Warmer, wetter, darker: What’s happening to the “frozen North”?

2022 has seen exceptional warmth and ice melt in the Arctic, with consequences for the whole planet. But against the background of Russia’s war on Ukraine, climate action has stalled. It’s high time to cut emissions and speed up the energy transition.

When I was growing up I learnt that the Arctic was a “cold desert“, i.e. the climate was very cold and very dry. It’s a long time since I’ve been to a school, but I assume these days the kids are learning different things about the high north.

Studies published over this past summer leave no doubt about the extent of climate changes sweeping across the Arctic.

Let’s start with the temperature. With the rest of the world, human-induced climate change is warming the icy north of the planet. Numerous studies in recent years have reported that the Arctic was warming twice, more than twice or even three times as fast as the globe on average, a phenomenon known as Arctic amplification. Now a study published in Nature in August this year comes to the conclusion that the ratio is actually higher, and that the Arctic has warmed nearly four times faster than the world as a whole since 1979. The authors of the new study used several observational datasets covering the Arctic region. They compared the observed Arctic amplification ratio with the ratio simulated by “state-of-the-art climate models”, and found that the models rarely came up with the fourfold ratio that was actually observed over 1979–2021.  

So reality has turned out far worse than the predictions.

“Our results indicate that the recent four-fold Arctic warming ratio is either an extremely unlikely event, or the climate models systematically tend to underestimate the amplification”, the scientists write. Worrying?

Protester’s shirt in Bonn, 23.9.2022. Global Climate Strike.

Rain in the desert

The northern part of our planet is known as “Arctic desert”, an area with minimal precipitation, where the air is almost as dry as it would be in a hot desert. That Arctic desert includes one of my favourite Arctic spots, the Svalbard archipelago.  Rock, ice, cold temperatures and minimal precipitation would be amongst its characteristic features.

But in the course of the last ten years, several unusual extreme rain events have been observed at Ny Ålesund, a weather station in the north-western part of Svalbard. The most recent observed events in the years 2012, 2016, and 2018 were the strongest events in the entire precipitation record from 1974 until today. On January 30, 2012, there was four times as much rain in one day as normally comes in the entire January. In October 2016, extreme rain in Longyearbyen triggered several landslides. And in July 2018, Ny-Ålesund got three and a half times more rain than normal.

Professor Malte Müller of the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, Timo Kelder from Loughborough University and Cyril Palerme, University of Oslo conclude in a new study published in June that all these extreme events are linked to a changing climate:

“With a novel approach based on a large ensemble of model simulations, we show that the likelihood of occurrence for extreme precipitation over Svalbard has increased over the last four decades”, the experts write.

They say there is a clear connection to the decline of the sea ice extent east of Greenland. The presence of sea ice normally shields the west coast of Svalbard from the incoming southerly moist air.

“Our analysis suggests, that in the future with a further decline of the sea ice coverage east of Greenland, the recently observed precipitation extremes will become even more frequent”, the scientists say.

Santa Claus in the rain? – Climate communication campaign to interest the young – and not so young.

When the sea gets more acidic

The fast rate of warming and the resulting rapid loss of sea ice in the Arctic in recent decades are also altering the pH of the ocean in the region. When sea ice melts, the seawater is exposed to the atmosphere, promoting rapid uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide. This lowers its alkalinity and dilutes the buffering capacity of the water, its ability to resist acidification.  In a study published in Science in September 2022, researchers from the Polar and Marine Research Institute at Jimei University, China, and the School of Marine Science and Policy at the University of Delaware in the US found that sea ice loss is driving rapid acidification of the western Arctic Ocean at a rate three to four times higher than that of other ocean basins. The scientists compared data collected from the Arctic between 1994 and 2020 with that from other ocean basins.

Team measuring acidification off Svalbard ( Pic. I. Quaile)

The freshwater going into the sea is changing its chemistry. The experts predict a further decrease in pH, particularly at higher latitudes where sea ice retreat is active. Wei-Jun Cai, a marine chemistry expert at the University of Delaware and one of the paper’s authors, told the Guardian the scientists were shocked by their discovery. Cai said the effect of the altered seawater chemistry would have “huge implications” for sea life. Increasing acidification decreases the amount of calcium carbonate in the sea water, making life very difficult for sea creatures that use it to form their skeletons or shells. This will affect coral, mussels, snails, sea urchins, starfish as well as fish and other organisms. Some of these species will simply not be able to compete with others in the ocean of the future.

The polar regions are suffering more than others, as cold water absorbs CO2 faster. Experiments in the Arctic indicate that the sea water there could become corrosive within a few decades, resulting in the shells and skeletons of some sea creatures dissolving.

Greenland: ice island in transition

Greenland is the world’s largest island, and around 80 percent of it is covered with ice. It contains roughly eight percent of the Earth’s fresh water. The Ice Sheet extends about 1.7 million square kilometers (656,000 square miles). Greenland has been covered in ice for more than 18 million years; the current ice can be as old as 100,000 years old. The Greenland Ice Sheet is very thick, averaging 2 to 3 kilometers (1 to 2 miles) across most of the island. But climate change is having a rapid and dramatic effect.

