I last reported on the snowpack and reservoirs in California and the Colorado River Basin at the end of January. At that time, the snowpack had gotten off to a slow start. Boy, did things change!
Most of the western USA has a monsoonal precipitation pattern: most of the rain falls during the winter, and from about March through the end of November, there usually isn’t much precipitation. For that reason, the entire region depends on stored water, either in reservoirs, or perhaps even more importantly, in the snowpack that builds up on the mountains. Because I have family in California, and because the long-term predictions for the water supply in the West have been grim, I have been following the status of the snowpack and the reservoirs in California and the Colorado River Basin. The most important measurement for the snowpack is usually around April 1, while maximum levels on the reservoirs typically occur some weeks later, as the snowpack melts. For instance, Lake Powell, the uppermost very large reservoir on the Colorado River, reaches its highest monthly average in July. Lake Shasta, the largest reservoir in California, reaches its highest average level in May.
Figure 1 shows the snow water content of the snowpack in California. (The snow water content represents how much water there would be if you melted the snow in a given location. For instance, if you melted 7 inches of snow, it might only represent 1 inch of water.) The 3 charts represent the 3 major snowpack regions of California. The dark blue line is for 2019, while the light blue area represents average. The units along the y-axis represent percent of the April 1 average.
You can see that 2019 had an above average snowpack, maxing out at more than 150% of average in all 3 regions. By this time of year, the snowpack has largely melted. Notice the text at the bottom right: “Statewide Percent of Average for Date: 71%.” Despite having a snowpack that maxed out at 150% of average, the amount of snowpack remaining on this date is less than average. This illustrates another way that climate change is affecting California: temperatures are up, and the snowpack is melting more rapidly than in the past.
I use Mammoth Mountain to illustrate snowfall amounts; it is located in the middle-south of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, south of Yosemite. Their website indicates that they are still open with 15” at the main lodge and 55” at the summit – on July 4th! Figure 2 shows snowfall at Mammoth Mountain by year and month. Paralleling the snowpack survey, this chart shows that 2019 was well above average at Mammoth, but not a record. There was one month with a lot of snow: February.
As a result, California’s reservoirs are all above average for this date, as shown in Figure 3. Even lake Oroville, which had to be mostly emptied when the dam eroded, threatening catastrophic failure, is nearing capacity. Every single reservoir is above average, and only one is not near capacity.
Many western states, including Southern California, are heavily dependent on water from the Colorado River. Lake Mead is the largest reservoir, and it is capable of holding more water than any other in the USA. For a couple of decades, there has been concern that water demands on the Colorado River had increased, and water supply into it had decreased, to the point that Lake Mead would be drained within a couple of decades. Over the last 5 years, water levels were so low that they flirted with the mandatory cut-back level: states would have lost a significant portion of their water.
Figure 4 shows that snowpack in the Upper Colorado River Basin was higher than average in 2019, and this represents the 2nd time in the last 3 years. This snow melts into a number of reservoirs along the tributaries of the Colorado River, and then into Lake Powell, the first of the gigantic reservoirs along the Lower Colorado River Basin. From Lake Powell, it is released into Lake Mead. Figure 5 shows that Lake Mead is up from its record low a few years ago, but it is still historically very low.
The bottom line here is that the draught has finally broken in California, and that state is sitting on plenty of water for now. This was to be expected – nobody ever thought that California’s water supply problem would be a straight line from full to empty. The regions history, however, indicates that draught is a normal occurance for the state, and in recent years, wet periods have not lasted too long. The whole point of reservoirs is that they get drawn down during dry periods. So long as they get refilled before they are empty, the system is working just like it should. Three things can break the system, though: first, if water demand increases too much, and there just isn’t enough water to satisfy the demand. California is getting close to outstripping supply, as is all of the West. Second, wet years could get less wet, and then they might not be sufficient to refill the reservoirs. This year was sufficient to refill the California reservoirs, but Lake Mead still has a long way to go! And finally, if too many years go by before a wet one comes along, then the reservoirs could get sucked dry. California was getting close, and Santa Barbara, in particular, got really, really close.
The long term projection is still guarded, as population continues to enter western states and climate change continues to threaten the snowpack. How it will unfold year-by-year is anybody’s guess, but for now, things are better than they were a couple of years ago.
California Department of Water Resources. 2019a. Current Reservoir Conditions. Downloaded 7/4/2019 from http://cdec.water.ca.gov/reportapp/javareports?name=rescond.pdf.
California Department of Water Resources. 2019b. California Snow Water Content, July 1, 2019, Percent of April Average. Downloaded 7/4/2019 from http://cdec.water.ca.gov/reportapp/javareports?name=PLOT_SWC.pdf.
Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. 2019. Extended Snow Report. Downloaded 7/4/2019 from https://www.mammothmountain.com/winter/mountain-information/mountain-information.
Glaciers around the world are melting. Millions of people around the world who depend on them are likely to be impacted.
One of the signs of climate change that has received the most attention is the shrinking of glaciers around the world. Sometimes it is presented as a cause of sea level change, but it has only a minor effect on sea level. The Greenland Ice Cap and the Antarctic Ice Cap are far larger bodies of ice, and they will (and already do) contribute more to rising sea levels than do all the glaciers around the world. Further, much of the predicted rise in sea level is due to nothing more than the thermal expansion of water. You know, things expand as they heat up. Well, the oceans are projected to heat up only a little, but there is so much of them that expansion contributes significantly to the rise in sea level.
Melting glaciers matter for a different reason: people depend on them for water. Glaciers form the headwaters of many of the world’s rivers, great and small. Not meaning to make a comprehensive list, in Asia, the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Yangtze, the Huang-ho (Yellow), and the Oxus all arise from glacial melt. In Europe, the Danube, the Rhine, and the Po all receive substantial glacial melt. In South America, the Madeira (largest tributary of the Amazon) receives glacial melt from about 1,000 miles of the east slope of the Andes. Finally, in North America, the Missouri, Columbia, Snake, Yukon, McKenzie, and Fraser Rivers all receive significant glacial melt.
Figure 1 is a map indicating river basins for which at least 5% (green), 10% (yellow) 25% (orange), and 50% (red) of discharge is derived from glaciers in at least one month. (The “at least one month” qualification matters – glaciers melt much more during the warmer months of the year). Notice that one of the 2 largest blotches of color is located along the northwest coast of North America. This is a high mountain region that is very far north and close to an ocean: a perfect recipe for glaciers. The other is located in Central Asia, where the highest mountains in the world are located, and which receive the famous monsoons of India.
Table 1 shows the number of people and the land area that depend on glacial melt. Considering the world as a whole, an estimated 120 million people depend on rivers that get 50% or more of their water from glacial melt (1.8% of the world’s population). About 600 million people depend on rivers that get 5% or more of their water from glaciers (8.9%of the world’s population). So, we are talking about substantial numbers of people. Should the earth’s glaciers decline substantially, some of these people would be likely to lose access to water entirely, at least for part of the year. For others, important life-sustaining activities, such as agriculture or transportation, would be curtailed.
So what is the status of the world’s glaciers? Sadly, it is not good! The World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) is a joint project of the World Data System, the International Association of Cryospheric Sciences, the United Nations Environment Program, the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, and the World Meteorological Organization. The WGMS studies and monitors the world’s glaciers, and serves as a repository for data on them. They have a set of 30 glaciers around the world that have been repeatedly measured for at least the last 30 years (some much longer), with few or no gaps. Figure 2 shows the status of these 30 glaciers. The year is represented on the x-axis, and the change in mass is represented on the y-axis. The units on the y-axis are meter water equivalents, which are equal to metric tons per square meter of surface. Thus, in 2015, the year of greatest loss, these 30 glaciers collectively lost about 1.1 metric tons of ice per square meter of surface. When you consider that the earth has hundreds, if not thousands, of glaciers, then it becomes clear that we are talking about a lot of ice that is melting into water.
Many of these glaciers are hundreds or thousands of feet thick, and the loss in mass represents thinning of the glacier (melting from the top or bottom) every bit as much as it represents retreat (melting at the bottom end of the glacier). Figure 3 shows the cumulative loss in mass of these same 30 glaciers since 1950. Don’t be confused by the early values above 0 – the glaciers have been losing mass throughout, but for some reason, the WGMS set 1976 as zero, not 1950.
The reference glaciers are concentrated in North America and Europe more than in other continents. However, consider Figure 4, which shows the cumulative mass lost by region. Western Canada/USA and Central Europe have had greater loss than any other regions. However, all regions have had significant loss, including Svalbard and Jan Mayen (3rd worst), and Asia Central (4th worst).
I thought I would illustrate the global nature of the retreat with reference to a few very well known glaciers. Though not necessarily the largest or most important, they are famous.
To represent Asia, I chose the Khumbu Glacier. Located in Nepal, this is the glacier of Mt. Everest. Base camp sits on it; climbers walk up it and through the Khumbu Ice Fall (where the glacier pours over a cliff), before starting their ascent of the mountain itself. It was measured 3 times: 1970, 2000, and 2016. Between 1970 and 2000, it thinned by an average of 300 cm. (9.8 feet) per year. Between 2000 and 2016, it thinned faster, by an average of 500 cm. (16.4 ft.) per year. (The surface of most glaciers collect dust and debris, thus parts of the glaciers turn brown or gray.)
