Monday, June 16, 2014

Warming of the Arctic Fueling Extreme Weather

Extreme weather

Heavy rains and floods hit Serbia and Bosnia in May 2014, as discussed in an earlier post.

Later in May, further flooding hit central Europe. From May 30 to June 1, 2014, parts of Austria received the amount of rain that normally falls in two-and-half months: 150 to 200 mm (5.9 to 7.9"), with some parts experiencing 250 mm (9.8").

What is fueling this extreme weather? Have a look at the image below.

The image shows a number of feedbacks that are accelerating warming in the Arctic. Feedback #14 refers to (latent) heat that previously went into melting. With the demise of the snow and ice cover, an increasing proportion of this heat gets absorbed and contributes to accelerated warming in the Arctic.

As the sea ice heats up, 2.06 J/g of heat goes into every degree Celsius that the temperature of the ice rises. While the ice is melting, all energy (at 334J/g) goes into changing ice into water and the temperature remains at 0°C (273.15K, 32°F). 

Once all ice has turned into water, all subsequent heat goes into heating up the water, at 4.18 J/g for every degree Celsius that the temperature of water rises.

The amount of energy absorbed by melting ice is as much as it takes to heat an equivalent mass of water from zero to 80°C. The energy required to melt a volume of ice can raise the temperature of the same volume of rock by 150º C.

Currently, the energy equivalent of 1.5 million Hiroshima bombs goes into melting of the Arctic sea ice each year, according to calculations by Sam Carana.

As the ice disappears, this energy will instead be absorbed elsewhere and cause temperatures in the Arctic to rise further, indicated as feedback #14.

This comes on top of the albedo feedback #1 that can on its own more than double the net radiative forcing resulting from the emissions caused by all people of the world, according to calculations by Prof. Peter Wadhams.

Further feedbacks include changes to the polar vortex and jet stream that are in turn causing more extreme weather, as also described in the earlier post Feedbacks in the Arctic.

Global Warming

Higher levels of greenhouse gases are trapping more heat in the atmosphere, resulting in more intense heatwaves in some places, while stronger winds and greater evaporation of water from the sea lead to stronger rainfall in other places. Global warming thus contributes to more extreme weather around the globe.

The Arctic is hit not only by the warming resulting from greenhouse gas emissions, but also by emissions of soot, dust and other compounds that settle on the snow and ice cover and speed up its demise.

As illustrated by the image below, by Nuccitelli et al., most heat goes into the oceans. A substantial amount of heat also goes into the melting of ice.

A lot of ocean heat is transported by the Gulf Stream into the Arctic Ocean. The North Atlantic is hit particularly strongly by pollution from North America, as illustrated by the image below.

[ screenshot from Perdue University's Vulcan animation ]
Heat carried by the Gulf Stream into the Arctic Ocean contributes to high sea surface anomalies in the Arctic, as illustrated by the image below. Arctic sea ice is under threat from heat from the North Atlantic, while heat from the Pacific Ocean that was in part caused by pollution from east-Asia is now threatening to enter the Arctic Ocean through the Bering Strait, as illustrated by the image below that shows areas with sea surface temperature anomalies well over 8 degrees Celsius. 

[ click on image to enlarge ]
Warmer water in the Arctic Ocean in turn causes methane to be released from the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean, as discussed further below. 

Accelerated Warming in the Arctic

As said, warming hits the Arctic particularly strongly due to feedbacks such as albedo changes caused by the demise of the snow and ice cover in the Arctic. Another feedback is a changing jet stream. The jet stream used to circumnavigate the globe at high speed, separating climate systems that used to be vastly different above and below the jet stream. Accelerated warming in the Arctic is decreasing the temperature difference between the Arctic and the Equator, in turn causing the jet stream to slow down and become wavier. As a result, air can more easily move north to south and visa versa, especially when the jet stream's waves expand vertically and take a long time to move from west to east (i.e. a blocking pattern).

These changes to the jet stream are fueling extreme weather events. In the May/June event, a large loop had developed in the jet stream over Europe and got stuck in place, making a strong southerly wind carry moisture-laden air from the Mediterranean Sea over Central Europe, clashing with colder air flowing down from the north as the jet stream was stuck in such a blocking pattern.

Record May heat hit northern Finland and surrounding regions of Russia and Sweden. Earlier in May (on May 19) an all-time national heat record was set of 91.4°F (33.0°C) in St. Petersburg, Russia, slashing the previous record by a wide margin. This temperature was unprecedented in records in St. Petersburg that started in 1881 and show a previous May record set in 1958 of 87.6°F (30.9°C).

The compilation below shows the jet stream on three days (May 24, 25 and 27), on top of surface temperature anomalies for those days.

[ click on image to enlarge ]

Further illustrating the event is the animation below, showing the jet stream from May 26 to June 11, 2014. Note that this is a 14.5 MB file that may take some time to fully load.

[ click on image to enlarge ]

Huge methane emissions took place from the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean from September 2013 to March 2014. These emissions have meanwhile risen up higher in the atmosphere and have moved closer to the equator.

Compared to June 2013, mean methane levels at higher altitudes are now well over 10 ppb higher at higher altitudes while there has been only little change closer to the ground. Since these mean levels are global means, the difference is even more pronounced at specific locations on the Northern hemisphere, where clouds of methane originating from the Arctic are contributing to the occurence of heat waves.

The contribution of methane to such heatwaves depends on the density of the methane at the time in the atmosphere over the location during such events.

Highest global mean methane levels varied from 1907 ppb to 1812 ppb for the period June 6 to 15, 2014, as illustrated by the image on the right, and peak methane concentration varied a lot from day to day. On June 6, 2014, peak readings as high as 2516 ppb were recorded.

Indicative for what can be the result is the temperature anomaly on May 19, when temperatures went up as high as 91.4°F (33.0°C) in St. Petersburg, Russia, slashing the previous record by a wide margin, of more than 2°C, as described above


The situation is the Arctic is threatening to escalate into runaway warming and urgently requires comprehensive and effective action as discussed at the Climate Plan blog.


- May 2014 Global Weather Extremes Summary

- Extreme Jet Stream Pattern Triggers Historic European Floods

Related posts

- The Biggest Story of 2013

- Climate Plan
- More extreme weather can be expected

- Extreme weather strikes around the globe - update

- Escalating extreme weather events to hammer humanity (by Paul Beckwith)

- Our New Climate and Weather (by Paul Beckwith)

- Our New Climate and Weather - part 2 (by Paul Beckwith)

- Changes to Polar Vortex affect mile-deep ocean circulation patterns

- Polar jet stream appears hugely deformed


  1. Does the technology for open air capture of CO2 exist? If so, why are we not employing it to get levels down to pre-industrial levels. Do the governments of the world have any plan whatsoever, or are they too broke to care. I believe I have heard the 280 ppm as being ideal.

    1. Yes, methods to take CO2 out of the atmosphere (and oceans) do exist and should be on the table, as part of comprehensive and effective action as discussed at Climate Plan blog

  2. Regular wave progression, of Rossby Waves around the pole are not prominent in the time lapse of jet stream flow. Instead eddies and land based bubblings up of interference of flow are prominent. Run-ins between colliding air masses of different moisture levels and temperature are colliding and whipped together by Earth so the 2200 some joules per gram latent heat of evaporation can thrash in a rising chaos as a way to regain redistribution of energy because CO2 rise -which is determinant of Ocean pH is now rising faster than in the entire length Earth history. Yikes
    Weather men in Canada are told to not talk about clime; Scientists are told not to report without OK.