Siberian tundra holes are a mystery to me

July 30th, 2014

An Australian news piece juxtaposes mysterious Siberian holes with my Arctic tundra carbon release concerns but I have no idea about the cause of the holes. As a physical geographer, I’m aware of pingos that these features resemble but these features are holes and pingos are mounds. If you ask me, talk to field scientists with expertise in permafrost. For further reporting on the mysterious holes, see here.

screenshot searching “Sberian hole” in Google images

 

Is the climate dragon awakening?

July 27th, 2014

Using a vast and credible set of climate measurements and physics, James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren makes the case that humans overloading the atmosphere with carbon would eventually trigger the release of vast additional carbon stores locked in shallow sea gas hydrates and from Arctic tundra.

In my professional opinion as a climatologist with more than 70 externally reviewed scientific publications, after 12 years of university education focused on atmospheric and oceanic science, and followed by 10 years of university lecturing on micro and mesoscale meteorology theory and instrumentation, Hansen’s warnings should be met with an aggressive atmospheric decarbonization program.  We have been too long on a trajectory pointed at an unmanageable climate calamity; runaway climate heating. If we don’t get atmospheric carbon down and cool the Arctic, the climate physics and recent observations tell me we will probably trigger the release of these vast carbon stores, dooming our kids’ to a hothouse Earth. That’s a tough statement to read when your worry budget is already full as most of ours is.

December 2013, I found myself in a packed room at the world’s largest science meeting, the AGU fall meeting. The session: “Cutting-Edge Challenges in Climate”. Invited speaker Dr. Lori Bruhwiler presented ”Arctic Permafrost and Carbon Climate Feedbacks” - a cautious, objective, and science-only [politics-free] survey of the Arctic carbon issue and what data we have. Also invited, Dr. Peter Wadhams pitched ”The cost to society of a methane outbreak from the East Siberian shelf”, off the fence, citing costs to humanity measured in trillions of $. My take home from the session was well paraphrased by Bruhwiler, citing a sparse observational network, concluding ‘we just can’t say much yet’. That was then…

The global network of greenhouse gas sampling stations as per NOAA

Clearly, considering the vastness of the Arctic, the network of ground-based observing stations does appear sparse, with a solitary station representing Siberia, at Tiksi, you’re left thinking that governments should do more to keep their finger on this pulse. On the pulse side, however, the measurements happening at Tiksi [and other sites in the network such as Alert and Pt. Barrow northern Alaska], I can tell you, are really high end; with BSRN radiometers, eddy covariance gas fluxes, gas flask sampling, etc., impressive and not inexpensive. What do these data tell us?

  1. A 30 year methane data series from Alert, far northern Canada, 30 year, includes an 8% increase in methane. This is the most recent 8% of the more than 250% humans have elevated methane since industrialism began year 1750 or so. The Tiksi record started recently is too short to deduce a trend. But it includes, like the other records in this network, 
  2. Methane records from this network include occasional spikes. Green symbols on the charts below indicate these extreme positive outliers. A reasonable hypothesis for the outliers marked below by me with dragon breath? [I had these labled WTF? ] would be: extreme outlying positive anomalies represent high methane concentration plumes emanating from tundra and/or oceanic sources. Another reasonable hypothesis would be: extreme outlying positive anomalies represent observational errors. What NOAA states:  the outliers “are thought to be not indicative of background conditions, and represent poorly mixed air masses influenced by local or regional anthropogenic sources or strong local biospheric sources or sinks. ” Fair enough. But, the dragon breath hypothesis has me losing sleep.
same spikes evident in 32 years of Pt. Barrow, Alaska data. here, I don’t bother to overlay the dragon breath?s.

While we don’t have permanent measurements floating over the oceanic centers of action, for example over the Eastern Siberian shallow continental shelf, we do have satellite data from the Infrared Atmospheric Sounding Interferometer (IASI) on board the Eumetsat Polar System (EPS) Metop-A Satellite. And as I know from installing/maintaing Arctic ground measurements and publishing articles assessing the quality of satellite-derived retrievals from the Arctic, most recently here, validation studies are needed. So, it’s good to find Xiong et al. (2013) who, using “596 methane vertical profiles from aircraft measurements by the HIAPER Pole-to-Pole Observations (HIPPO) program” find that the remotely sensed quantities are accurate and have a small (less than 2%) low bias. Yet, their assessment is for the part of the atmosphere well above the surface. Some accuracy findings for IASI over the Arctic are provided by the Yurganov et al. (AGU poster 2012) that concludes:

