Tag Archives: Arctic Sea Ice

New Research on RMS #Titanic, Icebergs, Climate Change

On April 14th, 1912, the RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg during her maiden voyage. The collision occurred at 11:40 PM ships time, and by 2:20 AM the ship broke apart and foundered with over a thousand people still on board. Of the 2,224 people on board just over 700 were rescued.

There have been a number of theories about the iceberg; where did it come from, why were there so many icebergs in the area at the time, how big was it, and so on. It has become general belief that the number of ice bergs in the area was exceptionally large. However, a new paper released a few minutes ago suggests that this is not the case, and also questions some of the other theories about ice berg calving that year are also now in question.

The paper is “Iceberg risk in the Titanic year of 1912: was it exceptional?” by Grant R. Bigg and David J. Wilton of the University of Sheffield, published in the journal Weather.

Yes, there were a lot of icebergs that year, about 2.5 times above the average year. Iceberg experts focus on the number of ice bergs that float south of 48 degrees N latitude, and during the iceberg season of 1912 it is estimated that 1038 of the things passed that line. So that’s a lot, but according to this research, it is less than the 90th percentile for the century-plus period for which data are available.

Importantly, the number of icebergs in the region has gone up recently. Figure 4 from the paper shows the erratic annual data, with a clear increase in the last several decades.

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 8.14.24 AM

One question we might ask is this: How is it that with more icebergs floating around in this major shipping zone we don’t see more ships sinking? In fact, the International Ice Patrol, which was formed after, and because of, the Titanic disaster, makes the remarkable claim that no ship that has followed procedures and advice of the IIP has been significantly damaged by an iceberg since then.

There are probably a few reasons for this. The main reason is probably the IIP itself, which keeps track of icebergs and provides important information to the ships. Another set of reasons probably has to do with the technology of seeing icebergs and communicating about them. This makes the iceberg situation along the Labrador and Newfoundland coast a microcosm of a larger question we have these days about the effects of climate change. There has been a recent and rather heated debate about this. Roger Pielke Junior has produced a number of studies that seem to show that there has been no effect of climate change on the outcome of natural disasters such as major storms. There are a number of reasons that this research is probably wrong, including the fact that the effects of major storms has increased in some cases because of factors directly linked to climate change. The most obvious of this includes increased sea surface temperatures powering up a handful of otherwise already large hurricanes to cause more of a punch (eg. Katrina, Haiyan, Sandy) and increased sea levels resulting in higher storm surges. But also missing from Pielke’s analysis is the fact that some of the effect, or more exactly, the cost, of such events is prepaid in the form of preparation. New York City was aware of the fact that their subways were likely to flood when Superstorm Sandy came along (which itself may have been an effect of climate change due to increased sea surface temperatures and unusual steering winds resulting from Arctic Amplification effects) so they were able to shut down or otherwise secure certain systems. For that to happen there needed to be an ongoing system of making predictions about tropical storms. Similarly, rebuilding or retrofitting infrastructure to handle larger storm surges is something we are going to see all along coastal areas. Also, properties that may have been high value because of their sea-side location in many areas now have very little residential or commercial value because they have to be disoccupied.

In the case of North Atlantic Icebergs, ships don’t run into them because we have spent time, effort, and money to not let that happen, every year since the Titanic. If one did a Pielke style analysis of the effects of icebergs in the region it might look like this:

A Pielke Style Analysis of the effects of climate change via iceberg-ship collisions
A Pielke Style Analysis of the effects of climate change via iceberg-ship collisions

And that would be misleading.

The current budget of the IIP is just under 6.0 million dollars a year, which doesn’t seem like much given the benefits, but to this we must add the additional costs of ships following suboptimal routes because of iceberg threats and the costs of all those technologies and procedures that they follow. The point is, the cost of increased icebergs in the North Atlantic is not zero based on a lack of collisions. It is non-zero and to the extent that there is a correlation between bad iceberg years and costs, it is increased with more icebergs and there are more icebergs.

The researchers carried out a nifty modeling program of iceberg formation in the Titanic year, in part to test some of the ideas previously presented. One of the more interesting ideas was that an exceptionally high tide had lifted the glacial margins more than usual and this caused the production of more icebergs than usual. But this research sowed that the Titanic iceberg came from a part of the Greenland coast that would have been frozen fast during that short interval, so this is unlikely. Also, the increase that year as well as at other times of iceberg formation is thought to be related to a change in weather conditions in Greenland. This is complicated and not well understood, and the subject of work in progress by one of the authors. For now, it appears that relatively warm conditions in the Arctic result in changes in snowfall pattern that affect iceberg formation in the fall, which then propagates to additional icebergs passing south of 48 degrees North latitude over the next few years.

Between the increase in iceberg formation under current warm Arctic conditions and the extreme lack of sea ice in the region which tempts ships north, we can expect there to be more potential contacts between boat and ice over coming years. I’m thinking the International Ice Patrol should get a funding bump. Just in case.

Climate Trends in the Arctic as Observed from Space: It's melting. Fast.

Earth’s northern ice cap is heating up and melting down at an alarming, not previously predicted, rate. A paper just out in Wiley Interndisciplary Reviews: Climate Change, by Josefino Comiso and Dorothy Hall looks at recent historic transformations in the Arctic using satellite imagery, mainly from 1979 to the present. The decline of Arctic ice is so extreme that ice thought to have existed for over 1450 years is melting now. (None of the sea ice is really ancient, even the “old” ice recycles over geologically short time periods. But in the near future there will be virtually no “old” ice left in the region.)

According to author Josefino Cosimo, of NASA, “The Arctic region has been warming faster than anywhere else in the globe from 1981 to 2012. Such warming is manifested strongly in all components of the cryosphere in the Northern Hemisphere.”

