Arctic Sea Ice Record Low Is “Broken”
On Monday, August the 27th 2012 the headline read “Arctic Ice Melts to record Low: US Researchers.” The New York Times rolled out “Satellites show sea ice in Arctic is at a record low.” These headlines claim this is yet another sign that man made global warming is real and is a threat to our future. Most people that read these headlines will not understand what is really behind them. Briefly, the amount of ice in the Arctic Ocean varies significantly through the year. Due to the tilt of the earth’s axis of 23.5 degrees from the vertical, the Arctic Ocean freezes solid in the winter when sun is below the horizon for months and the temperature plunges to 40 to 60 degrees below zero and colder. In the Arctic summer the sun is above the horizon 24 hours a day. The temperature climbs into the 30s and the ice melts until the fall when the sun gets lower and lower in the sky and eventually disappears into the dark of winter again. Given this large variation in Arctic sunlight and temperature through the year, there has always been a cyclic change in the amount of ice in the Arctic. The claim is that because there has been less ice in the Arctic Ocean at the end of the summer in recent years, this is proof of man made global warming.
The new “record low amount” of sea ice in the Arctic will be trumpeted by many as a sure sign that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is its cause. We teach young people history so they can hopefully place current events in some kind of proper context. In the same light, only by understanding the history of Arctic sea ice comings and goings will we be able to truly grasp the nature of how the Arctic ice varies naturally. Armed with that knowledge, in theory, we can then make wise decisions about what kinds of energy will drive the future. Unfortunately, it seems all written accounts of what the ice is doing in the Arctic lack any historical perspective. It would seem that either the writers don’t know the history or they choose not to include it.
Walt Meier, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado said that on one level the new record was “just a number and occasionally records are going to get set.” However he went on to say “But in the context of what’s happened in the last several years and throughout the satellite record, it’s an indication that the Arctic sea ice cover is fundamentally changing.”
It is this last quote that is most revealing. His statement strongly suggests that he believes that the changes in Arctic sea ice are unique. He states that “throughout the satellite record” the behavior of the Arctic sea ice has fundamentally changed. This statement is fundamentally not true. The satellite era he refers to started in 1979 with the launch and positioning of polar orbiting satellites. Orbiting from pole to pole, these satellites give scientists an all encompassing view of the amount of ice in the Arctic Ocean throughout the year, but the whole “history” is only 33 years old. For the first 15 years of satellite observations the amount of ice in the Arctic Ocean showed virtually no change from 1979 to 1994. By the late 1990s it was apparent that the amount of ice was starting to decline. So the “fundamental change” did not occur through the whole period of satellite measurement but started in the mid 1990s. Despite claims that this decline is being caused by increases in carbon dioxide the real answer is found in the cyclic warming and cooling of the North Atlantic Ocean.
Dr. William Gray of Colorado State University used this cycle of warming and cooling to correctly forecast the era of increased hurricane activity we are experiencing now. He made that prediction in the middle 1980s, ten years before the active hurricane cycle began. He knew then that the period of cooler North Atlantic water temperature that dominated the 1960s and through the 1980s would not last. He knew that the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation (AMO) would eventually turn warm again and this warmer water would fuel increased hurricane activity. This same warming of the North Atlantic waters, that started in the mid 1990s, coincides exactly with the decrease in the amount of ice in the Arctic Ocean. It is no mystery and is not caused by increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide which have been increasing steadily since we started measuring it in 1958. When the AMO is in its warm phase the Gulf Stream flows faster and pumps a larger volume of warmer water into the Arctic, raising the temperature and reducing the amount of ice. This warming lasts typically 25 to 35 years followed by a corresponding cooler phase. So if the North Atlantic Ocean temperature is cyclical the question now is this, what was the state of the Arctic ice the last time the Arctic was this warm?
“Our generation is living in a period when remarkable changes are taking place. Certainly these widely distributed phenomena cannot be due to the action of the Gulf Stream, which however naturally, receives its share of the greater general warmth.” Written by Professor L. Berg of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in the 1930s. During those years Soviet ice-breakers were in Arctic waters never reached by other vessels. The Soviet ship Sadko sailed in ice free waters to within 500 miles of the North Pole in 1935. This is not surprising. The AMO was in the warm phase in the 1930s and the NASA temperature data show that the Arctic temperature was as warm as it is today. It is odd (but not very surprising) that when the subject of melting Arctic ice is making headlines the stories never mention the warmth of the 1930s in the Arctic caused by the warm AMO. Perhaps it would make the news a little less dramatic.
The evidence of a warmer Arctic in the 1930s is abundant. Changes in the climate at Spitsbergen, Norway in the waters far to the north are a good indicator of the magnitude of the warming in the Arctic. “The effect (warming) was indeed remarkable. The salty Atlantic water penetrated farther into the Arctic to such a degree that, for example, the average length of the coal shipping season at Spitsbergen almost doubled in length, from 95 days from 1909-1912 to 175 days from 1930 to 1938″…Manley (1941). Another author wrote this, “The warming got a phenomenal increase in the 1930s of 9 degrees (Celsius). The culmination of this development is not yet foreseen. The winter of 1936/37 (at Spitsbergen) was warmer than all previous records, and the winter of 1937/38 broke this (those) records as well and was, in average 16 (Celsius!) degrees warmer than the winter of 1916/17. There can be no doubt that the temperature increase in the Arctic represents the largest climatic change since regular meteorological records are recorded.”…Scherhag, February 1939. Now doesn’t that sound familiar!
And then there is the issue of the great Arctic Storm of 2012. The storm peaked on August the 6th with a central barometric pressure of 964 millibars. This reading is extremely low for the Arctic in the summer indicating a very powerful storm. As a consequence of the storm, from august 7th through the 9th the sea ice in the Arctic declined 200,000 square kilometers or 77,220 square miles! The August 26th 2012 sea ice coverage was listed as being 4.10 million square kilometers or 1.58 million square miles. This figure is 70,000 square kilometers or 27,000 square miles below the September 18th 2007 record of 4.17 million square kilometers or 1.61 million square miles. The very strong winds associated with the storm produce large waves that broke up the ice. So as it turns out it wasn’t global warming that decreased the ice to “record” levels, it was a powerful storm. It is unlikely the media outlets will report this important detail.
Hysteria over man made global warming has clouded our view of what nature has been doing all along, causing cyclic warming and cooling in the Arctic and across the globe. A more reasoned historical perspective shows that the warming in the Arctic today is very similar to the warming there in the 1920s and 30s. We live in a world of rapidly changing communications technologies. Once dominant media outlets are shrinking, seeing reduced income and are trying to figure out how to survive. In this rapidly changing world of communications a reasoned, historical approach to understand our changing climate doesn’t get as much attention as yelling fire in a crowded room.