The melting north

The Economist has a Special Report on "The melting north" (hopefully that works for you, I have a subscription so I'm not sure if its behind their paywall or not).

And what it says -

A heat map of the world, colour-coded for temperature change, shows the Arctic in sizzling maroon. Since 1951 it has warmed roughly twice as much as the global average. In that period the temperature in Greenland has gone up by 1.5°C, compared with around 0.7°C globally. This disparity is expected to continue. A 2°C increase in global temperatures—which appears inevitable as greenhouse-gas emissions soar—would mean Arctic warming of 3-6°C. Almost all Arctic glaciers have receded. The area of Arctic land covered by snow in early summer has shrunk by almost a fifth since 1966. But it is the Arctic Ocean that is most changed. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s the minimum extent of polar pack ice fell by around 8% per decade. Then, in 2007, the sea ice crashed, melting to a summer minimum of 4.3m sq km (1.7m square miles), close to half the average for the 1960s and 24% below the previous minimum, set in 2005... There is no serious doubt about the basic cause of the warming. It is, in the Arctic as everywhere, the result of an increase in heat-trapping atmospheric gases, mainly carbon dioxide released when fossil fuels are burned

- is not desperately exciting for anyone who has been paying attention. What is interesting is that there isn't even the smallest sop to the deniers in there. The sea ice record is taken for, well, for exactly what it is. There are no stupid quibbles about the temperature record. No-one wastes their time asking Lindzen or Spencer what they think of the trends, and no-one proposes that "its the sun" or space aliens or whatever.

Of course, the Economist (the clue is in the name) is also interested in other matters, so it looks at the possibilities of shorter shipping routes, and expansion of farmland. But ends with:

Yet how to reconcile the environmental risks of the melting Arctic with the economic opportunities it will present? The shrinkage of the sea ice is no less a result of human hands than the ploughing of the prairies. It might even turn out as lucrative. But the costs will also be huge. Unique ecosystems, and perhaps many species, will be lost in a tide of environmental change. The cause is global pollution, and the risks it carries are likewise global. The Arctic, no longer distant or inviolable, has emerged, almost overnight, as a powerful symbol of the age of man.


* A short walk in the Stubai: day 2: Aperer Turm

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The link works for me.

I wonder how many Republican true believers will cancel their Economist subscriptions over this failure to genuflect to wingnut orthodoxy?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 27 Jun 2012 #permalink

The Economist has consistently (over at least the 20 years I've read it) had the best science reporting I've seen in the popular press. They cover everything, from climate change to genetics to the minutiae of elementary particle physics, with accuracy and clarity. For subjects I know (e.g., CP violation in the B mesons, they are spot on, so I have great confidence in the rest.

[Their climate change reporting has evolved over the years; it used I think to be "skeptical", ie quite poor, but has improved in recent years. Of course, I can't find any examples. This is fairly recent; or 2005 and another bad one from 2005 -W]

By Michael Kelsey (not verified) on 27 Jun 2012 #permalink is well done. I haven't seen any trend charts for the ice edge ecosystem size and timing, which is what is important for this issue.

Special report: The Arctic
Pity the copepod
Some species will profit from a warmer Arctic; others may become extinct
Jun 16th 2012 | from the print edition
THOUGH NOT CHARISMATIC, Calanus glacialis is one of the most important creatures in the Arctic....."

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 28 Jun 2012 #permalink

The question of weather loss of Arctic sea ice is a loss or an opportunity is of course entirely subjective.

[I'm not at all sure that "subjective" is the right word. Though I agree that there will be winners and losers, surely, whose views will differ -W]

Under the laws of Nature, catastrophe and survival depend entirely on your point of view.
A lion killing a gazelle surely perceives his pray as beneficial, although the gazelle would be nuts not to perceives the same event as 'catastrophic'.

Similarly, loss of Arctic sea ice will un doubtfully be a loss for the currently present Arctic eco-systems, in some cases a catastrophic loss. It may also be a benefit for other species, specifically for the part of homo sapiens that is most interested in wealth accumulation and cost reduction to existing industrial endeavors.