Greenland‘s ice sheet. ( Pic: I. Quaile)

If the Greenland Ice Sheet melted completely, scientists estimate that sea level would rise by about 7 meters (23 feet). Depending on how rapidly such a change occurred, it could be a global-scale catastrophe because nearly one-third of the world’s population lives in or near a coastal zone.

In a guest post for Carbon Brief, Dr Martin Stendel, a climate scientist at the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) in Copenhagen, which is part of the Polar Portal, and his colleague Dr Ruth Mottram consider “how the Greenland ice sheet fared in 2022”. At the end of the northern-hemisphere summer, which also marks the close of the Greenland ice sheet melt season, the scientists confirm that Greenland has been losing ice every year for more than quarter of a century:

The world’s biggest island had a wet and cool summer, which ended with a “huge snowfall event dumping almost 20bn tonnes (Gt) of snow onto south-east Greenland”, the experts write.

“Nonetheless, taking into account surface melting, breaking off of icebergs and frictional effects under glaciers, the Greenland ice sheet lost 84Gt of ice over the 12 months from September 2021 to August 2022.”

The last time Greenland saw an annual net gain of ice was in 1996.

September sees more records smashed

The article was published on 22nd September.  On October 6th, figures showed the ice island had experienced record warmth and melt during September:

A late season heat wave and melt event in Greenland from September 2 to 5 is unprecedented in the 44 years of continuous satellite monitoring, says the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC). At the peak on September 3, more than one-third (36 percent) of the ice sheet, or around 600,000 square kilometers (232,000 square miles) had surface melting.

As scientists writing for Carbon Brief put it in a guest post: “In 2022, 18bn tonnes of meltwater ran off the Greenland ice sheet in just three days, enough to fill 4,500 Wembley stadiums.”

Greenland melt endangers distant coastal cities

Ice loss from the Greenland ice sheet is one of the largest sources of contemporary sea-level rise. In a study published at the end of August 2022 in Nature Climate Change, lead author glaciologist Jason Box and colleagues look at “Greenland ice sheet climate disequilibrium and committed sea-level rise”.  They find that ice loss from the ice sheet through climate change to date means that Greenland is already committed to at least 274mm (almost 10.8 inches) of future sea level rise, regardless of twenty-first-century climate pathways.

That is a scary thought.

This is a higher figure than sea-level rise estimates in other recent forecasts, writes Will Sullivan, in a summary for the Smithsonian Magazine. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, for example, only predicted that Greenland’s melting ice would cause 2 to 5 inches of global sea-level rise by 2100. This new paper may have come up with a higher number for a few reasons, Sullivan says. Firstly, it used satellite measurements instead of the computer modeling that past research used, which lead author Box told the New York Times are “not up to the task”. It is also based on data from between 2000 and 2019, a period of faster ice melt than the 20 years before it.

“We have caused the ice sheet to go out of equilibrium,” David Bahr, a co-author of the study and a glaciologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, told USA Today. “We’re melting it faster than the ice can move downstream and replenish areas that are melting.”

“A shocking reality”

In a video presenting the conclusions, Box explains:

 “In the virtually certain event that climate continues warming, the sea level commitment only grows. The sea level commitment we determined stands, regardless of any foreseeable future climate pathway this century. This water is in the pipeline, and technically already beginning  its way under the bridge and eventually out to sea. While our method can’t provide a timescale for sea level rise, observational evidence suggests that the majority of this committed ice loss and sea level rise can occur this century”, Box explains.

Box concludes there is a high likelihood that ice sheet models “don’t deliver ice quickly enough for a number of known reasons; like today’s models don’t realistically treat underwater melting, bare ice darkening, ice internal heating from increasing melt water infiltration and basal lubrication – to name a few.”

“Our findings in comparison to current sea level projections confront us with a shocking reality: the much larger, already locked in sea level rise than what ice sheet models project by end of century even under high carbon emissions. Our numbers are twice as large and don’t even include future warming.”

Tipping out of control?

The Greenland ice sheet is an important component of the Earth’s climate system. Sea level rise is not the only effect of its melting. If the Greenland Ice Sheet melts at a faster rate, it will spread a slick of fresh water on top of the heavier salt water of the North Atlantic. This change in salinity could depress the Gulf Stream and alter North Atlantic circulation patterns that control weather in Europe. Combined with a loss of Arctic sea ice, this effect could radically change global ocean circulation patterns.

The loss of Greenland ice mass would also affect global atmospheric heat movement. Any heat transfer is driven by a temperature difference. The greater that difference, the faster heat flows. As the polar regions warm, the temperature difference between the equator and the poles is reduced, altering global atmospheric circulation patterns by reducing the force that drives equatorial heat energy toward the poles. That means changes to the weather far beyond the Arctic.

