Sea Ice Still Hasn't Formed off of Siberia and Scientists Are Worried
By Sharon Guynup
At this time of year, in Russia's far north Laptev Sea, the sun hovers near the horizon during the day, generating little warmth, as the region heads towards months of polar night. By late September or early October, the sea's shallow waters should be a vast, frozen expanse.
But not this year. For the first time since records have been kept, open water still laps this coastline in late October though snow is already falling there.
"In one sense, it's shocking, but on the other hand, it's not surprising," said Walt Meier, a research scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder's National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). Over the past 40 years, unprecedented climate change-driven events such as this have become the new normal in the Arctic — which is heating up far faster than the rest of the planet.
While weather patterns at the top of the world vary, the overall changes are dramatic and occurring so rapidly that the region may be entering a "new Arctic" climate regime, says Laura Landrum, an oceanographer with Colorado's National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The Arctic is transitioning from a mostly frozen state into an entirely new climate — and impacting the entire planet, she said.
Meier calls the Arctic the "bellweather of climate change" because it's a place where a small bump in temperature has real impact: a change from -.5°C to .5°C (31°F to 33°F) is the difference between ice skating and swimming, he said, while a couple of degrees warmer in Florida may not even be noticed.
Comparison of autumn sea ice formation for the first half of October 2012 (the record year for Arctic sea ice extent loss) and in 2020 (second place for sea ice extent loss). The satellite record goes back to 1979. @Icy_Samuel, data provided by NSIDC
An Extreme Year in a Region Known for Extremes
It's been quite a year in Siberia — on land, and off the Arctic coast. The first six months were extraordinarily warm and the sea ice began melting early. By May, fires burned in permafrost zones that are usually frozen year-round. In June, temperatures hit a record-breaking 38°C (100°F), and by September, blazes incinerated about 14 million hectares (54,000 square miles) of tundra — an area the size of Greece.
A combination of changing climate and quirky weather are now preventing this fall's freeze-up. Siberian sea temperatures are higher than usual because of this year's extreme climate events. The heat wave warmed the many rivers that feed into the Arctic Ocean and also triggered an early melt-out. Without ice and snow that acts like a mirror — reflecting the sun's heat back into the atmosphere — the dark ocean absorbed extra warmth over the summer. Much of the remaining ice disintegrated. Then in September, unusually strong, warm winds blew in from the south, pushing any newly formed ice out to sea.
In the past, a shift in the winds wouldn't have mattered much. Back in the 1980s, Igor Polyakov, a climate scientist at the University of Alaska, remembers being part of expeditions that landed small seaplanes on sea ice to study the Siberian Arctic. He described the Laptev Sea as a solid, glaring white landscape punctuated by pastel-tinged ice: rose-colored, light blue and green. Since the regions' deeply cut gulfs and bays are located in shallow continental shelf waters, they mostly stayed frozen.
But by summer 2002, sea ice was less stable, and today, ice breakers can travel the region through open water. "The changes are dramatic," he said. "It happened in front of our eyes. Now, in the summer, there's no ice at all for thousands of kilometers, sometimes as far north as the 85th parallel." That's five degrees from the North Pole.
In the 1980s, about 80% of the Arctic Ocean and its surrounding seas were frozen in thick, "old ice" that mostly survived the summer melt, said James Overland, an oceanographer with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who has studied the Arctic for decades. "Now much of that has to refreeze each winter. We did not expect to see this so soon."
Arctic sea ice extent on Oct. 25, 2020 was at a record low 5.613 million square kilometers for this date, surpassing the record set in 2019 of 6.174 million square kilometers. ChArctic NSIDC
A Dangerous Cycle
Across the Arctic, ice is now thawing earlier, freezing later, thinning and — in many places — disappearing altogether.
Thinner ice is less resilient. Picture ice cubes in a glass. Thick chunks last longer and melt slower than ice chips and slivers. All disintegrate faster in warmer liquid. This is a huge problem in the Arctic, where vast stretches of open blue water absorb the sun's heat during summer, when the sun never really sets. Those warm waters flow beneath the ice to melt it from below.
This year, the overall health of the sea ice was bleak: the end-of-summer minimum was tracking at the second-lowest amount of sea ice in 42 years, Landrum said. Measurements by NASA and the NSIDC found it was about 2.6 million square kilometers (1 million square miles) lower than the average from 1981 to 2000. NASA satellite data shows an overall downward trend in Arctic ice is averaging 12.9% a year.