  • IASI data can be used as qualitative indicator of the Arctic Ocean methane emission.
  • Current methane growth in the Arctic, including 2012, is gradual.
  • Methane emission from the Arctic shelf has a maximum in September-October. [when sea ice minimum occurs]
  • Top-down emission estimates are difficult and may be very uncertain ( e. g., ± 100%)
  • If a sudden venting (bubbling) of methane would happen due to intense hydrates destruction, IASI would be able to detect it near real-time 

Now, a Sam Carana leads a group who have been blogging up a storm about methane estimates from the IASI sensor. Their messaging is alarming, connecting dots between methane maps they generate using IASI data and a number of rapidly changing Arctic climate elements: declining sea ice area, duration, volume; increasing air and sea surface temperature, wildfire.

My understanding was that the methane bubbles can’t or don’t make it to the surface, instead are converted to much less potent carbon dioxide before reaching the surface. Then, here’s what we hear from 4 days ago from a Swedish team now surveying the Laptev sea with a very high-end icebreaker, named for the main Norse god.

The Swedish team states “At several places, the methane “bubbles“ even rose to the ocean surface. That’s damn scary. Atmospheric methane release is a much bigger problem than atmospheric carbon dioxide release, since methane is ~20 times more powerful greenhouse gas. If as it seems, sea ice reduction is destabilizing the shallow Arctic Ocean continental shelf waters. Without the reflective cover, the ocean is taking on a lot more solar heating during the 24 h summer days, making it harder for the sea ice to reform, in a self compounding feedback process. Places like the Laptev and East Siberian seas, are shallow, and the water column can more easily be mixed by wind action than when sea ice cover was there. This new heating and mixing can be what unlocks the shallow sea gas hydrates, allowing the methane up to the surface.

The methane bubbles they filmed boiling up toward, even to the surface of the Arctic Ocean.

The story of methane bubbles coming to the surface is not actually that new. Here’s a 2011 pieceon the topic. Shakova et al (2013) suggest that: “significant quantities of methane are escaping the East Siberian Shelf as a result of the degradation of submarine permafrost over thousands of years. We suggest that bubbles and storms facilitate the flux of this methane to the overlying ocean and atmosphere, respectively

 

What’s the take home message, if you ask me? Because elevated atmospheric carbon from fossil fuel burning is the trigger mechanism poking the climate dragon. The trajectory we’re on is to awaken a runaway climate heating that will ravage global agricultural systems leading to mass famine, conflict. Sea level rise will be a small problem by comparison. We simply MUST lower atmospheric carbon emissions. This should start with limiting the burning of fossil fuels from conventional sources; chiefly coal, followed by tar sands [block the pipeline]; reduce fossil fuel use elsewhere for example in liquid transportation fuels; engage in a massive reforestation program to have side benefits of sustainable timber, reduced desertification, animal habitat, aquaculture; and redirect fossil fuel subsidies to renewable energy subsidies. This is an all hands on deck moment. We’re in the age of consequences.

There are still questions, of course, but the cautionary principle makes clear we have to keep this dragon in the ground.

Phoenix Glacier relic ice

September 10th, 2013

I’m in South Greenland drilling low tech metal pipes into the ice to calibrate high tech satellite, aircraft, and model data.

Flying over this landscape, it’s stunning how much the ice has retreated. Annual (let alone summer) average air temperatures at nearby Narsarsuaq have been above the melting point 39 of the past 51 years [1]. Unequivocal evidence of rapid ice retreat; relic stranded ice [2] was what led Denmark to support scientists at GEUS to install modern ice monitoring measurements in 2001. The observations are now called “Q transect” as part of the PROMICE network around Greenland.

I was stunned to witness (and photograph) more stranded relic ice on the sides of the glacier. Notice how no ice is feeding Phoenix’s wings from upstream.

The glacier’s current shape resembles a Phoenix, with wings (relic ice) outstretched to the front, and the phoenix has a demise, like this glacier.

We’re here surveying the damage with Shane Smith of Vice media for an up coming spot on HBO.

Vice supported the installation of six ablation stakes at elevations between 390 and 1100 m on the Qassimiut lobe of the ice sheet, hence the name Q transect.

 The stakes are carefully tied into a coordinate system using the antenna at the upper right recording the site elevation and horizontal position by differential GPS.

This Phoenix should of course rise again, but not until after another ice age. When that happens? It’s gonna be a while.

Follow @PromiceGL on Twitter.