Scientists are concerned that the ice melt could be approaching – or already have reached – a point of no return, a “tipping point”. Climate tipping points(CTPs) are conditions “beyond which changes in a part of the climate system become self-perpetuating.”

These changes may lead to “abrupt, irreversible, and dangerous impacts with serious implications for humanity”, say scientists Armstrong McKay and his colleagues in an updated assessment of the most important climate tipping elements and their potential tipping points, including their temperature thresholds, time scales, and impacts.

Time to revise Paris goals?

Their analysis indicates that even global warming of 1°C, a threshold that we have already passed, puts us at risk by triggering some tipping points. The Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to well below 2°C and preferably 1.5°C is not a safe bet, the scientists find. Reaching 1.5°C and beyond already risks crossing multiple tipping points. The Greenland ice sheet melt is one of them.

 “Crossing these CTPs can generate positive feedbacks that increase the likelihood of crossing other CTPs,” the researchers warn.

Currently the world is heading towards between 2 and 3°C of global warming; at best, if all net-zero pledges and nationally determined contributions are implemented, it could reach just below 2°C, the report says. That would lower tipping point risks somewhat but would still be dangerous as it could trigger multiple climate tipping points.

“Our assessment provides strong scientific evidence for urgent action to mitigate climate change”, the scientists conclude. A powerful understatement?

There is no lack of evidence that climate change is already having serious and often deadly impacts on the planet we live on.

In the past few months we have seen numerous weather extremes hitting the headlines, including heatwaves in Europe, flooding in Pakistan and hurricanes in the Caribbean and US. Much of the northern hemisphere is experiencing ongoing drought conditions. The summer of 2022 has seen Europe’s worst drought in 500 years, the American west’s most extreme drought conditions in 1,200 years and sections of China’s Yangtze river dwindling to their lowest level since at least 1865, says a summary by Carbon Brief.

In an op. ed. for the Guardian, Michael E Mann and Susan Joy Hassol consider Ian, one of the five worst hurricanes in America’s recorded history, and conclude that it is “no anomaly”. The climate crisis is making storms more powerful, they warn: “That’s not a fluke – it’s a tragic taste of things to come.”

devastating hurricanes,

The same can apply to the droughts, heatwaves and flooding we are seeing across the globe.

Climate action not keeping pace

Yet the slow pace of action to cut emissions and halt global warming does not reflect the urgency of the situation the scientists are describing to us. The Russian war on Ukraine and resulting energy crisis are detracting attention from the climate emergency and reviving fossil fuels. In my darker moments, I wonder whether it is not a welcome excuse for extending the use of coal, oil and gas and putting off the lifestyle and economic changes we so urgently need to halt climate change.

The war itself is increasing emissions. Unexpected events like the massive discharge of methane from the sabotaged North Sea gas pipelines exacerbate climate change further.

Our industrialised societies and economic system are still too dependent on fossil-fuelled electricity. Profit goes before protecting the environment.

Global Climate Strike, Bonn, 23.9.2022. ( Pic. I. Quaile)

In my search for positive signs in these dangerously dark times, I came across a blog by Michael Liebreich, for BloombergNEF. The founder and senior contributor to Bloomberg New Energy Finance suggests we can take solace in the thought that the “Great Energy Price Spike of 2022 should in due course give way to the Great Clean Energy Acceleration.” President Putin “may have set in motion forces that will accelerate the eventual redundancy of the fossil fuel reserves on which his imperial ambitions were built.”

 “One can but hope,” he qualifies.

Clearly, the need to shift to clean energy from a climate perspective has not been enough to make us do the necessary, Liebreich goes on:

“What is different about this crisis is that, instead of having no choice but to double down on securing fossil fuel supplies, for the first time we can double down on proven, safe and scalable clean solutions. What was once disparagingly called ‘alternative energy’ really does now present an alternative.”

But what about the spike in global emissions caused by Europe and China burning more climate-harming coal in the meantime? Even here in Germany with a Green Party minister for climate and the economy, the life of coal-fired power plants is being extended.

These are just short-term phenomena, says Liebreich. I think I can agree with that. (I hope it’s not just wishful thinking). But where does that leave us?

“We will soon be back to the emissions plateau on which we have been since around a decade”, the business expert says. Why does that not make me jump with joy?

After that, we should expect the “Great Clean Energy Acceleration” to kick in, says Liebreich. I don’t think the planet can afford to wait any longer. The latest report from the WMO makes that more than clear:

We were able to mobilise funds to tackle the COVID crisis. We are coming up with funds to support embattled Ukraine. Is it not high time we put massive resources into tackling the climate emergency that is threatening the planet we live on?

We need government action – now and at COP27, to be held in Egypt in a few weeks’ time.

We need businesses to transform.

We need every one of us to re-think our use of energy and natural resources.

It is time to accept responsibility for the planet and the climate.

This is not just about future generations. Maybe egoism will be the ultimate motivator. Climate change is hitting us now. This is a crisis we cannot sit out.

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