A Grim Prediction Gave These Ice Caps 5 Years. They Didn’t Even Last That Long

https://www.sciencealert.com/a-grim-2017-prediction-about-the-canadian-ice-caps-has-come-true


DAVID NIELD
4 AUGUST 2020

Scientists don’t always like being right: take the team that warned in a paper published in 2017 that the St. Patrick Bay ice caps in Canada would soon disappear, for example. The latest NASA satellite imagery shows that their prediction has sadly come true, and even faster than they expected.

Scientists from the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado Boulder initially predicted the disappearance of the St. Patrick Bay ice caps would take place over five years, but it’s actually only taken three.

The frozen sheets, probably in place for several centuries, measured more than 10 square kilometres (3.86 square miles) combined at the end of the 1950s, and have now shrunk down to nothing. It’s a sign of the climate change that’s gaining momentum all around the world, and showing no signs of stopping.

“When I first visited those ice caps, they seemed like such a permanent fixture of the landscape,” says geographer and NSIDC director Mark Serreze. “To watch them die in less than 40 years just blows me away.”

canada 2Ice cover in 2015 (left) and 2020 (right). (Bruce Raup/NSIDC)

Serreze was a young graduate student when he first set foot on the ice caps in 1982, and he was the lead author of the 2017 paper alerting the world to their drastic demise. By 2015, the ice caps were only five percent the size of what they were in 1959.

Recent imagery from the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument on the NASA Terra satellite shows no trace of the St. Patrick Bay ice at all. The ice in this region is unlikely to return any time soon.

The two ice caps that have vanished are part of a group on the Hazen Plateau, in the north of Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, way up in the Arctic Archipelago – one of the most northerly points of Canada.

Two ice caps often linked with the St. Patrick Bay pair, the Murray and Simmons ice caps, are faring better due to their higher elevation – in 2015 their ice cover was at 39 percent and 25 percent respectively, compared with the 1959 figure. However, scientists think they too could soon be gone.

When Serreze and his colleagues first started surveying the Hazen Plateau ice at the start of the 1980s, scientific consensus on global warming was still forming, and some researchers had suggested the planet was actually in a period of global cooling. The studies started back then were partly an attempt to find out one way or the other.

canada 3Ice cover tracked over time. (NSIDC)

Now there’s no doubt what’s happening. While the St. Patrick Bay ice caps may not be two of the most famous or significant points of geological interest in the world, they represent a small microcosm that reflects what’s happening to our planet as a whole.

They’re also a reminder that while scientists aren’t infallible, they very often do know what they’re talking about – and that when we get warnings about what’s coming our way in the future, we’d do well to take heed and to take action.

“We’ve long known that as climate change takes hold, the effects would be especially pronounced in the Arctic,” says Serreze.

“But the death of those two little caps that I once knew so well has made climate change very personal. All that’s left are some photographs and a lot of memories.”

The original 2017 research was first published in The Cryosphere.

Polar bears in Baffin Bay skinnier, having fewer cubs due to less sea ice

 

NEWS RELEASE 

UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON

Polar bears are spending more time on land than they did in the 1990s due to reduced sea ice, new University of Washington-led research shows. Bears in Baffin Bay are getting thinner and adult females are having fewer cubs than when sea ice was more available.

The new study, recently published in Ecological Applications, includes satellite tracking and visual monitoring of polar bears in the 1990s compared with more recent years.

“Climate-induced changes in the Arctic are clearly affecting polar bears,” said lead author Kristin Laidre, a UW associate professor of aquatic and fishery sciences. “They are an icon of climate change, but they’re also an early indicator of climate change because they are so dependent on sea ice.”

The international research team focused on a subpopulation of polar bears around Baffin Bay, the large expanse of ocean between northeastern Canada and Greenland. The team tracked adult female polar bears’ movements and assessed litter sizes and the general health of this subpopulation between the 1990s and the period from 2009 to 2015.

Polar bears’ movements generally follow the annual growth and retreat of sea ice. In early fall, when sea ice is at its minimum, these bears end up on Baffin Island, on the west side of the bay. They wait on land until winter when they can venture out again onto the sea ice.

When Baffin Bay is covered in ice, the bears use the solid surface as a platform for hunting seals, their preferred prey, to travel and even to create snow dens for their young.

“These bears inhabit a seasonal ice zone, meaning the sea ice clears out completely in summer and it’s open water,” Laidre said. “Bears in this area give us a good basis for understanding the implications of sea ice loss.”

Satellite tags that tracked the bears’ movements show that polar bears spent an average of 30 more days on land in recent years compared to in the 1990s. The average in the 1990s was 60 days, generally between late August and mid-October, compared with 90 days spent on land in the 2000s. That’s because Baffin Bay sea ice retreats earlier in the summer and the edge is closer to shore, with more recent summers having more open water.

“When the bears are on land, they don’t hunt seals and instead rely on fat stores,” said Laidre. “They have the ability to fast for extended periods, but over time they get thinner.”

To assess the females’ health, the researchers quantified the condition of bears by assessing their level of fatness after sedating them, or inspecting them visually from the air. Researchers classified fatness on a scale of 1 to 5. The results showed the bears’ body condition was linked with sea ice availability in the current and previous year — following years with more open water, the polar bears were thinner.

