This article is actually by my son, Sam Yates.  He is not a member of DailyKos. However, it is so important that I am posting it here for the community to read.  From this point, all "I's" refer to him, not me.  

A New Ocean in the Arctic and What It Means

by Sam Yates

I first typed up the bulk of this on some forums that I frequently visit, but the subject's important enough that I figured it out to have a wider audience--So here it goes.

Some of y'all--those who talk to me on a fairly regular basis, or those who have made contact of some sort or another with me during the past month or so--are probably aware that lately, I've had my britches in a bundle over the subject of global warming, largely because of the truly spectacular things that have been happening in the Arctic this year. These things are so spectacular, in fact, and so unnerving in their implications, that I think it behooves me to make at least some noise about 'em.

Righty, then. I won't bother too much with the basic physical principles behind global warming; y'all are, all in all, a well-read, intelligent bunch, and the basic tenets of the theory are probably pretty familiar to you.* I would like, though, to bring to your attention a few things going on in Earth's climate system that you may not have been aware of--or if you were familiar with them, may not have quite understood the implications.

Or rather, one very specific thing: Arctic sea ice. In the past decade or so, it's been collapsing rather dramatically--and as summer melt seasons come and go, it keeps on getting worse. Until fairly recently, it wasn't thought that we'd be seeing truly dramatic changes in the Arctic (that is, ice-free in summer) until ~2100 at the earliest (according to the 2007 IPCC synthesis report). In the 2014 IPCC report (yet to be released, obviously, but the models that will be used for certain bits of it are known), this estimate will be revised down to ~2060--which, while a good deal closer in time than the original estimate, is still far enough off in the future that it might be shrugged off as something that future generations could take care of.

The Arctic, apparently, does not think too highly of the various IPCC models. Here's a graph, courtesy of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (scroll down to the August 6th entry: http://nsidc.org/...), comparing what the arctic sea ice extent has done vs. what the IPCC predicted/will predict it would do in 2007 (blue) and 2014 (red):


Note that this year's minimum, not charted on this graph, utterly smashed the 2007 record, ending up at around the 3.6 million km^2 mark. Based solely on the behavior of the other curves, and assuming that the real sea ice extent will exhibit similar behavior (that is, falling quickly, and then leveling off as it approaches the two million km^2 mark), we might expect an ice-free Arctic in summer in...what, 2040? 2050? Thereabouts. Unnerving, but still a ways off.

As it turns out, though, sea ice extent is perhaps not the best metric to use when it comes to extrapolating out into the future--because sea ice is, after all, three dimensional. If you start out with a full Arctic ocean's-worth of ice that's on average five meters thick, the minimum extent for that year isn't going to be that small, since there's so much ice by volume that even after much of it has melted there's still plenty left to fill the Arctic. Start out with ice that's only half a meter thick, though, and you'll be lucky if you're left with any ice left at all by the time the melt season's finished--even if the original extent (that is, the area of the ocean covered by ice, as opposed to its volume) of the ice was exactly the same as in the five-meter case. The system's inherently nonlinear, and is governed by changes in volume, not extent.

Hm. My audience, I note, is flagging a bit. Be of good cheer! I'm approaching my point, slowly but surely. Here, have a heartwarming My Little Pony clip to cheer you up: http://youtube.googleapis.com/...

Anyway, where was I? Ah, yes. Sea ice volume, the true power behind the throne when it comes to how much ice covers the Arctic ocean, has not only been plummeting in recent years, but has been doing so far more dramatically than extent. So dramatically, in fact, that most functions fitted˚ to the recent sea ice volume trends show an expected date of zero sea ice volume (which would, of course, be identical to zero extent) not in thirty or forty years, but...


...In three or four years. Eight, maybe, if we're lucky. Basically, what would happen in this scenario is that one melt year--maybe this one!--will hit a critical threshold of sea ice volume, and in the next year all or almost all of the ice melts away, simply vanishing into the open Arctic ocean.

This will be very much a Bad Thing.

"Okay, wait a minute, hold up," I hear you protest. "Aren't you being a bit melodramatic, Sam? Sure, no ice up-atop isn't good news for polar bears, arctic foxes, a passel of seals, and various other frigid, watery beasties, but the way you're talking about it you make it sound like the end of the world. C'mon, now. It's not that bad."

To which I have to agree that, Yes, I guess I am making it sound a bit worse than it actually is...

"Right, that's more like it," you say.

...As long as you live in the southern hemisphere. If you're north of the equator, though, this could well end up being a tad on the apocalyptic side.


Let me explain--No. It's too much. Let me sum up. Y'all are familiar, I presume, with the immense influence that the oceans have on regional climate around the globe, yes? The usual example that's trotted out is that Quebec and the UK are at about the same latitude, but they have VERY different climates, thanks to the circulation patterns in the North Atlantic ocean. Likewise for why, say, Italy is reasonably livable, but the Taklimakan desert is a death trap--one is near a large body of water, and the other isn't. Now, in the past, the Arctic ocean has, climatologically speaking, not really been an ocean; even during the summer, it (in the past) was mostly capped with ice, which prevented there being much heat exchange between the air above it and the water below. Now that it's melting, though, all that water is suddenly being exposed to the air above, and heat is free to flow between the two. Imagine, if you will, what the climatological effects of suddenly removing the North Atlantic would be, or of adding a new Mediterranean in the middle of Canada; the atmospheric circulation patterns for the entire northern hemisphere would be completely rewritten. That's effectively what's happening now; once global warming melts the Arctic sea ice, climatologically speaking an entirely new ocean will suddenly, in the space of a year or so, come into being on the top of the world.

