Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Disappearance Of Thick Arctic Sea Ice

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Arctic sea ice is in a horrible state. On August 16, 2015, Arctic sea ice extent was 5.786 million square km, the smallest extent on record for this time of year except for the years 2007, 2011 and 2012, as illustrated by the image on the right.

The situation today is even worse than one might conclude when looking at sea ice extent alone. Thick sea ice is virtually absent compared to the situation in the year 2012 around this time of year, as illustrated by the image below comparing sea ice thickness on August 16, 2012 (left) with August 16, 2015 (right).

The ice used to be over 4 m thick, or over 13 ft thick, north of Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago. This thick multi-year ice has been a feature of the Arctic sea ice for over 100,000 years. It used to be there all year long, unlike the thinner ice that could melt away entirely during the melting season.

The disappearance of this thick multi-year ice is a major development. Why? Until now, the thicker multi-year sea ice used to survive the melting season, giving the sea ice strength for the next year, by acting as a buffer to absorb heat that would otherwise melt away the thinner ice. Without multi-year sea ice, the Arctic will be in a bad shape in coming years, and huge amounts of heat that would otherwise go into melting the ice will instead be warming up the Arctic Ocean, further accelerating warming of its waters.

Absence of thick sea ice makes it more prone to collapse, and this raises the question whether the sea ice could collapse soon, even this year. Sea ice works like a mirror. Without sea ice, sunlight that was previously reflected back into space, will instead be absorbed by the Arctic. Albedo changes in the Arctic alone could more than double the net radiative forcing resulting from the emissions caused by all people of the world, as calculated by Prof. Peter Wadhams back in 2012.

Furthermore, there is a danger that loss of the sea ice will weaken the currents that currently cool the bottom of the sea, where huge amounts of methane may be present in the form of free gas or hydrates in sediments. This danger is illustrated by the image below by Reg Morrison, from an earlier post.

Absence of sea ice also goes hand in hand with opportunities for storms to develop over the Arctic Ocean. Such storms could push the remaining sea ice out of the Arctic Ocean. Such storms could also mix surface heat all the way down to the seafloor, where methane could be contained in sediments.

As described in an earlier post, sea surface anomalies of over 5 degrees Celsius were recorded in August 2007 (NOAA image right). Strong polynya activity caused more summertime open water in the Laptev Sea, in turn causing more vertical mixing of the water column during storms in late 2007, as described in this study, and bottom water temperatures on the mid-shelf increased by more than 3 degrees Celsius compared to the long-term mean.

Indeed, the danger is that heat will warm up sediments under the sea, containing methane in hydrates and as free gas, causing large amounts of this methane to escape rather abruptly into the atmosphere.

The image on the right, from a study by Hovland et al., shows that hydrates can exist at the end of conduits in the sediment, formed when methane did escape from such hydrates in the past.

Heat can travel down such conduits relatively fast, warming up the hydrates and destabilizing them in the process, which can result in huge abrupt releases of methane.

Since waters can be very shallow in the Arctic, much of the methane can then rise up through these waters without getting oxidized. As the methane causes further warming in the atmosphere, this will contribute to the danger of even further methane escaping, further accelerating local warming, in a vicious cycle that can lead to catastrophic conditions well beyond the Arctic. For additional feedbacks in the Arctic, see the feedbacks page

At the same time, ocean heat is at a record high and there's an El Niño that's still gaining strength. This ocean heat is likely to reach the Arctic Ocean in full strength by October 2015, at a time when sea ice may still be at its minimum. The image below shows sea surface temperatures on August 16, 2015 (left) and anomalies (right).

How warm is the water entering the Arctic Ocean? Merely looking at sea surface temperatures could make one overlook the full extent of the predicament we are in. Ocean heat traveling underneath the sea surface can be even warmer than temperatures showing up at the surface. This is illustrated by the image below indicating that on August 16, 2015, warm water emerged at the sea surface near Svalbard with temperatures as high as 14.9°C or 58.7°F, a 9.5°C or 17.1°F anomaly.

There still is about a month to go before sea ice can be expected to reach its minimum, at around half September 2015, while sea currents will continue to carry warmer water into the Arctic Ocean for months to come.

The situation is dire and calls for comprehensive and effective action, as discussed in the Climate Plan

Thick sea ice is virtually absent compared to the situation in the year 2012 around this time of year, as illustrated by...
Posted by Sam Carana on Tuesday, August 18, 2015

1 comment:

  1. It's actually worse than you state because warm water is entering the Arctic rapidly right now and it isn't just warm, it's salty. That warm water will cool and sink to pretty deep levels then exit the Arctic through the Fram Strait. Water that used to sink off the coast of Greenland is now moving into the European side of the Arctic and sinking there. That's putting warm water in contact with methane bearing sediments on edge of the Siberian shelf.