The Arctic and its role in the climate change discourse

I spend most of my time thinking about clouds in the tropics and subtropics, but lately there's been a lot of mainstream coverage of the Arctic and how it relates to climate chage. I've posted about Arctic issues before, of course, but today I not only want to highlight a little of the coverage that I've noticed lately, but also warn you, gentle reader, that this is really just going to be one of myriad posts, articles, stories, and sundry coverage of the Arctic over the coming 2-3 years (and probably beyond). Why? Because of the "International Polar Year," which is a big enough deal to have its own domain: ipy.org. It is, as the name implies, an international effort to better understand the Earth system near the poles, from their web site:

IPY, organized through the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), is actually the fourth polar year, following those in 1882-3, 1932-3, and 1957-8. In order to have full and equal coverage of both the Arctic and the Antarctic, IPY 2007-8 covers two full annual cycles from March 2007 to March 2009 and will involve over 200 projects, with thousands of scientists from over 60 nations examining a wide range of physical, biological and social research topics. It is also an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate, follow, and get involved with, cutting edge science in real-time.

Don't fool yourself either, this is not a group of environmental activists who are out trying prove something; this is a concentrated period of study of the Arctic and Antarctic by the people who do that work anyway. It should lead to some great collaborations and synthesis of datasets that haven't been able to be compared or incorporated in meaningful ways before.

So that is the future, what is going on now?

Well, just over the past few days I've read a few interesting tidbits about the Arctic, which people seem to enjoy discussing more than the Antarctic (but more on that later). One of the poster children for climate change awareness is the polar bear, which relies on big pieces of sea-ice floating around near other pieces of sea-ice. The bears hang out on the ice, get hungry, dive in after fish or seals, and come up onto more ice. Apparently they aren't so well adapted to feeding on land, plus there isn't as much food available on land for them. Anyway, a quick article from the BBC, which came to be via ClimateArk, reports on a study that suggests two-thirds (2/3) of the polar bear population will be gone by the middle of the century [LINK]. That's 30-50 years from now, if you're keeping score at home. Why are the bears going to disappear? Because the ice is going away. So what does that mean for a species that relies on ice rafts as hunting platforms? It means that the bears are going to starve and drown. That is a fact. There is already evidence that some populations of polar bears are losing weight, and it probably isn't in preparation for beach season (Regehr et al 2006, also Roberson 2005 (news), Obbard et al. 2006).

This leads directly into our topic number two: sea-ice. This is one of the reasons it's more interesting to talk about the Arctic than the Antarctic, actually. Think about the globe, and picture the poles; the south pole is covered by a landmass (Antarctica) which is actually pretty large, extending far from the pole before giving way to the Southern Ocean. The fact that it is land, combined with the fact that it is surrounded by a continuous ring of ocean, makes climate change near the pole more difficult to understand: the ice in the middle of Antarctica isn't melting. And the sea-ice is much more seasonal (for the most part, though don't forget the Larson B ice shelf!) than in the Arctic (we're painting with a broad brush here). The Arctic is just an ocean, really, which provides easy passage among North America, Europe, and Asia, you remember the Northwest Passage [news], except that it has historically been blocked up by sea-ice. Lately this isn't so true [news, Randy Boswell].

The opening of the Northwest Passage is due to summertime melting of sea-ice, as discussed in Randy Boswell's very nice piece above. There has always been a lot of seasonal sea-ice around the Arctic. During the winter there is little to no sunshine available to deliver energy to warm the surface or melt ice, so as temperatures drop, ice forms, and it stays there until summer when the sun comes out. So that happens every year, and is perfectly normal and expected. However, what has happened over the past few years is a tremendous summertime melting, and just about every year now we hear about how sea-ice extent and sea-ice area are reaching record lows. One of the problems with this is that there is a potential feedback, since the "permanent" sea-ice (that ice that does not melt during the summer) is being reduced each year, so during the winter the ice that grows is thin, leading to quick melting in the summer, which exposes more permanent sea-ice to warm water and sunshine, leading to more loss and a diminished base amount of ice going into the winter. This most recent report suggests that the speed of this cycle might have been underestimated, and now some experts (yes, they are experts in Arctic sea-ice) say that an ice-free Arctic (in the late summer) could exist by 2030 (Serreze et al 2007a,b), which is right around the corner. This bodes ill for the polar bears.

Finally on this subject, it is interesting to note the relationship between the absurd observed sea-ice melt in the last few years compared with our best comprehensive climate models (Serreze et al. 2007b, Overland & Wang 2007). Some of the current-generation models do sort of okay, while basically all of them show a strong trend in the Arctic, but none of the models accurately predict the magnitude of the observed trend. Let me reiterate that these models don't know anything about the observations; they are physical models of climate system forced by atmospheric composition (carbon dioxide) and sunshine, so this isn't a matter of poor data assimilation or statistical techniques or a poor model (in the sense of statistical modeling). This is a dramatic underestimation of the impact of climate change on a region of the world known to be prone to positive feedbacks. What this means is that our "uncertainty" about the future of climate change goes in both directions. Climate change deniers like to point out problems with the models that they think lead to unlikely warming, but here we have a beautiful example of the models underestimating what is actually happening. Perhaps the models are too conservative? Not really, I just wanted to be provocative for a moment. My interpretation is that we need to improve the physics in the models, and probably spend more effort in doing atmosphere-ocean-ice interactions much better than this round of climate models. That is a rant I'll save for later though, as this post is stretching the average blog reader's patience.

Some references:

Regehr, E.V., Amstrup, S.C., and Stirling, Ian, 2006, Polar bear population status in the southern Beaufort Sea: U.S.
Geological Survey Open-File Report 2006-1337, 20 p. [PDF]

Obbard, Martyn E., Marc R.L. Cattet, Tim Moody, Lyle R. Walton, Derek Potter, Jeremy Inglis, and Christopher Chenier, 2006, Temporal Trends in the Body Condition of
Southern Hudson Bay Polar Bears. Climate Change Research Information Note, Issue 3. Ministry of Natural Resources, Ontario, Canada, 8 p. [PDF, see also MNR SIT]

Serreze, M. C., M. M. Holland, and J. Stroeve. 2007. Perspectives on the Arctic's shrinking sea-ice cover. Science 315(5818): 1533-1536, doi:10.1126/science.1139426. [pdf]

Stroeve, J., M. M. Holland, W. Meier, T. Scambos, and M. Serreze. 2007. Arctic sea ice decline: Faster than forecast. Geophysical Research Letters 34, L09501, doi:10.1029/2007GL029703.

Overland, J. E., and M. Wang (2007), Future regional Arctic sea ice declines, Geophys. Res. Lett., 34, L17705, doi:10.1029/2007GL030808. [pdf]

No comments: