Power to X

Yesterday, I attended a mini conference on power to X and the potential to generate green synthetic fuels in Greenland.

Power to X became a big thing in Denmark a few years ago and the government is keen to promote it. Danish company Topsoe are currently building a green fuel facility in Herning and they have a nice explainer on their website of the concept.

In Greenland the fuels could be anything from hydrogen to methanol (though I learnt methanol is least likely as it requires a CO2 source that Greenland doesn’t have, ammonia seems the most plausible initially).

It was an interesting meeting, lots of different companies, institutions and the Greenlandic MP Aaja Chemnitz as well as academics were in the room. The emphasis was very much on the social and economic aspects of power to X, but as the title implied: Greenland has the potential to be the “world’s largest energy island.” From a local point of view, Greenland has very high per capita emissions and is heavily dependent on energy imports for transport, though a majority of electricity, at least in the south west, is already hydropower.

Many other smaller and more remote communities however are dependent on diesel generators for heating and power as well as for shipping, fishing and flying between communities.* Transitioning away from these fuels will be challenging but the potential for much larger developments is clear.

Head of development at NunaGreen (the recently rebranded and reoriented NunaOil), Rasmus Wendt, emphasised just how cheap and in theory at least, abundant, Greenland hydropower is. Probably some of the cheapest electricity in the world is generated by Greenlandic dams already operating or planned. And indeed the potential is massive. As the ice sheet melts, enormous amounts of water are produced more or less endlessly in Greenland. It will take at least a thousand years to melt the whole ice sheet, even under a high emissions scenario. We’re not going to run out of water soon.

Figure 2 from Aschwanden et al., 2019.
Observed 2008 state and simulations of the Greenland Ice Sheet at year 3000.
(A) Observed 2008 ice extent (53). (B to D) Likelihood (percentiles) of ice cover as percentage of the ensemble simulations with nonzero ice thickness. Likelihoods less than the 16th percentile are masked. (E) Multiyear composite of observed surface speeds (61). (F to H) Surface speeds from the control simulation. Basin names shown in (A) in clockwise order are southwest (SW), central-west (CW), northwest (NW), north (NO), northeast (NE), and southeast (SE). RCP 2.6 (B and F), RCP 4.5 (C and G), and RCP 8.5 (D and H). Topography in meters above sea level (m a.s.l.) [(A) to (H)].

Wind energy too is extremely underdeveloped but potentially huge in Greenland. The problem is of course, all that potential energy is a long way from the end users as this screenshot from the global wind atlas, shared by energy scenario planner Brian Vad Mathiessen shows well.

Screenshot from the global wind atlas showing wind energy potential in Greenland and the north Atlantic margin of Europe

By sheer coincidence, this morning I stumbled over this article in the Dutch newspaper NRC on mastodon about the large green hydrogen facility currently under construction by Shell in Rotterdam.

It’s a really interesting read – (if you don’t speak Dutch try DeepL translation) and I was struck by many of the same issues being raised there as in the Greenland meeting: lack of trained staff, uncertain commercial environment, cost and competitiveness with other energy sources. Unlike in Greenland, energy in the Netherlands for producing synthetic fuels is scarce, but the market for using the energy is huge and nearby, and given the EU’s ambitions to produce and, crucially, import large amounts of hydrogen fuel by 2030, it seems like many of the important stars are aligning. Importing ammonia to Rotterdam for cracking back into hydrogen seems like it could actually be a viable future for Greenlandic generated fuels in Greenland he medium to long term.

We at DMI are shortly starting a project within the National Centre for Climate Research framework looking at exactly the potential to generate renewable energy from a climate and weather angle. But what I took away from yesterday’s meeting is that while the physical potential in Greenland really is HUGE, the regulatory environment – and probably the local population – is supportive, the economic certainty is not quite there yet.

It felt a bit like being in a bunch of young seabirds clustered on the edge of the cliff, none quite daring to take the flight, in spite of the undoubted rewards. And indeed, this seems the situation in the Netherlands too. I was especially struck by this quote in the NRC piece:

“Another problem is that many parties are just waiting for each other to take the first step so that they themselves dare to go. Producers, for instance, invest only sparingly because they are not sure whether there will soon be customers, and customers in turn hesitate because they are not sure whether the producers will deliver. The classic chicken-and-egg story.”
(Translated with DeepL)

Chris Hensen, NRC, 17thnMay 2023 “De Europese waterstofambities zijn groot, maar bedrijven zijn nog altijd afwachtend”

Perhaps the diving in of Shell, a company that can afford to risk investing a billion Euros in a new facility in Rotterdam, is what the development of Power to X needs?

