This Week in Ice: Feb 18 – 24, 2018

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This week, I was thrilled to attend an APECS workshop, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, on Antarctic Surface Hydrology & Ice-Shelf Stability at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Thank you to organizers Luke Trusel and Jonathan Kingslake and everyone else who made this possible!

Ice shelves melt from from both below (due to warm ocean water) and from above (due to atmospheric conditions). But Antarctic ice shelves are not all the same, and the processes that affect them are surprisingly complex and not yet fully understood.

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Meltponds near Black Island, Antarctica Credit: NASA Operation IceBridge

How do various inputs such as temperature, humidity, snowfall, cloud cover, winds, (creating micro-climates and impacting snow-cover to uncover darker ice with lower albedo), the topography of the land, the presence (or not) of algae (which reduces albedo on Greenland ice shelves), the profile of the calving edge of ice shelves, ocean and atmospheric currents, and more all affect melting? How will future warming affect all of the above?

How does knowledge of processes in Greenland apply to Antarctic ice shelves? How can knowledge of past events inform our theories about what will happen in the future? Which are the most effective models for scientists to use, and how can they best be used in concert? How well do we know the processes that drive surface melt, and can we, therefore, accurately model them? How do we put recent melting into a proper long-term climatological context?

These are some of the topics and questions raised during presentations and discussions. It was very clear an interdisciplinary approach is needed. Indeed, one goal of the workshop was to determine priorities for future research and how scientists from various disciplines might collaborate.

Stef Lhermitte delivered the sobering statement, “We are currently underestimating melt,” and said much melt is happening below the surface. It’s unclear where this water goes or, at this stage, even how to study that. (Check out this excellent site to learn more .)

On a personal note, it was truly wonderful to meet and spend time with people who love our polar ice just as much as I do and have dedicated their lives to studying it. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to present a poster, with my co-author Kevin Pluck, on effective science communication for polar scientists. Among other things, I emphasized how important it is for scientists to take charge of their science communication and leverage the power of social media by following these pointers:

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This week, Kevin Pluck also illustrated the enormous size of the Pine Island Glacier, which– like the Thwaites Glacier–is an accelerating and weakening glacier of concern to scientists.

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A rift in the PIG, 2016            Credit: NASA Operation IceBridge/Nathan Kurtz

Sea Ice

Sea Ice has reached record lows in both the Arctic and the Antarctic.

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Temperatures in the Arctic are FAR above average.

And the Bering Sea has lost half its ice in just two weeks.

Current conditions:

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Credit: NSIDC

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Credit: NSIDC

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Sea ice in the Antarctic is also at a record low.

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Credit: NSIDC

Thank you for reading. It’s good to be back! Now preparation for the APECS workshop is over, I expect to be updating This Week in Ice… well, weekly.

As always, I am not a scientist but a writer/illustrator and science communicator passionately in love with sea ice, ice shelves, and polar ice in general. I welcome input and corrections from and connections with polar scientists as I learn more about this remarkable and vital part of our planet and bring this knowledge to a wider audience. 

Icy Interim

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Ross Sea ice and iceberg from the RVIB N.B.Palmer                          Copyright © Marlo Garnsworthy

While there was no This Week in Ice post this past week, plenty happened in ice news. Every day, I get up early and pore through headlines about sea ice, glaciers, ice shelves, the Arctic, Antarctica, and icebergs via Google and Twitter. I collect the links and tweets I think are interesting, read them, and eventually construct my blog posts each weekend. And last week was no exception, BUT…

…on Friday, I found out I’ve been accepted to attend a workshop on Antarctic Surface Hydrology and Future Ice Shelf Stability at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, sponsored by the NSF. Since I’m not a scientist, I’m very honored and excited for this wonderful opportunity.

What’s “Antarctic Surface Hydrology and Future Ice Shelf Stability,” you say?

To learn more, check this out.

It’s also my first science conference–so, I’m busy learning how to create a science poster.

