In 20 years, Arctic summer sea ice could be gone

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A summer scene in the Arctic which may never repeat itself some twenty years from now: Sea face of outside ice-foot at Distant Cape Roleson’s Channel (somewhere near Nares Strait between Canada and Greenland), June 1882. Photo: George W. Rice/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Say goodbye to dreams of standing at the top of the world, for you may soon have to swim. A report published last week by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme suggests that the Arctic may be ice-free in summer within twenty years. The 90 authors of the rigorously peer-reviewed AMAP report state, “Extrapolations of recent observed data suggest a largely ice-free summer ocean by the late 2030s, which is earlier than projected by most climate models.”

We may now only have two decades to prepare for an Arctic devoid of summer sea ice.

This timeframe is also much sooner than AMAP reports from the early 2000s predicted. An executive summary published in 2004, just 13 years ago, projected near total loss of summer sea ice by the end of this century. Now, with summer sea ice forecasted to be gone by the late 2030s, that projection has been sped up about 70 years. The faster pace of Arctic climate change means that there is even less time for communities, nations, and international organizations to design and implement adaptation policies. Where we once might have had another eight decades or so to prepare for an ice-free Arctic, we now may have only two decades. Importantly, extrapolations from recent data rather than models are what indicate that society has hit the fast-forward button on Arctic climate change. 

The AMAP report executive summary, which is written with policy makers in mind, has six key findings. They are: 

  1. The Arctic climate is shifting to a new state.
  2. Arctic climate change is continuing at a rapid pace.
  3. Warming that is already “locked in” to the climate change means that climate change will continue at least through mid-century.
  4. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, however, can stabilize change after 2050.
  5. Mitigation and adaptation policies can limit vulnerabilities.
  6. Putting these in place requires a solid understanding of Arctic climate change.

In other words, the takeaway message appears to be: Arctic climate change is drastic, but it can be stabilized if we continue to do good scientific research and implement science-based policy. Of course, as the report also notes, traditional ecological knowledge should also inform decision making.

By the numbers

You could read the report and learn that the Arctic was warmer from 2011-2015 than at any point since record keeping began in 1900. Or that sea ice thickness declined by 65% between 1975 and 2012. Or that Greenland lost more than 20 square miles of ice each year from 2011-2014, nearly twice as much as was lost between 2003 and 2008. These numbers are shocking, but perhaps it’s easier to conceptualize Arctic change in terms of how much else it affects, both locally and globally. Below are a few snapshots of what all that melting sea ice means for the world at large.

Local impacts

Walrus killed on ice floes off Siberian Coast, Bering Sea

Another summer scene which may never repeat itself: “Walrus killed on ice floes off Siberian Coast, Bering Sea by G. Madsen, June 1909.” Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Hunting opportunities will be curtailed with the loss of summer sea ice. As a recent publication in Biology Letters based on interviews with 11 coastal hunters from the Bering Sea to the Beaufort Sea described, hunting will become harder and more dangerous. Sea ice limits wave action, so without it, open water navigation actually becomes more precarious. Species like walruses and seals also hang around the ice, so hunters will have to travel farther out as sea ice retreats – and who knows where these animals will go once there is no more summer sea ice (perhaps they may instead haul out on land). 

An ice dam on the Greenland ice sheet. August 2014.

An ice dam on the Greenland ice sheet. August 2014. Photo: Mia Bennett

Unlike Arctic summer sea ice, the Greenland Ice Sheet should stick around for a lot longer. Studies have found that it would take at least 1,000 years of sustained temperatures 3°C higher than average for it to completely melt away. Still, current levels of melting on the world’s largest island can contribute significantly to sea level rise. The 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report predicted that Greenland’s melting would contribute 9 inches to sea level rise by 2100. Eric Rignot, professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine, believes that could be an underestimate

And what would happen if and when the ice sheet were to disappear? First, there would be about 23 feet of sea level rise. Second, an older, deeply sobering study called, “Climatic Impact of a Greenland Deglaciation and Its Possible Irreversibility,” came to a very finite conclusion. If the Greenland ice sheet were to completely melt away, the authors found, its disappearance would be “irreversible” even if preindustrial climate conditions were reestablished afterwards. In other words, once it’s gone, it’s gone. 

