Ice-Blog: Berlin Wall – Hope for Arctic?

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The statement by  veteran Arctic researcher Peter Wadhams that the Arctic could be ice-free in summer as early as 2020 sparked a lot of discussion.

Recently I had the chance to talk to Professor Stefan Rahmsdorf, Professor of Physics of the Oceans and head of Earth System Analysis at Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) about Wadham’s  forecast.

At the recent Arctic Circle Assembly in Iceland, Wadhams, professor of applied mathematics and theoretical physics at Cambridge University, said data showed the ice volume was “accelerating downward” and the summer sea ice could be expected to disappear by 2020. This prompted Craig Medred, writing for Alaska Dispatch News, (AND) to quip “get ready to order those beach umbrellas in Barrow”. (Arctic Barrow is the northernmost settlement in the USA).

Not 2020, but soon
Ice free Arctic Barrow by 2020? (Irene Quaile)
Ice free Arctic Barrow by 2020? (Irene Quaile)

It is not the first time Wadhams has predicted that the Arctic ice will melt faster than most of the models estimate. He says he bases his assumptions on data, much of it from submarines measuring below the ice since 1979, rather than on models. I asked Rahmstorf for his view. This was his reply:

“In science there is always a range of opinions, and I think Peter Wadhams marks one extreme of the range of opinions. I find it unlikely that in ice-free Arctic can be seen that soon, I think it is a few decades into the future, but it is extremely worrying that we have already lost almost half the ice cover in the Arctic ocean”.

I asked Rahmstorf about the above-average rise in temperature in the Arctic over the last 20 years or so:

“We do see a disproportionate rise in temperatures in the Arctic. And in the summer, we have lost almost half of the sea ice cover that is usually on the Arctic Ocean since the 1970s. To some extent it is expected that the Arctic is a hotspot of global warming, because there is an amplifying feedback. If the ice cover shrinks, you absorb more of the solar radiation, less gets reflected back into space, because the ice normally acts like a mirror to the sunlight. To some extent what is happening in the Arctic is expected, and predicted by climate models. I say to some extent because it is a bit stronger than we expected and there are some aspects we still need to research. There is a similar issue in earth history, where there are some warmer periods in climate history where data consistently shows that the poles have warmed much more than the climate models would predict for these past periods in history, so there may be some amplifying factors at work in the Arctic that we haven’t include in the models yet. “

Wild weather ahead

So reality could be overtaking the modeled scenarios, and we don’t know why. Worrying?

Rahmstorf has been involved in various studies of how changes in the Arctic affect our weather. He summarized the findings in brief:

“Our weather is strongly affected by the jet stream, which is meandering around the planet in the mid-latitudes in the upper atmosphere, and this jet stream is driven by the temperature difference between the warm tropics and the cold Arctic. With this disproportionate Arctic warming, this temperature gradient is weakening, and to put it simply, it seems to make the jet stream more unstable, and more frequently you see very large meanders in the jet stream,  which can cause extreme weather on the ground.”

Rahmstorf, like most experts in the field, expects a further increase in extreme weather events and cites the massive flooding of the Elbe river in 2002 and heat waves in 2003 and 2010 as examples of what could increasingly be in store for us here in Europe.

Message for UN climate talks
… And the ice continues to melt. (Irene Quaile, Greenland)
… And the ice continues to melt. (Irene Quaile, Greenland)

With negotiators gearing up for this year’s UN climate conference in Lima, Peru, in just over two weeks’ time, and the publication of the Summary for Policymakers of the latest IPCC report, I asked Rahmstorf what he would say to politicians to convince them of the need to cut emissions. This is what he told me:

“We see that global temperatures have risen by almost one degree Centigrade in the last 100 years, we see that global sea level has risen by nearly 20 cm in the last 100 years, we see that the mountain glaciers are in rapid retreat, the Arctic ice cover is in retreat, the continental ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are shrinking, losing mass, contributing to sea level rise, we see extreme events on the rise, for example the number of record-breaking hot months has increased five fold as compared to what you get by chance in a stationary climate. So climate change is here and is affecting people already, after a relatively small amount of global warming, of only one degree centigrade. And if we don’t stop this process, we will go well beyond two degrees centigrade, and we will leave the range we are familiar with throughout human history, throughout the Holocene, we will be way outside that into uncharted and, I think, very dangerous waters.”

Rahmstorf is convinced we can still stop warming from going above the two-degree target and cites the IPCC report and recommendations.  Although the current pledges for emissions reductions by the EU and just this week by China and the USA are still way below what is necessary, Rahmstorf is still optimistic.

“We are just  celebrating 25 years of the Berlin Wall coming down, and if you had asked people just a few months before that how likely it was that the wall comes down, nobody would have said it’s going to happen. I think processes like this in society cannot easily be predicted, but I can see very encouraging signs:  the huge success story of renewable energies, we can see parts of the world like the European Union have already greatly reduced their emissions of greenhouse gases since 1990, while still experiencing good economic growth, which shows you can decouple emissions from economic growth and welfare. We have the technologies to solve this problem, and the economic analysis of a number of different groups of economists from around the world as summarized by the IPCC shows that at just surprisingly little cost you will hardly notice as a normal person, if we go through this investment into the energy system that will transform it into a truly sustainable energy supply, and not a fossil fuel based one. “

I will end on that positive note. If you’d like to listen to the Professor for yourself, click HERE.

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Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Melting Arctic ice called ‘economic time bomb,’ CBC News

Greenland:  Greenland’s northeastern ice sheet starting to melt, Eye on the Arctic

Iceland:  Acid Arctic Ocean and Russell Brand?, by Deutsche Welle’s Iceblogger

Norway: Emissions speeding up Arctic Ocean acidification, Alaska Dispatch

Russia: Melting permafrost eroding Siberian coasts, Deutsche Welle Ice-Blog

Sweden: Sweden could lead way on climate: environment minister, Radio Sweden

United States: Expert predicts ice-free Arctic by 2020 as UN releases climate report, Alaska Dispatch

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Irene Quaile, Deutsche Welle

Irene Quaile, Deutsche Welle

Scots-born journalist Irene Quaile works as Correspondent for Environment and Climate Change with Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster. She has also worked for German national radio, Radio Netherlands, the BBC and ABC Radio National, Australia. Irene has received several international radio prizes , including a New York International Radio Festivals gold medal and a United Nations gold award for outstanding radio. She has travelled widely to countries including Mongolia, Laos and Tanzania, working on development and environment-related issues. Since 2007 she has been specialising on the Arctic and made trips to the Arctic regions of Scandinavia, Alaska and Greenland, making radio and online features on climate change and its impact on ecosystems and people. The Ice Blog was created during a trip to the Alaskan Arctic in 2008. Read Irene Quaile's articles

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