The entire ice system and that of the surrounding ocean is fascinating. I want to know how it all works: sea ice, ocean currents, polynyas, ice shelves (and the forces that act on them from above, below, within, and around), plus the ecology—diatoms and other phytoplankton, the marine food chain, benthic (seafloor) communities, the carbon cycle, etc, etc., etc. It’s a complex, fascinating, and intricately woven system, and while we are so far away, our actions and fates are interlinked.

Yet little of this is in most people’s consciousness, or if it is, it may cause a sense of unease that makes them turn away and shut down. My goal is to provide a bridge between scientists and the wider community that’s factual, that isn’t sensationalist, and which shows how worthy these parts of our planet are in and of themselves—not just because the collapse of the system could have drastic consequences for civilization.

So, This Week in Ice will be back, but please expect a fortnightly edition for now. In the meantime, I wrote an article about our SNOWBIRDS Transect research cruise for Envirobites this week. Here’s the link. 

Now, back to my poster…

 

 

 

This Week in Ice: Jan. 7-13, 2018

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Copyright © Marlo Garnsworthy

I took this photo on my local beach in southern Rhode Island early one morning at the start of the week. The whole shore was covered in thick ice, which I’ve never seen there, and the waves were sluggish in the 0 degree F/-18 degree C conditions. But this is nothing compared to just a little farther east around Cape Cod, Massachusetts, which has seen the rapid growth of sea ice during our recent Arctic blast.

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Credit: Terra Satellite, Jan 7, 2018

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Cape Cod Bay from Rock Harbor Beach                                          Credit: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Meanwhile, global sea ice concentration is experiencing a troubling start to the year.

Let’s zoom in a little, so you can better see the dipping of 2018’s bright red line:

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A new study has shown that melting sea ice is changing the flow of nutrients into the Arctic Ocean. With sea ice melting, sediment from the continental shelf containing nutrients, carbon, and trace metals is flowing into the Arctic Ocean. Along with increased light (also due to the melting of sea ice), this influx of nutrients could cause a phytoplankton bloom. Phytoplankton form the base of the marine food chain, and it’s likely this increased productivity would affect the marine ecosystem.

Scientists are closely watching the Beaufort Gyre, a major wind-driven current in the Arctic Ocean, which has, historically, weakened every five to seven years and reversed direction. When this happens, it expels ice and freshwater into the eastern Arctic Ocean and North Atlantic.

But the gyre seems to be stuck and has been spinning clockwise for twelve years, collecting cold freshwater from melting sea ice, runoff from Russian and North American rivers, and from the Bering Sea. When the gyre does eventually slow and reverse direction, scientists are concerned that it will expel this icy freshwater into the Northern Atlantic, causing severe winters and a disruption to the fishing industry in northern Europe.

Sea Ice — Current Conditions

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Arctic sea ice is at a record low for this time of year.

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Credit: NSIDC

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Credit: NSIDC

Arctic sea ice has been particularly low in the Bering and Chukchi Seas, which connect with the northern Pacific Ocean.

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Antarctic Sea ice concentration is also far below the mean, though not quite as low as last year’s record low.

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Ice Shelves & Icebergs

Strong El Niño events cause large changes in Antarctic ice shelves, a new study has found. While more snow falls on the surface during such events, changes in ocean circulation cause increased melting from below, resulting in a net loss of ice mass:

Iceberg A-86a is still bumping around near the Larsen C ice shelf from which it calved back in July.

Michael Wolovick, a glaciologist from Princeton has been studying whether building massive underwater walls of sand and stone at the mouths of unstable glaciers could slow or reverse their collapse.

I will be continuing the Sea Ice Sketch Project this weekend, and posting on Twitter as I complete each piece and continue my exploration of sea ice—as well as ice shelves and icebergs.

I’m ending this week’s post with some stunning imagery of sea ice, like spectacular abstract artworks, from NASA Earth Observatory.

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Newly formed sea ice (gray) in the Weddell Sea.                                        Credit: NASA/Nathan Kurtz.

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Pieces of sea ice, thick and thin, mingle in the Weddell Sea. Credit: NASA/Digital Mapping System.

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Sea ice near the Larsen C Ice Shelf.                                           Credit: NASA/Digital Mapping System.

