By Nick Breeze
When it comes to changes in the global climate, one of the most visible and disturbing sites is the data that shows the diminishing state of sea ice in the Arctic region. It is both dramatic and symbolic, with known and unknown consequences. As someone who has been following the scientific literature on this for a few years now, I cannot help feeling that our collective societies, and especially those with real power, will rue the days they turned their backs on this dynamic and important component of our climate.
With this in mind, I was positively excited to attend the two day event at the Royal Society on the 22nd and 23rd of September, titled, ‘Arctic sea ice reduction: the evidence, models, and global impacts’. The list of scientists attending read like a dream team of big brains on Arctic sea ice matters:
Dr Julienne Stroeve, University of Colorado, USA; Reduction of summer sea ice extent
Professor Mark Serreze, National Snow and Ice Center, USA; Changes in Arctic sea ice and the polar atmosphere
Professor Peter Wadhams, University of Cambridge, UK; Sea ice thickness from submarines
Professor Ronald Kwok, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, CALTECH, USA; Satellite observations of sea ice thickness
Dr Andrey Proshuntinsky, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, USA; Arctic circulation regimes
Dr Helene Hewitt, Met Office Hadley Centre, UK; Using models to understand and predict Arctic Sea Ice
Professor John Turner, British Antarctic Survey, UK; Why is sea ice increasing in the Southern Ocean?
Dr Marika Holland, National Center for Atmospheric Research, USA; The capabilities and limitations of Arctic sea ice ocean climate models
Professor Daniel Feltham, University of Reading, UK; Sea ice mechanics and the next generation of sea ice physics
Dr Dirk Notz, Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, Germany; Processes controlling the Arctic sea ice mass balance
Professor Don Perovich, Dartmouth College, USA; Field studies of sea ice melt
Professor Grae Worster, University of Cambridge, UK; Sea ice thermodynamics and brine drainage
Dr Gavin Schmidt, NASA, USA, Atmospheric composition and radiative impacts of Arctic sea ice loss
Professor Jennifer Francis, Rutgers University, USA, The impact of Arctic sea ice loss on extreme weather
Dr Sheldon Bacon, National Oceanography Centre, UK, The Arctic Ocean freshwater budget and implications for climate
One of the most striking debates in the discussion of Arctic sea ice is the rate of loss and risk of feedbacks, such as large-scale methane release. The large-scale methane releases are a feature of the Earth’s history, where huge amounts of this deadly gas are released at a rate where they cannot be broken down, and therefore overwhelm the atmosphere. This heating effect, in turn, creates amplified heating making it difficult for life to survive. It is estimated that when the last big methane burst occurred, millions of years ago, 90% of life on Earth died and the recovery rate for biodiversity was millions of years more.
Russian scientist’s, Dr Natalia Shakhova and Dr Igor Semilitov have been conducting annual trips to the East Siberian Arctic Shelf for over ten years and are reporting an increased destabilisation of the permafrost on the shallow Arctic ocean floor in the region. The loss of ice has meant that significant heating has occurred this sensitive region, causing the frozen seabed to rise from -7 degrees centigrade to between -1C and +3C. Obviously, above zero the seabed changes state from ice to water and releases methane from the rotting organic debris that has been frozen for thousands, or millions of years.
More importantly this permafrost layer acts as a seal over an enormous store of methane hydrates conservatively estimated to be around 1500 gigatonnes. To put this in perspective, there is currently about 5.5 gigatonnes of methane in the Earth’s atmosphere. A release of a small percentage of 50 gigatonnes has been cited as a risk. Wadhams and his colleagues used the Stern model to calculate that such a release would have the equivalent economic value of $50 trillion USD (roughly the same as global GDP). That is obviously much more than we could ever afford and the world, post-release, would look vastly different, with hardly any humans, or other species, remaining compared to what we see today.
Professor Wadhams gave his talk at the Royal Society focusing on the behaviour of sea ice, using submarine data to back up previous estimates of sea ice decline in volume over multi decades. As these are observations, it is not really something that can be contested. Wadhams has been going on trips to the Arctic aboard military submarines for many years, collecting data to feed into the models, calculating volume in addition to the ice area (extent) shown from the satellites. This has shown a dramatic drop in sea-ice volume by 40% since the late 1970’s. The implications are that we are risking setting off a feedback process of methane release that could cause a huge boost to global warming. That is the view from those collecting data from the region.
On the other side of the debate stands the modellers. David Archer (not present at the event) is referred to as the “go to man” on Arctic methane. Archer says that no risk is posed from methane releases from Arctic shelves such as the one in Eastern Siberia. To represent this view at the Royal Society meeting was Dr Gavin Schmidt, the newly positioned Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute For Space Studies. Dr. Schmidt presented his modelling data, positing that there is no evidence such a risk exists. This is as a result of his examination of the data record of the Holocene period; a period of climate stability in which we and many other species have flourished. There are other scientists who look at our unprecedented climate situation and conclude that this this is the beginning of the “Anthropocene”; a period of climate driven by human activity.
