There has been a lot of important climate news in recent weeks and months. In addition to record warmth, an unusually active Atlantic hurricane season, and a devastating string of extreme weather events in the U.S. and around the world, Arctic sea ice has reached a new low in its total volume.
The ice covering the Arctic Ocean goes through a seasonal cycle in which it expands during the winter, reaching its maximum extent in March, and shrinks during the summer, reaching its minimum extent in September. Satellites have been observing the daily coverage of sea ice since 1979, during which time the summer minimum has declined rapidly over the decades. In 2007, the summer minimum dropped by a startling amount compared to previous summers, generating an iconic graph that was splashed across blogs and newspapers around the world (Figure 1). This record still holds, although every year since 2007 has seen below-average summer minima.
According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), Arctic sea ice reached its minimum extent for 2010 on September 19 at 1.78 million square miles. Although this was the third-lowest extent behind 2007 and 2008, the sea ice set a new and probably more important record by reaching the lowest estimated volume – or total amount of sea ice – since satellite observations began in 1979.
Picturing an ice cube floating in a glass of water is a good comparison. The ice cube has three dimensions. But looking directly down at the glass, you see only the two dimensions that cover part of the surface of the water. When you look at the glass from the side, you can also see that the ice cube has depth, and that most of the ice is below the surface. The same phenomenon holds for sea ice, so if the ice melts from below, it becomes thinner and its total volume decreases.
This year, even though the area of the ocean’s surface covered by ice was a little larger than in 2007, the ice was much thinner, making its total volume much less than in 2007 or any previous year since estimates began in 1979 (Figure 2).
The rapid decline in total ice volume is significant since it takes less heat to melt a small volume of ice than to melt a larger volume. The area of ice cover can recover in one season, as it did in 2009, but the thickness builds up over several years. Consequently, the low volume of ice currently in the Arctic is more susceptible to melting next summer and the summer after that than was the 2007 ice. Consequently, scientists are wondering whether the Arctic could become ice free during the summer much sooner than previously projected.
The opening of the Arctic has enormous implications, ranging from global climate disruption to national security issues to dramatic ecological changes. The Arctic may seem far removed from our daily lives, but changes there are likely to have serious global implications.
- An ice-free Arctic Ocean will absorb more sunlight and convert it to heat, thus amplifying warming.
- The Arctic currently removes CO2 from the atmosphere, but physical and biological changes in the Arctic could cause it to switch to releasing CO2 and CH4 (a very potent greenhouse gas) to the atmosphere, thus amplifying global warming.
- Atmospheric circulation and therefore precipitation and storm patterns may be altered by a warming Arctic and changes in how the ocean interacts with the atmosphere in the region.
- A warmer, ice-free Arctic Ocean with more freshwater from snow and ice melt could change global ocean circulation patterns, thus altering marine ecosystems (i.e. fisheries) around the world and changing patterns of precipitation and storms on a very broad scale.
- More rapid melting of ice on land will accelerate sea level rise and could destabilizing the Greenland Ice Sheet, leading to abrupt and massive sea level rise.
- Countries have begun to compete for access to untapped natural resources in the Arctic. Unlike other international arenas, such as Antarctica, coastal waterways, and space, there are no agreed international rules to govern how different countries will access and utilize the Arctic.
Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Director of the Science and Impacts Program
Several of my previous posts have examined the remarkable weather of the past year, including the unusual U.S. East Coast snowstorms this winter, the wide array of floods and heat waves this summer, and how these can help us understand our vulnerabilities to climate change. The average land surface temperature this summer (June-August) was the warmest on record globally and the fourth warmest on record in the United States.
Now that northern summer has come to a close, we can take stock of just how warm it was. Christopher C. Burt—weather historian, extreme-weather guru, and author—takes a look at temperature records set in the U.S. and around the world this summer in his blog at Weather Underground. Some of his findings include:
- Fifteen (15) U.S. cities recorded their warmest summer (June-August) ever.
- Only one U.S. city (Santa Barbara, CA) recorded its coldest summer.
- Seventeen (17) countries set new records for high temperatures, breaking the previous record of fifteen (15) countries set in 2008.
- No countries recorded a record low temperature.
