Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

Big doings on top of the world

I’m sure that virtually everyone who reads this blog is quite aware of what’s happened recently (and continues to happen) with Arctic ice. If you need a quick refresher, however…

The first two images are from the US NSIDC (National Snow and Ice Data Center). The last is from Cryosphere Today.

A few thoughts on all this no-longer-there ice…

  • If you’re interested in Arctic ice — and you bloody well should be — then you simply must read Neven’s Arctic Sea Ice blog.
  • The fact that we’ve seen such a dramatic drop in sea ice extent, area, and volume — with the extent approximately five standard deviations below the 1979-2000 average and well below the level during the previous low record year (2007) — isn’t really a surprise. Arctic ice has been declining steadily for decades, with a noted drop in thicker multi-year ice. The only questions were when we would have the first big plunge, and what exactly would trigger it. As Neven has documented, this year we didn’t see weather conditions particularly conducive to ice loss, but we did get the infamous “Arctic cyclone” that physically stirred things up and allowed a lot of ice to melt quicker. While no one should expect this to happen every year, it’s probably accurate to say that with a high portion of thinner, single-year ice up north, the stage will be set for such a plunge every year.
  • Look at the line in the first graph for the current year’s sea ice. Notice how it’s been virtually straight for over two weeks? It’s highly likely to drop quite a bit more before it bottoms out around the typical mid-September time frame. So we’re not just going to break the old record (which has happened already, obviously), we’re going to blow right by it. I won’t even attempt to guess what the new record will be, but it will be really low by historical standards.
  • Arctic ice loss is anything but an academic issue, of course. First, there is the little matter of Arctic amplification, a.k.a. albedo flip. Less ice = darker open water which absorbs more heat from sunlight. It’s third-grade science spread across millions of square miles. Second, opening up the Arctic means our fossil fuel friends will be racing to get at previously unreachable oil and natural gas deposits. More carbon for everyone!
  • As always, the question of whether this event, a new record low in Arctic sea ice, will affect the public perception of the climate change issue leaps to mind. At least it leaps to my mind, as well as those of some of my correspondents. In fact, I’ve had several somewhat heated (no pun intended) discussions in e-mail in recent days and weeks with climate cognoscenti who are convinced that This Time Will Be Different! The media will extract their heads from their hindquarters! The public will not just pay attention, but (at long last) they’ll Get It And Take Action! My view is that this is wildly optimistic. The media will barely cover it, the public will largely overlook it, and (yet again) Nothing Will Change.

T-minus 196 days.

6 comments to Big doings on top of the world

  • Sasparilla

    So well put, I always look forward to the thoughts of sanity on these pages.

    Lou, I think you’re right on the money as far as attention this gets – it’ll probably be less than when the 2007 record occurred as I doubt mainstream media will cover it these days (they’ll be talking about whether the new potential VP listens to rock music or the President offended Mrs. Romney etc.). Not that it really matters, IMHO, when it finally goe ice free in the summer (2020?), there will be some media coverage of that, but then the forces of not changing how things are will reassert themselves and we’ll get back to harvesting more hydrocarbon’s, till a suitably persistent, widespread and awful crisis occurs (as you have posited what it’ll take to overcome those forces of inertia in DC holding back action).

    Something that has been sticking in my head over this ice dive up on top of the world this year is the following. While I’ve known we’re going to loose the summer ice cap and several decades after that probably the winter ice cap (nothing we can do now to stop the summer loss, not sure about the winter) – I hadn’t felt the impact of what that meant, until I asked myself what will it take to get a year around arctic ice cap (after it disappears) back (if that is possible)…the answer is probably a lot lower than 350ppm…well how soon could we possibly do that…probably 22nd century if we’re on our game…which leads to the conclusion:

    That nobody that can read this will be around when we can possibly make the ice cap at the top of the planet permanent again after we loose the summer ice cap in 10 years or so. That brought home for me how far we’ve messed this situation up (and continuing to accelerate on that trajectory) – it won’t be possible for us to be around to see the ice cap fixed. True bummer…

    We’ll possibly be around to see the ship turned around – maybe…thank goodness for that chance…but to see the ice cap fixed isn’t even in the realm of possibility, IMHO.

  • Lewis Cleverdon

    Sasparilla – while I’d well agree over media focus on trivia despite the coming loss of summer ice, I don’t get your rationale for assuming that nothing more than emissions control will be enacted once climate destabilization blatantly generates geopolitical turmoil – via global crop failures, massive flood casualties, infrastructure loss, etc.