Work Cited

  • [1] Cappelen, John, DMI Monthly Climate Data Collection 1768-2010, Denmark, The Faroe Islands and Greenland. Dansk Meteorol. Inst. Tech. Rap., 11-05, 54 pp, 2011.
  • [2] Podlech; Steffen, Christoph Mayer, Carl Egede Bøggild, Glacier Retreat, Mass-Balance and Thinning: Sermilik Glacier, South Greenland, Geografiska Annaler: Series A, Physical Geography, Volume 86, Issue 4, pages 305–317, December 2004, DOI: 10.1111/j.0435-3676.2004.00234.x

Visiting and monitoring South Greenland dark ice

August 16th, 2013

I’m spending a week flying out of Narsarsuaq, south Greenland, with colleague Dr. Robert Fausto, to maintain climate stations equipped to monitor surface ice melt in great detail. Part of the Danish PROMICE network, the stations obtain surface energy and mass budget closure. The closure means that calculated melt matches with observed melt.

coming in to land at a PROMICE climate station, one of 22 on Greenland ice operated by GEUSPhoto J. Box.

Flying across this vast space and on the ground, I’m is struck by how abundant snow algae and other light absorbing impurities can be. The low reflectivity impurities amplify the effects of the increasing melt season. Increased melt means a shorter duration of highly reflective snow cover. The prolonged exposure of an impurity-rich bare ice surface multiplies melt rates. I’ve calculated that without this albedo feedback, the increase in melt rates would amount to half of what’s observed. Some of this feedback is due to ice crystal rounding. Some is due to the impurities. Measuring the relative importance of metamorphic and impurity driven albedo reduction is a subject of our work.

boots on the ice offer a close look (and to sample) impurities concentrating at the surface. The fact is, much of this dark material is from cyanobacteria and blue-green algae. Photo J. Box.

puddles often form with this kind of algal slick’. Photo J. Box.

It’s exciting to be working with Dr. Marek Stibal who studies the microbial environment on Arctic ice. Together with his data, the surface energy exchange data from the PROMICE climate stations and Danish Meteorological Institute’s regional climate modeling (Follow @Greenlandsmb), we have a powerful approach to unravel more detail from the melt story in Greenland.

South Greenland Dark Ice. Photo J. Box.

Snow accumulates in crevasses forming snow bridges that one would rather fly over. In between, impurity-rich ice absorbs up to 80% of the Sun’s energy. Photo J. Box.

Surface melt water mingles with impurity rich Greenland ice. Photo J. Box.

Robert Fausto maintains a climate station equipped to measure downward and upward solar energy, among many other climate parameters as part of the Danish PROMICE network (Follow @PromiceGL). Photo J. Box. (Follow @Climate_Ice)

Greenland 2013 melt is over the hill

August 12th, 2013

While average sea ice minimum occurs in September, the Greenland ice albedo minimum occurs in July. This year, the albedo minimum occurred 31 July, coinciding with a record setting warm episode.

By 9 August, fresh snowfall concentrated along the southeastern ice sheet brought up the ice sheet albedo.

Across the northwestern ice sheet, melting increased the first 10 days of August, darkening the surface from a brighter than normal pattern associated with abnormally large snow accumulation that made difficult the Japanese SIGMA expedition.

Ice sheet albedo remains anomalously low along the western upper ablation area. The most persistent low albedo this melt season has been along the northwest, in the vicinity of Storstrømmen glacier.

Heat transport into the Arctic bypassed Greenland to it’s east. Svalbard has had a warm summer.

A reliable feature of climate is the poleward transport of heat in the atmosphere (and ocean) and the main contuit into the Arctic is the North Atlantic. So, what we see in this figure is normal and Greenland just didn’t get much exposure to this warm air stream (marked with up-pointing purple arrows). This extra heat bypassed Greenland much of this summer.

Greenland high near-surface air temperature record set

August 3rd, 2013

It’s worth adding that the large scale circulation, if (likely) delivering (excess, anthropogenic) heat and moisture via south air advection, is arguably a legitimate part of a climate change narrative. The foehn effect may not be an aside if atmospheric humidity were increased by climate warming, yielding additional latent heat release in the downslope compression of the foehn effect…

Greenland soars to its highest temperature ever recorded, almost 80 degrees F.

By Jason Samenow, Published: August 1 at 1:47 pmE-mail the writer

 

The Danish Meteorological Institute is reporting that on Tuesday, July 30, the mercury rose to 25.9 C (78.6 F) at a station in Greenland, the highest temperature measured in the Arctic country since records began in 1958.

