During 2012, the Arctic broke several climate records, including a level of unprecedented warmth that created rapid ice loss.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is warning in its “The State of the Climate in 2012” report that last year was one of the 10 hottest since the beginning of recording global average temperatures.
In addition to this, Arctic sea ice melted to reach record lows during the annual summer thaw. To illustrate this, the report points out that in Greenland, around 97% of the region’s ice sheet melted: this a figure that is four times the expected figure based on the melt in previous years. We’re still feeling the effects of this and continued warming today, with the North Pole Environmental Agency issuing a warning that the summer ice has melted so fast and by so much that a shallow lake has formed.
Also, greenhouse gas emissions rose to worrying levels. In early May, the carbon dioxide ratio in the Earth’s atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million in readings taken at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory — this is thought to be the highest concentration in millions of years.
“Many of the events that made 2012 such an interesting year are part of the long-term trends we see in a changing and varying climate — carbon levels are climbing, sea levels are rising, Arctic sea ice is melting, and our planet as a whole is becoming a warmer place,” Acting NOAA Administrator Kathryn D. Sullivan, Ph.D is quoted as saying.
This year marks the 23rd edition of the report, which is produced as part of a suite of climate services offered by NOAA for the U.S. government and wider academic research.
Other concerning observations recorded in the report include a continued rise in sea levels that reached a record high in 2012 — this even without the contributing effects of the phenomena known as La Nina that saw a significant rise in 2011.
Seas will remain high for centuries after temperatures have risen, with the likelihood of more frequent and damaging storms. The Guardian reports
Sea levels could rise by 2.3 metres for each degree Celsius that global temperatures increase and they will remain high for centuries to come, according to a new study by the leading climate research institute.
Anders Levermann said his study for the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research was the first to examine evidence from climate history and combine it with computer simulations of contributing factors to long-term sea-level increases: thermal expansion of oceans, the melting of mountain glaciers and the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.
Scientists say global warming is responsible for the melting ice and heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels are nudging up temperatures. “We’re confident that our estimate is robust because of the combination of physics and data that we used,” Levermann told Reuters. “We think we’ve set a benchmark for how much sea levels will rise along with temperature increases.”
Sea levels rose by 17cm last century and the rate has accelerated to more than 3mm a year, according to the IPCC. A third of the current rise is from Antarctica and Greenland.
Almost 200 governments have agreed to limit global warming to less than 2C above pre-industrial times and plan to agree, by the end of 2015, a deal to curb emissions.
Global average surface temperatures have risen by 0.8C (1.4F) since the industrial revolution and the IPCC has said temperatures are likely to be 0.4 to 1.0C warmer from 2016-35 than in the two decades to 2005.
“In the past there was some uncertainty and people haven’t known by how much,” Levermann said. “We’re saying now, taking everything we know, that we’ve got a robust estimate of 2.3 meters of rising sea per degree of warming.”
Some scientific studies have projected sea level rise of up to 2 metres by 2100, a figure that would swamp large tracts of land from Bangladesh to Florida.
David Vaughan, head of the Ice2sea project to narrow down uncertainties about how melting ice will swell the oceans, has said sea levels would rise by between 16.5 and 69 cm under a scenario of moderate global warming this century.
Vaughan told Reuters the biggest impact rising seas will have is that storms will be more destructive in the near future.
“It’s not about chasing people up the beach or the changing shape of coastlines,” he said. “The big issue is how the storms will damage our coasts and how often they occur. That’ll increase even with small levels of sea rise in coming decades.”
“Continuous sea-level rise is something we cannot avoid unless global temperatures go down again,” Levermann said. “Our results indicate that major adaptation at our coastlines will be necessary. It’s likely that some currently populated regions can’t be protected in the long run.”
Climate change is allowing agriculture to boom. The Independent on Sunday reports
Inside the Arctic Circle, a chef is growing the kind of vegetables and herbs – potatoes, thyme, tomatoes, green peppers – more fitted for a suburban garden in a temperate zone than a land of northern lights, glaciers and musk oxen. Some Inuit hunters are finding reindeer fatter than ever thanks to more grazing on this frozen tundra, and, for some, there is no longer a need to trek hours to find wild herbs.