The following list of chilling, or rather, not chilling, facts is paraphrased from the paper:

  • Warming in the region has been amplified … with the rate of warming observed to be ~0.60±0.07 o
    C per decade in the Arctic (>64 oN) compared to ~0.2 o C per decade globally during the last three decades.
  • sea ice extent has been declining at the rate of ~3.8% per decade,
  • while the perennial ice (represented by summer ice minimum) is declining at a much greater rate of ~11.5% per decade.
  • Spring snow cover [is] declining by –2.12 % per decade for the period 1967 to 2012.
  • The Greenland ice sheet has been losing mass at the rate of ~123 Gt per year (sea level
    equivalence of 0.34 mm per year) during the period from 1993 to 2010
  • for the period 2005 to 2010, a higher rate of [Greenland ice sheet] mass loss of ~228 Gt per year has been observed.
  • the average area of mountain glaciers has declined by as much as 10% per decade during the period from 1960 to 2000.
  • Increases in permafrost temperature have also been measured in many parts of the Northern
    Hemisphere while a thickening of the active layer that overlies permafrost and a thinning of
    seasonally-frozen ground has also been reported.

Here is the movie version of this review paper:

The review looks at clouds, albedo, and the Arctic Oscillation for insight as to how this is all happening. The Arctic Oscillation is one of those medium-term climate variations (like ENSO) which involves a large scale shift in the movement of air masses from one perennial pattern to another, often accompanied by effects having to do with sea surface temperatures or sea currents.

The Arctic Oscillation (AO), often referred to as Northern Annular Mode (NAM), has been regarded as among the most dominant modes in the [Northern Hemisphere], affecting atmospheric circulation and climate in the Arctic. Its direct impacts on the sea ice cover and wind circulation patterns have been evaluated using AO indices as presented for the entire year on a monthly basis in Figure 9a and for the winter period in Figure 9b. The plots show that the indices for both monthly and for the winter season are mainly positive since 1988 although there are years (e.g., 2010) when they become strongly negative. It has been previously reported that negative AO indices are associated with extensive ice cover while positive indices would correspond to a reduced sea ice cover. However, the indices have become nearly neutral in the recent decade while the sea ice cover continued to decline.

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 6.37.41 PM

The authors conclude that the link between the Arctic Oscillation and recent changes in the Arctic is unclear. This is hard to interpret without further research but it may be bad news: The recent changes seen in the Arctic and possibly effects not covered in this paper (but discussed frequently on this blog) on global weather don’t seem to be associated with “natural variation.”

The graphic at the top of the post is figure one from the paper, and has this caption: Location Map of the Arctic Region including average sea ice extent (yellow line), sea ice cover during record minimum in summer of 2012 (shades of white), continuous and discontinuous permafrost (shades of pink), glacier locations (gold dots) and snow cover (average location of 50% snow line in black and maximum snow line in green as inferred from MODIS data).

Josefino C. Comiso, Dorothy K. Hall, Climate trends in the Arctic as observed from space, WIREs Climate Change, DOI: 10.1002/wcc.277

Arctic Sea Ice Extent In Perspective [UPDATED May 1 '14]

I’m going to update this graph every now and then.

There are 12 lines on this graph.

The colorful squiggles up along the top are the first ten years of Arctic Sea ice extent for the period for which we have really good data. So this is 1979 – 1988. There is reason to believe that this is the “normal” sea ice extent track over the year from which we have seen significant deviation over recent decades.

The dark thick line is the average of all of the years from 1979 to 2010. Notice that the first ten years are all above the average except for a few little bits.

The partial line below all of the other lines is the current year, ticking along. I think this graphic provides a good perspective on Arctic Sea ice because we can watch the current state of the ice in comparison to what is reasonably described as “normal.” (I discuss this more here.)

I’ll replace this graphic now and then and re-tweet and re-facebook the post so it all stays in one place. If I’ve not done that in a while and you want me to do it, just let me know.

Data and graphic are from here.

Has the Arctic Sea ice extent peaked for the year?

Above is the nifty interactive graphic from the National Snow and Ice Data Center showing sea ice extent in the Arctic for the current year (the lower squiggle). This year’s squiggle looks like a peak, and it is possible that Arctic Sea ice extent is now on the decline. Minimum extent is typically reached in September.

The other squiggles are all the years since 1979 that seem to have had peaks later in the year than this year’s apparent peak of a couple of days ago. Those years are 1992, 1997, 1999, and 2010. In other words, for the available data set, four out of 34 years, or just over 10% of the years, had sea ice extent peaks that post date March 21st, which appears to be this year’s peak. There is still a chance that more ice will be added and this year’s squiggle will see an uptick. Well, I guess it is fair to say that there’s about a one in ten chance of that happening. But, I hear the Arctic is a bit warm and that the ice is getting all breaky-uppy so that seems like it might be a high estimate.

This is probably not too important because the relationship between what the ice does during its maximum extent and what the ice does during its minimum extent is seemingly random, and it is the minimum extent that counts.

You will recall that I’ve predicted the minimum extent of sea ice this year, here.

The degree to which sea ice extent is reduced is important. It normally melts to some degree every year, but when it melts a lot the open sea can absorb more heat from the sun, and there is less shiny ice to reflect sunlight away. This causes extra warming in the Arctic, a phenomenon known as Arctic Amplification, which may be implicated in changing large scale weather systems, resulting in the phenomenon known as Weather Whiplash.

Tracking Arctic Sea Ice

A few days ago I made a prediction for this year’s minimum Arctic Sea Ice extent. That’s still valid. Or not. Either way, it’s still my prediction.

But looking at the ice over the last few days, we see that for the first time in a while the extent of ice estimated by the NSICD has stopped hugging the -2SD line and is rising upwards like a chilly Phoenix rising out of slush ashes. In fact, one could even say that Arctic Sea Ice has recovered! Just look at the last eight days of data!

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 9.36.20 AM

Think I’m cherry picking? It’s possible, let’s look at the larger picture, over a whole year’s cycle:

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 9.37.52 AM

Well, even looking at the data at this scale, the sudden upswing in ice is still impressive. This happens frequently, but actually, not every year. Just now and then. Is there an explanation?

Of course there’s an explanation! But I have no idea what it is and the ice experts are not saying much. I’m thinking this is just part of the normal up and down in either measurement error or actual freeziess of ice. Something like this could have more to do with wind than anything else.

