Arctic Sea Ice Death Spiral

With two weeks or so still to go before the annual minimum is reached, the record for lowest extent of Arctic sea ice has already been obliterated by a huge margin. The only question at this point is how much the ice cover will shrink. Frantic denial of reality by Anthony Watts, Marc Morano, and others has only made it obvious how ridiculous they are — they refuse to face the truth of this astounding consequence of global warming. You can smell their desperation.

Here’s the latest data from the NSIDC:

We can also plot the annual minimum extent, bearing in mind that the 2012 value will get even lower as we get closer to this season’s peak melt:

We’ve already dipped below 4 million square kilometers. The ice is disappearing so fast that it won’t be long until the Arctic ocean is essentially ice-free during summer, for the first time in history (and yes, I do mean “in history”).

But wait … how can that be? I can hear Watts and Morano wringing hands and gnashing teeth, whining “We only have 30 years of data!” They’re wrong. The available data (there’s quite a lot, actually) stretch back to the 19th century. The collation by Kinnard et al. (2008) shows this:

Then there’s the Walsh & Chapman data set:

For a longer view, a reconstruction of Arctic sea ice extent based on proxy data by Kinnard et al. (2011) shows just how unique this event is:

The shockingly fast disappearance of Arctic sea ice isn’t like anything we’ve witnessed before. Ever. It isn’t some “natural cycle.” it isn’t a natural anything. It should really be called a “death spiral.”

This is global warming. It’s real. It’s so real it walked right up to us and slapped us in the face.

If you believe we can do this to the planet without consequences, you’re a fool.

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53 responses to “Arctic Sea Ice Death Spiral

  1. Intrade opened two new markets for the Sept. Avg. Extent (from NSIDC), one for less than 4.0 and one for 3.7. I’m afraid the rate this has taken place is going to scare people away, especially the sellers who are going to lose so much in the 4.3 market.

    It is truly astounding. One of the animations made my wife cry.

    My question is, what effect will the lack of all that ice have on the global temperature anomalies? Do they include the polar regions in the GISS temp data?

    • Yes, GISS data extends all the way to 90N. Arctic amplification is a major reason why GISS had record warmth in 2010 and 2005, while other metrics fell short. The satellite-based analyses extend only to 82.5N.

      • Thanks. I think I’ll bet a little more on the high global temp anomalies for this month…

        I get some grief for betting on the doom, but what could be better than taking fake skeptic money on this?

    • Scott, I’ve had pretty much the same response as your wife.

      The rapidity of ice loss has so many implications for other climatic transitions, both in terms of committed future change and in the end points even should emissions stop today, that most of my ecology colleagues are desperately concerned. The biological fall-out will be profound, and the numbers just don’t add up to anything resembling a pleasant result for humans and for many other species.

      First cabs off the rank will be the much-mocked polar bears, and also the various pinipeds, which all rely on sea ice sheets as foraging platforms. Without it their summer distributions are going to be immensely affected, with direct implications for total population sizes. Expect some seriously ‘alarmist’ publications from polar mammalogists in the next few years.

      I’m going to sign off with something that will probably become a clichéd line…

      When the shit really hits the fan, we can’t say that we weren’t well and truly warned.

  2. Andrew Revkin seems to have different standards for what constitutes a death spiral…though not sure what those standards would be! Your figures seem to indicate that that’s exactly what is happening.

    He says 50-50 odds of an ice free Arctic occurring within the next two decades, with some agreement from Cecilia Bitz from the University of Washington.

    I wonder if someone could give a better likelihood than just 50-50, just seems kinda lazy.

    • No way. The thinning of the ice will turn it all into mobilized slush by early August, storms will disperse the river heat, and it will continue to drop. Even the simple linear across the entire series has a zero intercept at 2025–for day 212! (The nine-year linear is 2018 for 212) There’s just no volume left.

      My wife has always taken my concern with a grain of salt, but when I showed her the side by side polar shots from 1979 and 2012, I think she put her salt away for good.