This is climate change in Greenland, where locals say longer and warmer summers mean the country can grow the kind of crops unheard of years ago. “Things are just growing quicker,” said Kim Ernst, the Danish chef of Roklubben restaurant, nestled by a frozen lake near a former Cold War-era US military base. “Every year we try new things,” added Mr Ernst, who even managed to grow a handful of strawberries that he served to some surprised Scandinavian royals. “I came here in 1999 and no one would have dreamed of doing this. But now the summer days seem warmer, and longer.”
It was -20C in March but the sun was out and the air was still, with an almost spring-like feel. Mr Ernst showed me his greenhouse and an outdoor winter garden which in a few months may sprout again. Hundreds of miles south, some farmers now produce hay, and sheep farms have grown in size. Some supermarkets in the capital, Nuuk, sell locally grown vegetables in the summer.
Major commercial crop production is still in its infancy. But it is a sign of the changes here that Greenland’s government set up a commission this year to study how a changing climate may help farmers increase agricultural production and replace expensive imported foods. Change is already under way. Potatoes grown commercially in southern Greenland reached over 100 tons in 2012, double the yield of 2008. Vegetable production in the region may double this year compared with 2012, according to government data.
Some politicians hope global warming will allow this country, fully a quarter the size of the United States, to reduce its dependence on its former colonial master, Denmark, for much of its food as political parties push for full independence.
Greenland, which is self-governing aside from defence and security, depends on an annual grant from Denmark of around $600m (£395m), or half the island’s annual budget. But the thawing of its ice sheets has seen a boost in mining and oil exploration as well as an interest in agriculture. “I expect a lot of development in sheep farming and agriculture due to global warming,” said the outgoing Prime Minister, Kuupik Kleist, whose government set up the commission. “It may become an important supplement to our economy.”
Locals love recounting how Erik the Red first arrived in the southern fjords here in the 10th century and labelled this ice-covered island “Greenland” to entice others to settle, an early instance of hype to lure unwary customers. There is evidence that the climate was warmer then, allowing Viking settlements to grow crops for five centuries before mysteriously dying out.
The scale of this new agriculture is tiny. There are just a few dozen sheep farms in southern Greenland, where most of the impact of climate change can be seen. Cows may number fewer than a hundred. But with 57,000 mostly Inuit human inhabitants, the numbers to feed are also small. “You need to put this into perspective. We used to be high-Arctic and now we are more sub-Arctic,” said Kenneth Hoegh, an agronomist and former senior government adviser. “But we are still Arctic.”
The symbolism is enormous, however, highlighting a changing global climate that has seen temperatures in the Arctic increase by about twice the global average –about 0.8C – since pre-industrial times. “There are now huge areas in southern Greenland where you can grow things,” said Josephine Nymand, a scientist at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources in Nuuk. “Potatoes have most benefited. Also cabbage has been very successful.”
Sten Erik Langstrup Pedersen, who runs an organic farm on a fjord near Nuuk, first grew potatoes in 1976. Now he can plant crops two weeks earlier in May and harvest three weeks later in October compared with more than a decade ago. He grows 23 kinds of vegetables, compared with 15 a decade ago, including beans, peas, herbs and strawberries. He says he has sold some strawberries to top restaurants in Copenhagen. But Mr Pedersen is sceptical about how much it will catch on. “Greenlanders are impatient,” he said. “They see a seal and they immediately just want to hunt it. They can never wait for vegetables to grow.”
There is still potential. Mr Hoegh estimates Greenland could provide half of its food needs from home-grown produce, which would be cheaper than Danish imports. But global change is not all about benefits. While summers are warmer, there is less rain. Some experts say that Greenland could soon need irrigation works – ironic for a country of ice and lakes.
“We have had dry summers for the last few years.” said Aqqalooraq Frederiksen, a senior agricultural consultant in south Greenland, who said a late spring last year hurt potato crops.