The body condition of the mothers and sea ice availability also affected how many cubs were born in a litter. The researchers found larger litter sizes when the mothers were in a good body condition and when spring breakup occurred later in the year — meaning bears had more time on the sea ice in spring to find food.

The authors also used mathematical models to forecast the future of the Baffin Bay polar bears. The models took into account the relationship between sea ice availability and the bears’ body fat and variable litter sizes. The normal litter size may decrease within the next three polar bear generations, they found, mainly due to a projected continuing sea ice decline during that 37-year period.

“We show that two-cub litters — usually the norm for a healthy adult female — are likely to disappear in Baffin Bay in the next few decades if sea ice loss continues,” Laidre said. “This has not been documented before.”

Laidre studies how climate change is affecting polar bears and other marine mammals in the Arctic. She led a 2016 study showing that polar bears across the Arctic have less access to sea ice than they did 40 years ago, meaning less access to their main food source and their preferred den sites. The new study uses direct observations to link the loss of sea ice to the bears’ health and reproductive success.

“This work just adds to the growing body of evidence that loss of sea ice has serious, long-term conservation concerns for this species,” Laidre said. “Only human action on climate change can do anything to turn this around.”

###

Co-authors of the study are Eric Regehr and Harry Stern at the UW; Stephen Atkinson and Markus Dyck at the Government of Nunavut in Canada; Erik Born at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources; Øystein Wiig at the Natural History Museum in Norway; and Nicholas Lunn of Environment and Climate Change Canada. Main funders of the research include NASA and the governments of Nunavut, Canada, Greenland, Denmark and the United States.

For more information, contact Laidre at 206-616-9030 or klaidre@uw.edu.


 

 

Iceberg twice the size of Washington, D.C., breaks off Pine Island glacier in Antarctica

Doyle Rice

USA TODAY
The Pine Island glacier spawned an iceberg over 115 square miles that quickly shattered into pieces. This image from space shows the freshly broken bergs.

  • The Pine Island glacier “is one the fastest-retreating glaciers in Antarctica.”
  • Over the past 8 years, the Pine Island glacier is losing about 58 billion tons of ice per year.
  • This “reveals the dramatic pace at which climate is redefining the face of Antarctica.”

An iceberg twice the size of Washington, D.C., has broken off the Pine Island glacier in Antarctica, scientists reported this week.

“The Pine Island glacier recently spawned an iceberg over (115 square miles) that very quickly shattered into pieces,” the European Space Agency (ESA) said in a statement.

The Pine Island glacier “is one of the fastest-retreating glaciers in Antarctica,” according to NASA. The glacier and the nearby Thwaites glacier together contain “enough vulnerable ice to raise global sea level by 1.2 meters (4 feet),” NASA said.

“What you are looking at is both terrifying and beautiful,” Mark Drinkwater, head of the Earth and Mission Sciences Division at the ESA, told CNN. “It is clear from these images (that the Pine Island glacier) is responding to climate change dramatically.”

The glacier has been losing large chunks of ice over the past three decades. While large calving events like this one used to take place at Pine Island glacier every four to six years, they’re now a nearly annual occurrence, The Washington Post said.

More from Antarctica:It was nearly 65 degrees in Antarctica, which may be the warmest day ever recorded there

“Its floating ice front, which has an average thickness of approximately 500 meters (1,640 feet), has experienced a series of calving events over the past 30 years, some of which have abruptly changed the shape and position of the ice front,” the ESA said.

Over the past eight years, the Pine Island glacier is losing about 58 billion tons of ice a year, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The Copernicus twin Sentinel-1 all-weather satellites have established a porthole through which the public can watch events like this unfold in remote regions around the world,” Drinkwater said in a news release.

“What is unsettling is that the daily data stream reveals the dramatic pace at which climate is redefining the face of Antarctica,” he said.

There’s a ‘doomsday glacier’:Warm water discovered beneath Antarctica’s ‘doomsday’ glacier, scientists say

Polar bears face swimming to land or ‘ecological trap’ as sea ice diminishes

Outdoor Alaska: Dimishing sea ice prompts polar bear behavior changes
Volume 90%
 

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) – Changing sea ice conditions are forcing polar bears to adapt. New research shows that a growing percentage of polar bears are coming to land and becoming dependent on human provisions for food, while those that stay on the dwindling sea ice to continue natural polar bear behavior may be floating on an ecological trap.

The USGS researchers used GPS collars with a camera, accelerometor and other scientific tools to track and analyze the bears’ behaviors.

Researchers with the USGS Alaska Science Center have noticed the behavioral changes in polar bears on the Southern Beaufort Sea over the last 15 years and more recently a team began studies to determine which behavior was better for the bears. The researchers used GPS collars with video cameras and an accelerometer to track the bears, calculate how much energy they used, and compare the energy requirements of coming to land during summer months versus staying on the sea ice.

“Going into it we thought it’s surely going to be more energetically expensive to come to shore, because often times bears are staying on the sea ice until the last possible minute before they come to shore,” Todd Atwood, a research wildlife biologists with USGS said. “In some cases bears are swimming 400, 500 kilometers to get to land. Swimming is a lot more energetically expensive than walking. So we expected them burn through a lot more energy to get to land, and that’s what we found.”