BP, Air liquide and Uniper already have plans to build follow on plants in Rotterdam. Once one of the birds have taken flight, others will surely follow.

Thanks to Aalborg University,and especially my Danish Arctic Research Forum colleague Carina Ren for an interesting and inspiring meeting.

*(As an aside, I was reflecting while on fieldwork just how difficult removing fossil fuels from scientific work in Greenland will be. We rely on petrol generators to power equipment and oil stoves to warm tents. What if we could develop an easy to operate “tabletop” (or even just room sized) electrolysis system to generate clean fuels from e.g. wind energy, that we could burn instead of paraffin and/petrol? I’d invest in that and it would be a quick win for Greenland science.)

Inside of the tent during fieldwork, note the primus stove, running on petrol, for melting ice for water and food and the paraffin powered oven to keep the inside warm and dry while camping.

Is it time for a change..?

My employer DMI, and specifically my team at the National Centre for Climate Research are recruiting.

Not an earth-shattering revelation perhaps but these are premium research jobs, and this is probably a once in a generation opportunity in Denmark.

Let me explain. They are full time and permanent positions, working right at the cutting edge of both basic climate research, and importantly, climate services. You can see the full adverts at the links below:

DMI scientists collaborating with local hunters in the field in Greenland

I call these positions once in a generation positions because these kind of positions just don’t come up very often. Part of the reason these are now available is related to the generation change* that is coming to DMI. Right now we are fortunate also to have a number of large EU funded projects as well as danish funding for our Climate Atlas and new hydrology department which is giving us the opportunity to plan for the long term.

Sea level rise is an existential threat for Denmark, at least in the long term and we are putting a great deal of effort not just into the science of melting ice, tipping points and so forth to try and assess the potential risks, but also into planning climate adaptation and mitigation in the short and medium term.

The new positions related to climate and ice sheets and sea level rise will have some flexibility with them in terms of how the jobs evolve and research directions. There will certainly be opportunities for whoever is hired to steer in their own direction and initiate their own research programmes within the broad frame of the topics. I can certainly also only praise the management for the generally supportive and research positive encouragement.

I’d like to help cast the net wide and deep to get as strong a pool of candidates as possible, so please do feel free to get in touch with me either here or via the usual email, and other social media feeds if I can help at all. And if you have good students, postdocs or others, please do share.

We will be holding some “open house” events where you can come in person to visit DMI or sign on in a virtual event to hear more about the positions, about DMI and what it’s like to work in Denmark. Again get in touch to hear more about those.

*”Generations skift” in Danish – I have not looked at the statistics but I suspect many public institutes, including weather and climate services are greying. There was an expansion during the 80s and 90s as numerical techniques became more widespread and integrated into weather prediction and by extension climate – many of the staff employed then are getting close to retirement. In my view DMI is wise to start trying to replace these staff now so there will be continuity and knowledge exchange before it becomes a problem.

Oh Vienna…

In the before times I would usually spend this week walking around a world class city humming an old 80’s hit (- don’t ask me why it was so durable in my head, probably something to do with being an impressionable age at a time when access to pop music meant half an hour on a Thursday evening).

Anyway, it is the time for EGU… Sadly I will not be wandering the streets of the ever beautiful (and most livable) capital of Austria this year. I have to get some actual work done, but I’m following the #EGU23 on mastodon and hoping to catch a few highlights on the sides. I do have a poster, which will be capably presented by PolarRES PI Priscilla Mooney and my DMI Colleague Abraham Torres on Thursday.

The topic is our PolarRES project – an ambitious Horizon 2020 effort to produce a large ensemble of regional climate simulations over both poles. These are state-of-the-art regional climate models run at unprecedented high spatial resolution and all data will be made open access and free via the CORDEX project.

I will also put it here later – feel free to comment here or ask questions on mastodon or get in touch by email if it sounds exciting.