On the Arctic Circle, a flash flood last summer from suspected glacier melt water – which some locals here blamed on warm weather – swept away the only bridge connecting Mr Ernst’s restaurant to the airport. It came right in the middle of the tourist season, and the restaurant lost thousands of dollars.
It was an ominous reminder that global warming will bring its problems. Still, for Mr Pedersen and his fjord in Nuuk, the future looks good. “The hotter, the better,” Mr Pedersen said. “For me.”
• World’s largest island (not counting Australia), part of North America, but politically and culturally linked with Europe.
• In the early 18th century, Denmark claimed sovereignty over Greenland, and still has control over foreign affairs and defence matters.
• Population: 56,370; the least densely populated country in the world.
• Language: Greenlandic.
• Official religion: Evangelical Lutheran.
• Unemployment: 4.9 per cent in 2011.
• The economy relies on fishing and fish exports. Tourism plays a big role in generating capital too, and Greenland receives an annual grant from Denmark of $600m.
• It could be the world’s next mining frontier, as global warming makes it easier to recover precious metals from glacial surroundings.
• The largest employers in Greenland are public bodies, including the central government in Denmark. Most positions are in the capital, Nuuk.
• Greenlanders elect two representatives to the Folketing – Denmark’s parliament.
• Greenland has its own parliament, with 31 members. The new PM, after winning 42.8 per cent of the popular vote in this month’s election, is Aleqa Hammond of the Siumut (Forward) Party. It wants Greenlandic independence.
• Queen Margrethe of Denmark, is head of state. A high commissioner is appointed to represent the island.
Mathew di Salvo
- Crops grown in the tundra? With climate change, yes (worldnews.nbcnews.com)
- Produce picked from the tundra: Welcome to climate change in Greenland (worldnews.nbcnews.com)
Until now different measurement means have produced a wide range of estimates with large uncertainties.
But sea-level rise is now among the most pressing questions of our time.
Polar ice has a tremendous capacity to cause massive rises – with huge potential impacts on coastal cities and communities around the world.
But the remoteness and sheer size of the ice sheets mean accurate measurements are a serious challenge even for satellites which have to distinguish snow from ice, and the rise of the land from the shrinking of the ice.
The new estimate shows that polar melting contributed about one-fifth of the overall global sea level rise since 1992; other factors include warming that causes the seawater to expand.
The study does not seek to forecast future change.
Supported by US and European space agencies Nasa and Esa, the research brought together data from satellites measuring the surface altitude, the flow of the glaciers and the gravitational effect of the ice mass to produce the first joint assessment of how the ice sheets are changing.
The results show that the largest ice sheet – that of East Antarctica – has gained mass over the study period of 1992-2011 as increased snowfall added to its volume.
However, Greenland, West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula were all found to be losing mass – and on a scale that more than compensates for East Antarctica’s gain.
The study’s headline conclusion is that the polar ice sheets have overall contributed 11.1mm to sea level rise but with a “give or take” uncertainty of 3.8mm – meaning the contribution could be as little as 7.3mm or as much as 14.9mm.
The next big challenge… is to predict what will happen over the next century”
Hamish PritchardBritish Antarctic Survey
The combined rate of melting from all the ice sheets has increased over the past 20 years with Greenland losing five times as much now as in 1992.
The lead author of the research, Prof Andrew Shepherd of Leeds University, said the study brought to an end 20 years of disagreement between different teams.
“We can now say for sure that Antarctica is losing ice and we can see how the rate of loss from Greenland is going up over the same period as well,” he added.
“Prior to now there’d been 30 to 40 different estimates of how the ice sheets are changing, and what we realised was that most people just wanted one number to tell them what the real change was.
“So we’ve brought everybody together to produce a single estimate and it turns out that estimate is two to three times more reliable than the last one.”
Prof Shepherd said the measurements were in line with climate change predictions.
“We would expect Greenland to melt more rapidly because the temperatures have risen,” he said.”We would expect West Antarctica to flow more quickly because the ocean is warmer. And we would also expect East Antarctica to grow because there’s more snowfall as a consequence of climate warming.”
Dr Erik Ivins, a co-author from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said one issue that had “plagued” ice-sheet studies was land springing up in a process called “post-glacial rebound” – with effects as high as 1cm per year.