As always, I am not a scientist but a writer/illustrator and science communicator passionately in love with sea ice, ice shelves, and polar ice in general. I welcome input and corrections from and connections with polar scientists as I learn more about this remarkable and vital part of our planet and bring this knowledge to a wider audience. 

This Week in Ice: Dec. 24, 2017 – Jan 6, 2018

Ok, so this is not a week in ice, it’s This Fortnight in Ice. A combination of the holidays and, quite frankly, distress over what is clearly a wide-spread, vigorous, and alarming effort to misinform the public about Climate Change required me to take a breather.

Yes, it has been cold. No, it doesn’t disprove that Global Warming is real.

Here are some links to share with your misinformed uncle that explain why the extreme weather we’re experiencing in the US only supports that we are in the grip of anthropogenic Climate Change. (I’ve included some more general links, too.)

Turns out, loss of polar ice affects the jet stream.

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The polar vortex is an area of low pressure and cold air over the polar regions. When winds that keep colder air over the Arctic become less stable, cold air can dip farther south. Credit: NOAA

Of course, while we have been shivering in the eastern US, most of the planet has been experiencing warmer than average temperatures. Here’s today’s global map showing the temperature anomaly. Most parts of the world are warmer than average.

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Credit: ClimateReanalyzer.Org, University of Maine, Climate Change Institute

This includes the Arctic.

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This plot shows the departure from average air temperatures (at the 925 hPa level) in degrees Celsius for December 2017. Yellows and reds indicate higher than average temperatures; blues and purples indicate lower than average temperatures.
Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Division

 

Sea Ice

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The National Snow and Ice Data Center reports that Arctic sea ice extent for December was the second lowest on record (satellite data 1979 to present).

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Monthly December ice extent for 1979 to 2017 shows a decline of 3.7 percent per decade.
Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center

Kevin Pluck has incorporated December’s data into another great visualization:

While the satellite data only extends back to 1979, using maps, ship reports, and other records, NOAA has published monthly estimates of sea ice extent from 1850 to 2013.

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This figure shows departures from 1850 to 2013 calendar-month averages of Arctic sea ice extent as a function of year (x-axis) and calendar month (y-axis). The color bar at the right shows magnitudes of departures from the average.
Credit: J. E. Walsh, F. Fetterer, J. S. Stewart, W. L. Chapman. 2016. Geographical Review; after a figure by J. Stroeve, National Snow and Ice Data Center

This image brings it home:

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These sea ice concentration maps compare the lowest September minimum Arctic sea ice extents for the periods 1850 to 1900, 1901 to 1950, 1951 to 2000, and 2000 to 2013.
Credit: F. Fetterer/National Snow and Ice Data Center, NOAA

Current conditions:

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Credit: NSIDC

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Credit: NSIDC

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Antarctic December sea ice was the fourth lowest on record.

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Credit: NSIDC

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Credit: NSIDC

And here’s another animation by Kevin Pluck showing the global sea ice anomaly and comparing it to countries of similar size.

Icebergs & Ice Shelves

NASA has provided a stunning new shot of the iceberg formerly known as B-44, which has now broken into numerous smaller bergs. B-44 calved from the accelerating Pine Island Glacier back in September and quickly broke up.

NASA glaciologist Chris Shuman says that warm water in the polynya (open water in an area of sea ice) likely caused the speedy breakup of the iceberg.

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Dec. 15, 2017                                                                     Credit: NASA Earth Observatory, Landsat 8

Schuman estimates the iceberg is about 315 meters (1005 feet) thick, with approximately 49 meters (about 160 feet) above the water’s surface.

Here’s the breakup in action:

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Credit: NASA Earth Observatory, from 5 Landsat 8 images over the last 4 months.

Iceberg A-68A nudged up against the Larsen C ice shelf, from which it (A-68, a slightly larger berg) calved back in July. A-68A is about the size of Delaware.

Watch a short video about the Larsen C ice shelf http://www.esa.int/spaceinvideos/content/view/embedjw/493291” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>here.

