Accelerating Disaster in the Arctic Ocean

By David L. Brown

A couple of years ago I privately predicted that the Arctic polar ice cap would melt a lot quicker than scientists were willing to predict. I noted the trend and projected ice loss using common sense, and by factoring in the effect of high-albedo ice and snow being replaced by low-albedo open sea water. Albedo is a measure of the amount of Sunlight reflected from the surface of celestial objects, including the Earth. It is estimated that open water absorbs 7 or 8 times more heat from the Sun than snow and ice, which reflect much of the solar energy back into space.

At that time in October, 2005, scientists were predicting the ice would not disappear for a hundred years. I boldly predicted a complete meltdown of the Arctic ice within as little as ten years, which would place it in about 2015. It wasn’t long before events began to move in the direction I had predicted.
Here are some excerpts from what I wrote in a posting made about one year ago on September 16, 2006 titled “Meltdown of Arctic Ice Continues to Accelerate”:

We have written before about the observed shrinking of the Arctic ice cap, and Star Phoenix Base has contended that the rate of disappearance is accelerating and threatens to become a runaway meltdown. Our reasoning for this pessimistic position is based on several factors. First, temperatures in the Arctic are rising faster than in temperate or tropical regions. In Alaska, for example, average temperatures already have risen by as much as seven degrees F. In the far north of Canada, Alaska, and Siberia, permafrost is melting and thus lending irony to its name, since it is no longer “perma.” That melting is releasing greenhouse gases long sequestered in the frozen bogs, adding impetus to the warming trend.

Now there is evidence that our speculations were spot on, as the British say. According to the National Aeronautical and Space Administration, the wintertime extent of Arctic ice has decreased by six percent in each of the last two years. That compares with a previously observed rate of decrease of only 1.5 percent per decade, or a mere 0.15 percent per year. It is based on those previous rates that scientists as recently as one year ago were predicting that the Arctic ice cap would not completely disappear for about 100 years.

I analyzed the situation in October, 2005 and made the prediction in private correspondence that it would happen much faster, perhaps in as little as ten years. I later published some of this analysis on this weblog. Some earlier postings on this subject can be found in this site’s archives, particularly the articles “Bad News for Polar Bears — The Big Thaw,” and “Catastrophic Loss of Arctic Ice in Store.” You can find these and other articles by using the keyword search function on the sidebar.

In other postings I have noted the fact that the Arctic ice cover should not be viewed only from the standpoint of its area. It is a relatively thin layer of ice floating in the Arctic Ocean, and that layer of ice has grown significantly thinner. In other words, the total volume of ice per unit of area is also declining, perhaps rapidly so. Add that to the albedo effect and you have the makings of a runaway meltdown.

Now the latest news from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado, as reported today by CNN.com (read it here) in an article titled “Arctic Sea Ice Cover at Record Low”:

Ice cover in the Arctic Ocean, long held to be an early warning of a changing climate, has shattered the all-time low record this summer…

It is possible that Arctic sea ice could decline even further this year before the onset of winter.
Using satellite data and imagery, NSIDC now estimates the Arctic ice pack covers 4.24 million square kilometers (1.63 million square miles) — equal to just less than half the size of the United States. This figure is about 20 percent less than the previous all-time low record of 5.32 million square kilometers (2.05 million square miles) set in September 2005

Mark Serreze, senior research scientist at NSIDC, termed the decline “astounding.”

“It’s almost an exclamation point on the pronounced ice loss we’ve seen in the past 30 years,” he said.

Most researchers had anticipated that the complete disappearance of the Arctic ice pack during summer months would happen after the year 2070, he said, but now, “losing summer sea ice cover by 2030 is not unreasonable.”

Here is a map from the NSIDC web site showing the extent of Arctic ice as of three days ago. The purple line indicates the “normal” or median historic limits and the white area is the actual ice coverage. As can be seen, at this time the Northwest Passage is still wide open according to the NSIDC site, which you can view here.

