Arctic Sea Ice Retreat Shatters Previous Record – A Month Early

Posted on August 26, 2012

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On August 15th I posted a note about how the Greenland ice melt had already set a new record—a month early.  The thing about that record was that, although we knew a new record was set, we didn’t yet know what the record was, and wouldn’t know until some time in September when the Greenland melt season ended.   Still don’t.

Yet here we are, still in August, and we’ve set another Arctic melt record in another category, Arctic sea ice extent.  We know we haven’t reached the Arctic sea ice minimum yet, that may be a week to a month away, but there is already less sea ice coverage in the Arctic than at the end of the record-shattering 2007 season.

As with the Greenland ice melt, we are set to shatter the previous records.  The record low of 2007 won’t even come close to the record low we can expect this year.

People with some sense of what this news means are looking a little furrow-browed these days.

Aside from demonstrating that climate change is proceeding at a gallop, which is bad news in itself, here’s the problem.  We’ve got ourselves a bad feedback loop which is worsening warming without human help at all.

You see, Arctic sea ice reflects light back into space, which consequently doesn’t remain in the system warming us up.  It’s one of the Earth’s natural cooling systems which has been acting as air conditioner for the planet for the entirety of humanity’s existence here.  When the ice melts, however, the dark waters underneath are exposed, dark waters which absorb energy that previously used to be reflected into space, dark waters which warm up and accelerate the melting of  the remaining ice, exposing yet more dark waters, etc.

The more that open Arctic waters are exposed, the more the feedback warming effect.  (Which in the Arctic summer goes on 24 hours a day.  Land of the midnight sun, right?)

The Arctic is already warming much faster than areas south, and this record melting will only accelerate the process.  That means that the Arctic is no longer as cold in relation to the south as it used to be, a circumstance that has already tossed some loops into the jet stream.  The jet stream ushers weather systems west to east across the northern hemisphere.  Putting loops in it means that weather systems sometimes stall in place, hang around doing their business a lot longer than they used to.

What does that mean?  Imagine swiping your hand a couple of inches over a hot burner on your stove, or a cup under the running tap.  Without turning the burner or the tap any higher than they are, you can still make your hand hotter or fill the cup more full simply by slowing how fast you swipe your hand.

Thus, when a heat wave stays and stays, like your hand stationary over the burner, you get record-setting heatwaves.  Thus, when the rain system stays and stays, like a cup lingering a moment longer under the tap, you get floods.  Nothing else has to change (although in fact it has anyway) to push us into climate extremes of the type humanity has no experience with.  We saw that in the Russian heatwave, the European heatwave, the North American heatwave.  We saw that in worldwide flooding.

So then, returning to my original message:  A new record-blasting Arctic sea ice minimum? –Very bad news for all of us.

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See http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2012/08/an-update-on-the-arctic-sea-ice/

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/08/26/745571/why-the-arctic-sea-ice-death-spiral-matters/