This will have certain consequences. Sadly, the possible effects of this sudden...what might be the word for it? "Maregenesis," perhaps?...haven't been particularly well-studied (largely because, until quite recently, everyone thought that it was decades off in the future), but some of the results are reasonably clear:

• The most obvious effect of this melting will be the beginning of the first truly huge climate feedback to kick into effect, amplifying the effects of the CO2 we've been pumping out and, possibly, dragging Earth's temperature completely out of our control. All that dark water up north will end up absorbing a huge amount of light that would otherwise have been reflected out into space by white ice, warming the planet quite a bit and accelerating the warming. Worse, large deposits of methane (another very potent greenhouse gas) exist frozen in permafrost or as methane clathrates (a sort of blend of methane and water ice) beneath the surface of the Arctic ocean, and as the ice vanishes and the ocean warms, those deposits will quickly begin to destabilize, belching methane out into the atmosphere in prodigious quantities and accelerating the warming even further. This, however, won't be terribly noticeable in terms of its effect on the rate of warming during the next decade or so.

• More unpleasant to those who live in the northern hemisphere, but also a bit less certain, will be the effect of suddenly having a large patch of (relatively) warm open water at the pole. This will have powerful effects on weather patterns throughout the northern hemisphere--there's no way it can't--but what those effects will be, precisely, is a bit harder to pin down. It is expected, though, that as the temperature gradient between the north pole and the equator decreases (normally during Arctic winter, air temperatures are free to drop far below zero, because the oceans are already covered with a shell of ice. Once you get rid of that ice, though, it has to freeze up again during the lightless winter, and as long as there's still liquid water to be frozen the air temperatures will stay locked at a bit below 0 ˚C). This decreased temperature gradient between the poles and the equator causes Rossby waves in the jet stream to both move more slowly and slide further north, producing weather patterns that linger in one place far longer than they do now--which means more droughts, floods, heat waves, and cold snaps than is the case today (See the work of Jennifer Francis at Rutgers University for more details on this particular prediction: http://marine.rutgers.edu/... Nota bene, although this particular paper has gotten much currency, I'm not certain how widely accepted the results are in the climatology community in general, or how reliable they are) These effects, particularly when layered on top of the heightened temperatures already occurring, would make agriculture in places like the Great Plains far more difficult than it is today. That drought that's settled in over the American midwest, the Russian heatwaves, the 2003 heat waves in Europe, the Pakistan floods that happened earlier this year, and so on and so forth? Yeah, get used to things like that. They ain't goin' nowheres.

• Another interesting possible effect of this collapse of the Arctic sea ice is more winters like the bitterly cold ones that hit the US in 2009 and 2010; those were a direct result of extremely unusual atmospheric circulation patterns in the Arctic, very similar to the sort that would be expected to develop over an ice-free Arctic ocean. It'll be very interesting to see, considering the low sea ice extent this year, whether a similar hard winter hits us in January 2013. Regardless, though, this is bad news for anyone in the northern hemisphere, because we depend on a stable, equable, predictable climate for our food supply--and that's about to vanish. It is possible that within the next ten to twenty years, most of the world's population is going to suddenly find its traditional grain belts washing away or vanishing in Dust Bowls. It will not be pretty.

Is all of this going to happen? I don't know; I'm not a climatologist, and most of my knowledge of this subject I've patched together from my readings on the internet, and checked against what preexisting knowledge of physics, thermodynamics, and atmospheric chemistry I already possessed. I could be wrong--and honestly, I would love to be wrong. I've been concerned about global warming for years, now, and have been reading up on it for just as long. In the past, though, it's always been sort of a distant concern for me; I was sure that I'd have at least a good twenty or thirty years of reasonably normal climate to live out the best years of my life, and do as I pleased. I felt I could count on that.

And now...now I don't think I can. Quite honestly, this frightens me. I'm hoping to end up in Canada or Alaska in fairly short order; both places will end up, at least at first, profiting by global warming, as the increased weather instability may be balanced out by a longer growing season. I plan to apply to various northern universities next spring, and hopefully end up safely out of reach of the immediate effects of a return of the Dust Bowl to the American midwest--which, by the by, is also looking fairly likely; that particular patch of land has spent more time during the past 10,000 years being sandy desert than it's spent being a grassland, and the climate now bears far more resemblance to the desert days. It's only a matter of time before the dunes of the Nebraska Sand Hills begin to move again, along with other spots in the US where ancient deserts lie barely restrained beneath a few inches of sod.

Basically...yes. Again, I could be wrong, and I hope I am. Goodness knows the occupation of doomsayer does not have a very good record, historically speaking, and perhaps I'm just as loopy as the folks who think that the world will come to an end on December 21st of this year because the end of the thirteenth Mayan b'ak'tun falls on that date.

But Hey, maybe I'm not.

*Because it always comes up, I would like to emphasize that the ozone hole has (almost) nothing to do with global warming. Just sayin'.

˚Extremely important note: This is just an exercise in curve-fitting, and does NOT take into account the actual physical properties of the system. In other words, there could be some completely unexpected negative feedback, a glacius ex machina if you will, that kicks in at the last second to shunt volume back up and save the day, its cape billowing majestically in the wind and pectoral muscles rippling heroically. However, at present there is no real reason to suppose that such a feedback exists, and even though these various trendlines, again, have no physical basis...well, look at that the data. It could jump back up, but it sure as heck hasn't shown any signs of doing so yet, and it's probably not wise to bet on a miracle happening. Also, final note: credit for putting the image together goes to the poster Wipneus, who frequently comments on http://neven1.typepad.com/... a blog devoted to the state of the Arctic sea ice."

Originally posted to etenglish on Thu Oct 04, 2012 at 08:57 AM PDT.

Also republished by Climate Change SOS.

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