Mottram, R., Mooney, P., and Torres, J. A. and the PolarRES Consortium: A first look at the new PolarRES ensemble of polar regional climate model storylines to 2100, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-14470, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-14470, 2023.

Other posters and talks I’ve contributed to from PolarRES are

Kristiina Verro’s talk on HCLIM_Arome results from the Antarctic peninsula:

Verro, K., van de Berg, W. J., Orr, A., Landgren, O., and van Ulft, B.: New non-hydrostatic polar regional climate model HCLIM-AROME: analysis of the föhn event on 27 January 2011 over the Larsen C Ice Shelf, Antarctic Peninsula, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-13864, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-13864, 2023.

Abraham Torres joined our group last year and is primarily working on PolarRES also. He will show some of our preliminary HCLIM results for both the Arctic and the Antarctic

Torres-Alavez, A., Landgren, O., Boberg, F., Christensen, O. B., Mottram, R., Olesen, M., Van Ulft, B., Verro, K., and Batrak, Y.: Assessing Performance of a new High Resolution polar regional climate model with remote sensing and in-situ observations: HCLIM in the Arctic and Antarctica, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-14090, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-14090, 2023

Quentin Glaude is a collaborator from Liege in the Horizon 2020 PROTECT project on sea level rise contributions from the cryosphere . Baptiste Vandecrux, a former PhD student with me here and now working at GEUS is also presenting some work based on the same models as Quentin, with a comparison to the PROMICE observation statons on the Greealnd ice sheet. It’s very cool application of machine learning and the results are very interesting.

Glaude, Q., Noel, B., Olesen, M., Boberg, F., van den Broeke, M., Mottram, R., and Fettweis, X.: The Divergent Futures of Greenland Surface Mass Balance Estimates from Different Regional Climate Models, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-7920, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-7920, 2023

Vandecrux, B., Fausto, R. S., Box, J. E., Covi, F., Hock, R., Rennermalm, A., Heilig, A., Abermann, J., Van As, D., Løkkegaard, A., Fettweis, X., Smeets, P. C. J. P., Kuipers Munneke, P., Van Den Broeke, M., Brils, M., Langen, P. L., Mottram, R., and Ahlstrøm, A. P.: Historical snow and ice temperature compilation documents the recent warming of the Greenland ice sheet, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-9080, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-9080, 2023.

Nicolaj Hansen (who finished his PhD with me and Sebastian Simonsen at DTU Space last year) has just submitted a beauty of a paper which he will talk about – also partof PROTECT.

 Hansen, N., Sørensen, L. S., Spada, G., Melini, D., Forsberg, R., Mottram, R., and Simonsen, S. B.: ICESat-2 Ice Sheet Mass balance: Going below the surface, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-12349, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-12349, 2023

Mathias Larsen is a current Phd student with me and is presenting a poster on the CARRA dataset and an application in surface mass balance modelling. This work falls under the danish National center for klima forskning

Larsen, M., H. Mottram, R., and L. Langen, P.: CARRA-driven simulation of Greenland Ice Sheet surface mass balance at 2.5 km resolution, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-5852, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-5852, 2023

Last year I co-organised a bootcamp for early career researchers on Arctic processes in the CMIP6 models. It was super fun and would not have been possible without the support offered by Anne Fouilloux, Tina Odaka and colleagues from the Pangeo project. Their poster is super interesting and if you’re interested in optimising the use of big climate data, go and check it out!

Fouilloux, A., Marasco, P. L., Odaka, T., Mottram, R., Zieger, P., Schulz, M., Coca-Castro, A., Iaquinta, J., and Eynard Bontemps, G.: Pangeo framework for training: experience with FOSS4G, the CLIVAR bootcamp and the eScience course, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-8756, https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-egu23-8756, 2023.

Excitingly, at least 3 of the projects at the bootcamp will also be presented at EGU this year. So, lots to be getting on with, for now, here’s a link to Ultravox’s finest…

Q is for Qaanaaq

Back in Denmark after 2 weeks in Greenland. Always a bit strange to come back, not just that transition from Arctic cold to European Spring but the sheer abundance of the fertile mid-latitudes, colours, plants, trees, the sheer number of people.