[But bear in mind that "cost reduction" doesn't just benefit a small part of hom. sap. -W]

Rather than deciding on climate action on a ideological basis (which we know by now only incur counter-ideological statements), it may be time to use a true free-market system to balance environmental damage and benefits.

That means to put a price on the things we will loose, and a price on the things we may gain, and then let the polluter pay. And yes, that means putting a price on the loss of a species. And a price on the suffering of animals, and a price on the loss/change of entire eco-systems. And yes, that means putting a price on the risk (insurance premium) that by increasing this planet's mean temperature, we could seriously disrupt (and maybe are already) climate systems, to the point where it could endanger our food supply due to prolonged periods of drought or prolonged periods of heat waves, or prolonged periods of flooding, etc etc.

[Putting a price tag on species is going to be very difficult. Since most of these are essentially "unused" you are going to be arguing for an "intrinsic" price on their worth. There is no chance at all of anyone agreeing what that worth is (I doubt we could even agree on a method, let alone an answer). A second problem, since no-one really "owns" them, is who the price should be paid to. A third is that climate change isn't unique in this regard: look at rainforest destruction, for example. That has caused any number of unknown species extinctions -W]

I think there may be a role here for insurance companies to assess long-term risks of extreme weather events, so that we can see anthropogenic climate change in the context of a cost/benefit analysis.

William said :

Putting a price tag on species is going to be very difficult. Since most of these are essentially "unused" you are going to be arguing for an "intrinsic" price on their worth. There is no chance at all of anyone agreeing what that worth is (I doubt we could even agree on a method, let alone an answer).

I agree that it is difficult to even agree on a method, let alone calculating the result.
Maybe whatever method we would come up with would also be inherently unethical.
What is the price of loosing a single polar bear ? Or the species ? And how would that compare to the cost of loosing say a human ?
So, if not by putting a cost on environmental damage, including animals and species and eco-systems, by which method would we ever be able to determine rationally how we could maximize our living standard for homo sapiens while minimizing ecological damage ?

By ideology only ?

[I don't know how you can value a polar bear, or the species. Obviously, different people would value them differently. I imagine (or, I would hope) that std Stern-time analyses of costs include these, in some fashion. Possibly in a semi-arbitrary fashion. The issue, perhaps, is how much does it matter?

Try an extreme example: suppose you do the analysis, and it comes out that polar bear (and other Arctic species whose names I don't even know) loss comes to 80% of the total costs of GW (implausible, I know, but allow me for the moment). Now suppose that (again implausible) we're running some global For Great Justice scheme where the industrialised nations tax themselves and redistribute money according to costs; and that this accounting says we owe the Third World $X trillion. Then I think you can see immeadiately that this is going to lead to huge controversy, and endless quibbling about whether it is 80, or 79%, and do we really value polar bears, or whatever.

But a much easier case is, that Arctic species loss is only a few percent of the total; and that rather than inter-nation redistribution there is intra-nation redistribution. In that case, what you're arguing about is much smaller, and the results matter much less. So there would be some chance of getting them accepted in a rational manner -W]

By Rob Dekker (not verified) on 03 Jul 2012 #permalink

Need despoilation be inevitable? And once regions that were beyond wrecking become available do we meekly accept that it's human nature to continue destroying until there's nothing left to exploit?

Naive and stupid questions, obviously, but nevertheless trading the Arctic in order to create what - another hundred billionaires and add raw material fuel to a consumption driven society hiding behind the walls of its compounds and security forces, ever fearful of someone taking away the tat they've collected.

The Economist may be regarded as sophisticated reading, but in the bigger picture its delusions are childishly banal, and hawking a severely contained and extremely limited view of possible or even likely futures..

Now some, not Eli to be sure, would tell you that economics is the most important way to value actions, and yet, and yet, a subscriber to the Economist, would tell us that some things cannot be valued. What to do, what to do?

[Economics isn't a way to value things; economics is a way of balancing the values you have.

