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.