By pairing the GPS camera collar with a tri-axial accelerometer, the researchers were able to estimate how much energy bears used for different behaviors by calculating overall dynamic body acceleration.

Nine climate tipping points now ‘active,’ warn scientists

UNIVERSITY OF EXETER NEWS RELEASE 27-NOV-2019

 
Authors Timothy M. Lenton, Johan Rockström, Owen Gaffney, Stefan Rahmstorf, Katherine Richardson, Will Steffen & Hans Joachim Schellnhuber
 
 
Full press release

More than half of the climate tipping points identified a decade ago are now “active”, a group of leading scientists have warned.

This threatens the loss of the Amazon rainforest and the great ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland, which are currently undergoing measurable and unprecedented changes much earlier than expected.

This “cascade” of changes sparked by global warming could threaten the existence of human civilisations.

Evidence is mounting that these events are more likely and more interconnected than was previously thought, leading to a possible domino effect.

In an article in the journal Nature <<https://www.nature.com/magazine-assets/d41586-019-03595-0/d41586-019-03595-0.pdf>>, the scientists call for urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent key tipping points, warning of a worst-case scenario of a “hothouse”, less habitable planet.

“A decade ago we identified a suite of potential tipping points in the Earth system, now we see evidence that over half of them have been activated,” said lead author Professor Tim Lenton, director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter.

“The growing threat of rapid, irreversible changes means it is no longer responsible to wait and see. The situation is urgent and we need an emergency response.”

Co-author Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said: “It is not only human pressures on Earth that continue rising to unprecedented levels.

“It is also that as science advances, we must admit that we have underestimated the risks of unleashing irreversible changes, where the planet self-amplifies global warming.

“This is what we now start seeing, already at 1°C global warming.

“Scientifically, this provides strong evidence for declaring a state of planetary emergency, to unleash world action that accelerates the path towards a world that can continue evolving on a stable planet.”

In the commentary, the authors propose a formal way to calculate a planetary emergency as risk multiplied by urgency.

Tipping point risks are now much higher than earlier estimates, while urgency relates to how fast it takes to act to reduce risk.

Exiting the fossil fuel economy is unlikely before 2050, but with temperature already at 1.1°C above pre-industrial temperature, it is likely Earth will cross the 1.5°C guardrail by 2040. The authors conclude this alone defines an emergency.

Nine active tipping points:

  1. Arctic sea ice
  2. Greenland ice sheet
  3. Boreal forests
  4. Permafrost
  5. Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation
  6. Amazon rainforest
  7. Warm-water corals
  8. West Antarctic Ice Sheet
  9. Parts of East Antarctica

The collapse of major ice sheets on Greenland, West Antarctica and part of East Antarctica would commit the world to around 10 metres of irreversible sea-level rise.

Reducing emissions could slow this process, allowing more time for low-lying populations to move.

The rainforests, permafrost and boreal forests are examples of biosphere tipping points that if crossed result in the release of additional greenhouse gases amplifying warming.

Despite most countries having signed the Paris Agreement, pledging to keep global warming well below 2°C, current national emissions pledges – even if they are met – would lead to 3°C of warming.

Although future tipping points and the interplay between them is difficult to predict, the scientists argue: “If damaging tipping cascades can occur and a global tipping cannot be ruled out, then this is an existential threat to civilization.

“No amount of economic cost-benefit analysis is going to help us. We need to change our approach to the climate problem.”

Professor Lenton added: “We might already have crossed the threshold for a cascade of inter-related tipping points.

“However, the rate at which they progress, and therefore the risk they pose, can be reduced by cutting our emissions.”

Though global temperatures have fluctuated over millions of years, the authors say humans are now “forcing the system”, with atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and global temperature increasing at rates that are an order of magnitude higher than at the end of the last ice age.

Scientists Warn: Nine Climate Tipping Points Now ‘Active’ – Could Threaten the Existence of Human Civilization

Global Warming Threatens Human Civilization

More than half of the climate tipping points identified a decade ago are now “active,” a group of leading scientists have warned.

This threatens the loss of the Amazon rainforest and the great ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland, which are currently undergoing measurable and unprecedented changes much earlier than expected.

“We must admit that we have underestimated the risks of unleashing irreversible changes, where the planet self-amplifies global warming.” — Johan Rockström, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

This “cascade” of changes sparked by global warming could threaten the existence of human civilizations.

Evidence is mounting that these events are more likely and more interconnected than was previously thought, leading to a possible domino effect.

In an article published in the journal Nature on November 27, 2019, the scientists call for urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent key tipping points, warning of a worst-case scenario of a “hothouse,” less habitable planet.

“A decade ago we identified a suite of potential tipping points in the Earth system, now we see evidence that over half of them have been activated,” said lead author Professor Tim Lenton, director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter.

“The growing threat of rapid, irreversible changes means it is no longer responsible to wait and see. The situation is urgent and we need an emergency response.”

Co-author Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said: “It is not only human pressures on Earth that continue rising to unprecedented levels.

“It is also that as science advances, we must admit that we have underestimated the risks of unleashing irreversible changes, where the planet self-amplifies global warming.