I am very excited about the British Antarctic Survey’s upcoming expedition to the Larsen C ice shelf to explore the benthic diversity (the variety of fauna on the sea floor) in an area that, up until the calving of A-68, was covered by the thick ice shelf. I cannot wait to see what they find! If you’re interested, you can follow using hashtag #LarsenCBenthos on Twitter.

Two other polar news stories worth your time:

And lastly, during the holiday, I began a series of sea ice watercolor sketches:

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I am tweeting as I finish each one, with info about sea ice. Here’s the link if you’d like to follow my ongoing Sea Ice Sketch project:

I would like to wish all of you a safe, peaceful, and Happy New Year! Thank you for reading POLAR BIRD.

This is truly a labor of love, but if you’d like to support my work, please visit my Patreon page.

As always, I am not a scientist but a writer/illustrator and science communicator passionately in love with sea ice. I welcome input and corrections from and connections with polar scientists as I learn more about this remarkable and vital part of our planet and bring this knowledge to a wider audience. 

An Extraordinary Year

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At McMurdo. Our ship, the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer, in the background.

Earlier this year, I had the life-changing experience of being the science communicator and outreach ambassador for the SNOWBIRDS Transect research cruise from McMurdo Station, Antarctica, through the wild Southern Ocean.

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Marine technicians steady the megacorer, which has returned from the sea floor filled with mud.

I constructed and maintained our website and social media, raised public awareness, blogged about our science, was the photographer, mentored and edited graduate students writing guest blog posts, created illustrations, and got my hands wet and dirty whenever an extra hand was needed.

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I’m now writing a book about our high-seas adventure and our fascinating science, which explored the roles of nitrogen and silicon in the success of diatoms, and included growing diatoms, filtering marine snow, and retrieving deep-sea mud cores. (I also have another polar science book underway.)

Mid-year, I traveled to Yellowstone National Park to do research for the illustrations for VOLCANO DREAMS, a non-fiction book for children about the Yellowstone supervolcano by award-winning author Janet Fox.

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I’ve spent the rest of the year completing the illustrations. Volcano Dreams will be published by Web of Life Children’s Books in September, 2018. This is the first time I’ve illustrated a published children’s picture book, something I’ve worked for for years.

In September, I started POLAR BIRD, the next step on my journey as a science communicator, non-fiction writer, and sci-art illustrator.

pbPOLAR BIRD is a labor of love, and I’m grateful to everyone who has liked, shared, retweeted, subscribed, and—most especially—read.

2017 has been truly transformative, and I’ve never felt more like I’m on the right path. More than anything, I dream that my work will lead me back to the ice.

As we head into 2018, I’m actively seeking opportunities to be an embedded team member and offer my experience and diverse skill set on future research cruises, taking the considerable and important work required of Outreach—both before, during, and after an expedition—off scientists’ hands.

While I’d be thrilled to join any research cruise, I’m particularly interested in sea ice dynamics and ecology, polynyas, phtyoplankton, krill, the biological pump and carbon cycle, paleoclimatology, ice shelves and glaciers, sea bird and marine mammal ecology, and more… (I could easily spend the rest of my life writing and illustrating about science in polar regions.)

Thank you for reading! I look forward to bringing you new science adventures, more about our planet’s vital sea and land ice, and new art.

I wish you all a very healthy, peaceful, and happy New Year!

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This Week in Ice: Dec. 17-23

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I am travelling for Christmas, so this week’s post won’t be as extensive as usual. So, this week in ice, Polar Bird and Wordy Bird Studio are wishing you all a very Merry Everything. May your iceberg be festooned with penguins—except if it’s in the Arctic… because penguins and Santa? Well, come on now…

And speaking of Christmas, see how concentrations of greenhouse gases have changed since that very first Christmas:

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about albedo. Albedo is a measure of reflectivity. Sea ice has high albedo, meaning it has high reflectivity, and most of the solar radiation (sunlight) that hits it is reflected away from the planet.

Just as you get warmer when you wear darker clothes, when ice is covered in something darker, such as algae or dust, it has lower albedo—it absorbs more solar radiation. Lower albedo = faster melting.