To represent Europe, I chose the Mer de Glace, the famous glacier just east of Mt. Blanc (and the 2nd largest in Europe). The first measurement of the Mer de Glace was in 1570. I told you some of these measurements went back more than 30 years! By the early 1600s, the front of the glacier had advanced by about 1,000 meters. It then varied until the late 1800s, when it began retreating. By the early 2000s, the front of the glacier had retreated about 1,000 meters from its 1570 location, and about 2,000 meters from its location during the mid-1800s. Meanwhile, the thickness of the glacier was measured in 1980, 2003, and 2012. Between 1980 and 2003, it thinned at a rate of about 18-20 mm. per year (0.06-0.065 ft.) Between 2003 and 2012, the thinning accelerated to about 160 mm. per year (0.5 ft.).
To represent North America, I chose the Muir Glacier: the photos of its retreat are as dramatic as any around the world. It was first measured in 1880, and since then its front has retreated about 29,000 meters (95,144 ft. or 18 miles). The photos in Figure 7 were taken in 1941 and 2004, and show about 7 of those 18 miles of retreat.
I’ve discussed what climate change and snowpack loss in the Northern Rockies might mean for the water supply in the Missouri River, and those who want to explore that topic can find the post here.
Glacial loss matters in some locations more than others. A very large number of people are likely to be affected, especially in Asia. Those people often live at a subsistence level; what loss of the glaciers will mean to them is hard to know. What kind of famine, pestilence, migration, political instability, and war might result is anybody’s guess.
NASA. 2011. Adapted from ”everest_ali_2011298_geo.tif.” Downloaded 2019-07-01 from https://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view.php?id=82578.
NASA. “Graphic: Dramatic Glacier Melt.” Global Climate Change. Downloaded 6/24/2019 from https://climate.nasa.gov/climate_resources/4/graphic-dramatic-glacier-melt.
Schaner, Neil, Nathalie Voisin, Bart Nijssen, and Dennis P. Lettenmaier. 2012. “The Contribution of Glacier Melt to Streamflow.” Environmental Research Letters. 7 034029. Downloaded 6/24/2019 from https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/7/3/034029.
WGMS. 2019. WGMS Flucuations of Glaciers Browser. Data accessed online 6/24/2019 at https://www.wgms.ch/fogbrowser.
WGMS (2017, updated, and earlier reports): Global Glacier Change Bulletin No. 2 (2014-2015). Zemp, M., Nussbaumer, S. U., Gärtner-Roer, I., Huber, J., Machguth, H., Paul, F., and Hoelzle, M. (eds.), ICSU(WDS)/IUGG(IACS)/UNEP/UNESCO/WMO, World Glacier Monitoring Service, Zurich, Switzer- land, 244 pp., based on database version: doi:10.5904/wgms-fog-2018-11. Downloaded 6/24/2019 from https://wgms.ch/global-glacier-state. (While this is the citation the source document suggests, the graphs used in this post were updated in January, 2019.)
There have been some recent articles about how climate change is harming agriculture. One by Kim Severson in the New York Times (here) says “Drop a pin anywhere on a map of the United States and you’ll find disruption in the fields.” It goes on to discuss the impacts on “11 everyday foods”: tart cherries (Michigan), organic raspberries (New York), watermelons (Florida), chickpeas (Montana), wild blueberries (Maine), organic heirloom popcorn (Iowa), peaches (Georgia and South Carolina), organic apples (Washington), golden kiwi fruit (Texas), artichokes (California), and rice (Arkansas).
Well, that is a sampling of foods from around the country. I’m not so sure how “everyday” many of them are, but rice is certainly one of the basic grains.
A somewhat more convincing article by Chris McGreal in The Guardian interviewed farmers in valley of the Missouri River near Langdon, in northwestern Missouri. These are corn and soybean farmers. Their problem has been moisture: they have had too much rain. In many years, the ground has been so muddy that crops were ruined or not planted at all. In other years, the rain has caused the water table to rise so much that the ground looks dry on top, but is mucky mud just a few inches down. This is something, of course, that would affect river valleys the most, and the big river valleys in Missouri are some of the richest farmland the state has.
Most climate change studies project that climate change will impact agriculture negatively. Given this blog’s focus on the large statistical perspective, I thought it might be interesting to see how crop yields are doing in Missouri. The United States Department of Agriculture publishes the data. This data is a statistical average of yields across Missouri. Results in any one location may be different.