The balmy reading was logged at the observing station Maniitsoq / Sugar Loaf, which is on Greenland’s southwest coast, the DMI reports. It exceeded the 25.5 C (77.9 F) reading taken at  Kangerlussuaq on July 27, 1990, in the same general area. Mantiitsoq is Greenland’s sixth-largest town, with a 2010 population of 2,784.

4880007af6Weather pattern responsible for record warmth in southwest Greenland (Danish Meteorological Institute)

The DMI says the record warmth was brought about by southeasterly winds, funneled by the flow between a large area of high pressure over continental Greenland, and low pressure over Baffin Island to the west.

It adds the warmth may have been enhanced by a phenomenon known as the Foehn Effect, in which air flows over nearby elevated terrain and compresses and heats on its way down. In this case, DMI believes the air may have passed over the elevated Sugar Loaf ice cap and then dried and warmed up as it descended (or downsloped) on its leeward side into Maniitsoq.

Via the Danish Meteorological Institute: "Satellite photo of the area around Maniitsoq and Sugar Loaf Mountain on Tuesday 30 July 2013. Photo from NASA's Terra satellite."Via the Danish Meteorological Institute: “Satellite photo of the area around Maniitsoq and Sugar Loaf Mountain on Tuesday 30 July 2013. Photo from NASA’s Terra satellite.”
(IPCC)Conceptual model of how a warming baseline climate increases the chance of record-breaking weather (IPCC)

The DMI says the warmth was not “unnatural”, but explains it fits into a long-term pattern of climate warming.

“[T]here is an indisputable gradual increase in temperature in Greenland,”DMI writes. “Along the way, any ‘warm event’ thus have a higher probability of being slightly warmer than the previous one.”

Related, from 2012: Greenland ice sheet surface melt: massive meltdown or meaningless trickle?

This warm temperature extreme in Greenland comes on the heels of an astonishing heat wave in northern Siberia.

Wunderground weather historian Christopher Burt described a “perhaps unprecedented” streak of 10 days in the central Arctic region of Russia in which temperatures exceeded 86 degrees F (30 C) in mid-to-late July.

Prior to this, it was the desert southwest reaching heat milestones.  Recall Death Valley set the record for hottest U.S. temperature ever recorded in June, climbing to a blistering 129 degrees.

At the moment, China is in the midst of a record-breaking heat wave.  And in Alaska,Fairbanks and Anchorage have ongoing historically long streaks of warm weather.

These heat events were all likely set up predominantly by the configuration of naturally varying weather patterns.  But  elevated greenhouse gas concentrations may well be tacking on a small warming contribution, nudging these extreme events into record territory.

Jason Samenow is the Capital Weather Gang’s chief meteorologist and serves as the Washington Post’s Weather Editor. He earned BA and MS degrees in atmospheric science from the University of Virginia and University of Wisconsin-Madison.

mid 2013 melt season average Greenland ice sheet reflectivity 5% above 2012 value

July 26th, 2013

Too late now for 2013 to produce Greenland ice surface melting anywhere near as large as in 2012

July 22nd, 2013

We’ve made it to the middle of the melt season 2013. It’s been a roller coaster for Greenland climate in 2013.

The year started out with an astonishing low albedo from a snow drought that made huge melt possible. Yet this was punctuated by the return of snow late April and prolonged low temperatures as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) shifted from persistent negative that had been causing west Greenland temperatures to be abnormally warm while Copenhagen thad its coldest late winter and early spring in decades. The dipole in temperatures between NW Europe and W Greenland has been recognized for more than a century and called the “seesaw” in temperature (van Loon and Rogers, 1978).

Like in 2012, melt came on strong by early June but was shut down again by abnormally low temperatures, accompanied by additional snowfalls [1, Ruth Mottram, Danish Meteorological Institute, personal communication] in some areas, that lasted until mid July. The key difference between 2013 and the previous 6 summers (2007-2012) is the absence of a persistent negative NAO that drove south air over Greenland, heating it while promoting clear skies that maximized the impact of surface darkening through the albedo feedback (Box et al. 2012). With this much of a delayed start, the albedo feedback has not had enough time to produce strong melt. Given now that we are at the mid point of the melt season, it is too late now for 2013 to produce melting anywhere nearly as large as we saw in 2012.

The NASA MODIS data indicate that the 2013 Greenland mid melt season (mid-July) albedo is at its lowest in 4 years; behind 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012.

The 2013 June ice sheet is more reflective across the southern third than the average of the recent decade. This may also be partly a consequence of the late season snowfall which was concentrated in the south eastern quarter (Ruth Mottram, DMI). Across the northern 2/3 of the ice sheet, the difference is below average, though not as far below average as in previous years, especially 2010, 2012.