    • It should be clear to even the most casual observer that the sea ice is on a death spiral. I can’t see anything slowing down the trend. The last few years have shown that the remaining ice is much, much thinner than it was in the past and thus more susceptible to melting. After this season’s record-breaking thaw, the remaining ice is likely to be even thinner yet. That’s not to say a brief, one- or two-year stall isn’t still possible, but the long-term trend is nowhere but down, down, down.

    • Revkin says:

      (this is not false balance)</blockquote)

      Really, Revkin seems to be hell-bent on running into Steve Mosher coming full-steam the other way. This silly quote of his deserves the same viral memetic status as the classic "All your base are belong to us“. Indeed, the properly translated narrative could have been written exactly for humanity’s destruction of its climate:

      Mechanic: Somebody set up us the bomb.
      Operator: Main screen turn on.
      CATS: All your base are belong to us.
      CATS: You have no chance to survive make your time.
      Captain: Move ‘ZIG’.
      Captain: For great justice.

      And what’s with Revkin’s guff about what constitutes a spiral?! This is a precious piece of nonsense from someone who should understand better – much better…

    • I thought “ice free” was quantified as less than 1 million square kilometres. I suspect various people are using various definitions, some a bit too literal, perhaps?

      • By Dr. Maslowski, yes–I think there is no generally agreed metric. And of course the usual suspects will use zero, because that will probably never be reached short of “hothouse Earth” conditions (which we seem hell-bent on achieving, admittedly.)

    • It was his 50-50 comment that made me think of Revelation 3:16 as an apt description of him: neither hot nor cold. He sounds simply like a careerist to me. The consequences of AGW don’t justify careerism. Were he in a crowded theater and saw smoke billowing from the projection booth, he wouldn’t return to his seat and wait for the 2nd feature. (1950s image alert.)

    • Horatio Algeranon

      The essence of something in a “death spiral” is that it does not recover.

      Something (eg, satellite at the top of the atmosphere) could be in a death spiral for a very long time.

      So, instead of asking about (and making bets on) the time before the arctic is ice free in late summer, Revkin should be asking scientists whether they think ice will eventually “recover” (eg, back to the volume it had 30 years ago)

      Wonder how many scientists would give that a 50/50 chance before the next ice age (if it ever comes).

      It’s actually very funny that Revkin implies that there is a disagreement among scientists (“not false balance”!) and then links to a site of scientific estimates that says the following

      , the August Sea Ice Outlook projects a September 2012 arctic sea extent median value of 4.3 million square kilometers, with a range of 3.9–4.9 (Figure 1). The quartiles for August are 4.1 and 4.6 million square kilometers, a narrow range given that the uncertainty of individual estimates is on the order of 0.5 million square kilometers. The consensus is for continued low values of September 2012 sea ice extent

      Yep. Some disagreement there!

    • jasonpettitt

      I managed to goad Mr Revkin into a friendly wager over that.

      Though I pretty much agree with the guy who made the analogy with the pointlessness of betting on when the last carriage in the train wreck comes to a standstill.

  3. There’s a push of Funder et al. (2012) going around the denialosphere tagged with the claim that Arctic sea ice was lower during the (natural) Holocene climatic optimum (and therefore this is all natural). I saw this claim at HockeySchtick. Apparently, denialists don’t really get irony, or they would surely have noticed that the recent end of the Funder reconstruction creates quite the hockey stick.

    • Yes, an amusing tidbit from that paper. Temps in the Arctic show a steady decline from Holocene Thermal Maximum, as sea ice shows a fairly steady build-up – ie, MWP temps are lower than present.

      The suggestion in the paper, that summertime sea ice coverage 8k yr before present (at HTM) was half that of 2007 summertime minimum, is a result of modeling. The ironies abound. The authors point out that though models show pan-Arctic sea ice retreat 8k yrs ago, proxy records indicate increase of sea ice in some regions of the Arctic – the conclusion being that the models don’t represent variability well enough and need to be improved. Inevitably, ‘skeptics’l forego deriding models when the outputs suit their predilections, and even when the model-makers themselves point out the flaws.