Figure 1 shows the per-acre yield for corn. The data shows that corn yields vary significantly from year-to-year, and that some years are really terrible, with yields being roughly half of what they are in good years. That said, there is a clear trend toward increased yields from 1957 right through 2014. Yields since then have been lower, and it is possible that we are looking at the start of a downward trend, but 4 years is not sufficient to tell.
Figure 2 shows the per-acre yield for soybeans. The yearly variation here may be somewhat less, but the overall pattern is much the same. With soybeans, however, yields increased right through 2017.
This data doesn’t tell us why crop yields are rising. Perhaps they are due to improved farming practices and better seed stock. It is possible that warmer temperatures, an increase in carbon dioxide, and more rain have benefitted crop yields overall, even if they have hurt some farmers in some locations. We just don’t know, at least not from this data.
What we do know is that, overall, the predicted negative effects of climate change do not yet seem to be reducing yields in these two important crops.
McGreal, Chris. 2018. “As Climate Change Bites in America’s Midwest, Farmers Are Desperate to Ring the Alarm.” The Guardian,” 12/12/2018. Viewed online 5/1/2018 at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/dec/12/as-climate-change-bites-in-americas-midwest-farmers-are-desperate-to-ring-the-alarm.
Severson, Kim. 2019. “From Apples to Popcorn, Climate Change Is Altering the Foods America Grows.” The New York Times, 4/30/2019. Viewed online 5/1/2019 at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/30/dining/farming-climate-change.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fclimate&action=click&contentCollection=climate®ion=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=sectionfront.
National Agriculture Statistics Service, United States Department of Agriculture. Quick Stats. This is a data portal that can be used to build a customized report. I focused on yield, in bushels per acre, for corn and soybeans from 1957-2018. Data downloaded 5/1/2019 from https://quickstats.nass.usda.gov.
The IPCC report Global Warming of 1.5°C, and the Fourth National Climate Assessment were not the only climate related reports to be published in the second half of 2018. The American Meteorological Society also published its annual report on the climate, State of the Climate in 2017. Rather than a document assessing the effects of climate change, this documents presents a comprehensive picture of what the climate was like in 2017.
Figure 1 shows in a single graphic the major climate variables that are discussed in the report. I will discuss each very briefly in order, going down each column before moving to the next column. I’ve made the chart to open in a separate browser tab, and you should be able to refer back and forth between my comments and the charts. In the charts, some of the data is shown as anomalies rather than as raw values, and in those cases, the reference period is given in the chart.
Charts (a) and (b) show the level of polar ozone, the 1st in March, the 2nd in October. This ozone is high-altitude ozone, and it is essential for blocking ultraviolet rays, too much of which are harmful. These charts concern the famous ozone hole of the 1980s. In general, the level in March bottomed in the 1980s, partially rebounded, but has again been trending downward. In October, the level bottomed in the 1980s and has been largely moving sideways since then.
Chart (c) shows the average surface temperature in the arctic. It has obviously been warming, some 3°C since the 1950s.
Chart (d) shows the average surface temperature of the whole earth. It has been warming, but not as much as the arctic. The recent several years show a steep spike upward.
Chart (e) shows temperature in the lower troposphere. This is the lowest layer of the earth’s atmosphere, and it is where almost all life occurs, as well as almost all weather. It has been warming, and you can see the same spike in recent years.
Chart (f) shows the temperature in the lower stratosphere. This is the next higher layer of the atmosphere. Near the equator it begins some 66,000 feet up, while at the poles it is lower, some 23,000 feet up. The temperature here has been cooling. I have seen some arguments that the cooling in the stratosphere compensates for the heat in the troposphere. This is like saying that cool weather in San Francisco means people can’t be dying from a heat wave in Chicago. Sorry, but it doesn’t mean any such thing.
Chart (g) plots the number of warm days (solid line) and cool nights (dotted line). Warm days have been increasing, and cool nights have been decreasing.
Chart (h) shows the area covered by arctic sea ice. The maximum is the solid line, the minimum the dotted line. Both have been decreasing, the minimum more severely.
Chart (i) shows antarctic sea ice. The variability between years has grown significantly, and the general trend appears to be increasing.
Chart (j) shows a measure of the amount of water locked-up as ice in all of the world’s glaciers. It has been declining at a significant rate. It will have implications for anyone and anything dependent on glaciers and/or glacial melt for water.
Chart (l) shows the amount of water vapor in the lower stratosphere. It is quite variable, but the trend appears to be toward slightly higher amounts of water vapor.
Chart (m) shows the level of cloudiness across the planet. There are several data sets. The trend appears to be towards convergence, with a slightly downward slope for at least some of the data sets.
Chart (n) shows the amount of water vapor in the entire atmosphere, top to bottom, over land. It has been increasing.