This year's average global temperature will be among the warmest on record, researchers say. Current models predict the Arctic will be ice-free in summertime by 2040 – 2050. Overland thinks this so-called Blue Ocean Event (BOE) might come even sooner.
Many factors are colliding that could speed massive melt. New feedback loops continue to emerge, compounding and accelerating changes. For example, early climate models didn't factor in methane — a potent greenhouse gas — that's pouring into the atmosphere from melting permafrost. The tundra is now thought to be emitting 300-600 million tons of carbon yearly, the equivalent of driving between 65 and 129 million cars for a year.
The Arctic appears to be changing into an entirely new climate state due to rapid warming. The extent of sea ice in the late summer, when it reaches its minimum each year, has already entered a statistically different climate, with surface air temperatures and the number of days with rain instead of snow also beginning to transition. Simmi Sinha, ©UCAR
Likewise, thick ice that withstood high winds and storms decades ago, now is thin and can be severely damaged by such storms — amplifying one-off extreme weather events. Then there's "Atlantification," the increasing intrusion of salty, temperate Atlantic Ocean waters into chillier Arctic seas.
The changes in the Laptev Sea, long known as an Arctic "ice factory," add another concerning factor. In the past, sea ice created there typically moved with wind and ocean currents, traveling over the North Pole towards Greenland. Depending on changing conditions, that ice then spent years trapped in a slowly spinning gyre in the Beaufort Sea; ended up off the Greenland coast; or piled up on the north shore of the Canadian Archipelago, building ice ridges that towered 3 to 9 meters (12 to 30 feet) high — multi-year ice that resisted melting.
That system no longer works as before, with the Laptev Sea now turning to blue water every summer, the "ice factory" largely shut down, and multi-year Arctic sea ice at a record low — and still dropping.
A polar bear prowls the Arctic shoreline. VisualHunt.com
An Interconnected Planet
The polar bear has become the poster child for climate change impacts on wildlife. But Ursus maritimus isn't the only victim; cascading affects throughout the Arctic food chain are impacting everything from plankton to seals, globally important fisheries species like pollock, on up to whales, musk ox and other cold climate mammals.
In Siberia, reindeer are starving in wintertime. "Weather whiplash" is bringing rain, in what should be the frigid dead of polar night. The falling rain freezes atop the snowpack, forming a layer of thick ice that makes it impossible for reindeer to dig down to grass and plants below; many now die of hunger. These once-rare Arctic warm spells are now commonplace.
Indigenous people are also suffering. Without proper ice platforms, it's growing harder for them to hunt for the walrus and whales that sustain them. Coastlines are eroding as sediments held together by permafrost become unglued. And rising seas are inundating coastal villages.
Worse, rapidly escalating climate change in the Far North is being exported to the rest of the world: The Earth's biomes are interconnected. "You can't alter one system without affecting others," explained Mark Serreze, a research scientist for the NSIDC. "What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic, and the changes are unfolding faster than our ability to keep up with them." Serreze, in his 2018 book framing the problem, dubbed the north polar region as, "The Brave New Arctic."
Serreze notes that the Arctic covers a massive area; it's the size of the lower 48 U.S. states combined. Amplified Arctic warming alters global weather, and impacts the rest of the planet, changing weather, ocean patterns and the jet stream.
Intense storms, droughts and heat waves — once every 100- or 500-year extreme weather events — are now occurring regularly around the globe, with devastating impacts on people, economies, and ecosystems. This year alone, for example, saw massive record wildfires in California, Colorado, Siberia, and Brazil, and no one yet knows how this autumn's delayed Arctic re-freeze might impact the planet's upcoming weather.
A fire burning through northern forest in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, in July 2020. Greenpeace International
Julienne Stroeve, who specializes in sea ice research at NSIDC, adds another potential serious impact to the list: threats to our food supply. "What's predicted to happen in agricultural sectors is not good news ... We're going to be living on a very different planet if we keep adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere," she said. "We're conducting this blind experiment, and we don't yet know the real implications.
Stroeve is desperate to inform people of the urgency: "How do you sell climate change to be as much of an emergency as COVID-19? Except that it will kill a lot more people."
She believes we can rally. If we can produce a COVID-19 vaccine in record time, and heal the ozone layer through the Montreal Protocol, Stroeve thinks "we have the ability to change the course of this train."
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.