- The Arctic country of Finland recorded a high temperature of 99°F at the Joensuu airport.
- A town in Pakistan recorded a record high temperature of 128.3°F.
- Los Angeles recorded its highest ever temperature of 113°F this Monday, in spite of an otherwise cool summer.
It’s important to put this single year into a broader perspective; if this warmth is just an aberration, then we might be wasting time talking about it. But it is clearly part of a much longer warming trend that has been going on for decades. A recent report from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration announced that 2009 was one of the ten warmest years on record (since 1880) and that the 2000s was the warmest decade followed by the 1990s and then the 1980s. If the first 9 months of this year are an indication, the 2010s appear poised to continue this upward march in temperatures.
(Figure Source: NOAA’s State of the Climate in 2009, Chapter 2)
Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Director of the Science and Impacts Program
The rough weather of 2010 teaches us that climate change is risky business.
Recently, I posted a blog discussing the possible link between global climate change and two related extreme weather events: the heat wave in Russia and historic flooding in Pakistan. Although there is no method to definitively attribute any single event to climate change, based on documented trends in extreme weather events and research showing that specific types of meteorological phenomena are more common in a greenhouse-warmed world, I said:
“It is reasonable to conclude that, in aggregate, the documented increase in extreme events is partially a climate response to global warming, and that global warming has increased the risk of extreme events like those in Russia and Pakistan. On the other hand, there is no scientific basis for arguing that these events have nothing to do with global warming.”
That’s as far as the science permits me to go with this question. We simply cannot know whether any particular weather event was “caused” by climate change. In recent weeks, however, the media have done their all-too-common “he said-she said” routine of finding one source who says the extreme weather of 2010 is because of climate change and another who says it’s not. This is a meaningless argument that distracts us from what we should be thinking about, which is what these events can teach us about our vulnerabilities to climate change.
You might recall earlier this year that a few mistakes were discovered in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 3,000-page assessment report published in 2007. The mistakes did nothing to undermine the report’s major findings: It is unequivocal that the climate is changing, and there is greater than 90 percent certainty that most of the observed warming of the past half-century is due to human influences. Earlier this year, I discussed the errors on E&ETV’s On Point program.
Update: Dr. Jay Gulledge is featured on National Journal's Energy & Environment Expert Blogs. Click here to read Dr. Gulledge's take on Climate Risks Here and Now
Last fall I posted a blog about the unusual number and severity of extreme weather events that have been striking around the globe for the past several years. That entry focused on the alternating severe drought and heavy flooding in Atlanta in 2007-2009 as an example of the roller coaster ride that climate change is likely to be. As every dutiful scientist does, I stopped short of blaming those individual weather events on global warming, but I am also careful to point out that it is scientifically unsound to claim that the confluence of extreme weather events in recent years is not associated with global warming; I’ll return to this question later.
The weather of 2010 continues the chaos of recent years. In the past six months, the American Red Cross says it “has responded to nearly 30 larger disasters in 21 [U.S.] states and territories. Floods, tornadoes and severe weather have destroyed homes and uprooted lives …” Severe flooding struck New England in March, Nashville in May, and Arkansas and Oklahoma in June.
Last week we held a workshop at the Newseum in Washington, DC, entitled Federal Government Leadership: Mainstreaming Adaptation to Climate Change. The workshop was intended to build on our recent report highlighting the important role of the federal government in climate change adaptation and the recent National Academies’ report—Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change—which emphasized that the federal government should not only serve as a “role model,” but also play a significant role as a “catalyst and coordinator” in identifying vulnerabilities to climate change impacts and the adaptation options that could increase our resilience to these changes.
In his defense of soldiers in the Boston Massacre trials, John Adams went on to say “… and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
No matter what we may wish were happening, no matter what spin some may try to sell, the clear evidence of climate change continues to mount.
The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has just released its annual report on the state of the climate, and the facts speak volumes about the pervasiveness and speed of actual climate change, not model projections.