Not to mention that expedition frame of mind, where you are really focused on accomplishing a given set of often quite complex tasks (almost) without distraction. It is the ultimate deep work task, and naturally readjusting to family life, not to mention the tsunami of work tasks left on hold is… difficult.

This particular deep fieldwork has been carried out in Qaanaaq, Northern Greenland, as I’ve written about before. The community of about 600 people (and maybe a 1000 dogs), was established in the 1950s when the US established the Thule air base. It is almost the most northern settlement in Greenland – and certainly the largest. The small village of Siorapaluk is about 45km (or 6 hours by dog sled) further away.

The town was formerly a summer hunting spot, but after Thule was decided on, the community was moved to Qaanaaq year round. It has an association with the famous Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen, whose old house is a museum (allegedly. I’ve never actually had time to visit it..)

DMI established a geomagnetic observatory there in the 1950s and today its part of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation network that DMI operates on behalf of the Danish government from what we now call the DMI geophysical facility. There is transnational access to this via the INTERACT network.

This year we again visited the glaciers at the head of the Inglefield Fjord – expanding a new research programme we piloted last year. We also did a lot of work on the sea ice – not just Steffen Olsen‘s ocean programme, but a new NCKF research programme looking at biological productivity and carbon cycling in the fjord, led by Anna Pedersen, a DMI PhD student also at the University of Southern Denmark. I and another colleagues also did a lot of work on snow processes that is something of a pilot programme for a processes project we’d like to establish next year that will also involve (hopefully) our weather forecasting colleagues and perhaps also the GEUS PROMICE programme.

All of this work involved 6 days of travelling over and camping on the sea ice, plus an additional day trip. We were lucky with the weather, although it was *extremely* cold, around -25 to -28C most days, and dipping well below -30C at night (though being after the equinox it was never truly pitch dark). However, in general there was little wind, no fresh snow (which can really slow the dogs down as they struggle to pull through deep soft snow) and the sun shone every day. This meant we basically managed to achieve the full planned programme – including our extra-optimistic goals – which almost never happens in fieldwork.

Camping on the sea ice at sunset. Northern Greenland
This work by Ruth Mottram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

I intend to write a whole series of posts based on what we have been doing scientifically and technically as well as some general observations. There have been various hints already in my preferred social network. The whole trip was super inspiring, it’s always valuable to get out and observe the real world when you’re trying to model it, understand it and make projections of sea level rise.

I also promised to make another Lego scientists series and took quite a few photos in between times to do so. However, the research programme was packed, so I had no time at all to make the comic during fieldwork, that will have to wait a few weeks.

Expect my pixelfed account to host gratuitous numbers of dog pictures. And ice pictures. And unexpectedly clear blue skies. For now it’s time to unpack, get the washing machine going and spend some time with my family.

Sunset over sea ice near Qaanaaq, North West Greenland
This work by Ruth Mottram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

As ever, thanks to my amazing colleagues Steffen Malskær Olsen, Andrea Gierisch and Anna Pedersen for an incredible trip and to DMI station manager in Qaanaaq Aksel Ascanius without whom most of this work would be impossible.

Special thanks to our friends in Qaanaaq, the local hunters, whose unfailing energies and knowledge are absolutely essential to these scientific projects. We literally could not do this without them and of course their dogs.

I must also credit DMI and the Danish Government for funding via the National Center for Klima Forskning and thanks also to Horizon Europe projects PROTECT on sea level rise and PolarRES for additional inspiration and funding and to my colleagues at the Horizon Europe/NERC project OCEAN:ICE for indulging my two weeks away. All three projects will benefit from the insights gained in this fieldwork.

The further adventures of batgirl…

I wrote this series of comics to amuse and inform my kids while I was on fieldwork a few years ago. It turned out to be quite a success and my kids classes both read the Danish versions at their school.

Last year I started https://icemangoeshome.wordpress.com/more-arctic-adventures/ the further adventures of batgirl on the ice with her new friends the Lego scientists and a couple of stowaways.. but last year’s season was extremely busy and I never managed to finish it.

I asked yesterday on mastodon if I should do another this year, and the only feedback I got was I should try to finish the one I started last year. So maybe that’s what I’ll try to do. It’s always challenging fitting around field tasks though so no promises.

This is just a quick post from the airport: you’ve been warned, bat girls and her friends are on their way back with a new season!


