World Turning its Eyes to the Ice

August 28, 2012

Is the plunge still accelerating?


The amount of sea ice in the Arctic has fallen to the lowest level on record, a confirmation of the drastic warming in the region and a likely harbinger of larger changes to come.

Satellites tracking the extent of the sea ice found over the weekend that it covered about 1.58 million square miles, or less than 30 percent of the Arctic Ocean’s surface, scientists said. That is only slightly below the previous record low, set in 2007, but with weeks still to go in the summer melting season, it is clear that the record will be beaten by a wide margin.

Australian Broadcasting Company:

According to research by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), based at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the decline in summer Arctic sea ice “is considered a strong signal of long-term climate warming”.

The most recent analysis was partially supported by NASA.

Arctic sea ice fell to 4.10 million square kilometres, some 70,000 square kilometres less than the earlier record charted on September 18, 2007, says the NSIDC.

Scientists say the record was all the more striking as 2007 had near perfect climate patterns for melting ice, but that the weather this year was unremarkable other than a storm in early August.

“I think, unfortunately, this is an example that points more to the worst-case scenario side of things,” says Professor Michael E. Mann, of Penn State University, who was a lead author of a major UN report in 2001 on climate change.

“There are a number of areas where in fact climate change seems to be proceeding faster and with a greater magnitude than what the models predicted.”


The Arctic region is now losing about 155,000 square kilometres (60,000 square miles) of ice annually, the equivalent of a US state every two years, said Walt Meier, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

“It used to be the Arctic ice cover was a kind of big block of ice. It would melt a little bit from the edges but it was pretty solid,” Meier told reporters on a conference call.

“Now it’s like crushed ice,” he said. “At least parts of the Arctic have become like a giant slushie, and that’s a lot easier to melt and melt more quickly.”

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)


Joey Comiso, senior research scientist at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said this year’s ice retreat was caused by previous warm years reducing the amount of perennial ice – which is more resistant to melting. It’s created a self-reinforcing trend.

“Unlike 2007, temperatures were not unusually warm in the Arctic this summer. [But] we are losing the thick component of the ice cover,” he said. “And if you lose [that], the ice in the summer becomes very vulnerable.”

Walt Meier, from the National Snow and Ice Data Center that collaborates in the measurements, said: “In the context of what’s happened in the last several years and throughout the satellite record, it’s an indication that the Arctic sea ice cover is fundamentally changing.”

Professor Peter Wadhams, from Cambridge University, told BBC News: “A number of scientists who have actually been working with sea ice measurement had predicted some years ago that the retreat would accelerate and that the summer Arctic would become ice-free by 2015 or 2016.

“I was one of those scientists – and of course bore my share of ridicule for daring to make such an alarmist prediction.”

But Prof Wadhams said the prediction was now coming true, and the ice had become so thin that it would inevitably disappear.

“Measurements from submarines have shown that it has lost at least 40% of its thickness since the 1980s, and if you consider the shrinkage as well it means that the summer ice volume is now only 30% of what it was in the 1980s,” he added.

At this point all we can do is watch, the ice is going to do what its going to do.  I’ll try to keep some of the most important graphs posted here and keep up with the most important milestones.  For today, what’s stunning to most observers is that we appear to have smashed thru the 4 million square kilometer barrier – The latest value : 3,947,500 km2  according to the Japan Aerospace (JAXA) group.  The US NSIDC is somewhere close to that estimate.

For those just beginning to pay attention to the story of ice, NSIDC has a FAQ , and some good primers,  here and here.

I won’t say “get popcorn”, because frankly, I’ve lost my appetite.


36 Responses to “World Turning its Eyes to the Ice”

  1. Can’t wait for next year’s recovery!

  2. omnologos Says:

    Were the minimum ice cover to rebound in the next 5-10 years, how would that affect your convictions about climate change?

    • jasonpettitt Says:

      While I think it’s less likely that there’ll be a substantial rebound (especially in volume – you can probably spread what ice there is out thin for a few more years yet) a recovery for a decade (or even more) wouldn’t be outside the realms of possibility given current understanding of what’s going on top side.

      As things are, most smart folk attribute most of the melt trend to AGW, but can’t rule out as much as 30% – 50% (depending on which studies you study) being internal variability if you go to the edges of uncertainties.

      Whatever happens, I’ll be interested in the physical processes. And whatever happens I’m sure it’ll colour what I think about climate change. But it’s getting at the causes and understanding what is behind the changes that I find interesting rather number gazing + unskilled speculation.

    • mboli Says:

      “Were the minimum ice cover to rebound in the next 5-10 years, how would that affect your convictions about climate change?”

      This is a half-assed question to make a point instead of stimulate thinking or learn anything.

      What’s missing is why the hypothetical restoration of ice cover hypothetically happened.

      If, hypothetically, some drastic change in wind or ocean circulation causes the polar climate to cool during the summer, then that means one thing.

      If the ice cover returns without any known cause, then the “rethinking” that occurs will come from the search for the cause.

      The point is that climate change is a comprehensible physical process. Not fully understood, but comprehensible. “Convictions about climate change” aren’t merely the result of uncovering evidence. They are about discovering the reasons behind the evidence.

  3. danolner Says:

    Omnologos, educate us: why do you always come with cryptic questions? What do you actually think? You know it’s not a helpful question to ask, yes? A bit like “if the sun fails to come up tomorrow, how would that affect your convictions about astronomy?” Well, obviously, fairly profoundly, but that’s not the point is it? The point is the meaning of what we’re seeing. Do you have anything constructive to contribute about that?