This is the time of year, this week, maybe next week, when the maximum Arctic Sea ice extent is typically reached. We are actually past the peak day for some recent years. So keep an eye on this squiggle, it will start to drop soon.

There are several reasons this is interesting. One is the insight it gives in the psychology of climate change denialism. The extent of Arctic Sea ice is important in relation to climate change, so pretending that there has not been a dramatic drop in minimum extent over recent years is essential in order to keep the lie that climate change is not real up and running. Two years ago the drop in sea ice was extremely dramatic, and then last year, the drop in sea ice extent returned to it’s usual merely alarming level, much lower than most recent years, continuing the downward trend. That caused denialists to scream and yell and dance and throw their arms in the air, claiming that the Arctic Sea Ice has recovered. This is roughly equivalent to watching a crash at a NASCAR race with metal flying everywhere, cars on fire, tires rolling away at high speed, but then one of the cars lands on it’s bottom side instead of its top side and everyone goes “Look, there was no accident, yay!”

The main reason this is all important, though, putting the anti-science crowd aside (where they should be put) is simply the fact that as sea ice diminished from year to year, during the summer, the Arctic Sea warms even more, and the planet as a whole gets to warm a bit as well because of the exposure of the dark ocean waters and lack of bright shiny solar-energy-reflecting ice. This has cause the Arctic to warm faster than other regions of the planet. The differential of heat between the warmer equator and cooler poles drives and shapes our climate system. This “amplification” of arctic temperatures relative to the rest of the globe has almost certainly altered weather patterns, and mostly not in a good way.

So, expect more of that, perhaps.

Any bets on which day will be the maximum extent of Arctic Sea ice this year?

I’m going to say that using to the NSICD chart shown here, it will end up being March 19th, tomorrow.

What is causing the California drought?

Peter Sinclair has tackled this difficult topic with an excellent video and informative blog post. The blog post is here, and I’ve pasted the video below.

This is a complicated issue. The water problem in California is obviously made worse by increased demands from population growth and expansion of agriculture. Under “normal” (natural) conditions, California and the American Southwest is fairly dry and can undergo extra dry periods. But climate change seems to be playing a role here as well. It appears that recent lack of rain in the region is the result of changes in atmospheric circulation that can be linked to anthropogenic global warming. Warm air also increases evaporation and decreases snow pack. When rain falls it tends more often to be in the form of heavy downpours, and thus, more runoff (not to mention landslides).

Peter also talks about Jacob Sewall’s model, ten years ago, that predicted the current situation as an outcome of reduced ice cover in the Arctic. Over at Significant Figures, Peter Gleick also talks about the California drought: Clarifying the Discussion about California Drought and Climate Change.

Photo Credit: Fikret Onal via Compfight cc

Other posts of interest:

Also of interest: In Search of Sungudogo: A novel of adventure and mystery, which is also an alternative history of the Skeptics Movement.

How much will the Arctic Sea ice melt this year?

We are reaching the point where Arctic Sea ice tends to max out, in terms of extent (I will not be talking about volume here, though that is vitally important). Using data provided by the National Snow and Ice Data Center, I ran an informal “Science by Spreadsheet” analysis and came up with a prediction for the minimum extent of sea ice this year, which would be some time in September.

This is mostly a seat of the pants analysis and don’t take it too seriously, but feel free to put your bets in the comments section.

The data over the last few decades shows a generally declining extent of sea ice, especially at the minimum in September. But the maximum extent (where we are now, typically) seems uncorrelated to the minimum extent. Different processes are involved at different times of the year. Also, the shape of those data indicate to me a shift form a slower annual decline to a faster annual decline, happening some time around 1995 or 1996. So, I used September data only from 1996 to last year. I ran a simple regression analysis and from the model it produced I calculate that the AVERAGE September value of sea ice (an odd number that no one ever uses, but I have it anyway) will be 4.1 million square kilometers.

Using the minima for September for this range of years, the MINIMUM sea ice extent for 2014 is predicted to be 3.9458 million square kilometers.

This places this year’s minimum above the extraordinary year of 2012, which to cherry picking denialists will mean a “recovery” (though it isn’t) but below any prior year. The value will be somewhere in the crudely drawn box on this chart:

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 11.50.42 AM

We’ll see.

The other thing going on right now, obviously, is the shift from adding ice to removing ice that happens as the seasons shift. It looks like the ice may be starting its seasonal decline now, but in previous years, the squiggly line representing sea ice extent has continued to squiggle up and down for a few more days. In a week or so I think we’ll have a better idea. But it is quite possible that the highest value was reached over the last few days. Again, we’ll see.

Arctic Ice and the Polar Vortex, #SochiSlush (Updated)

Everything is about ice these days, what with the Winter Olympics in full swing. Concerns that the temperatures at the mountain venue of Sochi would be problematically high have panned out; the lower parts of the downhill slopes are slushy and the bottom of the half-pipe is all bumbly wumply. Injuries and lost medal opportunities are mounting up every day, in part caused by the unusual “Spring” conditions.

We all know the Arctic Vortex has been sitting on the middle of North America, and this has caused near zero F temperatures, often as low as -20F, here in central Minnesota. The same weather pattern has been bringing interesting storms across the American South, including, apparently, a nasty ice storm for Georgia (the state, not the Republic) tonight. Meanwhile we hear of very warm weather in Alaska and Eurasia.

So, if the Polar Vortex is here in the Twin Cities (plus or minus some 1,500 miles or so), what is going on in the Arctic? Is the sea ice at a relatively low level at this time of year when it should be reaching a maximum? How have the temperatures been, say, in Greenland?

Before I show you, I have to warn you of two important things. First, this time of year, early February, is a bad time to predict the next summer’s sea ice melt. Likely, there will be plenty of melting, and we can say that simply because for the last decade that has been the new norm. But looking at the current and recent data on sea ice extent does not accurately predict the minimum sea ice extent in September, when it will likely be at its lowest. (Well, to be honest, I don’t actually know this prediction can’t be made but I’m pretty sure that’s right). The second, countervailing issue is this: Climate scientists who look at these things seem to be about evenly divided between those who think we may have some sort of El Nino late this year, vs. not. This would determine in part warmer vs. cooler conditions generally. So, this post has to be regarded as highly speculative.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center has a nice “Interactive Sea Ice Graph” that you can play with to look at past years’ march of ice melting and re-freezing on the surface of the Arctic Ocean. Here, I’ve selected the base graph which has the average from 1981-2010 plus or minus 2 standard deviations (in gray) and the data so far for 2014. As you can see, we are at the lower end of the 2SD range.

