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 Kang-Chun Cheng
Modoc County lies in the far northeast corner of California, and most of its 10,000 residents rely on cattle herding, logging, or government jobs for employment. Rodeos and 4-H programs fill most families' calendars; massive belt buckles, blue jeans, and cowboy hats are common attire. Modoc's niche brand of American individualism stems from a free-spirited cowboy culture that imbues the local ranching conflict with wild horses.
The History of Horse Management<p>Before the 1950s, feral horses were largely unregulated in the U.S. They were released, grazed, captured, killed, sold, and otherwise <a href="http://www.blm.gov/sites/blm.gov/files/WHB-Report-2020-NewCover-051920-508.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">managed by local inhabitants</a> as they saw fit. Around that time, Velma Bronn Johnston, aka "Wild Horse Annie," started raising public awareness of the "perceived inhumane capture and treatment of free-ranging herds."</p><p>Thanks in part to Johnston's efforts, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was signed into law by President Nixon in 1971. It declared that the animals "shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this, they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands."</p><p><a href="http://science.sciencemag.org/content/341/6148/847.full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">This act</a> has been amended four times since its conception to accommodate the fluctuating opinions and conditions around maintaining a "thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands"—an admirable although highly subjective goal. Achieving it involves juggling competing interests: those of local residents, permanent grazers, hunters and fishers, advocacy groups, conservationists, and Indigenous tribes.</p><p>The Bureau of Land Management must manage these many conflicting interests. Modoc County's <a href="https://www.fs.fed.us/wild-horse-burro/territories/DevilsGardenPlateau.shtml" target="_blank">Devil's Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory</a> epitomizes the challenges of this task. Officially deemed wild horse territory, the garden consists of 258,000 acres and is wholly within permitted livestock allotments. It is also home to wildlife such as cougar, antelope, migratory birds, and aquatic species dependent on delicate high-desert riparian areas.</p><p>The presence of wild horses has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631530094X" target="_blank">decrease native wildlife species diversity</a> for both birds and mammals. Pronghorn antelope are an icon in Western grasslands, known for their annual 350-mile migration along historic routes estimated to be 5,800 years old. This awe-inspiring trek is one of the longest large-mammal migration corridors remaining in North America, but 75% of <a href="http://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00548.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pronghorn migration routes</a> have already been lost because of disturbances from the accelerated leasing of public lands and energy development. Horses also affect the pronghorn's yearly migrations by <a href="http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S014019631630218X" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">monopolizing watering holes</a>, thus preventing native species from drinking.</p>
Indigenous Support for Ecological Balance<p>Ken Sandusky, a public information officer who has worked for the Forest Service in Modoc County for 13 years, lives by his station's mission statement: "Caring for the Land and Serving People." In his work, Sandusky aims to include the broad range of stakeholders and often acts as a tribal liaison. Sandusky himself is a member of the Choctaw tribe of Oklahoma, but as a Modoc native, is more culturally in touch with the local Klamath tribe.</p><p>When it comes to rangeland health, he says, there's a tangible split in what that actually means. "It depends on what you are measuring the outcome against," Sandusky explains. Range managers may perceive progress from a year-to-year basis, but to many Indigenous tribes, the baseline for "progress" goes back generations, to pre-contact times. "They have long memories," he says. "Tribes see damage that is a hundred-plus years in the making."</p>
A Willingness to Try New Things<p>"Americans don't know what's happening on these lands," says Suzanne Roy, the executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, an advocacy organization. The Bureau of Land Management, she says, "is run by and for the livestock industry. They come from a ranching background. The term 'rangeland' management itself illustrates how livestock management is the dominant perspective."</p><p>Roy is particularly concerned about how resources are being allocated: "Policies of land management agencies don't reflect the desires and interests of the public." To illustrate, most Americans associate public lands with national parks and environmental conservation; only 29% of respondents to a recent poll considered livestock grazing an acceptable use of those lands.</p><p>Grazing on public lands certainly aligns with the financial interests of cattle ranchers and helps explain why they insist on increased wild horse management. Cattle can <a href="http://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS21232.pdf" target="_blank">graze on public lands</a> for $1.35 per animal per month, while grazing on comparable private land costs ranchers $23 per animal per month (American taxpayer dollars make up the difference). To be fair, though, small-scale ranching would not be viable without public lands.</p><p>The campaign hopes to work toward more equitable resource allocation and improvements to overall habitats for horses and wildlife generally. "There are workable solutions to this issue," Roy says. "Common pushback from rangers is that new conservation strategies will 'destroy our way of life,' but change doesn't have to be bad."