    For instance: you seem to be implying that you think it’s quite possible that sea ice extent *will* rebound in the next 5-10 years. Is that what you think? If so, why, given that generally ice tends to melt more when it gets warmer, and the arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet?

    Separate question: this pic –

    Is that 2007 minimum extent compared to a recent satellite image?

    • omnologos Says:

      danolner – no need to get agitated. this is Peter’s blog, so my own personal thoughts remain secondary. besides there’s no point in repeating the same old discussions.

      so the point is always about clarifying Peter’s thoughts, not mine. in this respect I’d like to understand if reduction in minimum Arctic sea ice cover is seen by Peter as “evidence” of the kind that would make one change one’s mind were it observed to be going differently than expected.

      • climatehawk1 Says:

        I’d say, hey Peter, no need to spend valuable time answering hypothetical questions (“What if Napoleon had had a B-52?”)–spend it on developing and posting more educational info. That is essentially the choice “skeptics” pose for us all.

  4. Numbnologos, If the evidence proves me wrong I’ll change my position. More than can be said for the denialist cultists.

  5. junkdrawer88 Says:

    Are we, as a species, going to sit passively and watch this horror show slowly evolve? Surely 2012 HAS to be the year where we drown the last embers of denial, stir the ashes and drown again.

    But once we do, we will encounter this graph:

    Because CO2 is so long lived in the atmosphere, we have to cut emissions by something like 90% QUICKLY or more feedback mechanisms will be activated. And, so far, a 10% cut of emissions is only seen during world wide economic depressions.

    I have railed against geoengineering in the past. All schemes have moral hazards galore and most (if not all??) do not address ocean acidification. But can we at least start to look at the various schemes and begin constructing a least-awful scheme that works?

    I found this overview article:

    I’m thinking a three part plan:

    1.) Massive consolidation of climate models on the scale of, say, the GFS et al weather models

    2.) UN mitigated solar radiation management as part of the emergency quick fix

    3.) Carbon sequestration (re-fossilization??) as part of the long-term fix.

    Needless to say, current fossil fuels should be HEAVILY taxed. Needless to say, wind, solar, geothermal, and mass transit plans should be put on steroids.

    Maybe there are green forms of geoengineering that aren’t being discussed. Peter posted this blog entry earlier:

    I can’t look my child in the eye and say: “while I’m trying hard to live better, I still see no hope.”

  6. Our “convictions” need to be based on reality and our best understanding about what is going on. And, it certainly looks like the Arctic ice is going away; so the critical “what if” question we need to ask ourselves is:

    Can we stop burning fossil fuels and transition over to all renewable energy quickly enough to minimize the damage we are doing to the only planet we have?

    Science is reality-based, and the evidence of human-caused climate change is all around us. The sooner we all stop wondering about it, and start acting on this knowledge, the better.


  7. Mike Trant Says:

    What am I missing; why does MASIE show 4.5 mm sq. km, but NSIDC is quoting the lower 4.1 mm number?

    • jasonpettitt Says:

      The MASIE FAQ is your friend

      It’s a different way of measuring of Sea Ice. You can probably have a long discussion about which is best, but NISDC’s Sea Ice Index has the great advantage (if you’re interested in climate) of being consistent and robust – which makes it good for comparisons from one year to the next.

      If you’re in a boat and want to err on the side of caution and definitely not go near ice, MASIE is your girl.

  8. mspelto Says:

    The ice loss had led to open water at the ice front of Zachariae Ice Stream in NE Greenland which has lost 170 km2 of glacier ice.

  9. August 28, 2012 at 3:57 pm  0 9 Rate This
    Were the minimum ice cover to rebound in the next 5-10 years, how would that affect your convictions about climate change?

    Turn the question upside down. If ice did not recover in the next 5 years would deniers omnologos (and other deniers) change their tune? Never. That’s what makes a true denier. No amount of evidence will ever convince them. They are a waste of time. Better to discuss what will happen when their is an ice free Arctic in 8 years.

    We already saw how fast WUWT backtracked on the promise to abide by the results of Mullers report.

    • climatehawk1 Says:

      Right. We sort of know the answer to that question, since the ice has not rebounded since setting a stunning new low in 2007, and Mr. o is still fiddling away.

      • uknowispeaksense Says:

        One can only wonder if Mr O has asked his fellow deniers (or himself for that matter) if an icefree Arctic will finally bring them around to accepting reality.

        • greenman3610 Says:

          we’ll hear that the ice is going away because God is angry at Gay Parades.

          • uknowispeaksense Says:

            No doubt we will from some. The thing that is now popping up is the “ice as an insulator” defense. Apparently, according to the proponents of this nonsense, the ice keeps ocean heat in. When the ice melts, ocean heat escapes into space, and we plunge into an ice age. You don’t need to say anything. I know.

          • climatehawk1 Says:

            Awesome. A long, long time ago, I was married to a woman who used to read fairly goofy occult and arcane literature, and one day she pointed out to me that the scientific view that the sun is hot could not account for the fact that mountain tops, which are closer to the sun, are very cold.

            The difference today is that instead of harmless cranks like my former wife, we have people with their hands on or near the levers of power in the U.S. who believe (or at least profess to believe) similar stuff.

          • uknowispeaksense Says:

            Were you married to my mother in law? She spouts drivel like that all the time.

  10. Bruce Miller Says:

    Enjoying the Drought? Expecting more?

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