Schmidt does acknowledge there was a huge methane release way back in the geological record but states that the world was a very different place then and we cannot draw conclusions from it. Schmidt’s view is based much more on modelling data and theory, which is viewed with suspicion by some, due to the inability of the models to keep pace in real-time of the rapid decline of Arctic sea ice. The argument goes that if you cannot get the model to reproduce what is happening today, how can you draw conclusions of what the sea ice will do in 10, 20 or 100 years? All scientists use models and they are very useful in looking at climate and their results are always getting better, as both the technological capacity, and the scientists understanding of Earth system processes gets better.
Dr Schmidt’s presentation was especially crafted to dispel the idea of a risk from methane releases and to directly discredit the work of Shakhova et al. Even when he mentioned the word methane he did so encouraging the audience to make horror noises. This seems to me a thoughtless act, considering people are risking their lives to collect the data on the subject. I interviewed Shakhova in June and she gave examples of other expeditions that have had fatal outcomes for those involved. Also, considering Professor Wadhams was sat in the audience and held a different view, it seemed divisive and childish. Schmidt presented in his summary that there was no risk of a methane “bomb”, or other large-scale multi gigatonne release from hydrate stores in the Arctic.
Although he didn’t explicitly say it, the implication was that the work of those saying “there is a risk” is rubbish. He showed models developed by Archer to prove it. However, I failed to draw a similar conclusion as Schmidt, because the scientists telling us there IS an issue, are the only ones actually visiting the region and collecting data. Shakhova said in June, when we spoke, that a decade ago there were hardly no bubbles coming out and the ice pack on top was frozen solid. They could drive heavy vehicles out on the ice. Due to global warming, it has vanished and now the dark open water is absorbing the suns heat energy and the waves that occur during intensifying storms (a new phenomenon for the East Siberian Shelf) are transporting this heat down to the seabed, where the melting occurs. Thus their observations show plumes of methane pouring off the seabed, from melting permafrost and over a kilometre wide.
The opposing views portended to set up a scenario for great discussion and perhaps, potentially, collaboration on how scientists could move forward to get to the bottom of what is happening in the volatile polar region. However, what really transpired was that Dr Schmidt was not that interested in any serious consideration of views outside those of his colleagues and had come here to only try and discredit what he might call “opponents”. Even when Professor Wadhams asked him a serious question at the end of his presentation, about what sea water temperature data is feeding Archer’s model (as it was being shown as evidence), he simply replied that “it’s [the answer] in the paper”. Conversely, when Wadhams was on the stage Schmidt only raised his hand to ask “Is any of this based on Physics?” to which Wadhams replied “no” referring to the fact that it is collected observational data.
Although having two opposing camps adds a bit of flavour to the proceedings, what soured the taste afterwards was Schmidt’s insulting tweeting during Wadhams presentation. Probably aware that an older professor is not so likely to be microblogging during a serious conference on his main subject of expertise, Schmidt released the following tweets in reference to him:
"Some anticipation for Peter Wadhams. Audience members already crying" "Wadhams still using graphs with ridiculous projections with no basis in physics". "Wadhams now onto methane pulse of 50 GT. But no better justified than his previous statements" "Wadhams clearly states that there is no physics behind his extrapolations.”
There is no doubt that such “tweets” must resonate with his own choir of over 5800 followers on Twitter but does it add anything whatsoever to the meeting in the room? In terms of credibility alone, it should be highlighted that Wadhams has been studying the sea ice for over 40years and published over 300 papers on the subject. He has made countless voyages to both polar regions and even Prime Minister of the day, Margaret Thatcher was heard to shout out in Downing Street, “Dennis… The ICE MAN is here!”, having previously telephoned him during an expedition to the Antarctic ahead of a conference in the 1980’s. Even if Professor Wadhams was not a person of such high stature, Dr Schmidt’s treatment of him does sully a framework for finding answers to serious questions that science has always been so good at. It undermines the purpose of the meeting hosted by the Royal Society and also the reputation of his current position at Goddard (a position held by one of the most excellent and modest of climate experts we have seen, James Hansen, whom I was fortunate to meet and interview in 2012).
To conclude, the opportunity to discuss in depth the opposing views was squandered in place of a shallow and degrading barrage of Tweets. These were designed to undermine and dismiss a growing field of research that is being published around the world by many institutions such as the United Nations Environment Programme, as well the peer reviewed literature. Instead of an arena of informed and intellectual discussion, this behaviour is more akin to playground politics blended with egotistical nastiness.
On completely different level altogether, one major triumph of the event was the presentation given by Professor Jennifer Francis from Rutgers University, USA, titled, ‘The impact of Arctic sea ice loss on extreme weather’. Francis has been regularly cited by the mainstream media in recent months when we have experienced extreme weather events. Her teams work has produced evidence linking the decline in Arctic sea ice to the changes in the oscillation of the jet stream, that delivers our weather and is now being affected by manmade climate change. Such work has been picked up by President Obama’s Chief science advisor, Dr John Holdren who is thus briefing the President. I was lucky enough to catch up with Professor Francis later in the week and conduct an interview. We’ll be posting this very shortly.