Global ramifications

Boreal forests are literally “breaking apart” as the permafrost beneath them thaws. Apart from the oceans, they are the world’s largest biome, stretching across Alaska, Canada, the Nordic countries, and Russia, where they are called taiga. The increased rate of forest fires is also burning through big stands of trees. It’s thought that climate change was behind the devastating forest fires that engulfed the boreal boom town of Fort McMurray, Alberta last spring, painfully revealing the human and economic impacts of rapid northern climate change. 

Slumping trees on thawing permafrost.

This is what happens to trees when the permafrost beneath them thaws and refreezes year after year. Photo: Mia Bennett, Northwest Territories, Canada. June 2016.

Arctic warming could alter the Southeast Asian monsoon, possibly leading to up to 70% less rain in India and Southeast Asia during the summer monsoon season. As the Arctic gets warmer and wetter, parts of the world that already are suffering water shortages may be even more hard up for H2O. 

After the rain in Delhi, India.

Summer monsoons in India could be negatively impacted by Arctic warming. Photo: Mia Bennett, New Delhi, India, September 2013.

Is there still hope?

The AMAP report’s determination that Arctic climate change is already “locked in” through 2050 may sound like mitigation efforts are futile. But they are not. The authors conclude, “Climate models show that reducing greenhouse gas emissions and stabilizing concentrations, under a scenario roughly consistent with the Paris Agreement, could stabilize the further loss of snow cover and permafrost after mid-century.” All the more reason, then, for the United States not to renege on the landmark global climate agreement. 

Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement could eliminate any chance we have to stabilize Arctic climate change.

The outlook for the Paris Agreement remains grim, however. At a campaign-style rally in Pennsylvania last night marking his first 100 days in office, President Donald Trump promised (threatened?), “I’ll be making a big decision on the Paris accord over the next two weeks, and we’ll see what happens.” It’s unclear which way the president will swing given the divisions between his advisors and cabinet members on the matter. But if the U.S. pulls out the rug from under the Paris Agreement, any chance we have to stabilize Arctic warming will likely evaporate.

Eiffel Tower/Tour Eiffel at sunset in winter, Paris, France.

The Paris Agreement may represent our last chance to stabilize whatever Arctic warming we have already caused, but it faces dark days ahead. Photo: Mia Bennett/December 2012.

The next 5 years of U.S. Arctic research: more locals, fewer Russians

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President Obama dances with Alaska Natives in Dillingham. Will the next administration be as engaged with northern communities? Photo: Wikimedia/Creative Commons 2.0

Today at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union – the world’s largest annual gathering of scientists – the U.S. Arctic Research Commission (USARC) announced the release of its report on goals and objectives for Arctic research for the next two years. While it might seem odd that such a report would be released on the eve of a new administration, its production is mandated by law every two years.

USARC is an independent agency that advises the White House and Congress on Arctic research. Its report for 2017-2018 upholds six overarching goals: to better understand Arctic environmental change, improve Arctic human health, transform Arctic energy, advance Arctic infrastructure, explore Arctic cultures and community resilience, and enhance international scientific cooperation. These goals are more or less identical to those in all four of the previous plans released under the Obama administration.

Despite being separately listed, these six goals are deeply interrelated. For instance, climate change, human health, and infrastructure all affect one another. Warming temperatures alter the presence and distribution of bacteria and viruses that can harm both people and wildlife. As mammals from a hotter south move north in search of cooler temperatures, they can bring giardia, an intestinal infection, with them. And as permafrost thaws and sea level rises, sanitation systems can sink and fail and saltwater can intrude into freshwater sources.

USARC’s biannual report informs the more comprehensive five-year plan also released today by the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee (IARPC), which coordinates Arctic research between federal agencies, NGOs, and industry. It, too, advises the White House under the auspices of the National Science and Technology Council.

Northerners as agents of northern research

The two reports are moving in a direction where rather than just imposing Western-designed science on the Arctic and its people, projects are being designed from the tundra up, informed by Northerners and their needs.

At the IARPC town hall at AGU where the reports were announced, the committee identified several emerging opportunities in Arctic research: resilience, co-production of knowledge between traditional ways of knowing and Western science, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. The creation of these new opportunities is in large part thanks to the Arctic Council’s groundbreaking work in these areas, to which an IARPC panelist drew attention.