“This is what we now start seeing, already at 1°C global warming.

“Scientifically, this provides strong evidence for declaring a state of planetary emergency, to unleash world action that accelerates the path towards a world that can continue evolving on a stable planet.”

In the commentary, the authors propose a formal way to calculate a planetary emergency as risk multiplied by urgency.

Tipping point risks are now much higher than earlier estimates, while urgency relates to how fast it takes to act to reduce risk.

Exiting the fossil fuel economy is unlikely before 2050, but with temperature already at 1.1°C above pre-industrial temperature, it is likely Earth will cross the 1.5°C guardrail by 2040. The authors conclude this alone defines an emergency.

Nine active tipping points:

  1. Arctic sea ice
  2. Greenland ice sheet
  3. Boreal forests
  4. Permafrost
  5. Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation
  6. Amazon rainforest
  7. Warm-water corals
  8. West Antarctic Ice Sheet
  9. Parts of East Antarctica

The collapse of major ice sheets on Greenland, West Antarctica and part of East Antarctica would commit the world to around 10 meters of irreversible sea-level rise.

Reducing emissions could slow this process, allowing more time for low-lying populations to move.

The rainforests, permafrost, and boreal forests are examples of biosphere tipping points that if crossed result in the release of additional greenhouse gases amplifying warming.

“Scientifically, this provides strong evidence for declaring a state of planetary emergency.” — Johan Rockström

Despite most countries having signed the Paris Agreement, pledging to keep global warming well below 2°C, current national emissions pledges — even if they are met — would lead to 3°C of warming.

Although future tipping points and the interplay between them is difficult to predict, the scientists argue: “If damaging tipping cascades can occur and a global tipping cannot be ruled out, then this is an existential threat to civilization.

“No amount of economic cost-benefit analysis is going to help us. We need to change our approach to the climate problem.”

Professor Lenton added: “We might already have crossed the threshold for a cascade of inter-related tipping points.

“However, the rate at which they progress, and therefore the risk they pose, can be reduced by cutting our emissions.”

Though global temperatures have fluctuated over millions of years, the authors say humans are now “forcing the system,” with atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and global temperature increasing at rates that are an order of magnitude higher than at the end of the last ice age.

###

Reference: “Climate tipping points — too risky to bet against: The growing threat of abrupt and irreversible climate changes must compel political and economic action on emissions.” by Timothy M. Lenton, Johan Rockström, Owen Gaffney, Stefan Rahmstorf, Katherine Richardson, Will Steffen and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, 27 November 2019, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/d41586-019-03595-0

The latest UN Climate Change Conference will take place in Madrid from December 2-13.

We’ll see an ice-free Arctic this century, latest research says

New paper from University of California narrows window for Arctic melting

A polar bear stands on an ice floe in Baffin Bay above the Arctic Circle, as seen from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent in July 2008. New research has narrowed the window on when we can expect a functionally ice-free September in the Arctic. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)
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We can expect to see an ice-free Arctic Ocean within 50 years, according to researchers at the University of California’s Center for Climate Science, who say they’ve improved and narrowed past projections of when the Arctic might be free of sea ice.

Projections have varied from as early as 2026 to as distant as 2132. Now, according to research published in the journal Nature Climate Change, the Arctic could be “functionally ice-free” by September 2044 — and no later than 2067 — assuming no changes to global carbon emissions.

September is when the Arctic sea ice pack is at its thinnest. That’s when the effect of summer’s heat shows up in the ice pack.

Functionally ice free is like basically broke — it doesn’t mean there won’t be a shard of ice anywhere, but there would be fewer than one million square kilometres of it. That’s compared with the current minimum six million square kilometres of Arctic sea ice that exists today, even at its lowest point after summer’s heat.

The important thing about one million square kilometres of Arctic sea ice is that it mostly represents thick, multi-year ice close to coastal areas of Greenland and in the Arctic archipelago. The Arctic Ocean itself would be essentially ice free. Declining sea ice hurts the ability of the Arctic to perform its important albedo function.

The sea ice albedo effect refers to the reflective capacity of sea ice to deflect sunlight. Where there is no sea ice, darker open water absorbs up to approximately 90 per cent of incoming solar energy (heat). Sea ice absorbs just 20 per cent of that energy, with the rest reflected away, according to research published by the University of California.

It’s the Earth’s freezer malfunctioning. This quickens global warming.

“Essentially, when we’re losing that ice, the ocean is taking up much more heat than it would be say if we had an ice-covered Arctic,” said Chad Thackeray, the article’s lead author and research scientist on climate change at the University of California Los Angeles.

“So that change has big implications for the climate system; not just changes in the Arctic.”

Declining Arctic sea ice will quicken global warming. (UCLA Center for Climate Science)

Accurate modelling of when we could see an ice-free Arctic is an important piece of data in global climate models, Thackeray said.

“This is one … quantity or metric where a model disagreement is particularly large. A lot of our work is about trying to reduce this uncertainty … so that we’re better prepared for the changes that are to come.”

Consistent modelling of Arctic sea ice changes will improve global projections that rely on that data.

“If models have more consistent simulations of sea ice, then it’s likely that they’ll have a better consistency in projecting future changes in temperature — especially in the Arctic region,” he said.