20070910_extentthumb.jpg

My projections from a year ago were based on an accelerating loss of ice, and the new data appears to confirm my analysis. (Disclaimer: I am not a climate scientist but am well-read on the subject, seem to be imbued with some common sense, and am not constrained by political correctness or fear of job security.)

My question about all this is why the true scientists hesitate to announce that we may have reached a tipping point from which the north polar cap has entered a state of rapid meltdown? A 20 percent reduction from the previous record low is quite a step from the 6 percent rate experienced just a couple of years ago, much less the 1.5 percent rate per decade as previously observed. Assuming the combined feedback effects of reduced albedo and general warming trends, doesn’t it seem logical that the process could speed up even more? If we were to lose another 20 percent next year that would not even represent an acceleration but merely a linear continuation.

What if it drops even more next year, say by 40 percent? That would place us in striking range for the entire ice cap to be gone in only two or three years. And yet, even now the ice scientists at NSIDC are saying it might not happen until 2030. Remember that two years ago they estimated it would take 100 years, and last year they were thinking 2070 was a reasonable number. Now they are cutting another 40 years off of that, and yet common sense and a general understanding of accelerating feedback effects hints that the meltdown could be entering a calamitous stage.

As I hinted above, for individuals who value their employment there is always safety in keeping a low profile, and these days that is especially true for researchers in the area of climate change. As we have discussed here before, the scientists who work for the Federal Government must be very careful what they say about subjects that might rock the boat for those who depend upon the status quo. Obviously in such an environment no one is going to ring the bell and shout “Fire!” because the next sound they might hear would be a knock on the door from government agents wearing sunglasses and dark suits. Well, maybe it has not gone quite that far, yet, but let’s say that at least it would have a negative impact on their career paths.

Meantime, Russia is preparing to claim the Arctic Ocean as its territory in hopes of cashing in on the oil and gas reserves believed to lie beneath it. To that end, they recently planted a Russian flag on the bottom of the sea at the North Pole. This is like science fiction. It IS science fiction. And why should the Russians be acting now? I submit that it is because they, like I, believe the Arctic Ocean will soon be ice-free and ready for drilling platforms to appear where polar bears once roamed.

Part of the problem a lot of people have in understanding trends, and perhaps something that gives climate scientists an “out” when faced with bad news, is the tendency to look at events as taking place in a linear, straight-line manner. This happens when one looks backward and assumes that what has happened before will continue to happen in the future at the same rate. But all too often in the real world things happen exponentially, not in a straight line. That is especially true when we are dealing with feedback and tipping point effects as in the case of the Arctic ice. Here is a simple graph that shows the quite remarkable difference between an exponential and a linear event. The red line is linear, the blue line is exponential. (Ignore the figures, they are merely there as an example.)

expgrwthvslin.jpg

Note that for the first data points on the left side of the graph there is relatively little difference between the two lines … but when the add-on effect of exponential change kicks in, Whoa! Just for fun, using the graph example above imagine that for some factor related to the Earth’s future, such as the melting of the Arctic ice, we are presently at the data points above the figure six. Then trace the two lines into the future while keeping in mind that the exponential one is the far more likely scenario. This can work for almost any climate effect you care to examine. It could be quite eye-opening unless you have been paying attention.

The famous showman P. T. Barnum was said to have placed in his sideshow a sign reading “This Way to the Egress.” Most of his patrons, being only semi-literate, thought this referred to some interesting new entertainment, only to discover that they had walked out of a closed exit without even seeing everything they wanted to see. The only solution was to pay to get back in, thus confirming Barnum’s purported statement that “a sucker is born every minute”. Of course, no one complained because they didn’t want to expose their ignorance.

To reach the truth about Arctic ice decline and climate change in general, follow the blue line. The red line leads only to an egress from reality and it should be avoided in any reasonable consideration of the subject.

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