Lego figures in the snow

Natural cycles: oceans and glaciers and volcanoes…

Reblogging this brilliant piece in Ars Technica* with thanks to Andrew Dessler on Mastodon for sharing.

It’s a really thorough introduction to the climate system and all the natural sources of climate variability and cycles of change, including links to sources. Well worth taking your time over with a morning cup of tea and probably I’ll assign it as an introduction text for BSc students (and management) on the big picture of climate change.

I also love it for the introduction where multiple eminent and respected scientists are asked what they’d buy with all the dollars they’d have if they were given one dollar every time someone asked them about “natural climate cycles”. As you might expect, the answers range from heat pumps and solar panels to new bicycles and a time machine.

Not sure what I’d use it to pay for, possibly a new postdoc position to work on snow and ice processes?

Figure from NASA showing changes in incoming solar and the global temperature

Now that the doubt is out the way, please go and also read this wonderful piece by Rebecca Solnit in the Washington Post about why and how reducing fossil fuel use might lead to abundance and joy and enhanced quality of life (hat tip to David Ho also on mastodon for this one).

*as an aside: I haven’t read Ars Technica in ages. And it’s funny because I remember that when I first started on twitter way back in 2010 there were *a lot* of good articles shared from there on the bird site. Somehow they either were not shared or got suppressed and I stopped seeing them. I’m not sure if that was due to the algorithm or different people I was following. One of the nice things about mastodon is that without an algorithm (and crucially, by following *a lot* of people!) there is a chance to see a much greater diversity of different media. It feels a bit like seeing a different internet, outside the standard walled garden.

Signs of Spring

Currently, I’m very busy getting ready with colleagues to travel to Greenland next week. We have an extremely full programme of fieldwork activities covering oceanography, biology, sea ice, snow and glacier processes as part of our NCKF work. More on these no doubt in a future post…

Yesterday, one of my ace DMI colleagues (without whom most of the work we plan would definitely not happen) shared the first optical satellite image of the area this year – taken by ESA’s Sentinel 2 (a truly astonishing source of free imagery and everone should know about it). Because the area is very far north, it has been in the Polar night until now so we have been reliant on the ESA Sentinel 1 imagery based on radar.

First Sentinel-2 optical satellite image of the year downloaded from Sentinel Hub’s EO Browser today. Processing with Sentinel Hubs optimised natural colour filter has introduced some artefacts, notable the brigh white patches which probably represent areas of shadow due to the low solar angle. The area is blanketed in thin cloud and only parts of the glaciers, sea ice and icebergs are clearly visibe.

It’s a wonderful thing to see the first satellite image of Spring, akin to other signs like the first cuckoo (in the UK), the first peewit egg (in the Netherlands), and the timing of the cherry blossom in Kyoto.

The first lapwing (peewit) egg of the year was traditionally presented to the Dutch monarch – these days, given the

There was recently a very illuminating thread on phenology on mastodon in reply to a query by Pauline von Hellerman where the Diagram Monkey John Kennedy pointed out the existence of the Pan European Phenology network – not something I was aware of before (though I’d suspected it’s existence) – and who have all sorts of interesting data.

Where biology is clearly showing us earlier springs due to climate change, the date of the first optical image is unlikely to change any time soon due to climate change.

A newer updated version of the Economist’s cherry blossom flowering date plot provided by Datagraver after I posted the old one. See: https://mastodon.social/@Datagraver/110021046678442071

Nor are species assemblages (it’s not quite certain that it’s the same variety of cherry blossom for the whole 1200 year period), or biodiversity losses (the cuckoo is down 65% since the early 1980s alone in the UK, and heaven knows it was not particularly common then) likely to affect it. Not to mention human behaviour changes, the lapwing has gone from being a common agricultural bird to near threatened over the same period, which probably also affects the reliability of that data.

Of course, quite a bit of what you might call bulk phenology can be done by satellite too now…

Copernicus land dataset showing biological activity in Europe basedon satellite data available here

As for Qaanaaq, there is not much in the way of biological phenology, but a compilation and analysis of data on sea ice cover and thickness over the last 60 years would probably be as instructive. Do get in touch if you’re interested in doing this as a student project…

Out and about in Leeds..