Chart (o) shows the amount of water vapor in the entire atmosphere, top to bottom, over the ocean. It, too, has been increasing.
Chart (p) shows the specific humidity in the upper troposphere. It appears to be declining slightly.
Chart (q) shows the specific humidity over land. It has been increasing. Specific humidity is not the humidity statistic we are used to, that is relative humidity (see below). The specific humidity is a measure of the mass of water vapor in an air sample compared to the mass of the other air in the sample.
Chart (r) shows the specific humidity over the ocean. It, too has been increasing.
Chart (s) shows relative humidity over the land. It has been decreasing. Relative humidity is a measure of the amount of water a sample of air is holding, compared to the maximum it could hold. Air’s ability to hold water increases with temperature, so it is possible for relative humidity to decrease, even while specific humidity increases, if the temperature rises.
Chart (t) Shows relative humidity over the ocean. It has been mostly moving sideways, but perhaps decreasing slightly.
Chart (u) shows the amount of precipitation over land. It moved mostly sideways until the 1980s, at which point it appears to have increased. The recent years have seen a significant spike upward.
Chart (v) shows the Southern Oscillation Index. This is a measure comparing air pressure in the western and eastern South Pacific. It tracks the El Niño phenomenon, with negative values indicating an El Niño, and positive values indicating a La Niña. I see no obvious trend in the data.
Chart shows the amount of heat the ocean is holding. The amount of heat is not the same as the temperature: a 100° pot of water holds much more heat than a 100° pot of air, though both are the same size. The heat content of the oceans has bee increasing.
Chart (x) shows a measure of sea level. It has been rising. The scale is in millimeters, so the chart shows about a 6-inch rise.
Chart (y) shows the tropospheric ozone level in the tropics. It has been increasing. This is not the same as arctic ozone levels, which are measured in the stratosphere, where they help to block ultraviolet light from striking the earth. This is ground level ozone, a harmful pollutant. It is the ozone I track when I report on the Air Quality Index.
Chart (z) shows a measure of the speed of the wind in the troposphere. It has been increasing slightly.
Chart (aa) shows a measure of the speed of the wind over land. It has been decreasing.
Chart (ab) shows a measure of the speed of the wind over the ocean. It has been increasing.
Chart (ac) shows the amount of biomass being burned each year. It has been deecreasing.
Chart (ad) shows a measure of soil moisture across the earth. It has been moving sideways, a surprise to me, as I would have expected increased temperatures to dry the soil.
Chart (ae) shows terrestrial water storage. Though the data series is short, it appears to be declining. This variable concerns fresh water, and reflects ice sheets, glaciers, and lakes. Its decline is a matter of concern for all people, animals, and plants that depend on stored water.
Chart (af) shows global FAPAR. FAPAR is the amount of solar radiation available for absorption by plants during photosynthesis that actually gets absorbed. Though the data series is short, it was declining, but in recent years it has increased.
Chart (ag) shows the albedo of the land surface. Though the data series is short, it appears to be decreasing. Albedo is the reflectivity of the earth. High albedo means most of the light is reflected. Low albedo means most of the light is absorbed, causing the surface to warm. Black paint has a low albedo, white paint has a high albedo.
Blunden, J., D. S. Arndt, and G. Hartfield , Eds., 2018: State of the Climate in 2017. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 99 (8), Si–S332, doi:10.1175/2018BAMSStateoftheClimate.1.
In my previous post I reported on the 4th National Climate Assessment, Volume 1. That volume deals with the natural science findings. Volume 2 deals with how climate change is projected to impact the United States, and with mitigation and adaptation. Unlike reports by the IPCC, the National Climate Assessment focuses on the United States. As with all of the IPCC and NCA reports, the 4th National Climate Assessment is far too large and substantive to fully summarize in a brief blog post. What follows is a selection of a few of the findings.
Figure 1 projects U.S. economic damage from climate change in 2090 under the low emission scenario (RCP 4.5) and the high emission scenario (8.5). The intangibles that make life worth living, what we call quality of life, are not easy to put a dollar value on, and this chart does not address them.
In the chart, the columns represent various sectors of the economy. The blue portion represents the damages under RCP 4.5, while the whole column represents the damages under RCP 8.5 Thus, the orange portion represents the difference between the two. The largest economic damages come from 3 sectors: Labor, Extreme Temperature Mortality, and Coastal Property. In addition, in most of the sectors, the damages under RCP 8.5 are more than twice the damages under RCP 4.5.
(Click on chart for larger view.)
Figure 2 shows projected carbon emissions, temperature change, and U.S. economic damage from climate change under various emission scenarios. The left side of the chart shows that observed carbon emissions are following the high scenario, and there is no evidence that they are suddenly about to revert to the low emission scenario. The right side shows that the high emissions scenarios lead to larger increases in temperature and correspondingly larger damages to the U.S. economy.