Some things cannot be valued. Human life is priceless, we pretend. And yet the value of a human life is built into any number of calculations, such as the cost of road improvements; and of course individuals everyday actions. Shall we accept that this happens, in reality; or shall we wrong our hands and wonder "what to do"? (which is what happened to one of the IPCC reports, when various third world folk refused to accept the economic valuation of their lives at less than that of first world folk) -W]

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 03 Jul 2012 #permalink

Back when Eli subscribed, the Economist had this habit of saying if then else, except the if was fantasy and the else impossible so the then was not very meaningful.

Have they changed?

[I fear that without a concrete example your question will remain floating -W]

By Eli Rabett (not verified) on 03 Jul 2012 #permalink

William, regarding the value of the polar bear (or any environmental damage for that matter), I think the price to be paid would have to be installed BEFORE the polar bear would go extinct. Sort of like an insurance policy, so we can still do something about it.
Otherwise, postmortem, indeed you will get into endless arguments about how what the right price would be and who would be the beneficiary and why.

[I'm all for not making polar bears extinct, as you know. What is tricky is persuading other people of this. Or rather, because I think pretty well everyone given the choice "make that car journey and polar bears go extinct" would choose not to make the journey, the trick is to try to present matters in such a way that the choice becomes clear, or at least intelligible.

Hobbes said it well, in a different context: "For if a man pretend to me, that God hath spoken to him supernaturally and immediately, and I make doubt of it, I cannot easily perceive what argument he can produce, to oblige me to believe it. It is true, that if he be my sovereign, he may oblige me to obedience, so, as not by act or word to declare I believe him not; but not to think any otherwise than my reason persuades me. But if one that hath not such authority over me, should pretend the same, there is nothing that exacteth either belief, or obedience." -W]

But the issue I would like to raise is the way in which we make long term decisions : Do we use ideology or rationality ?

[If you look at RR, Brian is pretty shameless in dismissing rationality (… "in this case are we assuming the people are economically rational actors divorced from real world psychology and politics, or are we having a meaningful discussion?"). I don't like that; I think we should be aiming for rationality. But we need to be aware of the mix of rationality and emotion that actually is used. I don't have much of a handle on how long-term planning is done. But I'm fairly sure that here, and elsewhere, a lot of long-term planning is done by bureaucrats in the background fairly rationally. But they have to do this within the large-scale political framework which is, as it seems to me, often irrational. Of which the issue of carbon taxes vs cap-n-trade is one obvious though minor example -W]

And if we use rationality, what would be the method by which we assess the risk of damage to environment and our own well-being ?

For example, the IPCC assessment of climate sensitivity is 1.5 - 4.5 C per doubling of CO2, with little change of it being less than 1 C, but still a persistently long tail. By our best assessments, the probability of planet Earth at this point having a climate sensitivity of 6 C per doubling is something like 5 %.
Here is a guy who worked out that 5 % scenario in a bit more detail :

[Yeeees. Firstly, the correct way to weight the costs is by the probability of their occurring. So this can all be folded in, naturally, to the std analysis. Secondly, I think James Annan has argued, persuasively, that the "long tail" stuff isn't realistic (…) -W]

Now, we are spending trillions (dollars, pounds, euros) in health insurance costs which may or may not prolong our life at some point. By paying this insurance, we hope that the utmost care will be taken for us to reduce our suffering in case of severe health events, and to prolong our life as long as technologically possible.

So when faced with a 5 % probability that future generations may endure significant suffering and premature death, why is there no rational determination of the insurance premium to assure that everything technologically possible is being done to reduce that suffering and prolong that life ?

Are we deciding by ideology or by reason ?

[The health analogy is interesting. The short answer, I suppose, is that people in immeadiate danger of dying will spend all their money to prevent death, even if the benefits are not guaranteed. Doctors have got fat off that for centuries. When considered as insurance, well, most people know people who died, so the idea that they themselves will need this help at some point is not hard to understand. Of course, that doesn't make the bloated US system rational; or the over-bureaucratic and uncompetitive UK system either.

