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December 4, 2014

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The Arctic--A Key to Understanding Climate Change

December 16, 2014

The circumpolar Arctic region stretches around the world, and includes Canada, the United States, Russia, and Denmark. And it’s not just land but a vast series of seas called collectively, the Arctic Ocean. Concerning this huge region, Edward Struzik states, “It’s clear that the Arctic we know is coming to an end, and that a new and very different Arctic is taking over.” (Climate Central, Dec. 6, 2014) This different Arctic is being born of the massive disruptions caused by climate change, and these changes effect climate change in much of at least the Northern Hemisphere. 

 

While some politicians in the United States (Republicans and their cable TV, Fox News) and Russia (Putin and friends) reject the reality of climate change for financial reasons, read petroleum riches, the changes in the circumpolar Arctic provide the clearest and most advanced examples of the effects of climate change in the world. Why is the Arctic so significant in this respect? Two reasons immediately come to mind. First, for reasons only poorly understood, the Arctic has warmed 2x to 4x as much as areas to the south, including the “Lower 48.”

 

The second reason—possibly related to the first-- that comes to mind is that the effect of warming in the Arctic, unlike in warmer areas of the world, is that the Arctic is changing the physical state of both H2O and permafrost soil, from frozen to unfrozen, from ice to water, and from permafrost soil to thawed soil. As we will see, this is clearly a much more consequential change than the same temperature change might be in a non-frozen part of the world.

 

Ice to water is not just a simple, linear, quantitative change, but is non-linear, qualitative in nature, and in fact, a change of kind. And the entire change occurs over a roughly one degree change in temperature, or even less.

 

Ice reflects radiation efficiently. Water is darker and absorbs more solar radiation, forming a positive feedback cycle. The water being more solar radiation-absorbent, heats itself up. The more ice to water that changes states, the more heat it absorbs. Additionally, as the water heats beyond freezing, it expands, causing sea level to rise. In fact, as a result, in North America, several Eskimo communities have had to move to higher ground. This last change, i.e., expansion of water with heating, is a minor factor compared to reflection-absorption feedback-inducing cycle, unless you happen to live in Point Hope, or Shishmaref, AK. Point Hope moved in 1978 for this reason, and now may need to move yet again.

 

Now to the permafrost soil, both on land and on the ocean floor. Soil does not become more radiation-absorbent when it thaws, as does H2O. But it too, forms a positive feedback cycle. As the permafrost soil thaws, it releases GHGs that come from decayed vegetation, including CO2, and even more importantly, CH4, or methane. On release, the methane enters the air and acts like CO2 on steroids—for the first 20 years after methane’s release, it becomes an 86x more-effective greenhouse gas than CO2, which results in a great deal of absorbed, radiation-trapped heat. Ice to water, while a positive feedback, is not nearly as heat-forming as frozen to thawed methane. But the effect of the two feedbacks collectively add a great deal more heat to the Arctic system. Could this explain part of the faster warming in the Arctic?   

 

But, that’s not the end of the story. These changes of state could be related to a major influence on more temperate climes well to the south. We are finding that these changes, or perhaps something related to them, have been observed this year (2014), to change the usually more stable positioning of the jet stream in North America. The warmer Arctic tends to drive the North American jet stream south, which allows Arctic air to spread hundreds if not a couple thousand miles further south, even in mid to late fall, which is much earlier than the more normal late December through February Arctic blasts.

 

When this unseasonably cold air reaches, for example, the Great Lakes, it facilitates lake-effect snow. Quite independently of the Arctic changes, the lakes today have become warmer due to local climate change than in past decades, and in this case, especially warmer as it is a month or so earlier that the Arctic air normally comes down. The Arctic air then picks up the warmer, thus more moisture-laden lake water, resulting in heavier lake-effect snows than before this early Arctic outbreak, as with Buffalo, NY, around November 16, 2014.  

 

In all likelihood, the colder than normal winter of 2013-2014 was born of the same phenomenon. Does that mean that the eastern United States will have consistently colder winters? As more ice on the Arctic Ocean melts and the melting of the permafrost progresses, melting more ice and permafrost, will the jet stream be more permanently changed to the south during the late fall-winter time period?

 

 I recently had a letter from an ex-student friend of mine who works in Denali National Park in Alaska. She said that the mid-November outbreak of cold Arctic air actually rendered her area warmer than the great lakes area for a time. Guess what! The southward shift of the jet stream could provide a third warming factor for the Arctic, really a third feedback mechanism. Feedbacks scare me! What if the feedbacks, working in tandem, reach a “point of no return?” Could there be a climate change tipping point as more ice melts making the oceans warmer, melting more ice, making the permafrost melt at a faster rate and causing more release of methane, warming the system even more, causing perhaps more instability of the North American jet stream allowing the Arctic air to head south more frequently and earlier, warming the Arctic region further as the cold air escapes south? See why these Arctic feedback conditions scare me?       

 

Let me have your thoughts on this.  Thanks.

 

Harvard

 

 

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