The Overview of the report summarizes some of the specific risks the USA faces from climate change. It is quite a list, but it puts real form to projections that often are statistical or vague. To paraphrase:
- Rising sea levels, higher storm surges, and increased high tide flooding will impact coastal infrastructure, damaging electrical and natural gas supply lines, and causing problems with access to goods from overseas. About $1 trillion in coastal property will be impacted. Coastal cities will experience daily flooding.
- Wildfire in the West will increase, damaging ranches and rangelands; increasingly it will damage property in cities and take human lives. Energy transmission and production will be damaged.
- Thawing permafrost in Alaska will damage roads and buildings, including oil and gas operations. This will be partially offset by a longer ice-free season.
- Yields of major U.S. crops (corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, and cotton) are expected to decline due to higher temperatures and changes in water availability, disease, and pests. These will percolate through the economy, resulting in less availability of agricultural products, and increased prices.
- Human productivity equal to almost 2 billion labor hours is expected to be lost annually due to extreme temperatures, resulting in an estimated $160 billion in lost wages. States in the Southeast and Southern Great Plains are expected to be impacted hardest.
- Fresh water quality and quantity are threatened by rising temperatures, reduced mountain snowpack, sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, drought, flooding, and algal blooms. In some places, the availability of safe and dependable water will be threatened.
- Hydropower supplies are expected to decrease as a result of changes in mountain snowpack.
- Drought will impact oil and gas drilling and refining, all of which use water intensely.
- Tourism will be impacted by changes in snowpack and wildfire. Communities dependent on tourism will be impacted.
- Air quality will be impacted by higher temperature, higher humidity, and increased smoke from wildfires. Reduced air quality is expected to adversely impact human health.
- Species already are, and will continue, to shift their growing ranges and growing seasons in response to climate change. Mismatches between species and the availability of the resources they need to survive are expected to occur. Extinctions and transformative impacts on some ecosystems are expected.
- Heavy-to-severe coral bleaching is expected to onset across most of the Hawaiian Islands, Guam, and American Samoa by the late 2030s. This will impact fisheries yields and tourism. (Paradise Lost – where’s John Milton when you need him?)
- Rising temperatures are expected to increase illness and death (especially among older adults, pregnant women, and children), partially (but only partially) offset by a reduction in cold-weather deaths.
- Rising temperatures are expected to reduce electricity generation capacity while simultaneously increasing demand for it and its costs. Power outages and blackouts are expected to increase, and household budgets will be strained. Marginal populations and the economically disadvantaged will be impacted even more severely.
- Rising temperatures are expected to threaten human health by promoting the growth of foodborne and waterborne pathogens. Diseases like Lyme disease, West Nile, chikungunya, dengue, and Zika are expected to spread and become more common.
- Every armed service (but especially the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard), has many bases located in coastal regions. They are expected to be threatened by climate change, and in some cases made unusable. Many of the transportation routes between these bases are similarly located in coastal regions and may become unusable. Thus, climate change is expected to become a significant challenge to the national security apparatus of this country.
- All of the above expected effects of climate change are expected to cause increased stress, leading to increased rates of stress-related diseases, including mental illness.
In terms of mitigation and adaptation, the report states that power sector emissions were 25% below 2005 levels in 2016, the largest emissions reduction for a sector of the American economy over this time. This decline was in large part due to increases in natural gas and renewable energy generation, as well as enhanced energy efficiency standards and programs. Under continued business-as-usual projections, U.S. carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions show flat or declining trajectories over the next decade with a central estimate of about 15% to 20% reduction below 2005 levels by 2025. (While it is great that U.S. emission have declined, worldwide emissions continue to increase.)
The report notes that efforts to adapt to climate change and to mitigate its effects have increased across the country, but are not even close to adequate. Adaptation is an issue for local planning, as it must take into account both the specific damages anticipated in the locale and many local characteristics such as topography, local water supply, etc. Mitigation follows pathways that are more common across different locations. Figure 3 shows is a map showing the number of GHG mitigation policies in place in each state, by type of policy.
The fact that Missouri has mitigation policies in place does not necessarily mean that GHG emissions have substantially decreased. I last reported on state GHG emissions using data from 2013. At that time, Missouri’s GHG emissions from fossil fuel were still above their level in 2000. Figure 4 republishes a chart from that post showing GHG emissions over time from Missouri and some neighboring states.
The document contains a great deal more than I can report in this post. Those who are interested can follow the link in the Sources section below to the original document. The whole document is available as a single download, or you can download individual chapters.