But a new study found that algal growth on the Greenland ice sheet reduces its albedo and influences melting more than dust and black carbon, which has implications for how scientists may project future sea level rise. And as temperatures warm, algae thrives. Algae accounts for 5-10% of ice sheet loss (in Greenland) each year.

Current Sea Ice Conditions

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Credit: NSIDC

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Credit: NSIDC

And this is interesting:

Arctic sea ice is low, and temperatures are high.

More than 20°C above average.

The Arctic has changed, and the latest Arctic Report Card says it will likely never return to being the Arctic we have known.

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Sea ice in the Antarctic is also well below the mean.

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Credit: NSIDC

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Credit: NSIDC

I will be back next week with my usual full-length ice news. In the New Year, I’ll also be sharing my recent interview with filmmakers Stephen Smith and Diana Kushner of Enduring Ice, who kayaked 500 miles from the North Pole while making their upcoming documentary about the plight of Arctic sea ice.

Until next time, I will leave you with this fabulous footage from above Antarctica. Have a safe, peaceful, and happy holiday!

 

 

This Week in Ice: Dec. 10-16, 2017

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Antarctic krill under sea ice                                                                Copyright © Marlo Garnsworthy

This week in ice begins with krill—or more specifically krill poop.

Krill are tiny shrimp-like creatures that live in schools called swarms, which can be thick (10,000 to 30,00 individuals per square meter) and vast (one swarm was 170 square miles to a depth of 660 feet). Found in oceans worldwide, krill are—in terms of biomass (the mass of living organisms)—one of the most significant species on our planet.

Krill feed in the upper reaches of the water column, eating phytoplankton (tiny plants) especially diatoms, and zooplankton (tiny animals such as copepods and amphipods). Zooplankton also feed on phytoplankton. Like other plants, phytoplankton take up carbon dioxide during photosynthesis. So, when krill eat phtyoplankton or zooplankton, they’re consuming this carbon.

A constant stream of organic matter such as fecal material and parts of dead organisms, as well as inorganic material such as dust, is constantly sinking through the water column. This material is called marine snow, and it can take weeks to reach the ocean floor, where it accumulates as a thick oozy mud (which we studied on our SNOWBIRDS Transect research cruise). When krill defecate, their fecal material sinks as marine snow through the water column, and any carbon in it is sequestered.

A study by scientists from the British Antarctic Survey found that the behavior of Antarctic krill could assist the sequestration of carbon dioxide. Scientists found that krill move up and down within their swarms. This behavior is called satiation sinking—and in simple terms, it means that once you’ve eaten your fill at the buffet, you move away from the buffet table, allowing others to feed. If you’re a krill, you sink to the lower reaches of the swarm, giving your carbon-rich poop a greater chance of making it to the sea floor.

British Antarctic Survey ecologist and lead author Professor Geraint Tarling says:

“This new finding could equate to krill sequestering 23 million tonnes of carbon to the deep sea each year, equivalent to annual UK residential greenhouse gas emissions.”

Something to keep in mind when regulating the fishing of krill. Krill are also a vital food source for fish, whales, penguins, and other marine species.

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Credit: NOAA

The big polar news this week was the release of NOAA’s Arctic Report Card.

“Arctic shows no sign of returning to reliably frozen region of recent past decades. Despite relatively cool summer temperatures, observations in 2017 continue to indicate that the Arctic environmental system has reached a ‘new normal’, characterized by long-term losses in the extent and thickness of the sea ice cover, the extent and duration of the winter snow cover and the mass of ice in the Greenland Ice Sheet and Arctic glaciers, and warming sea surface and permafrost temperatures.”

