Far North Science

News, research and natural acts from Alaska

December 17th, 2007

Northern sea ice takes a big hit in 2007

Sea ice off Gambell, Alaska.
Photo by Ned Rozell.

This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute.

SAN FRANCISCO — For the past few years, vanishing northern sea ice has been a theme of many talks and posters here at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, which draws about 15,000 scientists to the Moscone Center during the weeklong conference.

At a press conference here on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2007, scientists revealed that the ice on top of the northernmost ocean took a punch in the summer of 2007 that might be a knockout blow.

In 1980, the dense ice that floats on the Arctic Ocean like a large, moving jigsaw puzzle took up about the same area as the entire Lower 48 states; in September 2007, it was about as big as the U.S. east of the Mississippi River, said Don Perovich of the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in New Hampshire.

The ice loss in 2007, 23 percent greater than the previous record in 2005, has some scientists here predicting that the northern sea ice will vanish in summer as soon as five years from now. Perovich agreed that one of the greatest environmental changes people have ever seen might be close at hand.

“I used to say that sometime in my children’s lifetimes (sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean would disappear for half the year), but now I might see it,” said Perovich, who is in his 50s.

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December 15th, 2007

Climate tipping points draw near

NASA: Sea ice minimum / summer 2007

The Earth’s fast-warming climate may be teetering on irreversible, catastrophic shifts in temperatures, rainfall, ice shrink and permafrost melt — leaving only a few years for people to slash human-generated greenhouse gas emissions.

Such was the warning emerging from various panels at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union this past week in San Francisco, including a session that focused solely on “tipping points” of climate change.

Rising sea levels, warming permafrost, startling melt rates in Greenland, droughts, coral bleaching, heat waves, changes in snowfall and precipitation all contribute to the alarm. But exhibit A remains the stupendous and unprecedented meltback of the Arctic Ocean’s ice extent during the summer of 2007.

polar bear leaps ice floes
Credit: UNEP

“An already relentless melting of the Arctic greatly accelerated this summer, a warning sign that some scientists worry could mean global warming has passed an ominous tipping point,” wrote AP’s Seth Borenstein, in a story that ran last week.

“One even speculated that summer sea ice would be gone in five years. Greenland’s ice sheet melted nearly 19 billion tons more than the previous high mark, and the volume of Arctic sea ice at summer’s end was half what it was just four years earlier.

“At this rate, the Arctic Ocean could be nearly ice-free at the end of summer by 2012, much faster than previous predictions,” NASA climate scientist Jay Zwally told Borenstein.

“The Arctic,” said Mark Serreze, senior scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center and one of AGU’s invited lecturers this year, ” is screaming.”

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December 6th, 2007

Sea ice finally growing, but slowly

Source: NSIDC

After shrinking to its smallest summer extent in modern times, the pack ice of the Arctic Ocean has slowly begun to refreeze. By the end of November, the new ice and floes had grown enough to cover an estimated 3.9 million square miles, according new online analyses posted this week by the National Snow and Ice Data Center ice index.

Remember, sea ice bottomed out at about 1.59 million square miles in September — reflecting the utter dissolution of a summer ice habitat the size of California and Texas combined.

Over the past two months, the frozen world has almost doubled. The Arctic’s November ice no longer sizzles in record territory: 2006 had slightly less ice cover. So this is good news? Not especially.

Don’t forget that November 2007 extent covers only 90 percent of the 4.3 million square miles normally covered by this time of year, based on the 1971-2000 mean.

Making matters worse, the missing ice has left the Chukchi Sea largely wide open, a situation that has threatened several Native villages with erosion during storms.

Source: NSIDC

The latest charts and analysis from ice desk at the National Weather Service in Anchorage shows a vast reach of open water stretching northwest of the Seward Peninsula.

Still, an expected plunge in temperatures could start filling in the northern Chukchi Sea, according to the text analysis.

The most recent chart posted online by the National Ice Center provides the same Chukchi information in color.

December 5th, 2007

The Big Thaw

Sea ice chart
Source: NSIDC

From the prowlings of narwhals and belugas, to the plight of intrepid grass-eating pikas in St. Elias mountain refuges, to the stunning brown-death of 40 million white spruce in Kluane National Park, senior writer Ed Struzik of the Edmonton Herald takes readers on a journey across the Far North in search of climate change impact.

Appearing as The Big Thaw in the Herald and Arctic in Peril in the Toronto Star, the eight-part series (plus photo galleries, interactive maps and commentary) climaxed this week.

Struzik, a 28-year Arctic journalist, was sponsored by the Atkinson Charitable Foundation, the Beland Honderich Family and the Toronto Star. Beginning in July, he made nine Arctic journeys to report the series, according to an update posted online about the 2007 Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy.

“He travelled by plane, icebreaker, snowmobile, dogsled and skis, making his way from Churchill, Man., to Ellesmere Island, and from the Alaskan border to the coast of Greenland. Struzik saw first-hand evidence that the Arctic is warming almost twice as fast as the rest of the world.”

The multi-media slide show, with audio commentary, are alone worth a few megabytes of time and bandwidth.

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December 4th, 2007

Tara’s incredible polar drift

Tara has spent two winters in the ice

Let’s check in on one of the most interesting Far North expeditions now underway — a boat and crew trapped on purpose in the Arctic ice.