I’ve been on holiday this last week and I’m combining the trip to the UK with a visit to colleagues and collaborators at the University of Leeds. I’ve also been nabbed while I’m in Leeds to give a wider interest talk at the Royal Meteorological Society Yorkshire branch in Leeds.

I’ll be discussing ice sheets, their contribution to sea level rise and how the future is looking. There may also be some nice photos from our fieldwork in Northern Greenland for those who like dogs, icebergs and snow…

If you’re in Leeds and fancy joining you’re most welcome to register and attend at this link.

In general, I’m trying to reduce my travel this year, last year, with all the rolled over meetings from the COVID times was disruptively busy with work travel, it makes it challenging to actually get the work done. So I think combining work and holidays and rolling up meetings into a block is the way forward.

Although I very much appreciate the opportunity to present online at various meetings, I’m less convinced about hybrid meetings where the purpose is mostly scientific discussions, that is something that works much better either all online or all in person in my opinion, but I think they work well when the aim is to present new and ongoing work (like EGU).

For those who are interested but can’t attend I will see if the talk tomorrow will be recorded and can be uploaded somewhere. Here’s the abstract:

Frozen Threats: Understanding the Role of Ice Sheets in Sea Level Rise

In this talk, we will delve into the world’s ice sheets and explore their importance in the climate system. Ice sheets are the largest stores of freshwater on the planet, their size and location means they influence our climate but their interactions with the atmosphere and ocean are complex. As the world warms, they will inevitable have an impact on sea level. Adapting to sea level rise will be one of our civilisations biggest and longest challenges, so understanding ice sheets is now of critical importance. They are also beautiful and fascinating environments in their own right. In this talk I will discuss some of the scientific challenges, but also show how far we have come in understanding ice sheets and glaciers.

The Inughuit cliffs near Qaanaaq in Northern Greenland rising up above the sea ice. In the far distance a dog-sled is a small black speck.

Politics, history, science and the continuation by other means

War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means. All beyond this which is strictly peculiar to War relates merely to the peculiar nature of the means which it uses. 

Carl von Clausewitz, On War

I have lots of thoughts about this really great Timothy Snyder piece on the US 2016 elections, (not least, I wonder what it means for how we understand Brexit too?)

But most of all I’m reminded of Gary Kasparov’s declaration that the point of modern propaganda is not to make you believe something but it’s to make you believe nothing. (I paraphrase slightly). Much of the piece is about how the Russian propaganda operation as been so successful at engendering doubt about Ukraine and the state of relations between Russia and Ukraine.

I sometimes feel the invasion of Ukraine has really been a wake-up call for many of us because it’s just so undeniable. An actual event happening to real people that we know with a pretty clear narrative. The genius of Russian influence operations has always been to muddy the waters sufficiently that it was a little hard to trust anything that anyone said or wrote.

In this sense I’ve also found Timothy Snyder’s series on the making of modern Ukraine (which I’ve been listening to over the last few weeks) brilliant and helpful and interesting. The subject is fascinating, but it also because it becomes clear listening to a historian that, yes there can be different ways to interpret events, but the events themselves are real and we have a duty to try to learn the facts before judging them.

This is of course exactly how scientists should think, that we have to establish good observational data before trying to interpret it. We also need, inevitably to consider what are the uncertainties and likely range within that data. What is missing? What can’t we know? What is the most likely interpretation based on the things we can observe? How reliable are our measurements?

One of my favourite teachers at school who really helped to develop the way I think was very clear on how to do this. And he was not a scientist, he was a historian.

Ultimately, I was more interested in understanding the physical world and went on to study glaciers, ice sheets and the climate system at the poles. However, as I’ve been focusing more on sea level rise and how on earth we adapt to a changing climate it’s quite clear that going back to the social sciences will be important to understand human behaviour. And the murky way other actors seek to influence us as we adapt to climate change is also going to be important to understand. There has been undue influence from a “Merchants of Doubt” perspective for sure for many years when it comes to the causes of climate change and the effects. This is very clear in the mess of climate denial that the new Lord of Twitter has unleashed, it’s a little bit like returning to 2009.

But here we are in 2023 and there are apparently serious politicians having hissy fits over the idea that a significant source of indoor air pollution should maybe be replaced with a far more efficient alternative (yes I’m talking about replacing gas stoves with electric induction), imagine how climate adaptation can be weaponised just as for example COVID vaccination was as part of the culture wars?

