The Ice Cap is Melting and You Can Help

Obviously, you don't want to help melt the ice cap. But you can help scientists figure out how and why it is happening and to learn important details of what might be one of the most important effects of global warming happening right now.

First, a word on why this is important. Look out the window. If you live in Bavaria, and you look out your window, perhaps you can see fish swimming by because you are in the middle of a huge flood affecting Central Europe. Look out the window. If you live in the American Midwest, it is either raining, about to rain, or it just rained, and you might be experiencing unprecedented flooding. Good luck getting your corn crop in. Actually, it is too late for corn, maybe try the soybeans in a week or two.

Look out the window. If you live in Colorado, you might not see much through the smoke from a nearby wildfire. Look out the window. If you live in the American Southwest or southern California and you have a thermometer outside, maybe it just broke because it was not designed to measure the very high temperatures you are experiencing.

Climate change is causing what meteorologists have been calling "Weather Whiplash" also known as "Weather Weirding." This includes extreme heat, extreme cold, snow when it is not supposed to snow, way more rain than normally happens, and so on. There are multiple climate change related causes for some of this weather but much of what we are experiencing has to do with a fundamental shift in how the Northern Hemisphere's temperate weather patterns operate. Normally temperate regions are separated from cooler regions to the north by a jet stream that runs in somewhat wavy line around the entire globe. This division between temperate and sub-arctic air masses exists because of the gradient in temperature from south (warmer) to north (cooler). This is a well understood phenomenon. However, over the last decade, the Arctic region has warmed considerably. This warming initially caused the ice that should cover much of the Arctic Sea, even in the summer, to melt off far more than it ever has during the warm season, which exposes water. Glare ice reflects sunlight back into space, but water absorbs it. Even the wet meltwater on the surface of the Greenland Ice sheet absorbs heat rather than reflects it, as it would were it frozen. So, warming has caused more warming in a seemingly unstoppable positive feedback system. This has gotten worse year after year.

This Arctic warming has proceeded at a pace faster than science. Research cycles take a few years. First, scientists concieve of an idea, get a bit of preliminary funding, then do a preliminary project or two. This refines and verifies their ideas and they seek more funding. Then they begin a longer research project that produces a series of conference papers, the occasional publication, etc. The ideas continue to be refined and adjusted, the bad parts being discarded, the verified parts being built on. Somewhere along the line ginormous computer models are brought into play to develop a more complete understanding of the thing being investigated. These computer models may require time on hard to access ginormous computers. More publications come out. Eventually there is a pretty good widely accepted model for some natural process related to climate change, but that took five years or so. The Arctic warming has proceeded at a pace faster than this model of science can keep up with.

But I digress, slightly. Let's get back to the jet stream.

Arctic warming has decreased the intensity of the south (warmer) to north (cooler) temperature gradient in the Northern Hemisphere. This has caused the jet stream to change. It has become wiggly-wobbly instead of straightish. The jet stream now has big curves in it, and these curves under certain not-very-uncommon conditions tend to get stuck in place. So, the high winds of the jet stream are still streaming along but the curves themselves tend to move very little or just stay in place. At the turning points of the curvy jet stream form ginormous vortexes of air which promote storm formation. So, we have storminess, and we have storminess stuck in one region of the globe for a long time. This has caused the flooding we've seen. Also, the jet stream is less effective as a barrier between the warmer and cooler air masses. So, for example, even while some regions have been experiencing excessive heat, areas that normally would be warming nicely for the spring stayed cool this year. This coolness, strangely, is caused by heat. April, for instance, was very cool in the Upper Midwest of the United States, but to the north it was warmer than it should have been. The total average temperature was increased, but the barrier between colder-cool and warmish-warm broke down, so we had coolish warm in the south and warmish cool in the north. Putting this a different way, if the Arctic is the freezer compartment of your fridge, and Minnesota is the refrigerator, it is like someone cut a hole in the barrier between the freezer and refrigerator compartments. Your ice is wet and melting and your milk has a skim of ice on it.

This is what we think is happening, but as I noted above, the speed with which science can understand major complex systems like the earth's climate is measured in chunks of years, while the current change is happening very very quickly. This is one of those situations where, if this was a movie, the President of the United States would tell the White House Science Advisor to assemble a team. In the next scene there would be a team of scientists being lowered from a helicopter onto the Greenland Ice Sheet in order to collect critically important data. In the next scene, in the White House Situation Room, the scientists would be delivering the bad news the the President and various assemble high level officials.

"It's bad, Mr. President," the crackling voice of the scientist over a barely adequate short wave connection intones.

"Just give it to me straight, no need for sugarcoating," comes the presidential voice of Sam Waterston, or perhaps Luke Wilson, playing the role of President.

"Well, Mr. ..esident. It's all here."

"Come again? You're breaking up.

"Wet. It's all ...ere. The ...eenalnd ice ...ap. ...elting faster than we ... ...aster than we ...ought.."

"Can't we have a better connection?" yells the frustrated President.

"Aaaaaaaarg....." The last words from the science team. But don't worry, they'll make it back in time for the chief scientist's teenager's graduation party but that will involve falling though several holes in the ice and enlisting the aid of a band of Inuit hunters.

The thing is, in real life, it does not work that way, and we are behind in understanding what is happening in the Arctic. One of the most important things happening up there is the melting of the surface of the Greenland glaciers, which, in turn, might be caused by a newly discovered phenomenon known as Dark Snow.

With climate change we have more dust from drought-stricken regions and lots of soot from widespread wildfires. This stuff settles on the otherwise highly reflective snow and ice of the Greenland glacier and causes the conversion of sunlight, which would otherwise reflect away into space, into heat, and that heat melts the ice and snow, turning it into liquid water. Liquid water then continues to absorb more sunlight, converting it into heat. This causes more Arctic warming which may contribute to more dust and soot, and so on and so forth in a vicious positive feedback cycle. And by "positive" we do not mean "positive in a good way."

John Abraham, a climate scientist at St. Thomas University, has just put up a blog post that provides an excellent overview of the problem in Greenland and the Dark Snow Project, which is a crowd funded project designed to understand what is happening there, being run by scientist Jason Box:

... Box has assembled a team of scientists and communicators to collect and analyze samples from key locations on the ice sheet, and report those results directly to the public. The plan is to arrive in Greenland in late June, just as the peak melting season and fire season coincide. Box will be joined by Bill McKibben, who will be covering the research for Rolling Stone, and videographer Peter Sinclair, whose series of climate change videos on YouTube has gained high praise from climate scientists.

Here is John Abrahamn's blog post: Why Greenland's darkening ice has become a hot topic in climate science: Darkening causes the snow to absorb more sunlight which in turn increases melting

I strongly urge you to click through to John's post, read about Greenland and Dark Snow, then click through the link he provides to the Dark Snow project and give them five dollars!!!



What are you doing staring at this blog post. CLICK HERE NAO!!!

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By Moh Kan Wu (not verified) on 13 Jun 2013 #permalink

" Look out the window. If you live in Bavaria..."

Well I live there. But the DWD (german weather service) said there's no increase in the occurance of floods till the 1950's. So whom I should believe?

By Matthias Mayse (not verified) on 14 Jun 2013 #permalink

Greg, here's my latest Death Spiral. The soundtrack is generated from the ice volume data, modifying the spectral content. (I wrote an ice to midi program!)

Arctic Death Spiral - May 2013 - spectral

Here's a rather dissonant version with the data as notes, 500km³ per semitone (I bet nobody's come up with that unit of measurement before!)
Arctic Death Spiral - May 2013 - piano

By Andy Lee Robinson (not verified) on 17 Jun 2013 #permalink