      There are many papers out there (quite a few in 2010 – Polyak etc) positing greatly reduced sea ice cover and possibly ice-free summers at some point during the HTM. The denialati amplify and certify this possibility. But since orbital variation saw a strong peak of NH insolation at that time, and temperatures in the Arctic were 2 – 4C warmer than present for hundreds of years, greatly reduced sea ice in that region is hardly a surprising result. In the real world, this period is being looked with intense interest because it may be something of an “analogue” with where the Arctic is headed (in a matter of years or decades at the most).

      Here’s the link to The Hcokey Schtick blog post. I had a go responding there. It’s not very entertaining.

  4. Some “facts”:
    Holocene climatic optimum is prehistory and not history. Does Watts claim he has notes dated 6000 BC? Not possible. They would have used a different calendar. Not to say anything about the true date for the creation of the world (16331BC (uncyclopedia)).

  5. What is that Walsh and Chapman plot of? Is it annual mean sea ice extent?

    • Essentially, yes–the data relate to where the perimeter of the pack was, since there was little penetration far into the interior of the pack. Most of the observations, if I understand it correctly, were from ship’s logs–whalers and fishers, mostly–from vessels operating in very high latitudes.

  6. Philippe Chantreau

    The concerning thing is that extent isn’t even showing signs of an inflexion point yet. To think that Steven Goddard was predicting that the August storm was going to halt the melt. Nice going from Steve; a clown parading to buffoons. Who can still take these people seriously? I mean you can be emotionally attached to ideology but even Mosher couldn’t push the irrationality in the face of constant accumulation of evidence…

  7. It is reported at that, “Peter Wadhams, Professor of Ocean Physics and Head of the Polar Oceans Physics Group at Cambridge University stated,

    “For 40 years I have been measuring sea ice thickness in the Arctic from UK submarines. I first detected substantial thinning in 1990, and since the most recent submarine voyage in 2007 I have been warning that the combination of sea ice retreat and a massive amount of thinning will lead to the disappearance of the summer sea ice by as early as 2015.” … “It is truly the case that it will be all gone by 2015.”

    The Piomas Yearly Minimum Arctic Ice Volume graph,
    would appear to substantiate that prediction. I understand that the Piomas result is based not only on observations but also modelling, since the volume of ice cannot be (?) directly measured by satellite.

    On the other hand, there appears to be informed (ie not denialist) predictions that put the disappearance of summer ice some decades ahead.

    Any views on which of these two apparently somewhat disparate sets of predictions are the more likely?

    • A year ago I posted this on the Blackboard:

      Rob’s chances are probably much better than any of these models predicts. That’s because ice loss can be severely non-linear: once it starts to go, it goes rapidly. The spring loss of ice cover on a lake is a good example: you get a little bit of open water around the edges for a few days, and then BAM! one warm (or windy) day, and you lose 90% of the ice cover all at once. (I live on a lake, and I see this every year.)
      So rather than using any 2-D metric like ice extent or area, a much better predictor is ice volume. And if you look at the PIOMAS data for ice volume, we could see completely ice-free summers by 2016. No 2-D metric would be expected to model this, even using a cubic fit. But I think it’s completely realistic.

      Sure, you can get “it’s decades away” if you only look at area or extent. But nobody who has actually watched a large body of water melt in the springtime — and thought about it — would be so conservative.

      • Ice volume is modelled by dynamical GCMs, and they were the ones predicting the summer ice disappearing in decades rather than years. However among those in the know it’s clear that the GCMs from the 90s and 2000s (eg. HadCM3) have trouble with meridional heat transport. I came across this when looking at how GCMs model ENSO, and again with their response to a volcanic super-eruption (my master’s thesis). This is thought to be due to the ocean grid size not modelling turbulent/eddy transport of heat properly.

        Another thing I noted is that HadCM3′s Arctic Ice climatology had too much ice to start with, probably as a consequence of too little heat being transported to the Arctic. This would also delay the modelled ‘death spiral’.

  8. Yet another hockey stick. McIntyre will be furious.

    • Horatio Algeranon

      Luckily, as Deep Climate has pointed out, McIntyre already has a saved “random” sample (top 100 out of 10,000) of the “very best” (most dramatic) hockey sticks that includes sticks that turn down as well as up (the “cream of the crap” churned out by his famed “persistent red noise” hockey stick maker)

      Like Wegman did in his supposed “replication” (“cut and paste”, which Wegman and his students are experts at) of McIntyre results , McIntyre can now just call those up at will with his “random” hockey stick generator.