In the deep blackness of the polar night, the research schooner Tara and its crew of a dozen well-insulated scientists have been drifting for the past 15 months and now are veering mile by mile with Arctic ice toward the frigid waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.

With a rounded, flat hull, and reinforced structure, the ship embedded itself in polar ice in September of 2006. With scientists measuring ice thickness and taking observations, the boat traveled with floes about 5.7 miles per day during the first 12 months. In the end, Tara has moved about 870 miles across the Arctic — yet actually covered a more than of 2,100 miles due to the zigzag vagaries of the ice cap.

On May 28, the vessel slipped north of 88 North — within 100 miles of the geographic North Pole. Over the summer, the ship began drifting south faster than expected, and could reach open water within the next few weeks. (This emergence is a topic of keen interest to the crew.

“Despite all of the chatter, modeling, predictions and general banter, we just don’t know how things will pan out,” they wrote on Nov. 21. “That’s part of the magic of being stuck up here, to be living in a world that is not governed by bus timetables and the certitudes of what tomorrow will bring.”

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November 30th, 2007

Alaskan birds in jeopardy

Kittlitz’s murrelet
Source: USFWS / Wikipedia Commons

A mysterious seabird that forages at the face of shrinking tidewater glaciers highlights the 12 Alaska species red-listed as critical by the Audubon’s 2007 Watchlist, released this week and posted online.

The little-known Kittlitz’s murrelet — a species so elusive that scientists didn’t record its croaking call for the first time until a few years ago— has crashed by more than 80 percent since the 1970s throughout its icy range rimming the Gulf of Alaska.

The birds, genetic cousins to puffins and murres, spend summers diving for food in the meltwater rivers that flush from glacial faces, while nesting in the mountains on the ground. Almost nothing is known about their ecology and life cycle — only a few dozen nesting sites have ever been documented and no one really knows much about where the birds spend winters.

Yet the shrinkage of glaciers, and the rapid increase in freshwater at glacial faces, appears to have decimated the bird’s food sources or made it much more difficult to snatch eats. Example: Something like 63,000 murrelets were thought to summer in Prince William Sound in the 1970s. By 2000, the number had dropped to an estimated 1,000.

It’s possible that the world population of the murrelets is now as low as 7,000, according to 2004 estimates.

“The fate of the Kittlitz’s murrelet likely hinges on the fate of Alaska’s glaciers, and therefore may be among the world’s first avian species to succumb to effects of rising global temperatures,” wrote federal biologists John Piatt and Kathy Kuletz in a 2004 scientific paper.

They called it “Alaska’s avian ‘poster child’ for global climate change.”

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November 29th, 2007

Yet more alarming climate signals

Full moon over Arctic ice north of Russia in 2006
Source: Mike Dunn / NOAA NABOS 2006 Expedition

Here are some clues that Arctic climate change no longer moves at a glacial pace:

  • The Arctic Ocean is losing its sea ice faster, with September recording the smallest extent in modern history. It beat the previous minimum seen in 2005 by 23 percent — losing an area as large as Texas and California combined.
  • This loss of ice is moving faster than predictions, accelerating beyond the pace suggested by rising greenhouse gas concentrations.
  • The remaining ice is thinner, more fragile, more vulnerable to melting in future summers.
  • Get ready polar bears and Native hunters: An ice-free Arctic Ocean could arrive by 2030 — about half a century ahead of previous worst-case, nightmare scenarios.

These startling details came out during a Nov. 26 panel discussion at the Dirksen Senate Office Building Washington, D.C., called Arctic Sea Ice Melt and Shrinking Polar Ice Sheets: Are Observed Changes Exceeding Expectations?

The forum — which included the senior research scientist Mark Serreze from the National Snow and Ice Data Center — was part of the Environmental Science Seminar Series sponsored by the American Meteorological Society.

Among other things, the presentation detailed how Alaskan glaciers, western and peninsula Antarctic ice and the Greenland ice sheet have both been thinning, losing mass and melting back faster than scientists predicted.

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November 27th, 2007

Pacific walrus forced to shore

Pacific walrus
Source: USFWS

The summer meltback of the Arctic Ocean ice to the smallest extent in modern history wiped out the ice floes used by Pacific walruses as resting and hunting platforms over shallow water, forcing an extraordinary congregation of the tusked behemoths along the Russian Chukchi coast, according to a report by the World Wildlife Fund.

In a phenomenon first reported in the Russian Arctic a few years ago, something like 40,000 walruses hauled out near Ryrkarphy village on Kozehvnikov Cape, on the Chukotka Peninsula west of Alaska, according to an Oct. 10 dispatch posted online by WWF Russia.

The unprecedented gathering prompted Russian conservationists to push for some sort of nature preserve, and education, to protect the animals from hunting and harassment, the WWF release stated.

“Because of climate change, nowadays ice almost disappears from the Chukotka and East Siberian seas in summer”, says Viktor Nikiforov, WWF-Russia Regional Programmes Director.

“Multiyear Arctic ice moves northward, which means that in the coming years new haul-outs will appear on Chukotka Arctic coast. Walruses become exhausted after swimming hundreds of kilometers from pack ice to the coast, without a chance to rest. The sea without ice cover has frequent storms, which may lead to deaths of a large number of young walruses. Our common goal is to help walruses survive in this difficult time”.

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