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Meanwhile, the Dark Snow Project blog has a post by Jason Box with this interesting graph:


Those are temperature anomalies in the Arctic region over the first 30-something days of this year. This shows unusual warmth. Now, compare that to a different graph from the same site:


That is “…the US for the region bounded by 70 to 105 longitude west and 38 to 55 latitude north.” In other words, that’s where the Arctic Vortex has been hanging out. So, yes, as I’ve mentioned before, the Arctic cold is here, not up in the Arctic. Up in the Arctic it is relatively warm. Jason also has this map showing the pattern using a different graphical technique. Remember, these are anomalies, departures from a 1981-2010 baseline, not absolute temperatures.

Temperature_2014_33-37_anom-1024x951 (1)

Go to the original post to get huge giant versions of these graphics.

The Arctic Sea Ice Blog has a lot more on the current situation. Also, Jason Box has this video released a few days ago and written up at Climate Denial Crock of the Week:

I repeat, it is too early to say what is going to happen during this year’s melt in the Arctic. But, this is a good time to start observing, as we will be passing typical peak sea ice in just under a month.

The Recovery of Arctic Sea Ice Extent

During the northern Winter, much of the Arctic is covered with sea ice. Some of this ice melts during the summer, then it regrows. Over recent years, the amount of ice loss in the summer has tended to increase, almost every year, year after year. In 2012 the loss of sea ice was extreme, falling for much of the melting and re-freezing cycle below any year seen before.

The year 2013 was also extreme, with more ice melting away in the summer than almost every previous year, but not to the extent seen in 2012.

Climate science denialist used this fact to make up a story. In this case, the word “story” is a nice way of saying “lie.” The denialists claimed that Arctic Sea Ice was “recovering.” Well, it was, sort of. Sea ice in 2013 was more extensive than the previous year, but still at a very low level. Part of the “recovery” story was the assertion that the sea ice would not return to “normal” levels year after year. A cycle was simply repeating itself.

The problem with the cycle idea is that there is no really a cycle. In a non-global-warming world there probably would be something that looks like a cycle, or at least a decadal (or something) fluctuation from year to year. But with global warming we have seen a phenomenon called “Arctic Amplification.” This is the warming of the arctic region to a greater extent than most of the rest of the plant. With Arctic Amplification we have seen sea ice extent drop nearly every year for about 20 years. I’ve written about the importance of this here. This does not seem to be a cycle, but rather, a downward trend. The fact that 2012 was extreme makes 2013 look like a reversal, but there is no reason to think that it is.

Now it is Winter in the Arctic. When we look at sea ice extent, we see something interesting. The current level of sea ice is hugging the 98th percentile of observed sea ice extent, at the lower margin. More interestingly, when we compare 2012, the “recovery” year, with the current ice extent, it turns out that the current ice extent is less than the “recovery.”

Here’s a graph from the National Snow and Ice Data Center:

Screen Shot 2014-01-15 at 2.00.48 PM

And here’s the larger scale graphic for context:
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Jim Pettit, commenting here, noted, “…just wanted to note that denialists have now gone silent on the “recovery” of NH sea ice extent, since that reading is currently several hundred thousands square kilometers lower than it was on this date in 2012, the year of the record melt-out.”

I can not verify Jim’s statement about denialists going silent, but it seems right. I’m not sure what the best way to measure that would be (seems like a lot of work) and I don’t think we have to. Paying too much attention to denialist rhetoric is a waste of time. But I think he may well be right. The answer to the statement “Global warming is not real because SEA ICE RECOVERY” was, several weeks ago, “Right … recovery from an extreme year, but the ice is still less than almost every observed previous year.” The answer to that same assertion is now “Um …. nope.”

The graphic at the top of this post speaks to volume rather than extent. I put it there just to remind everyone that volume is probably even more important, as this reflects loss of long-term ice and also involves a lot more global-warming related energy. If the huge volume of sea ice wasn’t there to melt in the summer, that heat would be elsewhere in the system. When there is virtually no “old ice” left … well, that will be like the ice in your drink melting. It (your drink, the planet, whatever) will get warm and icky.

Global Warming and Extreme Weather – #climate #agw

We call it “weather whiplash.” This is not just meteorologists being funny. It is a phenomenon that perhaps has always been with us to some degree, but that has recently become much more common, apparently. If you were under the impression that there is a lot of strange weather going on out there, you may be right, and weather whiplash may be the phenomenon you’ve noticed. Importantly, there is good reason to believe that weather whiplash is the result of anthropogenic global warming. In other words, it’s your fault, so please do pay attention.

Weather patterns tend to move latitudinally across the globe. You’ll get a period of no rain or snow for a while punctuated by precipitation, then the precipitation moves on and it is dry again for a while. The typical pattern of dry and precipitation in a given region changes by season, but if you compare one season to the next over several years there is normally a pattern. In some areas it is mostly wet with some dry, other areas mostly dry with some wet, other areas somewhere in between. The same can be said of cold vs. warm air masses.

Here in Minnesota, May and June tend to have repeated intense storm fronts moving through every few days for a few weeks, though the exact timing of when this stormy weather starts and ends, and how long it lasts, varies. Also, the nature of the storms varies, with some years having many tornadoes, some years having mostly straight line winds, etc. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, I get the impression that August is usually relatively dry and cool. Many Minnesotans who have cabins way up north regard August as the first month of fall, that’s how cool it is. Where you live there is a pattern, and you’ve probably noticed it.