      So, McIntyre (as goal tender) is at the ready for hockey sticks — right side up, upside down or whichever way you throw them at him.

  9. Sam Sandqvist

    Always appreciate the cogent and correct reasoning here… but since we are nearing the zero levels I would very much like to see all graphs go down to zero in the y-axis. That would make it much clearer where we really are, don’t you agree?

  10. I note that even though it was written yesterday that Morano article has reproduced Watts’s error about the MASIE data. They really aren’t capable of admitting an error are they?

  11. Classy comments at that prisonplanet link Stephen.

    • I thought the same. Denialists seem to operate at the emotional level of a second-grader — once I went to Delingpole’s blog and tried to talk science, and I was immediately given the schoolyard nickname of “Jimmy Gas”.

  12. Kevin McKinney | August 29, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    “zero” Arctic sea ice “will probably never be reached short of “hothouse Earth”.
    I don’t see why not, at least in the open sea (sheltered coves may be different). Graphs of both extent and volume appear to show that the rate of loss is increasing, and for good reasons: decreasing albedo, loss of multi-year ice, increasing exposure to storms. Why should the the rate of loss become zero as the amount of ice left in summer approaches zero?

    • “zero” Arctic sea ice “will probably never be reached short of “hothouse Earth”.

      I think that’s reasonable if the author meant zero yeararound sea ice, which seems hard to imagine. I wonder how much warming that would require?

      • Maybe Kevin did mean that (in which case I would agree), but we are talking about summer ice here. Lets take one catastrophe at a time.
        Getting rid of summer ice, as far as I understand it, isn’t like getting rid of rats on a rat infested island by shooting them. In the latter case, its gets harder the closer rats get to extinction: the rate of decline itself declines. With ice it is the other way round.

    • Sheltered coves and similar sheltered areas were precisely what I had in mind. And that will be used as a fig leaf by some, to deny the fact that the Emperor of Denial is lacking sartorial coverage.

      • Horatio Algeranon

        “Give-Ice shelter”
        – Horatio’s polarication of the Rolling Icebergs “Gimme Shelter” (Mick Jagged, Keith Richards)

        Oh, the warm is threat’ning
        The summer ice today
        If it don’t get some shelter
        Oh yeah, it’s gonna melt away

        Open, arctic, it’s just a melt away
        It’s just a melt away
        Open, arctic, it’s just a melt away
        It’s just a melt away

        Ooh, see the wind is sweepin’
        The remnant ice today
        Churns like a Waring blender
        Ice-breaker lost its way

        Open, arctic, it’s just a melt away
        It’s just a melt away
        Open, arctic, it’s just a melt away
        It’s just a melt away

        Cape, Farewell!
        It’s just a melt away
        It’s just a melt away

        Cape, Farewell!
        It’s just a melt away
        It’s just a melt away

        Cape, Farewell!
        It’s just a melt away
        It’s just a melt away
        The floods is threat’ning
        The very coast today
        Give-ice, give-ice shelter
        Or it’s gonna melt away

        Open, water, it’s just a melt away
        It’s just a melt away
        It’s just a melt away
        It’s just a melt away
        It’s just a melt away

        I tell you death, sea-ice, it’s just a kiss away
        It’s just a kiss away
        It’s just a kiss away
        It’s just a kiss away
        It’s just a kiss away
        Kiss away, kiss away

  13. It isn’t a ‘death spiral’ – it’s putting ice in a blender. The 75% loss in thickness is one key to the pattern – storms hitting pancake ice bulldoze it to slush. A worthy model simulation would be repeating the August storm with simulations of increasing ice thickness – at some point the decline will disappear as the ice holds. But this summer the underlying drivers have produced conditions where storms can, and will continue to, turn ice zones to water. The underlying thinning process is illustrated by the DMI 30% threshold measurement:
    The free-fall in early August highlights the increasing vulnerability of summer sea-ice to JAS (just another storm).

  14. Deep Climate gives us

    … a September 2012 projection of 3.56 +/- 0.13 million km.

