Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Of Fire and Ice, Joseph Ingoldsby

There is an old fishermen’s tale that states- “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.”

In the dawning hours, a prudent sailor would have raced for the safety of his port for the sky was afire. The copper light turned night to day. All was bathed in an eerie light, which illuminated the night. A presaging perhaps of the storm that swept from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, covering all in a mantle of snow and ice.

NASA Satellites Capture Data on Massive Winter
Storm Affecting 30 States - 02-01-2011

Credit: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team, 01-31-2010

Of Fire and Ice

This week the U.S. northeast suffered through its sixth major snowstorm this winter, breaking all snowfall records. One of the largest winter storms since the 1950s is affecting 30 U.S. states today with snow, sleet, freezing rain and rain. NASA satellites have gathering data on the storm that stretches from Texas and the Southern Plains states northeastward through the Midwest and the upper Mid-Atlantic states into New England and on to Canada. In December of 2010, unprecedented winter storms blanketed the British Isles, Europe and Eastern Europe in snow, ice and frigid temperatures. What could have triggered these severe weather events? Scientists speak of Enhanced Modern Heat Transfer to the Arctic by Warm Atlantic Water within Science Magazine, 28 January 2011, Volume 331 no. 6016 pp. 450-453.

According to Robert F. Spielhagen "The accelerated decrease of the Arctic sea ice cover and the warming of ocean and atmosphere in the Arctic, as measured during the past decades, are in part related to an increased heat transfer from the Atlantic," said co-author Robert Spielhagen, a palaeoceanographer at the Academy of Sciences, Humanities and Literature in Mainz, Germany. “The Arctic is responding more rapidly to global warming than most other areas on our planet. Northward-flowing Atlantic Water is the major means of heat advection toward the Arctic and strongly affects the sea ice distribution. Records of its natural variability are critical for the understanding of feedback mechanisms and the future of the Arctic climate system, but continuous historical records reach back only ~150 years. Here, we present a multidecadal-scale record of ocean temperature variations during the past 2000 years, derived from marine sediments off Western Svalbard (79°N). We find that early–21st-century temperatures of Atlantic Water entering the Arctic Ocean are unprecedented over the past 2000 years and are presumably linked to the Arctic amplification of global warming.”

Stephen Leahy writes within an important series on Arctic climate change published by the Inter Press Service that “Sea ice has declined dramatically during the short Arctic summers in recent years, with some experts now projecting that the ice cover will be essentially gone in as little as five years. The warming Arctic and melting sea ice is a planetary-scale change since the Arctic Ocean covers 14 million sq km, an area almost as big as Russia. The Arctic and Antarctic polar regions are key drivers of Earth's weather and climate. The rapid defrosting of the Arctic has already altered the climate system, researchers now agree.”

Air temperatures were higher than normal over Baffin Island, Hudson Bay, and eastern Siberia for the month of December, which was associated with low sea ice extent in those areas. The temperature pattern resulted from a negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation.
—Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA/ESRL PSD

Scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, NSIDC, and NOAA had drawn the correlation between the frigid temperatures and heavy snowfall in the eastern United States and Europe during the winter of 2009-10 and the loss of Arctic sea ice, basing their findings on research on the impacts of low sea ice and weak polar vortex in 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2011 on the winter weather patterns of the mid latitude North America and Europe.

This pattern of progressive sea ice melt and increasing major winter storms worsens in 2011 and does not bode well for the future. As more and more sea ice melts, there is more open water to absorb the summer sun's heat. James Overland of the NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in the United States has stated that a day of 24-hour summer sun in the Arctic puts more heat on the surface of the ocean than a day in the tropics. That extra heat in the ocean is gradually released into the lower atmosphere from October to January as the region slowly re-freezes months later than normal. This is a fundamental change - a large part of the Arctic Ocean is radiating heat instead of being cold and ice-covered. That has disrupted wind circulation patterns in the northern hemisphere, reported Overland and other researchers at the International Polar Year Oslo Science Conference in Norway last June.