New method

Thackeray and co-author Alex Hall used a new method to build their model. They took 30 years of satellite data on seasonal ice melt as a benchmark. Next, they compared 23 existing models to the data, rejecting those that failed to match the benchmark. The idea is that if a model can’t accurately ‘predict’ what did happen, it shouldn’t be relied on to predict what will happen.

Chad Thackeray is an assistant researcher at UCLA, in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. (Submitted by Chad Thackeray)

Once the weak models were rejected, they were left with six models that, taken together, give what they believe is the most accurate timeframe a functionally ice-free Arctic, and how soon the best science tells us we should expect it.

There are some caveats to the research. Data was limited to sea ice between 70 and 90 degrees North latitude. That leaves out much of the Canadian archipelago — that mass of land and islands that defines Canada’s North on a map.

Sea ice in that area is affected by nearby land masses. Regional sea ice forecasts would be a different, and more complicated, data set to work with.

“There are some areas … just north of the archipelago and off northwestern Greenland, where the ice is very thick, multiyear ice that doesn’t really melt every summer,” Thackeray, who is from the Toronto area, said.

“That ice will stick around a bit longer. There will still be flows that find their way through the Canadian archipelago. That’ll be pretty thick even in this mid-century timeframe.”

Reflective sea ice helps regulate climate. It’s absence encourages warming. (UCLA Center for Climate Science)

But the trend is toward ice-free, assuming nothing is done to curb carbon emissions.

Thackeray said they did not consider how reductions in greenhouse gas emissions could effect the timeframe. Different models or “pathways” could significantly delay, halt, or even ultimately reverse Arctic sea ice thaw.

“This process can be delayed by several decades or even completely halted if we were to limit ourselves to say 1.5 degrees of warming,” Thackeray said. “It’s just a matter of what pathway we choose … and how quickly we choose.”

Helpful, if not groundbreaking

Walt Meier, senior research scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, said that Thackeray’s paper does not necessarily point to something new. Other attempts to cull the data of extreme outliers have given similar results. But he said the method itself is new and it’s reassuring to see different approaches yielding similar results.

“In one sense, many people are reluctant to give a date or range of dates because of uncertainties,” Meier stated in an email. “This paper does provide the range and a reasonable justification.”

Meier’s research focuses on satellite data, not modelling, so he doesn’t expect the paper to directly inform his work.

“But I am on a couple projects that focus on sea ice projections, including from models, and I think this paper makes a valuable contribution to our knowledge.”

This Nov. 12, 2019, photo shows a view from the research vessel Sikuliaq near Jones Island in the Beaufort Sea. (John Guillote via Associated Press)

The polar voyage being threatened by thin ice

FROZEN NORTH

ENVIRONMENT

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20191014-climate-change-arctic-expedition-finds-itself-on-thin-ice

W

We hear the ice before we see it. The first sound is a scraping whine as a chunk of ice etches its way down the hull of the ship. The shelves creak as the cabin starts to shake. Out the window, I see a piece of ice floating 10m (33ft) or so away – a bluish, three-humped blob about a metre (3ft) across. It bobs up and down in the waves.

Then a few more rounded and weathered chunks appear. Another one hits the hull with a heavy clonk, and we hear it bounce below the waterline three or four times as it moves down the side of the vessel.

The ship I’m on – the German icebreaker Polarstern – is making its way north to the edge of the Arctic sea ice to find a floe to moor itself too. There, more than a hundred scientists will set up a floating city on the ice. The expedition, known as Mosaic, seeks to build the first detailed profile of the Arctic environment year-round by spending a year trapped in the sea ice. (Read more about the Mosaic mission to the Arctic.)

You might also like:

• Why the Arctic is on fire
• The wall holding back a desert
• The ancient memories trapped in the world’s glaciers

The first obstacle standing in their path, however, is the ice itself. Not thick, impassable ice that leaves the Arctic Sea impenetrable at the height of winter, but rather the lack of it. They need a substantial floe strong enough to support the research base they are hoping to build.

But the ice is getting less extensive each year, and it is also getting thinner. The strong ice necessary to support large infrastructure – not least a runway and a 30m (98ft) tall meteorology tower to be used by Mosaic – is growing scarce. Climate change has lent an urgency to the mission.

Mooring the ship to an ice floe that is too thin is risky as it could easily break up in storms or the ocean currents (Credit: Sebastian Grote/AWI)

“This may be one of the last years we can do this kind of expedition,” says Matt Shupe of the University of Colorado, who first began planning the mission 10 years ago and now leads its atmospheric research programme. He is one of hundreds of scientists taking part in the expedition in the hope of unravelling exactly what impact global warming is having in the Arctic, and what the consequences will be for the wider world as the environment around the North Pole changes. I am one of the few journalists to be invited to witness the work they are doing.

It is our fifth day at sea when we first meet ice, high within the Arctic Circle at a latitude of around 81 degrees north. Ahead of the ship is the first stretch of dense ice that Polarstern must navigate. This tendril of frozen ocean extends down from the ice cap, brushing past a trio of remote Siberian islands. We skirt past the islands, aiming for a narrow band of less densely packed ice that should give us easier passage. From there, we head a little further east before the Polarstern turns north to crush its way into the densest, central ice.