But the use of GPS to measure vertical motion and estimates of the ice sheets’ movements over the past 21,000 years had allowed the rebound effect to be properly understood.
“The new estimates from space gravity for Antarctica’s ice sheet loss rates are lowered by using these improved post-glacial rebound models,” Dr Ivins said.
“The results, then, are more consistent with other space observations that were taken over the past decade. This is one of the major findings in the inter-comparison effort by this international team of scientists.”
The findings are in line with the broad range of forecasts in the 2007 assessment by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
And they were completed in time to be considered for the next report, due in September next year.
Another author, Dr Hamish Pritchard of the British Antarctic Survey, said: “The next big challenge – now that we’ve got quite a good understanding of what’s happened over the last 20 years – is to predict what will happen over the next century.
“And that is going to be a tough challenge with difficult processes going on in inside the glaciers and ice sheets.”
- New Study Provides ‘Clearest Evidence Yet’ of Polar Ice Melt (usnews.com)
- Ice sheets melting at poles faster than before (newsobserver.com)
- Greenland and Antarctica ‘have lost 4tn tonnes of ice’ in 20 years (guardian.co.uk)
- Greenland, Antarctic Ice Loss Confirmed in Landmark Study (climatecrocks.com)
- A Reconciled Estimate of Ice-Sheet Mass Balance [Stoat] (scienceblogs.com)
- Ice sheets melting three times faster than in 1990s, new study says (itv.com)
- Shrinking polar ice caused one-fifth of sea level rise (sciencenews.org)
The wild Far North region is being targeted for development…and ‘wild’ will miss out
Melting ice caps, the influx of trawlers and tourists, and Shell’s £4bn investment to drill for fossil fuels in the Chukchi Sea all raise fears
It is home to a quarter of the planet’s oil and natural gas reserves, yet humans have hardly touched these resources in the far north. But in a few days that could change dramatically if Shell receives approval to drill for oil in the Arctic.
The company has invested $4bn to set up exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Straits. Once permission is given by the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, – possibly in a few weeks – exploration will begin using wells in Arctic waters.
That will bring trouble. Environment campaigners say that drilling could have terrible effects on the waters and wildlife of the Arctic. “It took a vast effort to clean up the recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico,” said John Sauven of Greenpeace. “There are no such resources to stop a spill in the Chukchi. The consequences could be devastating and very long lasting.”
But Shell rejects this claim. It has an oil spill response capability that includes barges, helicopters, booms, and other equipment should anything happen, said an official. Drilling will be safe.
Exploiting the Arctic’s vast oil reserves is just one cause of environmental unease, however. The far north is melting and far faster than predicted. Global temperatures have risen 0.7C since 1951. In Greenland, the average temperature has gone up by 1.5C. Its ice cap is losing an estimated 200bn tonnes a year as a result. And further rises are now deemed inevitable, causing the region’s ice to disappear long before the century’s end.
As a result, global powers are beginning to look to the region for its gas and oil, minerals, fish, sea routes and tourist potential. All were once hidden by ice. Now it is disappearing, raising lucrative prospects for Arctic nations, in particular Russia, the US, Canada, Norway and Denmark, which controls Greenland. Large-scale investment could bring riches to areas of poverty, it is argued. However, development could destroy pristine ecosystems and the ways of life for people like the Inuit of Greenland and the Sami of Scandinavia.
One example is highlighted by Professor Callum Roberts, a York University marine biologist. An ice-free Arctic could be stripped of its rich fisheries in a matter of years, he told the Observer. “There are significant fish resources under the Arctic ice at present. But as that ice disappears, that protection will be removed and we can expect a rush from fishingfleets to exploit them. They have already stripped the North Atlantic of its cod, ling and other fish. Now they have their eyes on the Arctic.”
Currently only one fishing ground in the Arctic is protected: the area around the Bering Straits, where the US has imposed a moratorium. Elsewhere there is nothing to stop fleets moving in as ice disappears. “The north polar seas have provided fish like the cod with a last refuge. That may not last much longer.”