Highlights (Credit: NOAA Arctic Report; links embedded by me)

  • The average surface air temperature for the year ending September 2017 is the 2nd warmest since 1900; however, cooler spring and summer temperatures contributed to a rebound in snow cover in the Eurasian Arctic, slower summer sea ice loss, and below-average melt extent for the Greenland ice sheet.
  • The sea ice cover continues to be relatively young and thin with older, thicker ice comprising only 21% of the ice cover in 2017 compared to 45% in 1985.
  • In August 2017, sea surface temperatures in the Barents and Chukchi seas were up to 4° C warmer than average, contributing to a delay in the autumn freeze-up in these regions.
  • Pronounced increases in ocean primary productivity, at the base of the marine food web, were observed in the Barents and Eurasian Arctic seas from 2003 to 2017.
  • Arctic tundra is experiencing increased greenness and record permafrost warming.
  • Pervasive changes in the environment are influencing resource management protocols, including those established for fisheries and wildfires.
  • The unprecedented rate and global reach of Arctic change disproportionally affect the people of northern communities, further pressing the need to prepare for and adapt to the new Arctic.

Most troubling is that melting of sea ice is unprecedented in at least 1,500 years.

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Credit: NOAA

Temperatures in the Arctic have been abnormally high, so high that computers disqualified temperature data, assuming it was an error. 

Sea Ice

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Arctic sea ice extent and concentration remain well below the mean. Sea ice cover in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas is at a record low extent. The National Snow and Ice Data Center says:

“November 2017 will be remembered not for total Arctic ice extent, which was the third lowest recorded over the period of satellite observations, but for the record low extent in the Chukchi Sea. This is a key area for Arctic Ocean access, and is an indicator of oceanographic influences on sea ice extent.”

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Credit: NSIDC

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Credit NSIDC

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Antarctic sea ice remains below the mean. After the third-lowest November average monthly extent in the satellite record, sea ice extent is near-average in all regions except the Weddell Sea, where it’s at a record low. Sea ice around the Weddell polynya (aka Maud Rise polynya, depicted by the shape toward the top) has melted, leaving open ocean.

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Credit: NSIDC

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Credit: NSIDC

Glaciers & Ice Shelves

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Part of the East Antarctica ice sheet                              Credit: Michael Hambrey/Glaciers Online

The East Antarctic Ice Sheet may not be as stable as previously thought says this study. In the past, it has undergone dramatic retreats, and scientists now feel that, as the planet warms, it may provide a significant contribution to sea level rise.

Another study showed that even small losses of ice at the edges of ice sheets can accelerate the movement of glaciers grounded on rocks. Lead-author Ronja Reese (Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research) says:

“Destabilizing the floating ice in some areas sends a signal as far as 900 kilometers across the largest ice shelf in Antarctica… It does so with an amazing speed, similar to the speed with which shocks from an earthquake travel.”

Icebergs

On Thursday, the US Coast Guard International Ice Patrol said around 1,008 icebergs drifted into shipping lanes in the North Atlantic, up from 687 in 2016. This is the fourth consecutive “extreme” ice season. Retreat of the Greenland ice sheet/calving of icebergs, plus increased storminess that broke up sea ice, setting icebergs free to drift, is responsible, according to Ice Patrol Commander Kristen Serumgard.

We have a great new graphic showing the drift of massive iceberg A-68, which calved from the Larsen C ice shelf (Antarctica) back in July.

Credit: Dave Mosher

Scientists are on their way to study the effects on lifeforms that dwelled in darkness under the ice sheet now they’ve been exposed to the light by this dramatic calving event.

Starving Polar Bears, Giant Penguins, & the GOT Ice Wall

Back to that viral “starving polar bear” video that everyone may have gotten wrong. As I discussed last week, some experts, such as polar bear biologist Andrew Derocher and Arctic wildlife biologist Jeff Higdon, believe that bear may have not been starving and may in fact have been injured or diseased. Nunavut bear monitor Leo Ikakhik agrees the bear was likely sick or injured.

(In following Derocher and Higdon and this polar bear story, I’ve discovered that polar bear Twitter is not an entirely pleasant place for polar bear scientists—it’s somewhat of a hangout for a certain breed of climate change deniers, who frequently cite dubious sources.)

While that polar bear may have died due to other causes, the fact remains that polar bears—alongside other sea ice-dependent species—will face increasing challenges as sea ice continues to decline.