“When we first came to the North Pole with Polarstern, we needed another icebreaker to assist us through the ice,” says expedition leader Markus Rex of the Alfred Wegener Institute. “Last time, the ship just cut through the ice easily alone.”

Sometimes this elastic-looking ice becomes milky and whitish, flexing with the shape of the wavelets

After hearing the impact of the first isolated lumps of ice bashing into the hull, I start listening out for our first full-on icebreaking. I become aware of tiny sounds and vibrations in the ship, going to the window to check each time. “When you hear it, you’ll know it,” says my cabinmate, Nicole Hildebrandt, a zooplankton researcher at AWI.

Out on the deck, the chunks of ice become gradually more frequent and larger, their irregular shapes below the waterline sometimes bright turquoise. Others are brown, coated underneath rotten ice rich in diatoms, algae and occasionally sediment. In the open water between these stretches of ice, the waves have died down from four metres high (13ft) to almost nothing, giving the ocean a glassy surface.

In the open stretches, I start to notice strange structures just below the surface. They look like jellyfish – translucent and almost invisible – suspended just below the surface of the water. This is the seawater starting to freeze. It stretches out in broad fronds in the direction of the wind. Sometimes this elastic-looking ice becomes milky and whitish, flexing with the shape of the wavelets.

On the bridge of the Polarstern, volunteers take turns looking out for the changing ice conditions while the crew search for the right floe to moor to (Credit: Esther Horvath/AWI)

As we travel further in, Stefan Hendricks, one of the expedition’s ice team, asks for volunteers for the ice watch, to log observations of the amount and types of ice we pass through. I sign up for a daily slot. On the bridge, Hendricks tells me the names for the different kinds of ice that I have been noticing. They have poetic names: frazilshuga and nilas ice. Then there is pancake, grease and cake ice.

As sea water freezes, it first forms crystal discs known as frazil, eventually forms a suspension in the water known as grease ice, which creates an iridescent sheen like an oil slick. Waves and wind can compress the ice crystals together to form pancake ice that floats on the ocean surface. As these pancakes grow bigger they become cakes. On calmer seas, the frazils grow to form a continuous expanse of dark, glassy layer of ice, like a windowpane on top of a black sea. Shuga ice is slushy mess created by spongey white lumps that bob in the water.

We travel past most of these different types, but looking out from the bridge windows across this forming ice-scape, I scan fruitlessly for elusive frost flowers that Hendricks tells me can occasionally be spotted.

We feel the ship fall heavily back to level and then tilt briefly to the other side, accompanied by the sound of large pieces of ice booming into the hull below

When we eventually encounter thicker ice on the fifth day, the sensation of the ship breaking through is indeed unmistakeable. From the centre of the ship in the Red Saloon, the faint sound of scraping along the hull grows a little louder and the ship begins to judder. Then the ship hits a large section of ice and pitches sideways, sending my coffee climbing diagonally up one side of the glass mug it is in.

Those of us in the saloon lean over to keep our balance. After what could be 10 seconds or so, we feel the ship fall heavily back to level and then tilt briefly to the other side, accompanied by the sound of large pieces of ice booming into the hull below. We encounter these very large pieces of ice a few times an hour, usually catching us off-guard, amid the more constant gnawing, shaking and bumping through the thinner ice.

The Polarstern needs to find a stable ice floe on which to set up its research base before the long winter darkness sets in (Credit: Markus Rex/AWI)

Researchers at Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute have been tracking likely ice floes for Mosaic in the Central Arctic Ocean all through the summer. They have been using data from several satellites, hoping to find those which have survived the storms and melting. Before departure in Tromsø, on the Norwegian coast, Rex showed me images of the target region he had in mind. It was a region at around 85 degrees north and 135 degrees east.

“There we will find our sweet spot,” he says, pushing his glasses up to his forehead and looking at an app on his phone. The screen shows black and white specks – how the ice shows up in the images. He points out a darker oval in the image – the darker the ice appears, the thinking goes, the thicker and more robust the ice should be. The ice in the target region is looking like it will be 80cm thick, according to the data available. “We’d prefer one metre, one metre 20 (3 to 4ft) – but 80cm can work,” says Rex.

There is a week or so budgeted to find the right floe. Once safely moored, the ice will freeze around Polarstern, trapping the vessel and its crew in place so they will drift with the floe on an unpredictable path across the polar region, creeping on average from east to west through the year. But, choose a bad floe, or even a good floe in the wrong place, and the camp is at risk of collapse. “It’s the only real decision, the only degree of freedom we have,” says Rex.

What happened to N-ice would be really, really bad. We need to avoid that – Markus Rex

In the Blue Saloon, a formal room named for the colour of its carpet and chairs, the leaders of the expedition meet to discuss the preliminary results of their search. They sit at a large round table, books on Soviet Arctic research and polar wildlife on glass-fronted shelves behind them. Rex reopens his laptop and pulls up a map of the Central Arctic.

“This is the statistics of how the drift will happen based on the selection of our starting point,” he says, pointing to a spaghetti diagram of multicoloured lines across the map. Each line represents the drift trajectory of ice at a given starting point for the past 12 years, based on tracking features in the ice from day to day. Rex fiddles with the settings on the app and the team around the table lean in to see, setting a starting point of 120 degrees east and 85 degrees north.