One panelist at the town hall emphasized that ideally in Arctic research, indigenous peoples are “not just stakeholders, but actually the agents in doing the research. They’re true partners in this effort – that’s the goal of co-production of knowledge.” IARPC is investigating opportunities where this type of joint research could be explored and also incorporated into mission agencies.

In terms of STEM education, involving young people in the Arctic with the science projects that are being carried out in their region is also increasingly recognized as important. The same panelist explained, “If there’s one thing that indigenous peoples have consistently said, it’s: As you come into the Arctic and do research, we would like you to engage with our students and build educational partnerships – both in person and actually remotely.”

The expansion of fiber optic cables into remote places like Barrow, Alaska and Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada, will enhance opportunities for online education and video conferencing. This will also help bring down costs for southern-based researchers, who won’t necessarily have to travel back up North on a constant basis to maintain an ongoing relationship. 

One audience member from Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation, a Barrow (Utqiaġvik), Alaska-based regional corporation, praised the federal government’s new direction in Arctic research. He offered, “Thank you for shifting focus onto our well-being in the Arctic. I think it’s unprecedented.” However, he criticized the underrepresentation of native peoples in defining Arctic research goals.

Russia has fallen off the radar of U.S. Arctic collaborative research

As USARC and IARPC appear to move towards more locally engaged research, one major collaborator has gone by the wayside: Russia.

Comparing the 2017-2018 report to the first USARC report, released in 2003 under the Bush administration, reveals how much cooperation with the Arctic’s largest country has fallen off the agenda. The 2003 report mentioned Russia 34 times and encouraged, “The opportunities for cooperation and collaboration with Russia in the Arctic are extensive and hold great potential for advances in knowledge.” It also suggested at the time that the shrinkage in resources in Russia available for Arctic research due to the economic crisis of the 1990s presented an opportunity for the U.S. to “build cooperative relationships with Russian scientists in the Arctic.”

That was before Putin Yet the 2017-2018 report barely mentions Russia. Only one suggestion is made regarding enhancing bilateral U.S.-Russia cooperation in the Arctic: pushing the US/Russia Intergovernmental Consultative Committee to improve ecosystem research in the Bering and Chukchi Seas, which lie between Russia and the U.S.

What’s next for Arctic research under Trump?

President-elect Trump’s friendly ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin could resuscitate U.S.-Russia partnerships in the Arctic, but likely more so in the world of research into offshore extraction rather than onshore adaptation. Trump’s interests in Arctic policy, if he ever reveals any, will almost certainly lie in the realm of business opportunities rather than climate change and community resilience.

The disdain for science and basic research runs deep in Trump’s cadre.

One member of Trump’s transition team is also in favor of abolishing the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OST). This office oversees the National Science and Technology Council under which IARPC sits. On the home page of its website, the OST states, “Climate change represents one of the greatest challenges of our time.”

The OST also organized President Obama’s historic trip to Alaska, whose priority was to draw all Americans’ attention to the threats posed by climate change.

The anti-OST member of Trump’s transition team, James Carafano, has blogged:

“The Obama White House has used the Office of Science and Technology principally to support its pet political causes—like advocacy for global climate change research that matches the president’s views on the topic and can be puffed to justify expanding federal regulations in virtually every aspect of American life.”

If OST were to be eliminated, the future of subsidiary bodies like USARC and IARPC could be in danger. Both were established by executive order under President Ronald Reagan in 1985. Executive orders are powerful tools of the presidency, but the risk is that they can be more easily undone than congressional acts.

For that reason, while the actual advisory councils may stand on tenuous ground, funding for Arctic research, which is provided through appropriation bills, is not in immediate danger. Undoubtedly, questions about the longer-term future of federal funding for science have been high on attendees’ minds at this year’s AGU. But a lot of scientists seem fairly confident – or maybe just outwardly hopeful – that at least for the next two years or so, not too much will change budget-wise.

Still, some town hall panelists were relieved not to have to address the toupéed elephant in the room. After the question and answer session ended without a word about Trump, Martin Jeffries, IARPC’s Executive Director, adjourned the meeting by saying, “I’d like to thank you for not asking me about transition.”

New European satellite provides crystal-clear view of Arctic

Nunataks in north Greenland captured by Sentinel-2.

Nunataks, or exposed, ice-free glacial islands, sticking up out of a glacier in northern Greenland.

