Interview: Polar ice expert, Professor Peter Wadhams,

With the recent Arctic sea ice minimum extent for 2015 announced on the 11th September showing the 4th lowest sea ice extent on record. Little comfort can be drawn from US Navy data that shows the sea ice thickness (not visible from satellites) is still declining, especially around the Beaufort Sea and the North Pole, where increased storm activity is further breaking up the ice.

[US Navy URL ]

Professor Peter Wadhams is about to leave on an expedition to the Arctic and explains the risk posed to the rest of the world by changes accelerating in the polar regions, as well as the one thing politicians could do that would start the ball rolling towards a more sustainable future.

[Edited transcript below video]

Nick Breeze: Can you describe what happens when we lose the reflective white snow in that basin and replace it with blue ocean?

Professor Wadhams: Well there is a huge decrease in albedo, that is the amount of energy reflected straight back out into space. If you look at fresh snow it has an albedo of about 80-90% so nearly everything get reflected back out. The sort of old snow, or old sea ice, that is covered with melt pools and is rotting away in summer has an albedo of 0.5%-0.6% but open water or bare land with bare forest on it has an albedo of less than 0.1%. So there is a massive drop albedo as soon as you take the ice away. That means that much more energy from the sun is retained by the surface and accelerates the warming.

Nick Breeze: Is there any evidence that more longer term changes in the Earth system due to melting Arctic sea ice are starting to become visible?

Professor Wadhams: Yes, there are a couple of things. One is sea-level rise. Global sea-level rise is accelerating and the predictions are that it will accelerate a lot more because of various effects due to melting ice.

Firstly the warming of the atmosphere over Greenland because the sea-ice is replaced by water, causes an increase in the melt rate of the Greenland ice sheet. But we are also coming to certain tipping points in Greenland and Antarctica where the melt of the ice sheet causes the ice sheet to detach itself from the seabed and have big retreats.

So the predictions about the glaciological effects of sea ice retreat on the Antarctic and Arctic ice sheets show that this sea-level rise this century is going to be a lot more than the 60cm’s IPCC predicts and James Hansen, for instance, is saying it is going to be more like 4 metres, which would be catastrophic.

Another effect, of course, of sea ice retreat in the Arctic has been this connection with extreme weather events in the northern hemisphere generally. That has an impact on food production because of the extreme weather events we’re getting in Europe and in America impinge on the big food producing, temperate regions of the northern hemisphere.

Nick Breeze: With the effects we’ve already mentioned contributing to accelerating warming, do you think that we are seeing a self-reinforcing feedback develop in the Arctic where the heating continues regardless of human greenhouse gas emissions?

Professor Wadhams: The fear of a runaway warming is when the feedbacks become dominant and then you can feedback without having to drive it anymore.

If you analyse the extra warming produced by the retreat of sea-ice, it is about a quarter of the direct effect of adding carbon dioxide. The retreat of the snow line, which is of the same magnitude, adds another quarter. So we are already, just from Arctic feedbacks, adding 50% to the amount of warming we are getting from the greenhouse gases alone.

So the greenhouse gases are the drivers but the response is much greater than the direct response to that extra amount of carbon causing extra radiative forcing.

You add on some more feedbacks, and there are a lot more feedbacks around, you end up getting maybe double what you would get from the heating alone.

You can reach a point where the feedbacks are self-mutually reinforcing. You don’t need the original driving force anymore, they will keep each other going.

Nick Breeze: And is that point easy to identify?

Professor Wadhams: No, it’s not, but I suspect we’re approaching it.

Nick Breeze: You are leaving for the Arctic on a research expedition very shortly, can you tell us where you are headed, what you are looking for and who are the parties involved in this expedition?

Professor Wadhams: We are going on the Sikuliaq, which is a new icebreaker from the University of Alaska and we’re all partners in a project called Sea State, which is looking at the impact of the open water in the Arctic causing a feedback which accelerates the loss of ice.

One of the problems is that all the observations that anyone’s made show the sea ice retreating very fast in summer. The mechanisms that are not put into models, so the modellers say “oh, it can’t possibly be retreating that fast because our models say its not!”, what that means is that the modellers are not modelling all the physical processes.

One of the processes that could be important is, as the sea-ice retreats and you have more open water, you have more wave energy and the waves interact with the sea-ice and break it up, so that it melts faster.

So you are getting a marginal ice zone, around the edge of the ice, of ice being broken up by waves and that could the mechanism that is making it retreat faster. And that could make it go faster and faster because as the sea ice retreats more, you have more and more open water.

So we are going up there with a bunch of wave bouys which we are putting into the ice and monitoring the penetration of waves into the ice. How far do the waves get? How much [ice] do they break-up?

So, we’ll be working in the ice edge region but we might have to go along way north to reach that ice edge. We are leaving from Alaska and we’re heading north.

Nick Breeze: Do you think politicians who will meet in Paris in December at the UN Climate Talks, really understand the threat to society from these changes that are going on right now?
Professor Wadhams: I don’t think they do, no. Certainly they haven’t shown any signs of it with the pretty pathetic and useless agreements that have been made up until now, which have really had no impact at all on climate.

We are still getting an exponential increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, that is even more exponential than it used to be, so all the promises of politicians have actually not translated into any action at all, so their track record is terrible.

I think that they don’t recognise how absolutely urgent it is to take very very serious action now. What they think is, “let’s do plan B”, which is “we sit here and monitor climate change and if we find that it is really bad then we’ll start doing something”.

The trouble is the effects are such that if you start taking action in the future, it will be too late because of the ratchet effect of CO2, it lasts such a long-time in the atmosphere. If you keep pumping it in, you are going to suffer the consequences for a very long-time, a thousand years!

So you have to stop doing that now in order to have a level in the atmosphere which is not going to be catastrophic. So everything has to be done now but politicians don’t understand the concept of doing things “now”, because they don’t want to upset anybody. They don’t want to lose votes, they would always prefer to push it beyond the next election.

Nick Breeze: A politician might say it is extremely complex to get everyone to agree to do one thing. If you could persuade world leaders to do one thing at this conference, what would it be?

Professor Wadhams: I think it would be to make the top priority everywhere the replacement of fossil fuel use by renewables in concrete ways.

Seriously going for solar power. It is now cheap and it is effective. [Solar] is not a joke anymore. You can replace a huge amount of our fossil fuel use by solar if you make the effort.

Your mentality should no longer be the mentality of coal and oil as the basis of industry or as the basis of life. The mentality should be: let’s only use energy that is renewable!

If they could take on that then it is remarkable how quickly we could have a transformation the world.


Nick Breeze is a climate change interviewer and writer. He will be in in Paris for the UN climate change talking in early December.



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