With help from global warming and the new El Niño, 2015 was a hot year. In fact it was the hottest since we’ve been keeping records—and it ended with a bang!
• Robinson Myer, The storm that will unfreeze the North Pole, The Atlantic, 29 December 2015.
The sun has not risen above the North Pole since mid-September. The sea ice—flat, landlike, windswept, and stretching as far as the eye can see—has been bathed in darkness for months.
But later this week, something extraordinary will happen: Air temperatures at the Earth’s most northernly region, in the middle of winter, will rise above freezing for only the second time on record.
On Wednesday, the same storm system that last week spun up deadly tornadoes in the American southeast will burst into the far north, centering over Iceland. It will bring strong winds and pressure as low as is typically seen during hurricanes.
That low pressure will suck air out of the planet’s middle latitudes and send it rushing to the Arctic. And so on Wednesday, the North Pole will likely see temperatures of about 35 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius. That’s 50 degrees hotter than average: it’s usually 20 degrees Fahrenheit below zero there at this time of year.
Here’s a temperature map from a couple days later—the last day of the year, 31 December 2015:
(Click on these images to enlarge them.)
And here, more revealing, is a map of the temperature anomaly: the difference between the temperature and the usual temperature at that place at that time of the year:
I think the temperature anomaly is off the scale at certain places in the Arctic—it should have been about 30 °C hotter than normal, or 55 °F.
These maps are from a great website that will show you a variety of weather maps for any day of the year:
How about the year as a whole?
You can learn a lot about Arctic sea ice here:
• National Snow and Ice Data Center, Arctic Sea Ice News.
Here’s one graph of theirs, which shows that the extent of Arctic sea ice in 2015 was very low. It was 2 standard deviations lower than the 2000–2012 average, though not as low as the record-breaking year of 2012:
Here’s another good source of data:
• Polar Science Center, PIOMAS arctic sea ice volume reanalysis.
PIOMAS stands for the Pan-Arctic Ice Ocean Modeling and Assimilation System. Here is their estimate of the Arctic sea ice volume over the course of 2015, compared to other years:
The annual cycle is very visible here.
It’s easier to see the overall trend in this graph:
This shows, for each day, the Arctic sea ice volume minus its average over 1979–2014 for that day of the year. This is a way to remove the annual cycle and focus on the big picture, including the strange events after 2012.
What to do?
The Arctic is melting.
What does that matter to us down here? We’ll probably get strange new weather patterns. It may already be happening. I hope it’s clear by now: the first visible impact of global warming is ‘wild weather’.
But what can we do about it? Of course we should stop burning carbon. But even if we stopped completely, that wouldn’t reverse the effects of the warming so far. Someday people may want to reverse its effects—at least for the Arctic.
So, it might be good to reread part of my interview with Gregory Benford. He has a plan to cool the Arctic, which he claims is quite affordable. He’s mainly famous as a science fiction author, but he’s also an astrophysicist at U. C. Irvine.
Geoengineering the Arctic
JB: I want to spend a bit more time on your proposal to screen the Arctic. There’s a good summary here:
• Gregory Benford, Climate controls, Reason Magazine, November 1997.
But in brief, it sounds like you want to test the results of spraying a lot of micron-sized dust into the atmosphere above the Arctic Sea during the summer. You suggest diatomaceous earth as an option, because it’s chemically inert: just silica. How would the test work, exactly, and what would you hope to learn?
GB: The US has inflight refueling aircraft such as the KC-10 Extender that with minor changes spread aerosols at relevant altitudes, and pilots who know how to fly big sausages filled with fluids.
Rather than diatomaceous earth, I now think ordinary SO2 or H2S will work, if there’s enough water at the relevant altitudes. Turns out the pollutant issue is minor, since it would be only a percent or so of the SO2 already in the Arctic troposphere. The point is to spread aerosols to diminish sunlight and look for signals of less sunlight on the ground, changes in sea ice loss rates in summer, etc. It’s hard to do a weak experiment and be sure you see a signal. Doing regional experiments helps, so you can see a signal before the aerosols spread much. It’s a first step, an in-principle experiment.
Simulations show it can stop the sea ice retreat. Many fear if we lose the sea ice in summer ocean currents may alter; nobody really knows. We do know that the tundra is softening as it thaws, making roads impassible and shifting many wildlife patterns, with unforeseen long term effects. Cooling the Arctic back to, say, the 1950 summer temperature range would cost maybe $300 million/year, i.e., nothing. Simulations show to do this globally, offsetting say CO2 at 500 ppm, might cost a few billion dollars per year. That doesn’t help ocean acidification, but it’s a start on the temperature problem.
JB: There’s an interesting blog on Arctic political, military and business developments:
• Anatoly Karlin, Arctic Progress.
Here’s the overview:
Today, global warming is kick-starting Arctic history. The accelerating melting of Arctic sea ice promises to open up circumpolar shipping routes, halving the time needed for container ships and tankers to travel between Europe and East Asia. As the ice and permafrost retreat, the physical infrastructure of industrial civilization will overspread the region […]. The four major populated regions encircling the Arctic Ocean—Alaska, Russia, Canada, Scandinavia (ARCS)—are all set for massive economic expansion in the decades ahead. But the flowering of industrial civilization’s fruit in the thawing Far North carries within it the seeds of its perils. The opening of the Arctic is making border disputes more serious and spurring Russian and Canadian military buildups in the region. The warming of the Arctic could also accelerate global warming—and not just through the increased economic activity and hydrocarbons production. One disturbing possibility is that the melting of the Siberian permafrost will release vast amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is far more potent than CO2, into the atmosphere, and tip the world into runaway climate change.
