Greenland. These are operated by Utrecht University and have a long time-series of data which previous work has shown our model can replicate quite nicely. The model is forced by the ERA-Interim reanalysis, a data set based on weather forecast models with real observations included in it run for the whole world so we are pretty confident the rainfall patterns are realistic. There are actually two interesting points illustrated in the picture below taken from the paper. Firstly that there is more rain falling and secondly that this rain is falling at higher elevations on the ice sheet, potentially causing a much wider area of the ice sheet to be affected by late-summer rainfall events.

The decadal change in rainfall events is partly due to a persistent North Atlantic Oscillation anomaly which has funnelled storms over the western edge of the ice sheet. There is also some evidence that the stratospheric Rossby waves have become more “wavy” over the same period, due to the increasing warming and vanishing sea ice in the Arctic. This hypothesis was articulated in a very nice paper by Francis and Vavrus but it remains a very open area of research as we just don’t have a lot of evidence right now.

We do know that the Arctic is one of the fastest warming regions on the planet and this will certainly have a knock-on effect on the Greenland ice sheet both in terms of melting and, perhaps, in the frequency of storms bringing rain over the ice sheet in the future. I am now preparing a new study to see if we see a signal along these lines in our future simulations of the Greenland domain.

Rainfall events at a weekly timestep over the K-transect in western Greenland  for two different decades and the difference between the two. The second decade has many more rainfall events that reach to a much higher elevation than the first decade.
Rainfall events at a weekly timestep over the K-transect in western Greenland for two different decades and the difference between the two. The second decade has many more rainfall events that reach to a much higher elevation than the first decade.