    This is a step change, isn’t it, much like 2007′s minimum was, and worse than most of us expected earlier this year?

    • Well, there’s the sun and the end of la nina (the oceanic warmth in Indonesia/Indian Ocean escapes partly by moving west, increased monsoons (Pakistan, Afganistan) and to Southern Atlantic). Project these couple of months to the future and maybe find out that the surprising anomaly in Kara Sea last winter wasn’t too surprising at all… Of course, this is after the fact and thus of no use in projections.

      Of course the methane escapades last autumn do not affect the global values too much but locally they might be somewhat significant in increasing the heat in the ice (ice stayed warmer than usual, so it takes less energy to melt it in the next spring). Likely there are some more reasons for this, it’ll be interesting to see what the scientists have to say.


  15. I remember when Watts et al were forcasting a 2007 ice recover by only using data points to 2010. I love it how now he questions the whole metric of measuring ice all together the moment he gets the answer he doesn’t enjoy.

  16. Sceptical Wombat

    Thick ice that piles up against the Canadian and Greenland coasts or gets trapped in the Canadian Archipelago may last a while – so long as there is winter sea ice and the winds blow the right way it will continue to pile up and will be too thick to melt over winter. And of course Greenland glaciers will continue to calve until they retreat far enough inland. As I understand it 1 million sq km of sea ice extent is regarded as being effectively ice free (the last million sq km do not have much impact on either albedo or interaction between the Atmosphere and the Ocean – I’m not sure what a million sq km would mean for seals, walruses and polar bears).

    1 million sq km or less is looking both imminent and inevitable. I suspect that ice free winters are also now inevitable though that will take much longer to play out. The results for the NH will not be pretty. Down here in the antipodes we should not be directly affected by this but we have our own problems – particularly when there are sustained El Ninos or strong La Ninas.

    • I’d say there’s no way we’re going to see winters with less than 1 million sq km – but I know optimism rarely pans out well in this ‘game’ we’re playing…

      • Well, it’s simply a case of whether the Arctic Ocean holds enough heat at the beginning of winter for it to last until spring. As each year the Arctic Ocean holds a bit more heat than the year before, so it will be closer to reaching that point – but I haven’t done the work to find out how close it is to that point, so I don’t know whether it would take another 1 degree of global warming, or another 5 degrees, to reach the point where the Arctic was sea-ice-free all year round.

        Sicne the land will cool down more quickly than the ocean, the last Arctic sea-ice will likely be found forming in winter in the Canadian Archipelago.

        Remember that, in part thanks to the “Gulf Stream”, the most northerly point of the Arctic Ocean to remain ice-free this past winter was already as far north as about 80N, much further north than the Arctic circle

  17. Eric Shumard

    Next year there will undoubtedly be some who will be celebrating another arctic sea ice recovery since it is plausible that 2013 will have a larger sea ice extent than 2012 assuming 2012 is like 2007.

    Why are the Kinnard et al minimum extent values higher than those in the previous graph? For example, for the year 2000 the minimum extent is about 7 Mkm^2 but the previous graph shows about 6 Mkm^2. Are they using different definitions of extent?

    • Could happen, Eric–but I’ll bet you a paper boat that it doesn’t. Prediction is always chancy, but I think the odds are that next year will not see a higher minimum than this.

  18. CT arctic area now at 24883084, there goes my winning ticket… had the Sept 13th for the lowest date.

  19. Deniers in Germany claim that NSIDC and the University of Illinois Cryosphere today had to “vanish” ice, that is still shown by NOAA, to reach their new records. (Obviously they refuse to understand the definitions for sea ice extent and -area)
    How…. convenient!
    So they can go on denying the facts and whine about just annother “conspiracy”.

  20. Lewis Cleverdon

    Can anyone post a link to best available CO2ppm plot for the first half of C20th ? I should be very interested to see just what was the concentration that imposed sufficient timelagged warming to begin the loss of arctic sea ice around 1950.

    The possibility that a natural decline started in 1950 that was then overtaken by anthropogenic warming lacks evidence of a credible mechanism, and appears no more plausible than that there was a natural growth in ice-cover that was outweighed by a much greater warming. Hypotheses are after all an infinite resource.