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Romm reports: "Ever since satellites allowed a detailed view of the Arctic and its ice, a pronounced decrease in summer sea ice cover has been observed (with this year setting a new record low)."

Arctic sea ice melting in Lancaster Sound, Nunavut, Canada. (photo: Louise Murray/Science Photo Library)
Arctic sea ice melting in Lancaster Sound, Nunavut, Canada. (photo: Louise Murray/Science Photo Library)

Why the Arctic Sea Ice Death Spiral Matters

By Joe Romm, ThinkProgress

27 August 12


n the past week the Arctic sea ice cover reached an all-time low, several weeks before previous records, several weeks before the end of the melting season. The long-term decline of Arctic sea ice has been incredibly fast, and at this point a sudden reversal of events doesn't seem likely. The question no longer seems to be "will we see an ice-free Arctic?" but "how soon will we see it?". By running the Arctic Sea Ice blog for the past three years I've learned much about the importance of Arctic sea ice. With the help of Kevin McKinney I've written the piece below, which is a summary of all the potential consequences of disappearing Arctic sea ice.

Arctic sea ice became a recurrent feature on planet Earth around 47 million years ago. Since the start of the current ice age, about 2.5 million years ago, the Arctic Ocean has been completely covered with sea ice. Only during interglacials, like the one we are in now, does some of the sea ice melt during summer, when the top of the planet is oriented a bit more towards the Sun and receives large amounts of sunlight for several summer months. Even then, when winter starts, the ice-free portion of the Arctic Ocean freezes over again with a new layer of sea ice.

Since the dawn of human civilization, 5000 to 8000 years ago, this annual ebb and flow of melting and freezing Arctic sea ice has been more or less consistent. There were periods when more ice melted during summer, and periods when less melted. However, a radical shift has occurred in recent times. Ever since satellites allowed a detailed view of the Arctic and its ice, a pronounced decrease in summer sea ice cover has been observed (with this year setting a new record low). When the IPCC released its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, it was generally thought that the Arctic could become ice-free somewhere near the end of this century. But changes in the Arctic have progressed at such speed that most experts now think 2030 might see an ice-free Arctic for the first time. Some say it could even happen this decade.

What makes this event significant, is the role Arctic sea ice plays as a reflector of solar energy. Ice is white and therefore reflects a large part of incoming sunlight back out to space. But where there is no ice, dark ocean water absorbs most of the sunlight and thus heats up. The less ice there is, the more the water heats up, melting more ice. This feedback has all kinds of consequences for the Arctic region. Disappearing ice can be good for species such as tiny algae that profit from the warmer waters and extended growing season, but no sea ice could spell catastrophe for larger animals that hunt or give birth to offspring on the ice. Rapidly changing conditions also have repercussions for human populations whose income and culture depend on sea ice. Their communities literally melt and wash away as the sea ice no longer acts as a buffer to weaken wave action.

But what happens in the Arctic, doesn't stay in the Arctic. The rapid disappearance of sea ice cover can have consequences that are felt all over the Northern Hemisphere, due to the effects it has on atmospheric patterns. As the ice pack becomes smaller ever earlier into the melting season, more and more sunlight gets soaked up by dark ocean waters, effectively warming up the ocean. The heat and moisture that are then released to the atmosphere in fall and winter could be leading to disturbances of the jet stream, the high-altitude wind that separates warm air to its south from cold air to the north. A destabilized jet stream becomes more 'wavy', allowing frigid air to plunge farther south, a possible factor in the extreme winters that were experienced all around the Northern Hemisphere in recent years. Another side-effect is that as the jet stream waves become larger, they slow down or even stall at times, leading to a significant increase in so-called blocking events. These cause extreme weather simply because they lead to unusually prolonged conditions of one type or another. The recent prolonged heatwave, drought and wildfires in the USA are one example of what can happen; another is the cool, dull and extremely wet first half of summer 2012 in the UK and other parts of Eurasia.

The accumulation of heat in Arctic waters also influences other frozen parts of the Arctic, such as glaciers and ice caps on Greenland and in the Canadian Archipelago. As there is less and less sea ice to act as a buffer, more energy can go into melting glaciers from below and warming the air above them. This has a marked effect on Greenland's marine-terminating glaciers and the Greenland Ice Sheet. Not only are glaciers flowing faster towards sea, but there is also a rapid increase in the summer surface melt Greenland experiences, leading to accelerating mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet. As the Arctic warms, an increased contribution to sea level rise is inevitable.

Another way Arctic warming could have worldwide consequences is through its influence on permafrost. Permanently frozen soils worldwide contain 1400-1700 Gigatons of carbon, about four times more than all the carbon emitted by human activity in modern times. A 2008 study found that a period of abrupt sea-ice loss could lead to rapid soil thaw, as far as 900 miles inland. Apart from widespread damage to infrastructure (roads, houses) in northern territories, resulting annual carbon emissions could eventually amount to 15-35 percent of today's yearly emissions from human activities, making the reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere a much more difficult task.