And the obvious difference to GW is that many people aren't convinced of the costs or dangers. If you don't want to believe, it isn't hard to find people to tell you there is no problem using arguments you can't see through. And if you do believe, well, you have a pile of costs to pay. It isn't clear to me how we solve that -W]

By Rob Dekker (not verified) on 04 Jul 2012 #permalink

So some of you people actually believe that the polar bear might become extinct? Amazing what propaganda repeated enough will do.

[Its entirely possible, but you've missed the point. Which is that they are charismatic megafauna, and a suitable exemplar to discuss -W]

'you people' ?

By Rob Dekker (not verified) on 05 Jul 2012 #permalink

Natural resource economists use a lot of different methods to estimate environmental value. They survey people to ask them how much they'd pay to preserve a bird colony or how much they'd pay to have a new bird colony established. They look at tourism data to see if people spend more money at places with greater biodiversity. My understanding is that these methods have widely varying results, but they all agree that the value isn't zero. Gretchen Daily does a lot of work in this area.

Re dismissing rationality, that's correct. What I probably haven't done a good job is acknowledging that we should start with rational, platonic ideal solutions. Only then we need to try to figure out what the political and psychological meatgrinder will do with those solutions by the time they hit the ground, and alter if needed.

By Brian Schmidt (not verified) on 05 Jul 2012 #permalink

I need your help.
I need somebody to talk strait and with common sense.
This is about snow albedo effect, and should fit right in with the "melting north" title of your post.

Here is the point :
The NSIDC just presented the snow anomaly for June 2012.
A whopping 6 million km^2 anomaly. This is a record in this data set (since the 60's), by a large margin. June 2012 shows virtually no snow in the Northern Hemisphere, except for Greenland.

Now, most of the snow anomaly is around the Arctic (obviously), and we know that insolation on the ground in June around the Arctic is something like 280 W/m^2. Over 6 million km^2, assuming a drop in albedo from 0.8 with snow to 0.1 without, this means that an astonishing 1180 TW power anomaly is currently absorbed by the Arctic perimeter.

Considering that all of human's energy use (fossil fuels and the rest) is something like 17 TW, and 70 TW keeps the Barents sea free of ice in WINTER and 1180 TW is enough heat to melt out 3.6 million ton of ice PER SECOND, or close to 1/3rd of the Arctic winter sea ice volume. Spread out over the entire Northern Hemisphere this extra power influx in June amounts to 4.6 W/m^2. This is significantly more than the total GHG forcing currently active, which makes the snow albedo effect a perfect example of Arctic amplification.

Still, I am quite shocked by the magnitude of this effect. We have had conversations in the past about GCMs and why it is that they seem to underestimate Arctic sea ice extent so much :
and based on GCM simulations, you (and Tietsche et al) have presented research that suggests that Arctic sea ice would recover if all ice would be taken away.

Now, my question is this : Do/did GCMs simulate snow cover in a realistic way ? Do GCM simulations project anomalies like the 6 million km^2 observed in June 2012, and if they do, do that also generate that 1180 TW power anomaly ? And if they do that, then why do they not project much more sea ice melt during summer than the graph presented above suggests ?

[I can only speak for HacCM3 in any detail, and of course I no longer have access to the data (other than the publically available stuff, and I don't have access to anything to work with it).

So: snow cover is simulated moderately realistically: as you'd expect, there is a "snow depth" variable, snow mass is accounted for, and energetically balanced. And snow albedo varies with depth (and temperature?) (but not, in HadCM3, with age I think. Nor would it take into account dirtying but soot). And I've forgotten the rest: in Antarctica, the snow model wasn't very relevant or interesting :-).

> why it is that they seem to underestimate Arctic sea ice extent

You mean "underestimate the decline" I think. Unfortunately, I don't know.