This study by Deorcher et al states:

“Anthropogenic global warming is occurring more rapidly in the Arctic than elsewhere, and has already caused significant negative effects on sea ice-dependent species such as polar bears. Although observed effects have thus far been gradual, the large amount of annual variation in the climate system may cause habitat changes in individual years that exceed the long-term trend. Such years may be below critical thresholds necessary for feeding and result in unprecedented reductions in survival, reproduction, and abundance in some populations.”

Why the media keeps getting Arctic news wrong.

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Credit: Gerald Mayr—AP

On a New Zealand beach, scientists have found fossil evidence of a 5’8″ penguin that lived 60 million years ago.

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And that ice wall in Game of Thrones? Impossible without magic, says glaciologist Martin Truffer (University of Alaska Fairbanks).

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. 

 

 

This Week in Ice: Dec. 3 to 9, 2017

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Image courtesy of the Weather Channel

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.”

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Extent of Arctic sea ice in September 2016 compared to the 1981-2010 average minimum extent (gold line). Image courtesy of NASA

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:

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Breaking ice in the Ross Sea, Antarctica          Copyright © Marlo Garnsworthy

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:

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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.

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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. 

This Week in Ice: Nov. 26-Dec.2


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HAPPY ANTARCTICA DAY (for Friday, Dec. 1)!

On December 1st, 1959, the nations of the world came together to sign the Antarctic Treaty, which says that “in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.” To me, Antarctica is ever a sign of hope—that humanity can work together for good.

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Juvenile emperor penguin, Ross Sea                                                     Copyright © Marlo Garnsworthy

But this year’s Antarctica Day was especially momentous. Yesterday, the world’s largest marine reserve came into effect. The Ross Sea Marine Protected Area covers 598,000 square miles and was created by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources—the 24-nation body overseeing Antarctic waters. Cause for celebration indeed!

Endurance swimmer, marine lawyer, and ocean advocate Lewis Pugh engaged in multiple bone-chilling swims in Antarctic waters to gain global support for the protection of the Ross Sea.

“Over the past 30 years I’ve seen the devastating impacts of over-fishing and climate change on our oceans,” said Lewis. “If we allow the Ross Sea to go the same way, its unique riches may be lost forever. My hope is that these symbolic swims will bring the beauty and wonder of Antarctica into the hearts and homes of people around the world so they will urge their governments to protect this unique ecosystem, which is truly a polar Garden of Eden.”

Thank you for your tireless and extraordinary efforts, Lewis Pugh!

This week, I also met with filmmakers Stephen Smith and Diana Kushner to talk about their Enduring Ice project. With a very small team, they undertook an incredible adventure in the Arctic this past summer to draw attention to the importance of Arctic sea ice for balancing our climate.

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Credit: Stephen Smith

Starting only 500 miles from the North Pole, in three kayaks, they paddled and portaged south between the Canadian and Greenland coasts to make their upcoming documentary. I will be sharing my full interview with Diana and Steve soon.

I salute and am inspired by Pugh, Smith, Kushner, and their support teams—remarkable people working tirelessly for our vital polar regions.

Meanwhile in the Arctic, a new international agreement closed the Central Arctic Ocean—1.1 million square miles—to fishing for 16 years so that adequate research may be carried out to determine if commercial fishing would be sustainable.

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After 16 years, the pact will increase in 5-year increments, unless science-based limits on fishing and management are adopted or a country objects.

So, it’s been a great week for conservation of our polar regions!

Sea Ice

Kevin Pluck has produced another excellent animation showing the decline in global sea ice extent (since first satellite records to present).

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The freeze up in the Arctic is proceeding slowly:

And sea ice extent is low:

This week also saw abnormally warm weather in parts of the Arctic.

Due to fierce storms and warm Pacific waters, Arctic sea ice off Alaska has hit record lows and Alaska’s coast is vanishing as sea ice disappears.

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Antarctic sea ice is also lower than normal:

The Weddell polynya (an area of open water within the sea ice) is still in existence.

Melting sea ice could mess up deep sea chemistry.

And why, in a warming world, does Antarctic sea appear to be increasing in places?