But the bigger story seems to be the preliminary July 2013 average (the first 20 days of the month) where much of the lower elevation ablation area is more reflective than the recent decade (2000-2011). This is slowing down accumulated melt. Meanwhile, the upper elevations (inland) have below average reflectivity. Why are the upper elevations (inland) somewhat below normal reflectivity? While Dark Snow project was successful in gathering surface reflectivity samples from southwest Greenland this 8th and 9th July, the samples were not from where the high July albedo anomaly is. Were it anyway North American fire smoke contributing to the reduced ice reflectivity, it could be a.) lower than normal snowfall at the upper elevations over the year . Could the albedo of 2013 literally be reflecting the ice of 2012 buried less than 1 m below the surface? The albedo signal can originate from some 10s of cm below the surface. According to DMI’s HIRLAM model estimates, there is less than 1 m of snow accumulation over much of the higher elevations. Then again, the fire factor may also be at play. We’ll be looking into this with Dark Snow project.

  Works Cited

  • [1] Ruth Mottram, Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI), personal communication. The DMI High Resolution Limited Area Model (HIRLAM) simulates snowfall in southeast and east Greenland. The cumulative surface mass balance indicated net mass accumulation. HIRLAM is initialized by observations from satellites, weather balloons, aircraft, ground stations, buoys, etc.
  • Box, J. E., Fettweis, X., Stroeve, J. C., Tedesco, M., Hall, D. K., and Steffen, K.: Greenland ice sheet albedo feedback: thermodynamics and atmospheric drivers, The Cryosphere, 6, 821-839, doi:10.5194/tc-6-821-2012, 2012. open access
  • van Loon, Harry, Jeffery C. Rogers, 1978: The Seesaw in Winter Temperatures between Greenland and Northern Europe. Part I: General Description. Mon. Wea. Rev., 106, 296–310. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1175/1520-0493(1978)106<0296:TSIWTB>2.0.CO;2

Quebec fires in NASA CALIPSO data, drifting to Greenland

July 21st, 2013

On the lower limit of this 4 July NASA CALIPSO laser scan, between latitude 42.60 N, longitude -68.93 W, evident is a rising smoke plume. The plume seeds cloud formation toward Greenland, reaching the southwest of the island.

The orange areas are smoke aerosols.

On 12 July, when Dark Snow scientist McKenzie Skiles, after camping, was picked up along Greenland’s longest road for a ride back to town, without prompt the driver remarked on haze in the sky from Canadian fires. McKenzie Skiles “It was the first thing he said after I got in the car, as if apologizing for the haze in the air (which was noticeable).”

hazy Kangerlussuaq, West Greenland. Photo McKenzie Skiles

9 July, 2013, we gathered snow and ice core samples from the surface and down through the 2012 melt layer, and we left only footprints. We’ll eventually see how much soot the laboratory and field spectral reflectance measurements tell us is there.

GRACE-cast: Greenland ice sheet mass loss *this week* turns toward average

July 6th, 2013

In my new position, Professor of Glaciology at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS), I’ve started to gather momentum working with a fine group of people to establish for the first time, a Greenland ice sheet total mass balance product that estimates what the GRACE satellite measures and posting the estimate on-line 2-3 months ahead of the GRACE processing.

Our new “Nowcast” of Greenland ice sheet mass balance has as little as 24 h delay from realtime.

The product exploits the fact that on average, 90% of the time, when monthly all ice sheet reflectivity (also called “albedo”) goes up, the rate of total ice sheet mass change goes down and visa versa.

The Nowcast only works in the sunlit period from mid April to mid September.

So, now as we’re mid-melt season (6 July), we finally have some interesting news…delay of the 2013 melt season due to relatively northerly air flow along west Greenland has led to the lowest elevations of the ice sheet having an above average reflectivity due primarily to more persistent snowcover (snow patches) and secondarily due to summer snowfall in some areas. According to the empirical relationship, the rate of ice melt water loss from the ice sheet to the surrounding seas has declined and now approaches the average of the 2003-2009 period.

People involved with what I like to call the “GRACE-cast” include: GEUS glaciology post-doc William Colgan; Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) ice climatologists Dr. Peter Langer and Dr. Ruth Mottram, and Danish Tecnhical University (DTU) geodesists Dr. Valentina Barletta and Dr. Rene Forsberg.

Technical details are documented in a .pdf file at the new product’s new home: polarportal.org
The cumulative sea level contribution is also updated on the new Danish web site.