But anyway, unlike many people, I’m not mentioning risks associated with geoengineering in order to instantly foreclose discussion of it, because I know there are also risks associated with not doing it. If we rule out doing anything really new because it’s too expensive or too risky, we might wind up locking ourselves in a "business as usual" scenario. And that could be even more risky—and perhaps ultimately more expensive as well.
GB: Yes, no end of problems. Most impressive is how they look like a descending spiral, self-reinforcing.
Certainly countries now scramble for Arctic resources, trade routes opened by thawing—all likely to become hotly contested strategic assets. So too melting Himalayan glaciers can perhaps trigger "water wars" in Asia—especially India and China, two vast lands of very different cultures. Then, coming on later, come rising sea levels. Florida starts to go away. The list is endless and therefore uninteresting. We all saturate.
So droughts, floods, desertification, hammering weather events—they draw ever less attention as they grow more common. Maybe Darfur is the first "climate war." It’s plausible.
The Arctic is the canary in the climate coalmine. Cutting CO2 emissions will take far too long to significantly affect the sea ice. Permafrost melts there, giving additional positive feedback. Methane release from the not-so-perma-frost is the most dangerous amplifying feedback in the entire carbon cycle. As John Nissen has repeatedly called attention to, the permafrost permamelt holds a staggering 1.5 trillion tons of frozen carbon, about twice as much carbon as is in the atmosphere. Much would emerge as methane. Methane is 25 times as potent a heat-trapping gas as CO2 over a century, and 72 times as potent over the first 20 years! The carbon is locked in a freezer. Yet that’s the part of the planet warming up the fastest. Really bad news:
• Kevin Schaefer, Tingjun Zhang, Lori Bruhwiler and Andrew P. Barrett, Amount and timing of permafrost carbon release in response to climate warming, Tellus, 15 February 2011.
Particularly interesting is the slowing of thermohaline circulation. In John Nissen’s "two scenarios" work there’s an uncomfortably cool future—if the Gulf Stream were to be diverted by meltwater flowing into NW Atlantic. There’s also an unbearably hot future, if the methane from not-so-permafrost and causes global warming to spiral out of control. So we have a terrifying menu.
JB: I recently interviewed Nathan Urban here. He explained a paper where he estimated the chance that the Atlantic current you’re talking about could collapse. (Technically, it’s the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, not quite the same as the Gulf Stream.) They got a 10% chance of it happening in two centuries, assuming a business as usual scenario. But there are a lot of uncertainties in the modeling here.
Back to geoengineering. I want to talk about some ways it could go wrong, how soon we’d find out if it did, and what we could do then.
For example, you say we’ll put sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere below 15 kilometers, and most of the ozone is above 20 kilometers. That’s good, but then I wonder how much sulfur dioxide will diffuse upwards. As the name suggests, the stratosphere is "stratified" —there’s not much turbulence. That’s reassuring. But I guess one reason to do experiments is to see exactly what really happens.
GB: It’s really the only way to go forward. I fear we are now in the Decade of Dithering that will end with the deadly 2020s. Only then will experiments get done and issues engaged. All else, as tempting as ideas and simulations are, spell delay if they do not couple with real field experiments—from nozzle sizes on up to albedo measures —which finally decide.
JB: Okay. But what are some other things that could go wrong with this sulfur dioxide scheme? I know you’re not eager to focus on the dangers, but you must be able to imagine some plausible ones: you’re an SF writer, after all. If you say you can’t think of any, I won’t believe you! And part of good design is looking for possible failure modes.
GB: Plenty an go wrong with so vast an idea. But we can learn from volcanoes, that give us useful experiments, though sloppy and noisy ones, about putting aerosols into the air. Monitoring those can teach us a lot with little expense.
We can fail to get the aerosols to avoid clumping, so they fall out too fast. Or we can somehow trigger a big shift in rainfall patterns—a special danger in a system already loaded with surplus energy, as is already displaying anomalies like the bitter winters in Europe, floods in Pakistan, drought in Darfur. Indeed, some of Alan Robock’s simulations of Arctic aerosol use show a several percent decline in monsoon rain—though that may be a plus, since flooding is the #1 cause of death and destruction during the Indian monsoon.
Mostly, it might just plain fail to work. Guessing outcomes is useless, though. Here’s where experiment rules, not simulations. This is engineering, which learns from mistakes. Consider the early days of aviation. Having more time to develop and test a system gives more time to learn how to avoid unwanted impacts. Of course, having a system ready also increases the probability of premature deployment; life is about choices and dangers.
More important right now than developing capability, is understanding the consequences of deployment of that capability by doing field experiments. One thing we know: both science and engineering advance most quickly by using the dance of theory with experiment. Neglecting this, preferring only experiment, is a fundamental mistake.