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Arctic summer ice melt has raised more questions than ever

By Paul Wallis     Oct 3, 2007 in Science
Whatever the causes, the Arctic ice melt has got agreement on one point: there is a problem. Arctic scientists are racking their brains trying to encompass the ramifications of the huge seasonal melt this year.
The New York Times innocently picked up the story, and it’s a labyrinth of theories, data, and some really tough science. Obscure ideas and new, ominous, things like warm currents penetrating the Arctic Ocean are being discussed. Scientists in Alaska are watching sink holes show up around their lab as the permafrost melts. One geophysicist said pithily, “Our stock in trade seems to be going away.”
Some of the research looks more like behaviorism than the sort of work which people usually associate with polar science. Wind, believe it or not, moved a lot of old ice out of the Arctic basin since 2000. This opened up water, over which relatively thin ice then formed, which could melt a lot faster.
Some rueful-sounding comment was made that the melt has revealed how much is unknown about the Arctic machinery.
The complexity of the climate variables, added to the known factor of moving ice opening up large amounts of clear water, hasn’t helped to get a predictive process working. The Arctic is now behaving more like Antarctica, where sea ice melts work differently.
I see a possible scenario. One thing is pretty obvious. The open water effect, and the big movement of ice, means that the volume of ice has changed. The Arctic is a major force in global weather, largely because of its temperature ranges. So if the Arctic weather changes, the world’s weather will change.
Thermodynamics is an exact science. Air temperatures do matter, in all aspects of climate. The volume of air passing over the Arctic ice is enormous. It’s usually cooled, pretty drastically. If it isn’t, you get a whole new climate range. What bothers me most is that if the air isn’t cooled, the Arctic could amplify global temperature rises, because the heat isn’t being transferred to colder areas. In other words, it could become a cause of global warming.
An American Meteorological Society report from 2004 (this is the 1930s link in the NYT article) regarding Arctic warming which started in the 1920s refers to a temperature anomaly of about 1.7 degrees, affecting the Greenland/Barents Sea region. It describes the event as “one of the most spectacular climate events of the 20th Century”.
The possible temperature anomalies from a lot of open water in the Arctic would be many more degrees. Polar bears aren’t the only ones who need to worry about that. Ecologically, it could produce the sort of major environmental reshuffles which paleontologists find on a regular basis. It wouldn’t be a purely local or meteorological event, either, because both land and ocean breeding cycles also operate on polar seasonal cycles. Northern Hemisphere weather patterns are also very much predicated on the cold air from the Arctic.The only good possibility is fewer tornadoes.
The human race grew up in one of the most temperate, stable, environmental and climate regimes in Earth’s history, even allowing for the Ice Age. That may be about to change.
More about Arctic ice melt, Climate change, Global warming
 
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