“A large fraction ends up in the N-ice area,” he says, with a glance around the table. “And you know what happened to N-ice.”

N-ice was a smaller scale Norwegian Arctic drift expedition in 2015, whose floes kept breaking up as they drifted into the warm Atlantic swell. It meant that the group had to disband their camp and relocate several times. “What happened to N-ice would be really, really bad. We need to avoid that. We can’t allow drift trajectory that goes into that area,” says Rex. “We can’t completely rule it out, and we might end up in an N-ice-like situation but we don’t want that.”

Large cracks can appear in the sea ice within a few hours and then can disappear again almost as quickly in the fast changing Arctic environment (Credit: Sebastian Grote/AWI)

Rex tweaks the parameters again, to a starting point around 135 degrees east, 85 degrees north. “This is more the type of drift we want,” he says. Many of the colourful squiggles work their way up over the North Pole and down towards the western side of the Fram Strait. But some of the lines are curtailed, ending their year’s drift still stuck at the North Pole. “There is a large uncertainty still, as we see,” says Rex. “One of these trajectories gets into a danger zone off the coast of Greenland.”

The team flick through different scenarios. Some starting points end up in dangerous areas, while others meander out of the High Seas and into the Russian Exclusive Economic Zone, where the team does not have permission to do research.

But ensuring the ship doesn’t drift into a problematic area is only one of the factors that will determine the success of the expedition. Another is the resupply missions for the ship, which will also be used to exchange crew and scientists on board. None of the team is staying for a full year, with most only there for one leg of the expedition. If Polarstern drifts too far into thick winter ice, or out of range of the supply aircraft – two research planes and Russian long-range helicopters among them – then the scientists risk being cut off.

With all these requirements in mind, a spot at 135 east and 85 north soon appears to be the only region that stands a likely chance of meeting the mission’s requirements. “It’s not guaranteed,” says Rex. “Nothing is guaranteed on this expedition.”

The thin ice that has posed problems for the expedition could also be a growing issue for the polar bears that live in the Arctic (Credit: Esther Horvath/AWI)

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Scientists “speechless” after fox makes 2,176-mile, 76-day trek from Norway to Canada

A 1-year-old explorer made an epic journey from Norway to Canada, covering 2,176 miles in 76 days. That young explorer was an Arctic fox.

The fox started her journey in March, at just under a year old. She walked nearly 1,000 miles from the archipelago near the North Pole to Greenland. She completed this leg in just 21 days, then began the second part of her trek.

The fox then walked about 1,242 miles farther to Canada’s Ellesmere Island. The whole trek took her just 76 days, averaging about 28.4 miles a day. Some days, however, the ambitious fox walked over 96 miles.

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Researchers believe the fox curled up in the snow to brave the weather, much like this arctic fox lying in its enclosure at Osnabrueck Zoo.FRISO GENTSCH

Eva Fuglei, a research scientists at the Polar Institute, spoke to Norway’s NRK public broadcaster about the fox’s unlikely journey. “We couldn’t believe our eyes at first,” she said. “We thought perhaps it was dead, or had been carried there on a boat, but there were no boats in the area. We were quite thunderstruck.”

Fuglei has been tracking how foxes cope in with the dramatic changes of the Arctic seasons, BBC News reports. No fox has been recorded traveling that far, that fast before.

“There’s enough food in the summer, but it gets difficult in winter,” Fuglei told NRK. “This is when the Arctic fox often migrates to other geographical areas to find food to survive. But this fox went much further than most others we’ve tracked before – it just shows the exceptional capacity of this little creature.” Researchers think the fox curled up in the snow to sit out the bad weather.

The Polar Institute created a gif that shows the two parts of the fox’s journey across Greenland.

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Researchers made a gif of the fox’s travels across Greenland. She walked close to the North Pole for over 2,100 miles to Canada.POLAR INSTITUTE

The fox could have traveled even farther, but scientists stopped tracking her when she reached Canada in February, because her transmitter stopped working, the Polar Institute said.

The adventurous fox may have a hard time finding food in Canada, since she ate a mainly marine diet in Svalbard. Foxes in Canada’s Ellesmere Island eat mostly lemmings, which are small rodents.

Global Warming Pushes Microbes into Damaging Climate Feedback Loops

Research is raising serious concerns about climate change’s impact on the world’s tiniest organisms, and scientists say much more attention is needed.

Diatoms under a microscope. Credit: NOAA Corps Collection

Microbiologists issued a statement warning about the climate feedback loops they’re already seeing and called for more research to understand the potential impact. Credit: NOAA Corps Collection

https://insideclimatenews.org/news/18062019/climate-change-tipping-points-microbes-health-soil-oceans-viruses-bacteria

 

All life on Earth evolved from microorganisms in the primordial slime, and billions of years later, the planet’s smallest life forms—including bacteria, plankton and viruses—are still fundamental to the biosphere. They cycle minerals and nutrients through soil, water and the atmosphere. They help grow and digest the food we eat. Without microbes, life as we know it wouldn’t exist.

