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.

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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.

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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…

 

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Let it snow…

I have found myself shovelling a lot of snow this winter. As with last winter, it has been cold and snowy across northern Europe so far, which has led to the usual questioning of climate change by the usual suspects. There is some very good work examining this on the real climate blog and Marcus Brigstocke did his usual amusing best on the Now Show towards the end of last year, so I’m not going to write about the difference between weather and climate, or about how regional and global average temperatures differ. Rather, the time spent shovelling snow and wandering around the city streets camera in hand to take photos, really brought home how many of the snow processes that are subjects of active research in remote or mountainous areas are currently on display in our cities.

For instance, today in the local park I noticed that there is preferential melt occurring around the trees. The dark tree trunks absorb and emit more radiation that then melts snow around the trees faster than it melts in the open areas of the lawn. This is an important consideration in the planting of forests in snowy areas, since the presence of vast forests can significantly alter the albedo of the earth’s surface, that is how much radiation is reflected back in to space. Planting trees in the tundra to combat climate change may have the unintended effect of actually enhancing warming through changes of this kind.

Picture of glacier table - a boulder balanced on a thin stack of ice
Glacier table in Switzerland (Glaciers Online)

The process can also be seen to spectacular effect on glaciers, where rocks and boulders shield the ice below them from melting but enhance it around them, leading to the formation of so-called glacier tables, such as this one in Switzerland (from glaciers online).

More seriously, the heavy snow on rooves around the city is currently posing an avalanche hazard rarely encountered outside the mountains. The effect of sunshine on heavy snow, which is resting on a slope of a critical angle, can be extremely dangerous to the unwary. As are the large numbers of icicles which have developed. These are not just a sign of poorly insulated buildings (where the heat leaking out has caused the snow to melt and then quickly refreeze in the low temperatures we’ve had). Icicles falling from buildings show the same mechanics as seracs falling from the steep parts of glaciers known as ice falls. In this case, the ice builds up to such a degree that the sheer weight of it eventually causes fracture when a critical threshold is reached. Pedestrians are learning to walk on the outside of pavements and to look up frequently at the overhanging cornices of snow and ice.

But back to the snow shovelling. I have not done so much digging since fieldwork last winter in Svalbard, where we set up some experiments to study the properties of snow and how this affects the melt, or conversely the growth, of glaciers. Specifically, we were studying the effects of liquid water from snow melt or rain on the snow pack and the glacier surface. Liquid water filters into the snow, or else runs off bare glacier ice if there is no snow and will typically freeze, forming ice lenses in the snow pack, or large areas of what is known as superimposed ice on the glacier surface.   As you can imagine, there was a lot of snow shovelling, especially as the high winds on the glacier kept filling in the trenches we dug to work in.

Now this probably sounds like a fairly esoteric set of experiments, but the purpose is actually quite serious, since we need to know how much melt water refreezes to work out how much the glaciers and large ice sheets of the world are melting and how sea level rise is likely to progress in the future in a warming world.

Identifying the melt area of a glacier or ice sheet is a relatively straightforward task using satellite imagery, but identifying how much of that melt runs off or refreezes is impossible at present, so we generally use a model, based on observations and experiments like these, to make an approximation. We also need to factor in the effect of latent heat, (heat that is released when liquid water becomes solid ice) since this can warm up the snow pack significantly. In Greenland for instance, it is likely that the effects of higher temperatures over the last 20 years or so have been buffered somewhat by the snow pack and refreezing processes. However, as temperatures continue to increase, melt will probably accelerate partly because the saturated snow pack cannot absorb additional melt water but also because it has a higher temperature from the release of latent heat and thus requires less additional energy to melt.

Last winter I tested out some of the techniques we used in Svalbard, in a pile of snow in my back garden. I am also aware of at least one study into permafrost, where patterned ground usually found in Arctic climates was created in a back garden in St Andrews, so it’s even possible to do valid experimental work during the winter time when conditions are right. However, the climate of glaciated regions is generally unlike that of the cities of Europe so there will still be a need to go to places like Svalbard to do experiments quantifying these kind of processes. Nevertheless, I still find this kind of weather inspiring and I’m hoping to get more insights as the winter progresses.