</p><p>The <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0362331994900264" target="_blank">social conservatism</a> intrinsic to human cultures makes change seem daunting and people reluctant to try new tactics even in the face of suboptimal systems. Roy uses a case in adjacent Marin County to illustrate: Until 2001, the county ran a USDA program focused on killing apex predators (e.g. coyotes, mountain lions, and cougars) in defense of livestock. Unfortunately, this strategy fails to take into account the science of predators. Killing one mountain lion, for example, creates a vacuum and will eventually lead to increased competition for this newly available territory. In 2001, Marin introduced a country-run program that promoted nonlethal methods such as fox lights, guard dogs, and fladry to deal with predator incidents while compensating ranchers for sheep and lambs lost to predation.</p><p>Ranchers were initially livid, concerned that bans on shooting and trapping hindered their rights, making them defenseless against livestock predation. But 15 years later, a majority agreed that this form of humane <a href="http://www.projectcoyote.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Camilla-Fox-Thesis-FINAL-January-2008.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">adaptive management </a>has successfully reduced both livestock losses and the total number of predators. Ensuring its continued success, the program requires active participation on behalf of all stakeholders and long-term commitment from the local government for support.</p><p>As one fifth-generation sheepherder, Gowan Batiste, explained in an interview to the <a href="https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/mendocino-county-rancher-and-others-calling-for-non-lethal-wildlife-management/ar-BB16CJ8g" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ukiah Daily Journal,</a> "Livestock is a food of desperation for predators; the more you harass them and make life difficult for them, the more likely they are going to come into conflict with humans."</p>
Keeping Wild Horses in Check<p>When it comes to wild horses, many solutions are already in the works. Through annual autumn wild horse roundups, known as gathers, the Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals has become one of the U.S.'s most successful adoption sites. The California Cattlemen's Association, a nonprofit trade association and organization popular among ranchers in Modoc, urges its members to support the wild horse gathers in Devils Garden, saying they are humane, good for the horses themselves (since competition for scarce water and forage resources may instigate aggression and <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1439-0310.1981.tb01930.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">herd violence</a>), and necessary to support local ranchers and Modoc's agriculture-reliant economy.</p><p>Another popular solution for controlling wild horse populations is a fertility-control vaccine called PZP, given to female horses on the range <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ur7w3UPTCsk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">using dart guns</a>. Mares are tracked on foot or with game cameras while drones are used to locate more elusive herds. The PZP vaccine has been endorsed by the American Wild Horse Campaign as the "<a href="https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/fertility-control" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">most promising strategy</a>" for managing wild horses in their habitats and is also recommended by the National Academy of Sciences. Importantly, a dose of the vaccine only costs $30.</p><p>Lastly, land acquisition and <a href="https://americanwildhorsecampaign.org/equitable-share-resources" target="_blank">grazing lease buyouts</a> can promote equitable sharing of public lands and available forage. Acquiring key pieces of land adjacent to or within federally designated wild horse habitat areas can reduce conflicts over resource allocation.</p>
A Global Search for Solutions<p>Pastoralists all over the world face similar land-use conflicts, despite huge variations in climate and culture. The ongoing situation across rural California resonates with that of Fulani cattle herders in Niger and Sami reindeer herders in the Arctic.</p><p>Herders everywhere are accused of having too many animals or are perceived as selfish and irresponsible by their own communities. Overgrazing is certainly an issue, but it's not simply the number of animals that matters: The <a href="https://savory.global/holistic-management/" target="_blank">amount of time</a> animals spend in a certain area is critical to rangeland health. And in the context of such allegations, the ecological value of grazing is frequently omitted. Grazers, both wild and domestic, <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/food-everyone/2019/02/04/restoring-the-range-can-beef-be-earth-friendly/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are key to regulating soil health and allowing for species diversity and coverage, </a>as well as efficient carbon sequestration.</p><p>Part of the problem in these heated grazing debates is that moderate viewpoints are drowned out by extremist agendas—those who prioritize wild horse populations at all costs and those who want all of the horses gone, period. "The majority of people don't really have strong views about the horses," Sandusky says. "But the ones who do can get really into it." These unwavering views make it difficult to find compromises that account for all stakeholders.</p><p>"There is no biological problem, merely a social one," says professor Nicholas Tyler, a pastoralism expert at the University of Tromsø in northern Norway. Tyler maintains that in the case of horses and cattle in the West, as with so many others, the so-called equilibria argument is specious and quasi-biological. "Certainly a lot of horses will influence the species composition," he says. "Remove the horses, things change. Add horses, things change again. There is nothing magical about that."</p><p>But Tyler takes it one step further: "There never was, is, or will be a balance. There are shifting equilibria, which is something quite different," he says. "It is up to the community to decide which state of that equilibrium it prefers."</p>
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
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By Victoria Masterson
Using one of the world's problems to solve another is the philosophy behind a Norwegian start-up's mission to develop affordable housing from 100% recycled plastic.
