The useful thing about a canary in a coal mine is that it warns you of danger before the danger kills you.
When 2016 began last January 1st, the average temperature throughout the Arctic was fully 18°F (10°C) hotter than usual for New Year’s day, and the extent of sea ice in the Arctic was lower than ever before recorded for that date:
The extra-high temperatures and extra-low sea ice with which the Arctic started the year, was just the beginning.
Arctic sea ice generally grows in extent during the first two months of the year (it being winter and all), and in that regard 2016 was no exception. It didn’t maintain its lowest-for-this-date status on all days, but did skirt the lowest-yet-seen extent consistently during the months of January and February:
Nobody who knows Arctic sea ice was surprised by this. It has been on the decline, overall, for decades, so it’s no surprise that this year’s levels would be at or near their lowest. It’s part and parcel of the ongoing trend of the loss of sea ice in the Arctic.
Nor was it a surprise that, even with an ongoing trend, it wasn’t always at its lowest-ever. Most everything in nature, including sea ice, doesn’t just follow a trend, it also constantly fluctuates. Added to the overall tendency, there are ups and downs and downs and ups that make it different from day to day, month to month, even year to year. But over the long haul, the fluctuations — even though they never stop — never really get anywhere. What does, what keeps on going and accumulates until we can’t ignore it any more, is the trend — and for sea ice in the Arctic, that means there’s less and less of it.
The surprise was what happened in late April and May. Ice extent didn’t just “skirt” the lowest-for-this-time-of-year line, it plunged far below and by May’s end was a whopping (not just surprising but shocking) more than half a million square kilometers less — not less than “average,” but less than seen before:
The depths to which the Arctic ice had sunk was, not to put too fine a point on it, alarming.
About mid-June it returned to an almost-lowest for-this-date path, and throughout July and August was only 2nd- or 3rd-lowest on record.
This was right in line with the ongoing trend of decline, a direct consequence of man-made global warming. After all, the extra-rapid heating of the Arctic and the ongoing loss of sea ice there, had been predicted more than 30 years ago by the same scientists who now tell us climate change is man-made and dangerous. Maybe we should listen.
But — to those who deny global warming, who deny that it’s man-made, that it’s dangerous, even deny that it’s real, the fact that Arctic sea ice was only nearly lowest-on-record was enough to call a “recovery.” Some even decided to mention the topic, not its uninterrupted declining trend of course, but implying that because it wasn’t yet all gone, that was some sort of “come-uppance” for scientists saying the reduction was part of a global warming trend.
In July, for instance, Christopher Booker, writing in the U.K. Telegraph, told us that “Arctic ice has made fools of all those poor warmists.” “Warmists” is what he calls people who believe man-made climate change is dangerous. He backed up his claim with anecdotes, chosen to make it seem like sea ice isn’t disappearing like most scientists said it would.
One thing science has learned, and learned again and again when it’s been neglected, is that anecdotes don’t make reliable evidence. They make great stories, and can sometimes even be persuasive. My grandmother smoked cigarettes and she lived to be 99 years old! They’re also a great way to make a fool of yourself.
Christopher Booker’s only reference to actual scientific data was part of an anecdote about a trip to the Antarctic, in which the ship ended up frozen in the ice (emphasis mine):
What made all this particularly absurd was that, despite being led by an Australian scientist, they were so taken in by the make-believe that they seemed quite oblivious to the satellite records showing that Antarctic sea-ice had long been expanding to such record levels that these more than matched any decline in the Arctic ice at the other end of the world.
The problem with his only reference to actual scientific data, is that it’s absurdly wrong.
In early September, blogger Anthony Watts made hay of the fact that 2016 didn’t seem likely to break the 2012 record for lowest annual minimum ever. Being perfectly consistent with the ongoing trend isn’t good enough for him — if it doesn’t set a new record every year, he seems to regard it as contradicting those he refers to as “sea ice doomsters.”
By late September, Arctic sea ice had reached its lowest level for the year (its annual minimum). It wasn’t the lowest on record, it only tied for 2nd-lowest on record. Those in denial looked on this as more evidence that global warming wasn’t happening.
But it did dip quite low — right in line with the ongoing trend. When it goes that low, it has to rise a long way just to get back near “normal” (although these days, “normal” isn’t what it used to be). Blogger Paul Homewood heralded that as noteworthy, saying that “Arctic sea ice has been expanding at a phenomenal rate.” He also felt compelled to tell us that “ice growth since the start of the month is actually the greatest on record, since daily figures started to be kept in 1987,” and to graph it so we could see with our own eyes:
What he didn’t show is that both the Sept. 1st value and the Sept. 24th value had declined much more than that, as part of the ongoing trend of sea ice loss:
Even though both values this year were far, far lower than what used to be “normal,” Paul Homewood chose to call it “expanding at a phenomenal rate.” That’s quite some “spin.”
Meanwhile, the “Global Warming Policy Forum” (GWPF) paid no attention whatever to how sea ice had behaved most of the year, and staunchly refused to pay heed to the ongoing trend or put anything in context. Instead, they used values only of each year’s annual minimum to suggest a possible Ten-Year Hiatus in Arctic Ice Decline.” Here’s their graph suggesting this “hiatus”:
It’s easy to get the wrong impression of the trend when you can’t see what happened before:
It’s also much more informative to look, not at just the annual minimum values, but at the annual average values:
This year will have, without doubt, the lowest annual average on record.
They haven’t talked much about Arctic sea ice since September, because as much as the April-May lows were a shock, a bigger shock by far is what happened since October:
Arctic sea ice has been at record-low values for months now, since mid-October. Of course those in denial don’t want to admit it’s because of global warming, so Anthony Watts decided to blame it on the weather.
Perhaps what disappoints them most is that at the south pole, the Antarctic ice which had increased (but not, as they so often dishonestly claim, as much as the Arctic decrease) decided this year to take a nose-dive. The result is that the global sea ice (north and south combined) is way below what it has ever been.
It’s not exaggeration to say that 2016 was shocking for sea ice. It’s also not an exaggeration to say that 2016 was shocking for average temperature in the Arctic:
The Arctic truly is the canary in a coal mine when it comes to climate. It was predicted, long ago, to warn us of impending changes. Those changes have come to pass. The canary is seriously ill — if not actually dead.
We have been warned.
As the year 2016 draws to a close, it’s a sure thing that it’ll end up as the hottest year on record, not just for the Arctic but for the globe as a whole. Not just that, it’ll be the third year in a row to set a new record for global temperature. But climate deniers, like President-elect Trump and most of his advisors, either can’t see that the canary is near death … or they don’t care.
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