Other changes are less worrying. Two new sea routes have opened up as ice has retreated: the Northwest Passage across the northern edge of Canada and the Northern Sea Route across Russia. The latter is seen as the most promising. Instead of heading south, and through the Suez canal, to get to western Europe, ships from east Asia can sail through the Bering Straits and slip along the coast of Siberia, shaving a third off their journey. In 2010, four ships took this route. Last summer, this increased to 34, with many more expected this year.
Then there is tourism. Today, thanks to that disappearing ice, you can follow the route John Franklin took on his doomed 1845 expedition. Adventure Canada, a tour company, operates a cruise ship that can carry up to 200 people through the islands of northern Canada where Franklin and his men becoming trapped by ice and turned to cannibalism in a bid to survive. The voyage begins in Greenland and ends in Coppermine, in western Canada, at a price of $7,000-$17,000 a head. in western Canada. “We have had the market much to ourselves since we started in 2008, but this year we have found other companies have started sniffing around,” said Rebecca Burgum of Adventure Canada.
However, it is the prospect of oil drilling that causes most unease. Apart from Shell, Norway’s Statoil, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Russia’s Rosneft have all revealed plans to drill in the Arctic. Given the huge amounts of hydrocarbons there, this enthusiasm is not surprising. But there are dangers in drilling in the far north that do not exist elsewhere, warns a recent report by the insurance market Lloyds, Arctic Opening: Opportunity and Risk in the High North. In particular, there is the problem of drilling through the permafrost, which could warm up and destabilise a well’s foundations, “potentially leading to a blowout”. In addition, icebreakers are in short supply along with Arctic-class mobile rigs that could drill relief wells in the event of a spill. In short, great caution will be needed before the Arctic oil industry moves from exploration to full production by the end of the decade.
Changes are certainly coming to the Arctic. Indeed, if some scientists are correct, it could be transformed at a far quicker rate than politicians or businessmen realise. Most follow current advice that it will take at least a couple of decades for the Arctic to lose its ice. However, Peter Wadhams, a professor of ocean physics at the University of Cambridge, believes that it will take much less time. “I think it could be gone in summer in four years. It sounds unlikely but that is what the figures indicate,” he told the Observer from Longyearbyen, in Svalbard, in Norway’s northern Arctic archipelago.
Wadhams has just completed a study of ice thickness. Using robot submarines, he has made detailed measurements of the depths of ice sheets, while aircraft have surveyed the heights of these floes. “Our work indicates that Arctic ice has lost 70% of its volume in the past 30 years thanks to global warming. If you extrapolate, it means it could disappear completely for a month or two in summer by 2016. Certainly it is going to go sooner rather than later.”
The consequences for the planet will be grim. Without the white brilliance of the ice to reflect sunlight back into space, it will warm even more. Seabed temperatures will rise and methane deposits will melt, evaporate and bubble into the atmosphere. “We can already see plumes appearing in many areas,” said Wadhams. “Given that methane is a particularly powerful greenhouse gas, that again will accelerate global warming.” Finally, the ice sheets of Greenland, no longer insulated by sea ice around its shores, will melt faster, raising sea levels. “In effect, we are at the mercy of events up here,” said Wadhams.
- The melting north (environmenteng.wordpress.com)
- Record Amount of Arctic Sea Ice Melted in June, Plus Amazing Video Of Greenland Ice Melt (thinkprogress.org)
- Here we go… Shell gets An embarrassing start to Arctic drilling. (veganmyway.tumblr.com)
- Arctic supply ships stuck in “brutal” Bering Sea ice (iceagenow.info)
- Shell-Led Arctic Push Finds U.S. Shy in Icebreakers: Energy (bloomberg.com)
- Arctic sea-ice melt at record low for June (guardian.co.uk)
- Record amount of Arctic Sea ice melted in June. (climatecentral.org)
- Drill Arctic (carefully): Obama administration (seattlepi.com)
- Record Amount of Arctic Sea Ice Melted in June (climatecentral.org)
- Canada’s Arctic push: Left out in the cold? (business.financialpost.com)