USGCRP, 2018: Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II [Reidmiller, D.R., C.W. Avery, D.R. Easterling, K.E. Kunkel, K.L.M. Lewis, T.K. Maycock, and B.C. Stewart (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, 1515 pp. doi: 10.7930/NCA4.2018. Downloaded 12/5/2018 from https://nca2018.globalchange.gov.
The National Climate Assessment is the official United States Government report on climate change. The most recent assessment is the 4th one. It was issued in 2 volumes, the first of which was published in November, 2017. It focuses on the science of climate change and the changes that are likely to occur. The second volume was published in October, 2018. It focuses how the changes outlined in Volume 1 are projected to impact our country, and on some perspectives on adaptation.
In the remainder of this post, italics represent direct quotes from the Executive Summary of Volume 1. In parentheses, I give the page of the report where the quote can be found.
Global annually averaged surface air temperature has increased by about 1.8°F (1.0°C) over the last 115 years (1901–2016). This period is now the warmest in the history of modern civilization. (p.1) In Figure 1, the chart on the left presents a graph of the increase in temperature. The map on the right shows how the change in temperature is distributed across the world.
(Click on chart for larger view.)
The last three years have been the warmest years on record for the globe. These trends are expected to continue…(p.1) Figure 2 maps the projected increase in temperature across North America at mid- and late-century under a low emission scenario and a high emission scenario. I favor the high emission scenario, because I see no sign we are slowing GHG emissions. The high emission scenario shows the average yearly temperature rising by 4-6°F in Missouri by mid-century. By the end of the century, some regions of the country will experience temperature increases of 8-10°F.
Human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. (p.1) There is no convincing alternative explanation. See the previous post for some comments on climate change denial.
Global average sea level has risen by about 7–8 inches since 1900, with almost half (about 3 inches) of that rise occurring since 1993. (p.1)
Global average sea levels are expected to continue to rise—by at least several inches in the next 15 years and by 1–4 feet by 2100. A rise of as much as 8 feet by 2100 cannot be ruled out. (p.2) Figure 3 shows historical and projected sea level rise across 2 time scales – the upper chart goes back to 500 BCE. The lower chart goes back to 1800. The upper one especially shows that the increase in sea level is unprecedented in human history. The different colored lines in the lower chart represent projections from different future emission scenarios – high (red) to low (blue).
The incidence of daily tidal flooding is accelerating in more than 25 Atlantic and Gulf Coast cities. (p.2) Figure 4 shows the historical and projected incidence of minor tidal flooding in Charleston SC, and San Francisco CA. Minor flooding is also called nuisance flooding. Basically, it is flooding that occurs only at high tide, and is limited to a couple of feet. But it is defined differently at different locations. For an article explaining it all, see here: https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/understanding-climate-billy-sweet-and-john-marra-explain. The charts show that flooding is on the increase, though in San Francisco, the increase is small (also typical of other West Coast locations). It is much larger in Charleston (also typical of other East Coast locations). In both locations, minor flooding is expected to increase, and under the high emission scenario, which is the one we seem to be following, it will nearly become a daily event.
Heavy rainfall is increasing in intensity and frequency across the United States and globally and is expected to continue to increase. The largest observed changes in the United States have occurred in the Northeast. (p.2) Figure 5 shows the historical change in heavy precipitation events across the United States. It shows the data in several forms. The map at upper left shows the percentage change in the largest 1-day rainfall event over rolling 5-year periods. The map at upper right shows the percentage change in the number of days that fall in the 99th percentile of 1-day precipitation over the historical record. The map at lower left shows the percentage change in the number of 2-day precipitation events that exceeded the largest 2-day amount that is expected to occur, on average, once every 5 years, from 1901-2016. The map at lower right shows the number of 2-day precipitation events that exceeded the largest 2-day amount that is expected to occur, on average, once every 5 years, from 1958-2016. Thus, the two lower maps show identical data, except the reference period in the left one stretches back to 1901, while the reference period in the right one stretches back to 1958. (This is all a bit complicated, but it is necessary because the amount of precipitation that constitutes a heavy event may be different in, say, Seattle vs. Las Vegas. You just have to unpack it slowly, and it all makes sense.)
The trend in Figure 4 is strongest in the eastern part of the country, where the increase is large, no matter how you count the data. In the Southwest, however, the data is equivocal. That region may be getting heavier 1-day storms, but heavy precipitation is not lasting over 2 days as frequently as it used to.
Heatwaves have become more frequent in the United States since the 1960s, while extreme cold temperatures and cold waves are less frequent. (p.2) I have written previous posts on how the increase in temperature could lead to deadly heat waves. One series of posts starts here. Another article is here.
