Fire and Ice
This week in ice, we began with fire.
You will have seen images and footage of the horrific wildfires in California. Very dry conditions and strong, sustained Santa Ana winds have fueled multiple raging fires, swallowing homes and livelihoods, at massive cost to the economy, and they are still mostly out of control as I write this.
Santa Ana winds are katabatic winds—very strong, downward winds, just as are experienced in Antarctica. In California, they originate from cool, high-pressure air masses inland and are very dry.
So, what’s that got to do with sea ice?
A new study by Ivana Cvijanovic and colleagues from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and University of California, Berkeley, showed that loss of Arctic sea ice could drive a decrease in rainfall in California. Depletion of sea ice in the Arctic can create changes in the convention pattern in the atmosphere over the northern Pacific Ocean, causing a anticyclyonic pattern (a clockwise circulation of winds [in the northern hemisphere]), in turn causing dry conditions in California.
“While more research should be done,” said Cvijanovic, “we should be aware that an increasing number of studies, including this one, suggest that the loss of Arctic sea ice cover is not only a problem for remote Arctic communities, but could affect millions of people worldwide. Arctic sea ice loss could affect us, right here in California.”
An extreme dip in the jet stream is bringing very dry conditions to the west and frigid temperatures to the east. Diminishing sea ice, caused by climate change, may cause this pattern to occur more often. For a full discussion, read this article from Inside Climate News.
Sea ice helps regulate our global climate as we have known it. And one of its most important features is high albedo.
Albedo is a measure of brightness/reflectance. Light objects have higher albedo than dark ones, meaning they reflect more light rather than absorbing it. It’s why we wear light-colored clothes in summer to keep us cool. It’s why I’m wearing huge glasses in my profile pic, surrounded by sea ice. On a sunny day, and even on a cloudy day, it’s bright.
Ice and snow have high albedo, & our frozen polar regions reflect most of the sunlight they receive.
In the picture below, which I took from the ice tower of the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer in the Ross Sea, you can clearly see the difference in albedo between the undisturbed sea ice either side of the channel, and the lower albedo of the churned up ice:
Because they reflect so much solar radiation, our polar regions help keep our planet cool and regulate our global climate.
Open water has low albedo and absorbs more energy from the sun. As sea ice melts, creating more open water, more sunlight or solar radiation is absorbed. As more solar radiation is absorbed, more ice melts, and so on… Albedo is lowered, and things start hotting up—literally. We need our vital sea ice to help keep our planet cool.
Kevin Pluck has created a new animation, and this one is a masterpiece. It shows the correlations between the rise in carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere, the rise in global temperature and sea level, and fluctuations (and decrease in) sea ice cover over time.
Current Sea Ice Conditions:
Ice in the Chuchki Sea between Alaska and Russia is at a record low extent for this time of year. Overall, Arctic sea ice is at its third lowest recorded extent for November.
Sea ice in the Antarctic in November was at its third lowest average monthly extent.
I am devoting this week’s ice post exclusively to sea ice, so no Glacier or Iceberg sections this week.
And while I’ve decided not to post it here, you may have seen the gut-wrenching video of a starving polar bear making its rounds on social media this week.
I’ve since read this interesting thread about that polar bear, which you can read in its entirety if you click through. In short, the bear may have had some other disease contributing to its demise.
I mention this because science communication needs to be accurate. This sums it up:
So, I am seeking other opinions from polar bear scientists about that video.
Andrew Derocher is biological sciences professor at the University of Alberta and has studied polar bears for 34 years.
There’s no doubt that polar bears (and other species) are suffering due to loss of Arctic sea ice.
These are some of the real-world consequences of the loss of our vital ice, in a world warming due to a rise in greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by human activity.
This week’s post is dedicated to my friend Vanessa and her family who lost their home in the Ventura fire, fleeing with only the pajamas they wore on Tuesday. Please visit our GoFundMe campaign to learn more.
As always, I am not a scientist, just a writer/illustrator and science communicator passionately in love with sea ice. I welcome input and corrections by polar scientists as I learn more about this remarkable and vital part of our planet and bring this knowledge to a wider audience.