Now, global warming is supercharging some microbial cycles on a scale big enough to trigger damaging climate feedback loops, research is showing. Bacteria are feasting on more organic material and produce extra carbon dioxide as the planet warms. In the Arctic, a spreading carpet of algae is soaking up more of the sun’s summer rays, speeding melting of the ice.

Deadly pathogenic microbes are also spreading poleward and upward in elevation, killing people, cattle and crops.

So many documented changes, along with other alarming microbial red flags, have drawn a warning from a group of 30 microbiologists, published Tuesday as a “consensus statement” in the journal Nature Reviews Microbiology.

The microbiologists, in their statement, warned about changes they’re already seeing and called for more research to understand the potential impact. The statement “puts humanity on notice that the impact of climate change will depend heavily on responses of microorganisms, which are essential for achieving an environmentally sustainable future,” they wrote.

“Microbes literally support all life on Earth,” said Tom Crowther, an environmental scientist with ETH Zürich, who was among the signers of the statement. “Maintaining and preserving these incredible communities has to be our highest priority if we intend to maintain the existence that we want on this planet.”

What’s known is that global warming increases microbial activity, driving global warming feedback loops, Crowther said.

His research has showed that accelerated microbial activity in soils will significantly increase carbon emissions by 2050. In another study, he showed how global warming favors fungi that quickly break down dead wood and leaves and release CO2 to the atmosphere.

Other warning signs from the microbial world include spreading crop diseases that threaten food security, microbial parasites that threaten freshwater fish, as well as the fungal epidemic wiping out amphibians world wide.

In the Arctic, a spreading carpet of algae is soaking up more of the sun's summer rays, speeding melting of the ice.

On mountain glaciers and in Greenland, algae is soaking up more of the sun’s summer rays, speeding melting of the ice. Scientists here collect samples of dark microbes for the Black Ice project. Courtesy of Birgit Sattler/University of Innsbruck

A better understanding of the dynamics would not only help make better global warming projections, but that knowledge also is integral to efforts to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere with climate-friendly soils, forest and agriculture, said University of Vermont climate researcher Aimée Classen.

“We know microbes are important for the way the way plants grow,” she said. “Can we harness some of that to help plants be more resistant to changing climate and to sequester more carbon in the soil?”

It’s a Health Issue, Too

There are beneficial microbes, and there are pathogens that are deadly to plants and animals. Global warming is making it easier for some of those killers to spread, reproduce and persist in the environment, said MatthewBaylis, a health researcher at the University of Liverpool who joined the consensus statement.

“We’re seeing a remarkable rate of emergence with new and spreading diseases that are affecting our food production, plants and animals, and our own health,” he said.

It’s not all due to climate change. Some of the spread of disease is simply due to people moving around more and moving plants from place to place in commerce and agriculture.

But there is compelling scientific evidence that global warming has brought malaria to higher elevations in Africa even as its being eradicated in other places, and that it has enabled the spread of bluetongue, a livestock disease that affects sheep, Baylis said.

Millions more people will face the risks of these diseases as the climate warms, he said.

“As the environment warms, pathogens can proliferate in new habitats that were previously too cold, and thereby infect humans in these new habitats,” said Kenneth Timmis, an environmental microbiologist at the Technical University Braunschweig, Germany.

Warming oceans are also changing currents and extreme events like El Niño, which disperses pathogens to new habitats where they cause disease, Timmis said. “This is the case for Vibrio, the cause of cholera and related diseases, of which there has been a series of outbreaks in recent years. In general, water-borne infections increase with increasing temperature,” he said.

Microbes Changes Affect Ocean Food Chain

Charges are also being documented in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, where marine microplankton take in some 40 percent of all the carbon sequestered by all the oceans and sink it to the seafloor, partly mitigating the buildup of greenhouse gases.

About 90 percent of the world’s ocean biomass is microbial, making it a thick, living soup at a microscopic scale, and global warming brewing up some biological storms with as-yet unknown consequences, said Antje Boetius, a marine microbiologist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

Various tiny plankton under a microscope. Credit: NOAA Fisheries Collection

Various tiny ocean plankton are studied under a microscope. Credit: NOAA Fisheries Collection

The widely reported extreme low Arctic sea ice extent in the summer of 2012 rippled through the ocean’s ecosystems. Huge amounts of microbial life, in the form of diatoms floating in sea ice east of Greenland drifted to the bottom. Boetius said she measured a noticeable change in ocean chemistry as the dead diatoms and associated bacteria piled up at the bottom of the ocean. The research didn’t trace a direct link to harm to marine animals, but it showed how sudden and dramatic extreme climate events can be.

“In the very deep sea, which everyone thinks is protected, we see the velocity of climate change,” she said.

The breeding and feeding cycles of many other Arctic species are closely linked to the timing and location of plankton blooms, so a disruption of the ocean microbe cycles can fundamentally affect the whole food chain, from birds to whales.

Boetius also warned of other tipping points that haven’t been studied yet, including the erosion of organic permafrost soil to the ocean, where aquatic bacteria could digest the material and release huge amounts of methane and CO2 to the air, as well as a potential increase in toxic algae blooms in the Arctic, where they are now still uncommon.

“For everyone that studies ocean microbiology,” she said, “it’s really scary.”