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Scientists Say Arctic Sea Ice Could ‘Shrink to Record Low’ This Summer
Measurements from satellites and “snow buoys” deployed on sea ice reveal a “certain likeness” between recent conditions in the Arctic and those seen in the run up to the record summer low in 2012.
Carbon Brief asked other scientists here at EGU about the likelihood of this year’s summer low setting a new record.
The past winter has been something of a record-breaker for the Arctic.
Unusually warm air temperatures during the winter restricted sea ice growth and saw 2016 bring new record lows for sea ice extent for the months of January and February. This culminated in a winter maximum extent in March that clocked in as the smallest since satellite records began in 1979.
The passing of the winter peak signals the start of the melt season, where sea ice diminishes as temperatures rise through spring and into summer. Sea ice hits its lowest extent sometime in September or October. The record low for the summer minimum currently stands at 3.41m square kilometers, from 2012.
Speaking to Carbon Brief at EGU, Dr. Marcel Nicolaus, a sea ice physicist at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, said the 2016 summer could equal or surpass, this record.
Sea ice conditions over the recent months are similar to those seen before the 2012 record, Nicolaus said. He identifies three main reasons why this year’s summer minimum could rival 2012:
“We did see a stronger melt last summer than usual, so we went into the winter in November with thinner ice than the previous years. We saw, due to the warming, less freezing and less build-up of ice mass [during winter]. And we do see a shift of secure ice towards the northern end of the Fram Strait of the Atlantic Ocean, where it’s very likely to be exported [away from the Arctic and into the North Atlantic] over the course of spring and summer.”
These reasons won’t guarantee a new record, Nicolaus adds, because sea ice melt also depends on the warmth and storminess of spring and summer—but they do boost the odds.
Warmer Than Normal
With almost 13,000 scientists at the EGU conference this week, Carbon Brief caught up with a few of them to ask about the prospects for Arctic sea ice for this year and beyond.
Prof. Julienne Stroeve, professor of polar observation and modeling at University College London and senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC), points out that a small winter sea ice extent doesn’t necessarily translate into a summer low.
She tells Carbon Brief:
“Just because we have thinner ice and less sea ice right now—starting out the melt season—that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to have a new record low.”
That’s because the extent to how much sea ice melts through the summer is also dependent on the weather, Stroeve said. Thinner ice is more susceptible to being broken up by storms, which means it can melt more quickly. But scientists can’t predict the weather several months in advance, so there’s still a lot of uncertainties about how sea ice will fare over the summer.
That said, Stroeve also thinks the conditions are ripe for a new record:
“We had a warm winter and the warmth has continued into spring. If you look at air temperatures for the first three weeks of April, for example, the temperatures are 4-5 C warmer than normal over the whole Arctic Ocean … How that continues is going to play a key role, but certainly having thinner ice to start out with is not a good thing.”
“This winter, we’ve seen very warm conditions in the Arctic. The air temperature has been very warm, which means the ice has not grown as much as it does normally, which means we’re left now at the start of the summer [melt] season with much less less ice than we do normally.
“Whether this means we get a record low year later on in September when the ice reaches its minimum depends quite a lot on what the atmosphere does of the next few months—how many storms we get across the Arctic as they will help break up the ice. So, it depends on how many of those we get as to whether this year will be a record or not.”
Even if this summer doesn’t break the 2012 record, it’s only a matter of time before it does get broken, said Dr. Alexandra Jahn, assistant professor at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado. She tells Carbon Brief:
“As long as we continue to emit greenhouse gases, we will continue to see a decline in Arctic sea ice. So we will eventually see a new record sea ice minimum in September, but it’s very difficult to predict when exactly that will happen.”
For readers at EGU this week, there are posters on sea ice research on display this evening (5:30 - 7 p.m.) in Hall X3 and talks on polar climate predictability from Hawkins, Jahn and others from 8:30 a.m. tomorrow morning in Room G2.
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A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.
"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."
The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.
My god, White Island volcano in New Zealand erupted today for first time since 2001. My family and I had gotten off it 20 minutes before, were waiting at our boat about to leave when we saw it. Boat ride home tending to people our boat rescued was indescribable. #whiteisland pic.twitter.com/QJwWi12Tvt— Michael Schade (@sch) December 9, 2019
Michael Schade / Twitter
At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.
The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.
Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.
"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."
Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.
Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.
"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.
"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."
The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.
Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.
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