Weather whiplash is when this happens: Instead of periods of dry and wet alternating as they normally do, one of those two patterns (dry or wet) gets stuck in place for a period of time. I get the impression that dry periods, when they get stuck, get stuck for many days in a row, while wet periods get stuck for less time. The reason for that may be this: The dry air masses that get stuck are larger because high pressure systems are big and tend to be dry, while wet weather systems are smaller. So, if all the weather got stuck all at once in the northern temperate region, more landscape would be under dry, clear skies and less landscape would be under wet, cloudy skies.

And of course, a gentle fluctuation back and forth between warmer and colder conditions is replaced, under weather whiplash conditions, with long periods of cooler or long periods of warmer weather.

Here’s the problem. If the weather is warm-cool-warm-cool over a periods of two weeks, it never gets that warm or cool. But if it is just warm-warm-warm-warm over a period of two weeks, that’s a heat wave. The heat builds and it gets warmer and warmer and warmer until it is just plain stinking hot. Or, conversely, if the weather is cool-cool-cool-cool and that happens mid winter, that’s a cold snap. Or, like happened this year in Minnesota, it can get cool-cool-cool-cool just at the time we should be having some spring rains, so instead we get spring snows for a month. Residents of the Twin Cities feel the pain of this even now, because the entire construction season (we have two season here, “Winter” and “Construction”) was delayed by a month due to weather whiplash, and the Minnesota Department of Public Works and county and local DPW’s have been working extra hard at ruining our commute today so that our commute can be better at some unspecified time in the future, right after the pigs start flying.

If the weather patterns sit in one place for a long time and cold or heat or dry or rain builds up … so you get a cold snap, heat wave, drought, or floods … then one part of weather whiplash is in effect. Then, the weather shifts and where there was once hot and dry, and thus maybe fires that denude the landscape, you have floods, made worse not only because of the stalled system but also because the fires prepped the grounds for greater runoff, erosion, and land slides. That’s the full weather whiplash pattern. Seemingly interminable weather of one kind suddenly replaced by seemingly interminable weather of another, perhaps opposite kind. Snap.

Farmers have to put their crops in late because of a long period of cool and wet conditions. Then the weather clears and everything is nice and dry, so the farmers plant later than ideal, but at least they get to plant. But then the nice and dry conditions are like the proverbial TV in-laws and never seem to want to leave, and good planting conditions turn into a worrying period of not enough rain and that turns into a moderate drought, and that turns into a severe drought. Then, just as you are about to harvest the half dead corn and maybe use it for halloween decorations because it is not good for anything else, the weather whiplashes on you again and your half dead crops are mowed down by a series of hail storms. This is not good for farmers.

Weather whiplash does seem to be a recent phenomenon, even if stalled systems can actually happen at any time. I think this is true because people like Paul Douglas seem to think it is true, people who have been watching the weather every day for years. It is hard to find a simple comprehensive set of data that demonstrates this, however. One way to look at this is to examine the frequency of “natural disasters” of various types over time, according to the people who know most about such things: the insurance industry. Following is a graph just for the US. I assume that weather whiplash is a global Northern Hemisphere phenomenon (maybe also Southern Hemisphere, but for various reasons maybe not; see below). I also assume that while the United States, being fairly large, is thus a good sample of the Northern Hemisphere, weather whiplash might be happening more in Eurasia one year and more in the US another year. However, there is reason to believe that that would not be the case to any large degree because the jet stream waviness is a global thing. Anyway, here’s a data set in the form of a chart from the insurance industry showing natural disasters in the US from 1980 to 2011. It is from this document (PDF).


Clearly there is an increase in the overall number of disasters. Climatological events including extreme temperature, drought, and forest fires increase across the time period of consideration. Floods and mass movement of water also clearly increases across this time period. Storms also increase. Geophysical events on the other hand, don’t. This is, of course, what we would expect if weather related events were having more of an impact. Is this weather whiplash?

One could argue that global warming would increase extreme temperature conditions and drought without anything special like weather whiplash happening. Also, global warming can increase rain and flood related problems because warmer air and seas means more evaporation. And, certainly, that is what has occurred over time.

And this is a very important point that I keep telling people but I’m not sure how well it has gotten across. Adding heat to the atmosphere may add moisture, and it may add drying conditions as well. It might increase storminess, or the intensity of some storms. But that is just a quantitative change in the weather, caused by global warming, and while important it is still a simple matter of degree.

Weather whiplash is not a quantitative change in weather patterns. It is not just a bit more rain or a bit more heat in what might otherwise be a rainy day or a hot day. Weather whiplash is a qualitative change in the patterns of weather. Qualitative, large scale features of climate (and weather) give us things like desserts and rain forests. They give us seasonal patterns. They give us expectations of a wet spring that gets dry enough to plant, enough rain falling in small enough bouts to keep the crops growing over the summer, and a reasonably dry fall so the harvesting machinery can get out in the fields and bring in the sheaves. Or, if there is a qualitative shift in the climate and weather, like weather whiplash becoming a common phenomenon, it might be that you can’t really grow corn where you were thinking you could, or if so, you need a different approach. And since all we eat and grow is corn, we are in big trouble. It might mean that the idea of living in excessively quaint villages next to medium size creeks in very large mountains is simply not an option any more, because “1,000 year floods” can happen any time if weather whiplash happens to aim its cruel cat-o-nine-tails at your quaintness.

The qualitatively distinct phenomenon of weather whiplash … the multi-day or even multi-week long stalling of weather patterns … builds on incremental increases in dryness of air (due to heat) and increased wetness of other air (due to increased evaporation) and increased storms (due to increased energy in the atmosphere) and make all that worse.

Imagine you have the habit of tossing the daily accumulation of spare change that forms in your pockets in random locations around your house at the end of each day. Then, something changes in your pattern of behavior and you end up coming home with more change every day (the price of something you frequently buy goes from 95 cents to $1.05, and you only pay with dollar bills). You still toss the change randomly, but now there is somewhat more spare change on your nightstand, on the table by the front door, in that basket on the desk in your study, in the laundry room. That’s a quantitative increase in spare change due to a change in the nature of making change during the day. It could matter, you might notice it, it may suddenly become worth it for the teenager in your household to volunteer to help clean the house if they can keep all the change. But it is just a matter of degree.