I posted previously on the controversy surrounding emails that were hacked from a computer server at the University of East Anglia’s (UEA) Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in the U.K. The emails revealed the private exchanges of several prominent climate scientists dealing with their science and their reactions to climate change deniers who requested access to their private computer files and intellectual property. The contents of the emails suggested to the untrained eye that the scientists had manipulated data and tried to undermine the scientific peer-review process. From my reading of the emails, I judged that nothing of the sort had happened. Since my last writing on the topic, five separate independent investigations (3 in the United Kingdom and 2 in the U.S.) of the matter have concluded that there was no mishandling of data or other wrongdoing beyond some foot-dragging in response to Freedom of Information requests by climate change deniers. The clear message from these investigations is that proper scientific methods were followed and the integrity of climate science remains solid as a rock.
This briefing will be held at two separate times and locations to accommodate House and Senate staff.
Wednesday, June 30
12:00 Noon to 1:30 PM
Rayburn House Office Building, Room 2325
3:30 to 4:45 PM
Capitol Visitors Center, Room SVC 202
Seasonal forecasters predict that 2010 will produce between 14 and 23 named hurricanes -- the most active season since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina and 27 other named storms swept the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. As economic challenges continue and oil spews from the damaged Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf, the growing impacts to the region's economic recovery and unique ecosystems are staggering. What risks does an active hurricane season pose for other energy-related infrastructure, for inland areas as storm surges push oil beyond beaches and marshland, and for stakeholders dealing with flooding in coastal communities in the Gulf and along the East Coast? Can recent advances in hurricane prediction help manage these risks? Might related climate change impacts exacerbate them in the future? What does an increasing scale of catastrophic loss associated with hurricane activity mean for critical services provided by the insurance sector? Please join our panelists as they address these questions and discuss research results, institutions, and processes in place to help manage potential catastrophic risk of this hurricane season.
Opening remarks by Senator Mary Landrieu, Honorary Host (3:30pm briefing only)
- Heidi Cullen
CEO and Director of Communications, Climate Central
- Greg Holland
Director, NCAR Earth System Laboratory, National Center for Atmospheric Research
- Rick Luettich
Professor & Director, Institute of Marine Sciences, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
- Rowan Douglas
CEO, Global Dynamics, Willis Re and Chairman, Willis Re Research Network
RSVP to Gloria Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (303) 497-2102 by Monday, June 28
Sponsored by the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the Congressional Hazards Caucus Alliance, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), and the Weather Coalition.
With appreciation to the House Committee on Science and Technology and the Senate Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
May 19, 2010
Contact: Tom Steinfeldt, 703-516-4146
New Publication Highlights Urgent Need for Strong U.S. Energy-Climate Policy
Pew Center on Global Climate Change Makes Compelling Case for Action
Washington, D.C. – Today, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change released The Case for Action: Creating a Clean Energy Future, a straight-forward synthesis of the urgent need to enact a strong U.S. energy and climate policy. The Case for Action adds to the growing chorus of expert research and analysis that underscores the need for effective policy action.
The new Pew Center publication coincides with the release of America’s Climate Choices, a Congressionally-mandated study by the National Academies that represents its most comprehensive assessment of climate change. America’s Climate Choices examines the science supporting human-induced climate change and options for reducing and adapting to climate change impacts.
“The case for action has never been stronger,” said Eileen Claussen, President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. “The science is clear: Further delay will only make the impacts of climate change more severe and the costs of action more expensive. With a strong energy and climate policy, the United States will be in position capitalize on its competitive advantage and lead the 21st century clean energy economy.”
In compelling, straight-forward language, The Case for Action explains why the United States needs to act now to reduce the risks of climate change, strengthen our energy independence, protect our national security, and create new jobs and economic opportunities.
The United States has the opportunity to drive the global climate effort through renewed leadership at home and abroad. Comprehensive national energy and climate legislation can spur the development of new technologies and new job markets, setting the United States on course to become a global clean energy leader. Globally, it is critical that the United States continue working with the international community to develop a binding but flexible framework that ensures all of the world’s major economies take steps to meet the climate challenge.
For more information about global climate change and the activities of the Pew Center, visit http://www.c2es.org.
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The Pew Center was established in May 1998 as a non-profit, non-partisan, and independent organization dedicated to providing credible information, straight answers, and innovative solutions in the effort to address global climate change. The Pew Center is led by Eileen Claussen, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.