An even more worrying potential source of greenhouse gases is the methane in the seabed of the Arctic Ocean, notably off the coast of Siberia. These so-called clathrates contain an estimated 1400 Gigatons of methane, a more potent though shorter-lived greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Methane clathrate, a form of water ice that contains a large amount of methane within its crystal structure, remains stable under a combination of high pressure and low temperature. At a depth of 50 meters or less the East Siberian Arctic Shelf contains the shallowest methane clathrate deposits, and is thus most vulnerable to rising water temperatures. Current methane concentrations in the Arctic already average about 1.90 parts per million, the highest in 400,000 years.

Apart from these unrecoverable sources of fossil fuel the Arctic is also endowed with large amounts of recoverable oil and natural gas. As the sea ice retreats, the Arctic's fossil treasures are eyed greedily by large corporations and nations bordering the Arctic Ocean. Not only might this lead to geopolitical tensions in a world where energy is rapidly becoming more expensive, it is also highly ironic that the most likely cause of the disappearance of Arctic sea ice - the extraction and burning of fossil fuels - could lead to more extraction of said fuels. Another feedback loop.

News articles referring to the Arctic and its sea ice usually have pictures of polar bears accompanying the text. But although many animals in the Arctic will be impacted negatively by the vanishing of Arctic sea ice, much more is at stake. After thousands of years in which the sea ice played a vital role in the relatively stable conditions under which modern civilization, agriculture and a 7 billion strong world population could develop, it increasingly looks as if warming caused by the emission of greenhouse gases is bringing an end to these stable conditions. Whether there still is time to save the Arctic sea ice, is difficult to tell, but consequences will not disappear when the ice is gone. It seems these can only be mitigated by keeping fossil fuels in the ground and out of the air. Whichever way you look at it, business-as-usual is not an option.

For more information on Arctic sea ice, check out the Arctic Sea Ice blog. your social media marketing partner


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+22 # universlman 2012-08-27 16:24
Unfortunately for us, business-as-usu al is just about the only option for the fossil fuel business. The wealth owned by these massive rich companies is the fossil fuel still in the ground. It is unlikely that these oil, gas and coal companies will ever voluntarily give up the exploitation of these reserves without a lot of pressure. The clock is ticking America.
+6 # JetpackAngel 2012-08-27 22:30
We are capable of harvesting energy from the wind and the sun. WHY do we have to keep raping the planet and sending it spiraling into an early grave?

Oh, wait, stupid question: because Our Betters said so, that's why.
+8 # skipb48 2012-08-28 07:32
Don't worry, the planet is not heading to an early grave, just the humans!
+7 # brianf 2012-08-28 08:43
It's not just the humans. We are taking many, many other species with us. In fact, we are quickly heading towards a mass extinction from which it could take millions of years to recover.
+1 # shraeve 2012-08-28 21:06
"...we are quickly heading towards a mass extinction from which it could take millions of years to recover."

If ever
+1 # shraeve 2012-08-28 21:18
I read that it is possible that the planet Venus used to be in the Goldilocks Zone. There is evidence that Venus used to have oceans.

Venus is the victim of runaway global warming. It can never support life as we know it again, because it has no water. Whatever water there may have been on Venus dissociated into oxygen and hydrogen, the hydrogen floated to the top of the atmosphere and was blown away by the solar wind.

It is possible the same thing could happen to Earth. Venus is not that much closer to the Sun than Earth is. We should not assume the Earth's atmosphere will stabilize itself in time to preserve the biosphere.
-4 # ojkelly 2012-08-28 03:49
Thank you. What days of blog have comment on the Greenland complete ice melt? The NYT article mentioned a 150 year periodicity, is that addressed?
+5 # brianf 2012-08-28 08:45
That was for the unusual event of virtually the entire surface of Greenland melting at the same time. As for the total melt per year, the trend has been increasing and accelerating. It is not a cycle.
+3 # Billy Bob 2012-08-28 18:46
Sure it's a cycle. Think of it as a unicycle being driven off a cliff (sarcasm).

Or as a cycle of millions of years (not hundreds). Unfortunately for us, the human species is only adapted to live in THIS climate. Apparently it's ok with some people to actually cause a cycle that includes the destruction of human civilization.

All that talk about "natural cycles" is yet another attempt to distract people from dealing with reality.
+13 # Pancho 2012-08-28 04:31
The Koch agenda is prominent at the RNC convention, with a lot of noise about "business killing" regulations, anthropogenic global warming denialism, and pushing for the XL pipeline or anything else on the brothers' Christmas list.

It's amazing that even otherwise intelligent people can buy into this bullshit. It helps if they're fundamentalists as well, because then the can interpret the world through what they call a "Biblical lens" that doesn't represent anything vaguely approaching reality.
+1 # Billy Bob 2012-08-28 18:41
I agree.