Anyway, this is a bit incoherent maybe. But it’s a great piece for clarifying what we know now and maybe for working out what comes next in terms of Russian interference in democratic institutions. And from a climate scientist perspective it’s also another reason to try to avoid (if we can), becoming just another cultural battleground. This is also key: it’s not always about money, sometimes people really are being manipulated for other reasons:

“When people act in the interest of a foreign power, it is sometimes for money, it is sometimes because the foreign power knows something about them, it is sometimes for ideals, and it is sometimes for no conscious motive at all — what one thinks of as one’s own motives have been curated, manipulated, and directed.  It seems quite possible — I raise it as a hypothesis that reasonable people would consider — that some mixture of these factors was at work at FBI New York in 2016.”

Well worth reading the whole thing.

Rules of thumb about ice sheets and sea level rise:

One of the advantages of being part of a research institute are the fascinating conversations that happen over lunch between colleagues working in different areas. Today was a classic with conversation ranging from the stratospheric effects of the Hunga-Tonga eruption to the different types of snow crystals that form in snow packs and their impacts on sea ice. However, the conversation started with a request to me for some rules of thumb on sea level rise, so here they are: 

The Greenland ice sheet loses on average around 250 to 280 Gigatonnes of ice each year – that’s from all processes including melt and surface runoff, iceberg calving, basal melting and submarine melting.

It varies a bit from year to year but over the last 26 years the ice sheet has either lost ice or been neutral (and it’s had very few neutral mass budget years).

Change in mass of the Greenland ice sheet from the GRACE and GRACE-FO satellites since 2022

The Antarctic ice sheet loses on average about 100 Gigatonnes of ice net each year (probably) from all processes, it receives about 2000 to 2500 Gigatonnes of snow (depending a bit on where you measure Antarctica to end) whereas Greenland receives around ~700 gigatonnes of snow.

The small glaciers and ice caps around the world contribute a bit more to sea level rise in total each year than each of the big ice sheets currently, but they will be quickly exhausted. As there are thousands of small glaciers, most of which are not well monitored, we have to estimate how these are changing using models. It appears that on avergae they add around 0.7 to 1 mm of global sea level rise each year.

Glacier changes are not well measured at most glaciers but this analysis from Copernicus is based on a few that are in Europe.

The thermal expansion of the oceans is still the largest part of currently observed sea level rise but on an annual basis, the cryosphere now often contributes more.

As I’ve elaborated on before, 1 Gigatonne of water is hard to visualise, it is a cube 1 km long, 1 km wide and 1 km high and about 360 Gigatonnes (or km3) raise global average sea level by 1 mm, so Greenland contributes around a half to three quarters of a millimetre to global sea level every year. My old friend Lindsey Nicholson at Innsbruck University has a cool blog (which you should check out here) and shows this visualisation if it helps..

What a gigatonne looks like, visualisation shared by Dr Alex Gardner, JPL from this talk on glaciers and sea level rise

Since the early 1990s sea level rises about 3mm every year, but over the last 5 years it has been closer to 4.5mm per year. The curve over the last 2 decades has followed a quadratic shape rather than a linear shape – put simply, this means sea level is accelerating. The sea rose 10mm from January 2020 to August 2021.

Global mean sea level rise since the early 1990’s as shown in the WMO state of the climate report 2022

An El Nino, which some are warning could occur this year, may cause a temporary pause or at least slow down in sea level rise, even as global air temperatures increase, mostly due to the large amounts of rain that are associated with it, but this will only be temporary.

While the rate (3-4 mm per year) doesn’t sound like very much, every mm counts, increasing the risk of coastal flooding and storm surges affecting coastal communities.

Finally, global sea level rise is not distributed evenly, broadly speaking, the further away from an ice mass you are, the more likely it is to affect your local sea level, so Greenland matters less than Antarctica in Northern Europe.

NOAA’s visualisation of observed sea level rise from satellites in the background and at tide gauge locations (the round dots) since 1993, note the uneven pattern which reflects processes like ocean currents, atmospheric circulation and winds, local relative land movements and gravitational changes due to changing ice masses.

I hope these little rules of thumb help. Feel free to add more (or disagree) in the comments..