    I don’t think it is coincidence that Edward Teller (a lifelong global-power strategist) wrote the paper in ’95 on sulphate aerosol geo-engineering for use “in the event that it may be needed” – for it gave Cheyney the prospect of an off-switch for warming that allowed the policy post-2000 of the Brinkmanship of Inaction with China to appear risky but not suicidal.

    In short, I suggest that the US aims to use geo-e to control warming once the policy goal of China’s climatic destabilization is achieved. While I see major flaws in the assumptions behind that policy, to me it indicates that acknowledged options are not limited to emissions control, meaning that the use of geo-e (in one form or another whether unilaterally or via UN mandate) opens the prospect of restoring the icecap in the coming years. It seems fair to say that there would be no higher priority in terms of mitigating climate dynamics.

    So I’m puzzled as to why you appear to exclude geo-e from your prognosis – could you clarify this ?



  • Lou

    The issue that Sasparilla brings up is a great example of the kind of timing details I’m always harping about here. The fact that it’s one I hadn’t thought of makes it an even more useful contribution to the discussion. We are very likely about to enter a time (long, in human terms) where we have to teach kids that there used to be a LOT of ice up in the Arctic even in summer, and that area wasn’t speckled with oil/NG rigs and crisscrossed by commercial and military ships.

    Lewis’ point about geohacking is a good one, and while no politician would admit it, I think he’s pretty much got their game plan figured out: Let climate chaos ravage China (and India), and we can still “save ourselves” by resorting to a geohack or two (or three or…). Even aside from the revolting human prospects of such a path, I think that’s a very foolhardy approach, as it assumes we can be vastly more successful in containing both warming and ocean acidification than the evidence at hand suggests. I that really is the plan, it’s a gamble and display of arrogance and hubris of mind-blowing proportions.

  • Dave


    Won’t the use of sulphate aerosols contribute to acid rain and compound the issue of ocean acidification? This would be extremely detrimental in the shallows where run off pollutants have already decimated ecosystems. What are we going to do then, dump tons of limestone in the oce…hoo boy….

    I definitely agree on the hubris being among humanity’s biggest failings, along with normalcy bias and a lack of comprehension of exponential functions.

  • Lou


    I think it’s useful to divide geohacks into two broad categories: Those that mitigate the effects of airborne greenhouse gases (sulfate parasols, spreading billions of CDs across oceans to turn them into mirrors (made up example, obviously)) and those that actually remove GHG from the atmosphere. The first category does nothing about global warming’s “evil twin”, ocean acidification, among other shortcomings, as you pointed out, while the second group is insanely expensive if deployed on the scale needed. The latter category also runs the very real risk that as soon as we start sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere some countries will say, “See? It’s not such a bad thing that we’re still burning many millions of tons of coal every year, because it’s being pulled out somewhere else!”

  • Lewis Cleverdon

    Lou – I’d be the first to agree that geo-e could be done badly – both in intentional pollutants, and in failing to avoid weather side effects and in ‘offsetting’ ongoing GHG output.

    Which is why the starting point is the UN climate treaty, as binding emissions controls is the only means of clearing the offsetting issue;
    - a protocol within the treaty then has to mandate the terms of the scientific supervision of geo-e in accrediting projects’ formal objectives, technical research and development, and, if and when agreed, their trial deployment.

    This supervision has to cover both albedo restoration and carbon recovery – not only because both are requisite if we are to halt ocean acidification and control the feedbacks between now and 2080 (when our last additional GHGs’ timelagged warming could be realized) – but also because even carbon recovery could be done appallingly badly without proper governance. (E.g. mass-evicting poor farmers plus felling the rainforest to make space to plant vast GMO ‘super-clone’ monocultures).

    With regard to albedo restoration I’d urge consideration of the ‘cloud-brightening’ option rather than the high-altitude aerosols [HAAs] on grounds of its regional targetting ability (HAAs can only do global) of its 9-day rain-out period to halt ops (~2 years for HAAs) and natural sea salt being the working ingredient (HAAs have some very nasty cheap options).

    Given that even with a radical treaty commitment of near-zero by 2050, followed by a 30-year timelag on warming, 2080 is thus the earliest we stop adding to warming by emissions control, we have to face the fact that airborne GHGs would maintain that warmth for generations after 2080. Controlling the interactive feedbacks from running amok is thus essential if we are to avoid them dwarfing our emissions in the coming decades – and that means geo-e.

    That is the scale of the task we face – so it’s probably just as well that we’ve nothing better to do than to get it done. (I too could wish Reagan hadn’t mounted a coup against Carter, but such is life).

    All the best,