Also, the XL Pipeline is a HUGE difference between Obama and romney.

Obama has so far refused to build it.

Romney said he'll "build it himself" if he has to to get it done.

A vote for a 3rd party is a vote for the TAR SANDS pipeline to go right through the middle of our country and affect the underground water supply.
+6 # ruttaro 2012-08-28 05:28
I believe it is vitally important that we go further than just write a quick comment expressing our fears and opinions. As a college professor I tell my students that the singular most important issue facing them is climate change. As the article describes so well, climate change is not just about temperature changes but has feedback loops that affect everything including geopolitical issues, species survival and human civilization (if we manage to survive). I tell them that it is very likely they may see the extinction of the polar bear and that will be a too-late focusing event. Thus, their destiny being shaped by others who will not be there to share in the havoc being created. Our youth need to shape their own future.

We must send this article to everyone we know. We are fast approaching the precipice. And remind them that one party, the Republican Party has an energy plan that is solely about increasing fossil fuels which is the equivalent to a slow d mass suicide. Alternatives exist and with some help through policy we can begin the reduction of carbon now.

All of us must act. Remind people especially the youth that this is their election. This one matters more to them than anyone else. Stand with them; demand a coherent energy plan that addresses lowering GHG emissions, taxes carbon (makes the market fair) and invests in the transition to renewables. Make this a political issue that Romney and Congress must address.
+1 # X Dane 2012-08-30 00:08
I am so glad that you are a professor, and in a position to influence young people. They are the ones who MUST fight for the survival of our planet. Way too many of mature and the older people will not understand what is going on, and what they are condemning their children to live through........ .and die from
What will happen.

I DO speak up, but I can not reach as many young people as you can,
0 # ruttaro 2012-08-30 21:50
X Dane,
Thanks for your kind remarks. I agree that the mature and the older people have different priorities but they do have children and grandchildren, too. This is the leverage, the fact that can shift enough of them to realize the importance of the course we are on and the parental responsibility to change it. Public opinion (by a significant margin across all political parties) shows that climate change is considered a serious issue and needs attention.
We cannot move the country to transition to renewables is due to the corporate control of our policy making institutions. The key is to get money out of politics - as I say so often - a constitutional amendment that makes all public elections publicly funded.
The technology for renewables is here. The political will to enact policies isn't. One of the first and most important policies we need to adopt right away is a carbon tax, which should have broad appeal to conservatives and other believers in the free market. After all, no carbon tax is socialism for corporations. Fossil fuel industries have been subsidized directly by the government and indirectly by distorting the market by not taxing carbon. A carbon tax would make renewables the most profitable alternative.
In the meantime, we have to keep the pressure on. We should forward reports, call our representatives , call our news media to cover stories and encourage the young to realize their power to change make their destiny.
-14 # rsb1 2012-08-28 05:42
I need to preface my comment by stating man-made pollution is unnecessary and that there is no reason for dependence on fossil fuel given the thousands of patents issued by the USTO for proven/viable alternatives - all of which are being sequestered by BIG OIL for purposes of protecting their monopoly.
Of course there's a melt-off ! That's exactly what happens when the Earth's geographic inclination to the sun is changed by 18 degrees as a result of the polar shift. There is recorded historical evidence since the year 982 telling the same sad tale in cycles of 666 years in Greenland. Maybe we should look to history for the solution. The historical record shows that the current changes to climate are naturally-occur ring cyclic phenomena – our planet’s magnetic poles are shifting in a heretofore apparent and easily explained manner. FACT: the current events of 2012 were predicted in 1841 (source: 1841 Edition of The New York Dissector, Vol 2, ppg 379-383)
And here’s the link:
None of the "scientists" who provide the senseless 'panic causing' propaganda seem to be thinking beyond their immediate references - the answer lies in the historical record and the application of scientific 'knowns'.
+15 # Billy Bob 2012-08-28 07:32
So let me get this straight...

Rather than relying on the overwhelming opinion of over 98% of CURRENT climatologists (that's SCIENTISTS SPECIALIZING in studying THE CLIMATE)...

you're relying on a magazine for surgeons from 1841?


If you bothered to read anything else in that ancient library photocopy, you'd notice that the magazine also discusses "the science" of "Magnetism of the Human Body"...

THIS IS A SERIOUS DISCUSSION and bringing up 171 year old articles by people who believed in MAGNETIC HEALING is a distraction and a waste of time for people who actually care about the human food supply.
+1 # poosta7 2012-08-29 11:25
rsb1: your "scientific theory" of shifting magnetic poles accounting for the global warming we are observing takes big oil and greenhouse gasses off the hook... let me quote an author i am sure you are devoted to and agree with, ayn rand:
"you can deny reality but you cannot deny the consequences of denying reality".
+3 # Scott479 2012-08-30 19:28
An issue this complex simply will not fit into the head of a republican.

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