But what if you ALSO change what you do with the change. Instead of randomly dropping the change in a large number of locations, you change your pattern and most of the time you empty most of the change from most of your pockets into the single basket on your desk in the study. In short order you would have a lot of change in one place not only because you are accumulating more every day but also, and really, mainly, because you are putting it all in one place. Soon there would be many dollars worth of quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies in your basket, enough to take to the bank. Now, THAT’s change we can believe in!

Weather whiplash on top of increased moisture in the air brought us drought and fire followed by unprecedented rainfall in Colorado just a couple of weeks ago. It flooded Central Europe and Calgary, Alberta. It brought killer cold and heat waves to Eurasia and North America over the last couple of years. It blocked Hurricane Super-Franken-Storm Sandy and steered it into New York and New Jersey about a year ago. It brought a “Flash Drought” to the US midwest this summer. And so on and so forth.

That, dear reader, is change we better believe in.

OK, but how does weather whiplash happen? I’ve explained this before (here) but I’ll give you a quick run down now in case you are to lazy to click on that link.

There are mysterious processes at work. They are not mysterious to climate scientists who can do calculus, of course, but they are a little hard to explain in a straight forward process without using analogies that ultimately break down. But I’l use a couple of analogies anyway. Feel free to complain about them in the comments, or offer better ones!

First, this: Climate is all about excess heat moving from the equatorial regions to the poles. When it does so across the troposphere, big-giant patterns of air movement are set up. These patterns can be thought of as giant twisting donuts of air encircling the earth (though that is only a rough description, on a simpler planet it would be very accurate). Air at the equator rises, moves away from the equator and cools, then sink, and works its way back towards the equator. Then, the next donut in line does same thing but twisting in a different direction. And so on. In cross section, it looks like this:


The junctions between these giant twisting donuts, at altitude, are the jet streams.

Weather generally moves along and within these donuts, nudged along and otherwise affected by the jet streams, in the manner described at the beginning of this post. Dry-wet-dry-wet or cool-warm-cool-warm, at the scale of days. Or, should I say, this regular pattern of normal variation happens as long as the jet streams are straight and all normal and stuff.

Here’s a depiction of the jet streams being fairly normal (from here):


But it does not always work that way. Visualize a straight river with a flat gravel bottom moving along at a reasonable clip in front of you. Observe the hibiscus flowers released by plants upstream (as happens in some tropical rivers) floating by each in a regular linear pattern. The river is a giant twisting donut, the hibiscus flowers are weather events. Now, drop a big log halfway across the river so one end is on the bank, and the other end is out in the middle of the river and pointing slightly upstream. Now, the water is partly trapped, and forms a vortex upstream from the log, and also, a vortex going perhaps in the opposite direction forms downstream from the log. The hibiscus flowers trapped in the vortex now fail to float by, but rather, spin and spin and spin and remain in the same place. Dozens of these flowers might get trapped in place, and beneath the surface, even the gravel is starting to mound up under parts of the stream that are moving slower, and dug out in other parts. Where that vortex occurs, above the log, will be many hibiscus flowers, or, rain storms, over a period of time. Perhaps below the log there will then be a paucity of hibiscus flowers, or, drought, for a period of time. Eventually the log gets lose, rolls downstream a ways, and gets stuck again. Then, some other part of the river … some other region … gets to experience the stuck vortex.


When the gradient in heat between the tropics and the poles is at a certain level, you get a nice straight jet stream most of the time. When the gradient drops, for complex reasons involving calculus and such, the whole donut-jet stream thing gets all messed up like the river with the log dropped across it, and the jet streams fold up in to these big curves called “Rossby waves.”


Over the recent years, we have experienced general global warming, and this has caused the sea ice that covers much of the Arctic Sea to melt more in the summer than it usually does. This has caused the whole northern region to become warmer because there is less reflective ice and more open ocean to collect sunlight. This has caused even more melting of the ice, and over the last decade we’ve seen a catastrophic reduction in sumer arctic ice that, while it was expected that this would happen over time, has occurred at a shocking rate of speed that has kinda freaked everybody out. This warming of the Arctic in relation to everywhere else is called “Arctic Amplification.” Arctic amplification has caused the differential of equatorial vs. polar temperature to shift, and this has caused the Rossby waves to form.

The waves themselves don’t move at all or move only very slowly for several days, and form vortex patterns to their north (which are low pressure systems) and to their south (which are high pressure systems). The air moving along the jet stream itself also slows down. So, any wether pattern that might just float by like a hibiscus flower on a tropical river instead sits here and either rains on you for a week or shines bright sun on you for a week, or whatever. Then, the waves move or disappear and reform elsewhere, like the log getting lose and rolling down stream for a ways, and the place that was for several days dry is now for several days wet.

Wether whiplash.

Jet stream all messed up.
Jet stream all messed up.

So, is there any evidence that weather whiplash has been happening more frequently in recent years other than so many meteorologists simply claiming it has?

I asked a number of colleagues who work with climate and weather if there was a readily available database showing jet stream waviness and big storm events that could be converted into a human-understandable picture, or graph, or something, of this change over time. I had already read two recent papers that looked at this phenomenon but they are highly technical and on their own don’t have graphics that do the job. So, I asked one of the authors of one of those papers about a quick little trick (OMG HE USED THE WORD TRICK IN RELATION TO CLIMATE) to convert one of their more complicate graphs into something more obvious. Below, I provide you with the original graphic and the one I generated from it. This shows the frequency over time in a limited size study area (not the whole Northern Hemisphere) of conditions under which Rossby waves would cause weather whiplash conditions. Remember, this is just a sample of the planet in both time and space, not the actual number of times this happens. But, the sampling is uniform over several decades, so if there is an increasing trend of jet-stream curviness at the level that could cause wether whiplash, it will be shown, more or less, here. The numbers are so small that I don’t even attempt a test of significance. This is provisional. Suggesting. For fun. If one can call the outcome of weather whiplash fun, which you really cant. Anyway, check out these two items:

Screen Shot 2013-09-28 at 8.13.57 PM

…and, from this figure, I created the following graphic, counting the number of QR events (the squares) per unit time evenly divided across the sampling period:


Here’s the thing. We can’t easily say that there is a qualitatively new climate system in place, because by definition “climate” is what happens over 30 years of time. There is no “new climate” that is five or ten years old. That, however, is not because of a natural process. It is because of how climate science has evolved. It makes sense for climate scientists to think in multi-decade chunks of time because climate really does vary at levels less than 20 or 30 years time, normally. Taking a normal climate science perspective, we can be pretty sure that “weather warming” is a new climate regime some time around the middle of the 21st century when there is enough data!