Glaciers & Ice Shelves

NASA’s Operation IceBridge continues to provide spectacular images from Antarctica. One of my favorites this week over the Ross Ice Shelf:

The largest glacier in East Antarctica, the Totten glacier, is melting:

Icebergs

The iceberg formerly known as B-44, which calved from Pine Island Glacier—Antarctica’s fastest melting glacier—back in September and then quickly broke up, has further disintegrated.

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Image contains modified Copernicus Sentinel-1 data from ESA.

Scientists are concerned because they’re seeing a change in the calving pattern and in the glacier’s advance and retreat. An ice shelf  is a platform of floating ice that forms where a glacier or ice sheet floats to the coastline and onto the sea’s surface. Dr. Robert Larter, a marine geophysicist at the British Antarctic Survey says,

“If the ice shelf continues to thin and the ice front continues to retreat, its buttressing effect on PIG will diminish, which is likely to lead to further dynamic thinning and retreat of the glacier. PIG already makes the largest contribution to sea-level rise of any single Antarctic glacier and the fact that its bed increases in depth upstream for more than 200 km means there is the possibility of runway retreat that would result in an even bigger contribution to sea level.”

A very large iceberg also broke off Chile’s Grey Glacier.

General News

A study led by the Netherlands Institute of Ecology and co-authored by an international team of researchers analyzed 90 blogs that cover climate change. 50% were science-based and 50% were climate change denier blogs, and these two groups had very different opinions on polar bears and Arctic sea ice extent.

First author Jeff Harvey from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology said,

“We found a major gap between the facts from scientific literature and the science-based blogs on one hand, versus the opinions ventilated in climate-change denying blogs on the other.”

They found that about 80% of the denier blogs relied on a single denier blog as their source. This source blog was written by a single author who had not conducted any original research or published articles in peer-reviewed literature. They found a lack of evidence and expertise, as well as personal attacks against researchers, are common among such climate change denial blogs. Jeff Harvey said,

“This is a very dangerous gap, as these blogs are read by millions.”

 

This week, to celebrate Antarctica Day and the Ross Sea Marine Protection Act, I ran a competition. I asked people to tell me why Antarctica is important. I got some excellent responses, which I will post in the next few days. Thank you to everyone who participated! You will all be receiving a large postcard print of my Gentoo penguin piece at the top of this post.

As always, I am not a scientist, but 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.

In the Belly of the Southern Ocean

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Copyright © Marlo Garsnworthy

“Below 40 degrees south there is no law; below 50 degrees south there is no God.”

—An old sailors’ saying

 

Driven by strong westerly winds and unhindered by land to slow its flow, the frigid Southern Ocean races around the coldest, windiest, driest, and most remote landmass on Earth—the vast polar continent of Antarctica.

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Via Google Earth

Between the latitudes of 40 and 50 degrees south is the realm of the “Roaring Forties. ” These powerful winds, first named by sailors who used them for fast passage around the globe, have long been known for their ferocious storms and treacherous seas.

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Credit: Luke Zeller

South of 50 and 60 degrees respectively are the “Furious Fifties” and “Screaming Sixties,” where these conditions are even stronger.

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Copyright © Marlo Garnsworthy  

Here, a ship’s crew must not only battle waves that can be as high as multi-story buildings but watch vigilantly for icebergs and find safe routes through thick, ever-shifting sea ice that freezes and recedes with the seasons.

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Copyright © Marlo Garnsworthy

Here, even a well-quipped icebreaker—a ship especially designed to navigate ice-covered waters—can be incapacitated far from land or help. And it is here between 67 degrees and 54 degrees south—in the belly of the Screaming Sixties and Furious Fifties—that I spent six weeks aboard an icebreaker and research vessel.

To be continued… 

My journey aboard the RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer, with researchers from the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, the Marine Science Institute of UCSB, and the University of Otago, who studied aspects of diatom production, is the subject of the book I’m currently writing. This journey was funded by the National Science Foundation’s United States Antarctic Program. Special thanks to Dr. Rebecca Robinson for this extraordinary opportunity.