Sustainable Homes<p>UN-Habitat says an <a href="https://unhabitat.org/un-habitat-aims-to-use-plastic-waste-to-support-housing-for-all" target="_blank">estimated 60% of people living in urban areas of Africa are in informal settlements</a>. At the same time, between 1990 and 2017, African countries imported around 230 metric tonnes of plastic, "which mostly ended up in dump sites creating a massive environmental challenge," the agency adds.</p><p>UN-Habitat deputy executive director, Victor Kisob, said the aim of the partnership with Othalo was to "promote adequate, sustainable and affordable housing for all."</p>
Artist's impression of an Othalo community, imagined by architect Julien De Smedt. Othalo<p>Othalo's process involves shredding plastic waste and mixing it with other elements, including non-flammable materials. Components are used to build up to four floors, with a home of 60 square metres using eight tons of recycled plastic. A factory with one production line can produce 2,800 housing units annually.</p><p>Following successful laboratory tests, Othalo's factory in Estonia has started producing components to build three demonstration homes for Kenya's capital, Nairobi; Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon and Dakar, the capital of Senegal.</p><p>Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti has been developing and testing the technology since 2016 in partnership with <a href="https://www.sintef.no/en/" target="_blank">SINTEF</a>, a 70-year-old independent research organization in Trondheim, Norway, and experts at Norway's <a href="https://en.uit.no/startsida" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Tromsø</a>.</p>
Othalo founder Frank Cato Lahti. Othalo<p>Almost <a href="https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html" target="_blank">seven out of every 10 people in the world are expected to live in urban areas by 2050</a>. More than 90% of this growth will take place in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.</p><p>"In the absence of effective urban planning, the consequences of this rapid urbanization will be dramatic," UN-Habitat warns.</p><p>Lack of proper housing and growth of slums, inadequate and outdated infrastructure, escalating poverty and unemployment, and pollution and health issues, are just some of the effects.</p><p>Mindsets, policies, and approaches towards urbanization need to change for the growth of cities and urban areas to be turned into opportunities that will leave nobody behind, UN-Habitat says.</p>
Pioneers of Change<p>Reimagining cities and communities for greater resilience and sustainability was a key topic at the<a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020" target="_blank"> World Economic Forum's Pioneers of Change Summit 2020</a>.</p><p>The digital event brought together innovators and stakeholders from around the world to explore solutions to the challenges facing enterprises, governments and society.</p><p>Opening the summit, <a href="https://www.weforum.org/events/pioneers-of-change-summit-2020/sessions/opening-plenary-8f731cbc65" target="_blank">Stephan Mergenthaler, the Forum's Head of Strategic Intelligence and a member of the Executive Committee</a>, said: "We need to change the way we produce, the way we live and interact in our cities to make this transition to net-zero emissions a reality…</p><p>"And as this year has illustrated so dramatically, we need to make every effort that we keep populations healthy, if we want to avoid jeopardizing all this progress."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/un-africa-recycled-plastic-housing/" target="_blank">World Economic Forum</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649069252#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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