But this is a problem. If the situation is changing rapidly enough it will be hard for methods that have evolved in climatology to respond to, or even, really, “see” it. Trying to understand weather whiplash by long term study of the climate system is a bit like using the publicly available long term FBI crime stats that were last updated two years ago to assess whether or not your house is being broken into right now.

As you know, the IPCC report on the scientific evidence related to climate change is coming out just now. That report is not so sure about changes in weather severity or storminess or stuff like weather whiplash. Some weather changes are acknolwedged as very likely, others, the IPCC report is much more equivocal about. However, there are very few people in climate science right now that don’t think something like weather whiplash is probably happening, and many are well convinced of it. The problem is that the IPCC reporting process is more like climate than weather in its temporal scale!

The IPCC reporting process has a time lag of several years; the final, most policy related report for this cycle will be out in some 12 months from now, a year after the first report in the cycle, the one with the science in it. In a few years from now, and not likely before, there will be important people sitting in important room in important buildings talking about climate. Someone will say “is drought a thing?” and someone else will say “IPCC says they are only moderately sure at best that drought is a thing.” It won’t matter that the conversation is happening in July 2015 and the last piece of data in the IPCC report is from 2011 and drought has been a dominant result of weather whiplash for five years … enough time to overlap with but not influence the IPCC conclusions.

Weather whiplash is almost certainly for real.

Finally, here are two videos that also go into this topic. From the Yale Climate Forum, “New video couples interviews with two experts — Rutgers’ Jennifer Francis and Weather Underground’s Jeff Masters — to explore the ‘Why?’ of two years of mirror images of weather across North America”

…and “”Wummer.” Just days ago, it looked and felt like winter in many cities across the the Midwest. Then whammo, it’s summer with record breaking heat across several Midwest states. Yes, double digit snowfalls to triple digit heat all within a matter of days. Meteorologist Paul Douglas says this takes Weather Whiplash to a whole new level.”

Is Annual Arctic Sea Ice On Decent Track For A Change?

Andrew Revkin thinks so:


It is hard to interpret this as meaning anything other than the crisis of Arctic Sea ice melting too much and too fast is over. This is an important thing, because the rapid and widespread melting of sea ice in the Arctic seems to be causing a thing called Arctic Amplification, which means in normal human terms that the Arctic is warmer (amplified) than normal. This causes a decrease in the differential between equatorial heat and polar heat in the Northern Hemisphere which seems to change the way the Jet Streams operate which in turn causes Weather Whiplash, where we have days and days of warm air being drawn north into “ridges” under the Jet Stream or colder air being drawn south into “troughs” in the Jet Stream. Our Minnesota Snowy April, the current midwest Heat Wave, severe cold in Siberia a while back, flooding in Central Europe, etc. etc. all are effects of the warped and slow moving waves in the Jet Stream. Climate math seams to explain the warping and stalling of the Jet Stream as a function of Arctic Amplification, and Arctic Amplification is clearly the result of a warmer northern sea which is caused by exposure of the sea to more energy from the sun because the ice is reduced. The ice is reduced because of global warming, and this is positive feedback effect.

If the Arctic Sea ice melt is “on a decent track” than this might mean a) global warming isn’t really happening and/or b) the Arctic Sea ice to amplification to jet stream warping and stalling to weather whiplash connection isn’t valid. So, that would be important. So let’s see if Andy is Revkin the Right or Revkin the Wrong on this one.

Here is a graph of the track of Arctic Sea ice melt for a period of ten years for the first years in which good measurements are available, from the National Snow & Ice Date Center. Since the recent changes in the Arctic post date this time period, we can take this to be more or less “normal.”


The black, thicker line along the bottom of these other lines is the average ice track from 1981-2010. Note that the sea ice for this ten year baseline period is almost never below that line. The baseline for “on track” is the average of these ten years, and I’ll leave it to you to imagine a line running along the midpoint of the observed ice tracks from 1979 to 1988.

Now, here is the same graph but for the ten year period prior to 2012:


For this later time period, the nature of Arctic Sea ice is fundamentally different than before. This is the period of time that the Arctic Sea has been warming. This is the period of time that Arctic Amplification has becoming more severe. This is the period of time that the weather has been changing. This is the period of time that has been affected by anthropogenic global warming. Sea ice tracks that are within this range are not “on track.” They are probably better characterized as “messed up.”

The following is the same data showing the ice track from 2012 and the present year to date.

The year 2012 was exceptional. It was the most melty of the measured years. This year, is in fact, “on track” but not “on track” to be normal. It is “on track” to be one of the years in which the melting is excessive, and it is “on track” to contribute to Arctic Amplification. It could be worse. It could look like 2012, or even worse, I suppose. But it is not good.

I know it is hard to see all the lines in these graphs when many are selected for display on the Charctic Interactive Sea Ice Graphing Tool, but the years that are not as melty as the present year are all the years prior to the shift documented above, and 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006 from after the shift. So, one way of looking at this year is that it is more or less average for the “new normal.” It is “on track” for more weather whiplash.

It is actually good news that the Arctic Sea Ice melting is not worse this year than last year, or even as bad this year as some previous years. But it takes a bit of imagination, or perhaps serves some intent that I find difficult to fathom, to suggest that this year things in the Arctic are on a decent track. Arctic Sea ice melt this year is not decent.