In June of last year, a satellite called Sentinel-2 rocketed into space. The orbiter is part of the European Commission’s Copernicus program, whose satellite missions allow everything from soil studies to maritime surveillance. Sentinel-2 in particular is meant to enhance land monitoring and climate change studies, but it also has more practical applications in the areas of emergency management and security. Indeed, Sentinel-2’s coverage of the entire Mediterranean Sea – a feature emphasized in numerous publications about the satellite – is meant to help protect Europe’s maritime borders and, ostensibly, the lives of those who venture into the perilous waters.

Sentinel-2 also provides publicly available imagery of the Arctic that is higher-resolution and more northerly in coverage than any satellite before. The satellite’s coverage ranges from 56°S to 83°N, capturing the northern tip of Greenland. U.S.-operated Landsat, which has long been the go-to satellite program for free, high-resolution satellite imagery of Earth, could never capture this icy edge of the world’s largest island because its coverage stops just one degree short, at 82°N. And with a resolution of 10 meters, Sentinel-2 data also offers an improvement over Landsat’s coarser 15-meter imagery.


Due to the European satellite’s novelty, only a small amount of scientific research has so far been published using the data product such as this attempt to automate glacier mapping. More work has been carried out using radar imagery from the slightly older Sentinel-1 satellite, such as tracking the motion of ice sheets, modeling tides in the Arctic Ocean, and measuring wave heights in sea ice.

Though Sentinel-2 science may still be in its infancy, citizen cartographers can already sift through its images to view the Arctic from the vantage point of outer space. Data can be downloaded using the U.S. Geological Survey’s easy-to-use interface at EarthExplorer.

The images below illustrate the full spectrum of the Arctic’s colors in summer, from the rusty reds of Canada’s Baffin Island to the brilliant vermillion of the volcanoes on Kamchatka in eastern Russia.

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The green fingers of Iceland’s Westfjord region pointing into the North Atlantic Ocean.

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The southern tip of the Lofoten Islands, Norway.

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The toothy ice- and snow-capped mountains of Svalbard, an island north of Norway.

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A river in northern Russia cutting across the tundra.

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The city of Norilsk, Russia – home to the world’s largest and dirtiest nickel mine. The light blue clouds are likely caused by local mining operations.

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The volcanoes of Kamchatka, Russia. The snow atop Gora Gamchen, a complex volcano, can be seen in the top right.

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Summer sea ice off the Alaska North Slope, United States.

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Baffin Island, Canada.

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The Jakobshavn Glacier (Sermeq Kujalleq) south of Ilullissat, from which 6.5% of the Greenland Ice Sheet drains. It calves into Disko Bay, where tourists go to sail around the icebergs.

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A glacier flowing north into the sea off of the top of Greenland.

A raincheck for Coffee Club Island

Frustratingly for fans of geographic extremes, Sentinel-2 is just shy of being able to capture the northernmost land on Earth: Kaffeklubben Island (“coffee club island”, named in 1921 by a Danish geologist after the coffee club in Copenhagen’s Geologisk Museum). At 83°39′45″N, the island appears to sit a little bit too far of the satellite’s range. The task of capturing the island (after which I would name my cafe, if I ever opened one) will have to fall to another enterprising satellite. Until then, the public will never know if coffee-drinking polar bears populate the mysterious spit of land. 

Looking for people between the pixels

One danger with satellite images is that they can make places feel uninhabited, especially when there are few cities dotting the land to remind the viewer of human’s presence. Images of the Arctic from outer space might therefore reinforce the tendency to view the region as a wild and unpopulated frontier. For that reason, while satellite imagery is crucial to scientific research and monitoring of land, oceanic, and atmospheric processes, it can never reveal the full picture of what is happening on the ground, nor who is being affected by it.

Even at 10 meters resolution, it’s hard to make out small manmade features. For instance, the Goliat floating production, storage, and offloading unit (FPSO) is the largest in the world. Yet with a diameter of 90 meters, that means it only shows up as 9 pixels across in Sentinel imagery. I think I may have found the FPSO floating in the water north of Hammerfest with a ship anchored nearby, but I’m not sure. Whatever artificial structure it is, in comparison to the other photographs above, nature truly dwarfs man.

Goliat FPSO and supply ship captured by Sentinel-2?