This change has affected the winter weather patterns of North America and Europe as explained by scientists from NSIDC and NASA: "Warm conditions in the Arctic and cold conditions in northern Europe and the U.S. are linked to the strong negative mode of the Arctic oscillation. Cold air is denser than warmer air, so it sits closer to the surface. Around the North Pole, this dense cold air causes a circular wind pattern called the polar vortex , which helps keep cold air trapped near the poles. When sea ice has not formed during autumn and winter, heat from the ocean escapes and warms the atmosphere. This may weaken the polar vortex and allow air to spill out of the Arctic and into mid-latitude regions in some years, bringing potentially cold winter weather to lower latitudes."


The result: the Arctic stays warm and mid-latitude regions become colder and receive more snow for much of the winter. Last December was the coldest south Florida has experienced in more than a century of record-keeping. Most of Britain suffered through its coldest December ever. Up in the Arctic, Coral Harbour on the northwest corner of Hudson Bay was above zero degrees C for two days in early January for the first time in history. Much of the eastern Arctic centred around Baffin Island averaged +21C above normal between Dec. 17 and Jan. 15 this year. Hudson Bay remained navigable through mid-January. The Labrador Sea has yet to freeze. Normally at this time of year, ice extends several hundred kilometers from the coast all the way to northern Nova Scotia. Polar bears, seals and walrus are endangered by the lack of sea ice habitat.


This looks to be an irreversible tipping point since Arctic experts agree the melting sea ice is now locked into a death spiral. "In future, cold and snowy winters will be the rule rather than the exception in the eastern United States and Europe", Overland said. To slow climate change down to manageable levels will require international cooperation to a degree unseen in current negotiations and green energy advancements. What we are experiencing today will intensify with each passing year of passivity. We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg in a landscape of fire and ice.


Enhanced Modern Heat Transfer to the Arctic by Warm Atlantic Water

  1. Robert F. Spielhagen1,2,*,
  2. Kirstin Werner2,
  3. Steffen Aagaard Sørensen3,
  4. Katarzyna Zamelczyk3,
  5. Evguenia Kandiano2,
  6. Gereon Budeus4,
  7. Katrine Husum3,
  8. Thomas M. Marchitto5, and
  9. Morten Hald3
    Author Affiliations:
    1 Academy of Sciences, Humanities, and Literature, 53151 Mainz, Germany.
  1. 2 Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences (IFM-GEOMAR), 24148 Kiel, Germany.
  2. 3 Department of Geology, University of Tromsø, 9037 Tromsø, Norway.
  3. 4 Alfred Wegener Institute of Polar and Marine Research, 27515 Bremerhaven, Germany.
  4. 5 Department of Geological Sciences and Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309, USA.
Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis, NSIDC, February 2, 2011

NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response Team, 01-31-2010

Francis, J.A., Chan, W-H., Leathers, D.J., Miller, J.R., Veron, D.E., 2009. Winter Northern Hemisphere weather patterns remember summer.Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L07503, doi:10.1029/2009GL037274.

Overland, J.E., Wang, M-Y., 2010. Large-scale atmospheric circulation changes are associated with the recent loss of Arctic sea ice. Tellus62A, 1-9.

Cohen, J., J. Foster, M. Barlow, K. Saito, and J. Jones, 2010. Winter 2009-2010: A case study of an extreme Arctic Oscillation event.Geophys. Res. Lett., 37, L17707, doi:10.1029/2010GL044256.

Leahy, Stephen, 2011. Arctic Defrost Dumping Snow on U.S, and Europe, IPS

Joseph Ingoldsby writes and exhibits about the the science of vanishing landscapes and endangered species utilizing art, science and technology to communicate complex issues to the public. He is a member of the AAAS, ASLA, and FES. Writings, exhibitions and installations may be viewed at:
http://www.landscapemosaics.com/ and http://josephemmanuelingoldsby.com/

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