> you (and Tietsche et al) have presented research that suggests that Arctic sea ice would recover if all ice would be taken away

Yeeessss... that idea it beginning to look broken, I'd say. Of course you can always be thrown out by a few bad years, and later look back and say "oh of course those were outliers". As usual, what happens this summer will make things a bit clearer -W]

[And since it comes my way... you might also like:

-> 4. Using models and satellite observations to evaluate the strength of
-> snow albedo feedback
-> Christopher G. Fletcher et al., JOURNAL OF GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH, VOL. 117,
-> D11117, 9 PP., 2012, doi:10.1029/2012JD017724
-> Snow albedo feedback (SAF) is important for global climate change, with
-> strong regional impacts over northern continental areas. SAF calculated
-> from the seasonal cycle is a good predictor of SAF in climate change among
-> a suite of coupled climate models. A previous linear decomposition of the
-> simulated total SAF (NET) found 80% was related to the albedo contrast of
-> snow covered and snow-free land (SNC), and 20% was related to the
-> temperature dependence of snow albedo (TEM). By contrast, recent work
-> using snow cover and surface albedo derived from APP-x satellite
-> observations found that TEM and SNC contributed almost equally to NET. In
-> the present study, revised estimates of TEM and SNC for northern land
-> areas are calculated for the period 1982-99 using a simplified and
-> reproducible method for comparing SAF in models and observations. The
-> observed NET is -1.11% K^ -1, of which 69% comes from SNC and 31% from
-> TEM; the approximate additivity of SNC and TEM indicates that these two
-> terms fully explain the total SAF. Regionally, the SNC term dominates
-> equatorward of 65DEGN, while TEM dominates over the Arctic. The mean of 17
-> CMIP3 climate models shows NET is 7% larger than observed, caused
-> primarily by a bias in TEM equatorward of 65DEGN. A newer model (NCAR
-> CCSM4) with improved land surface and snow schemes reproduces observed
-> values of NET and SNC closely. However, TEM in all models examined is
-> 50-100% weaker than observed over the Arctic. There is a strong
-> correlation between SAF in the seasonal cycle and SAF in climate change
-> for all components, but the correlation is weakest for TEM. The TEM term
-> also exhibits a much larger spread in the seasonal cycle than in climate
-> change, which partially explains a discrepancy between previous published
-> studies examining TEM.
-> [6]
-> 9 page PDF
-> [7]


By Rob Dekker (not verified) on 08 Jul 2012 #permalink

Thanks William, for sharing this info with us.
You write

I can only speak for HacCM3 in any detail, and of course I no longer have access to the data (other than the publically available stuff,

That's understandable. I find a lot of publicly available results from GCMs in scientific papers. but the presented data is (of course) pre-selected by the reseachers that are typically focussing on one aspect out of the GCM simulations.
For example, Fletcher et al investigates the relative importance of TEM and SNC albedo effects, but does not show if the magnitude of GCM simulated snow cover more or less matches with this NSIDC (actually Rutgers University) observations :

Especially the very significant drop in snow cover since 2000 is quite remarkable, and it would be utmost interesting to see how snow cover developments are projected with the GCM simulations.

Equally important (especially for developments of thick multi-year ice) would be to have access to ocean-current heat fluxes as simulated by the GCM projections.

Either way, if it is true that "that idea is beginning to look broken" as you say, then should we not be able to find out WHY ? It seems to me that investigating ALL variables in GCM simulations and testing them against observations should at least reveal which variable(s) seems to be the most off. That should give some clue as to where to which modules of GCMs may require a thorough review, so that future versions would significantly more accurately project crucial observable variables such as sea ice extent.

[Tricky. There are an awful lots of variables in a GCM, and relating them to real observations is not easy, since the real-world stuff is invariably wrong and incomplete, so even one comparison takes time. And what is wrong is not usually one thing, but some subtle coupling between various things; which is usually difficult to tease out -W]

In that regard, do you know if there is something like GCM equivalent of NOAA's NCEP/NCAR site ? Where one can enter variables and a time frame and obtain instant plots of mean value or anomaly info ?

Thanks for all your insights.

By Rob Dekker (not verified) on 09 Jul 2012 #permalink

For the NCAR CCSM4 climate model, check out the various "diagnostics" links on this page

not exactly what you were looking for, but a nice comparison of model with observed. (for the 20th century runs) and a compendium of change maps for the future projections (RCP runs)

Bump, on the basis of the storm currently tracking through the Arctic, which may cause this post to need a rename (melting=>melted)

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 07 Aug 2012 #permalink