And, all this is about sea ice coverage. There is a more severe problem happening that these graphs don’t show; the melting of old ice, ice that is thicker, with multiple years all jammed up into thicker ice, has been severe over recent years. This ice is important because it forms the foundation on which new sea ice forms every year. Even if the climate went back to “normal” because some technology was invented that sucked all the extra Carbon Dioxide out of the atmosphere to return us to pre-industrial levels was implemented, the lack of old ice would mean that regeneration of sea ice in the Arctic each year would be difficult, and it would probably take several year get the Arctic Sea back to a decent track. For a change.

Here’s Mike Mann’s tweet response to Revkin’s tweet, which says the same thing I say in this blog post but in fewer than 140 characters:


(Professor Mann’s link is to the same data source I use above.)

The Recovery of Arctic Sea Ice

Every northern summer Arctic Sea ice melts away and reforms for winter, but how much melts away seems to be increasing on average, at a rate that surprises climate scientists.

But there are some who see variation from year to year, and there is variation, in a rather unrealistic way. Here is a graph comparing how climate science denialists view arctic sea ice over time, compare to how “climate realists” (i.e., smart people who can read graphs and such) see it:


Go HERE to see the source and learn more about what is behind this graph.

At All Scales, Global Warming Is Real

Large ponderous entities like the IPCC or government agencies like NOAA take forever to make basic statements about climate change, for a variety of reasons. They are going to have to speed up their process or risk losing some relevance. Among the coming problems we anticipate with global warming will be events that have huge, widespread effects and that happen in time scales of weeks or months, or a season, and having a nice governmental report about it two years later isn’t going to do anybody any good. So let’s see to that problem, please (looking sternly at IPCC and NOAA).

But that’s not really what I want to talk about here. Rather, I want to give a wether/climate report that operates at several scales because the information comes to us on several scales and is about stuff that happens at several scales.

First, expect excessive heat in 2012! Or, rather, expect that when the data are finished being analyzed, 2012 will be one of the top ten hottest years on record, despite the fact that the whiny-pants climate science denialists keep saying that global warming has stopped. This is from an annual report from NOAA that looks at the year as a whole, the previous year, many months after the year is over. Also, the Arctic is melting much faster than anyone expected over the last decade or so:

Worldwide, 2012 was among the 10 warmest years on record according to the 2012 State of the Climate report released online today by the American Meteorological Society (AMS). The peer-reviewed report, with scientists from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., serving as lead editors, was compiled by 384 scientists from 52 countries (highlights, full report). It provides a detailed update on global climate indicators, notable weather events, and other data collected by environmental monitoring stations and instruments on land, sea, ice, and sky.

“Many of the events that made 2012 such an interesting year are part of the long-term trends we see in a changing and varying climate — carbon levels are climbing, sea levels are rising, Arctic sea ice is melting, and our planet as a whole is becoming a warmer place,” said Acting NOAA Administrator Kathryn D. Sullivan, Ph.D. “This annual report is well-researched, well-respected, and well-used; it is a superb example of the timely, actionable climate information that people need from NOAA to help prepare for extremes in our ever-changing environment.”

Conditions in the Arctic were a major story of 2012, with the region experiencing unprecedented change and breaking several records. Sea ice shrank to its smallest “summer minimum” extent since satellite records began 34 years ago. In addition, more than 97 percent of the Greenland ice sheet showed some form of melt during the summer, four times greater than the 1981–2010 average melt extent.

So, here we have two scales of events being reported at one large scale of reporting and study. How does one year stand among more than a century of years, we learn after a year of data collection and 8 months of study and report preparation? What gives in the Arctic over one year in relation to about two or three decades of years, again looked at with months of digestion of a year of data? And, the same report verifies that extreme, often killer, weather (which generally happens over scale of minutes through days) is now normal. So get used to it.

At a somewhat different scale of time, we hear this news from Alaska: The village of Newtok, on the Bering Sea, is being inundated by rising sea levels and they want to move, but political snags seem to be halting the process. This village is probably going to be entirely gone in four years and hardly anybody lives there. This gives us great hope that we will be able to move Boston and New York over the next few decades! (Not)

While we’re still in the Arctic, there is a new study that shows that the Arctic Sea ice as a whole has lost about 15% of its albedo. Here we have a decadal time scale of climate change and a week-long cycle of memic change. First, we had “OMG Santa” with puddles at the North Pole. Then we had “Oh those silly puddles” at the north pole. Now we have the puddles at the north pole being a key factor in the rapid melting of the Arctic Sea ice, which is one of the most significant things going on the Global Warming front now.

And now we are about to experience, it seems, at the scale of a few days an event that may push the current year into infamy among three decades of Arctic Ice melting; a storm is brewing in the Arctic, which together with a wind-generating high pressure system, may blast the ice off much of the Arctic Sea. This is normal … the storms being part of the ice melt. What happens is this: Every time there is a storm or set of storms, the rate of melt goes up and in between stormy periods it slows. You can see this in the minor wiggly-wobbly-ness happening within a given year of Arctic Sea ice melt like in this graph:

Wiggly Wobbly Icy Wisey Stuff
Wiggly Wobbly Icy Wisey Stuff

We are about to hit a new wobbly. A big one, I think.

North Pole Puddles Are Important After All

Remember those puddles at the North Pole that at first everyone said were not important, then when someone realized that they were only puddles so a new meme formed and everyone said they are not important? They’re important. From the abstract of a new study, just out:

The surface albedo of the Arctic sea-ice zone is a crucial component in the energy budget of the Arctic region. The treatment of sea-ice albedo has been identified as an important source of variability in the future sea-ice mass loss forecasts in coupled climate models. … Here we present an analysis of observed changes in the mean albedo of the Arctic sea-ice zone using a data set consisting of 28 years of homogenized satellite data. Along with the albedo reduction resulting from the well-known loss of late-summer sea-ice cover, we show that the mean albedo of the remaining Arctic sea-ice zone is decreasing.

New Scientist reports that the darkening is a result of the ice getting thinner and “… the formation of open water fissures, and partly because in the warmer air, ponds of liquid water form on the surface of the ice. The shallow ponds on the ice can dramatically reduce reflectivity and increase the amount of solar radiation that the ice absorbs.”

So now let’s get a new meme going. Maybe something with a polar bear and a puddle and …. a shark, because this is shark month after all!