The incidence of large forest fires in the western United States has increased…and is expected to further increase…with profound changes to regional ecosystems. (p.2) I’ve written quite a number of posts about how fire is increasing in the West, and how that may contrast with Missouri. See here and here.
Earlier spring melt and reduced snowpack are already affecting water resources in the western United States…Long-duration hydrological drought is increasingly possible before the end of this century. (p.2) I’ve covered this extensively in my posts on the water situation in California and made a number of updates. The original series of posts is here. The most recent update is here.
The magnitude of climate change…will depend primarily on the amount of greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide) emitted globally…With significant reductions…the increase in annual average global temperature could be limited to 3.6°F (2°C) or less. (p.2)
The global atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration has now passed 400 parts per million (ppm), a level that last occurred about 3 million years ago, when both global average temperature and sea level were significantly higher than today. (p.2)
Continued CO2 emissions would lead to an atmospheric concentration not experienced in tens to hundreds of millions of years. (p.3)
In 2014 and 2015, emission growth rates slowed as economic growth became less carbon-intensive. A recent report, however, suggests that in 2018, the rate of emissions reversed, surging ahead at an accelerating rate. (Le Quéré et al, 2018)
The next post will focus on Volume 2 of the National Climate Report.
U.S. Global Change Research Program. 2017. Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I [Wuebbles, D.J., D.W. Fahey, K.A. Hibbard, D.J. Dokken, B.C. Stewart, and T.K. Maycock (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, 470 pp, doi: 10.7930/J0J964J6.
Le Quéré, Corinne, and 76 other authors. 2018. Global Carbon Budge, 2018. Earth System Science Data, 10, 2141-2194. Downloaded 12/8/2018 from https://doi.org/10.5194/essd-10-2141-2018.
I ended my last post by noting that if we are to avoid devastating the planet and ourselves through climate change, drastic action is needed immediately. If you ask me, that’s been clear for a long time, but the truth has been denied by climate change deniers. Climate change deniers dislike the word “denial” because it comes from the psychological mechanism of denial, like addicts who deny that they have an addiction.
Perhaps climate change deniers do have an illness like addiction, or perhaps it is something even worse.
In a recent OpEd, Paul Krugman compares the denial of climate change to the denial that cigarette smoking is harmful. According to him, tobacco companies knew for decades that smoking was harmful, but undertook a cynical campaign to try to discredit the science around smoking. Why? Money. They were willing to let hundreds of thousands die in order to preserve profits. The denial of climate change, he says, has been undertaken by fossil fuel companies for precisely the same reason, using precisely the same tactics (and, in fact, using some of the same organizations to conduct the campaign). He also gives a nod to mistrust of government regulation, which will be required to address climate change (while also poking fun at it, noting that their mistrust somehow manages to allow governments to force consumers to subsidize coal. Thus, the real motivation is reduced back to money.) Krugman concludes that this is not just misguided, it is depraved.
The amazing thing is that their nonsense has taken hold of an entire political party (the Republicans) and a great number of people in this state (Missouri). It reminds one of how Naziism took hold of a large number of people in Germany during the 1930s. We look back and ask how rational people could have believed such obvious nonsense, such vile evil? Could such things happen in the USA? Well, try reading The Paranoid Style in American Politics for a starter. Of course it could.
The climate change deniers I have known fall into two camps. Some are simple people who are just repeating what they have heard their neighbors say, or what they have seen in the conservative media they like to follow. Others are more informed. These deniers like to see themselves as skeptics, but to me they seem pervasively suspicious, oppositional, and perhaps even querulous. They are preoccupied with unjustifiable doubts, often seeing conspiracies where none exist. They focus on details or outright fabrications to prop up their denial, while ignoring vast amounts of fact, upon which they turn their back. Because not everything is known, they argue that nothing is known.
I received an email from one, a British lord no less, who comfortably turned his back on thousands of scientific references in an IPCC report, in favor of a column written by the host of an Australian children’s TV show. Well, he claimed, climate science is a vast conspiracy.
Is that paranoia? Has it gone so far as to be a psychotic delusion? Were the German people who supported Naziism deluded? Psychotic? At what point does fear of the future – I’m fearful, too, it would be silly not to be – turn into suspicion and paranoia?
Well, this IPCC report makes it clear that global warming, if left unchecked, is going to cost hundreds of billions of dollars yearly, and is going to ruin the lives of hundreds of millions. Clinging on to denial in the face of such facts, Krugman writes, is depraved. It is no longer a viable intellectual or political position, he argues, it is a sign of depravity.
Drastic change is required immediately if we are to avoid terrible damage to our planet. Even in only economic terms, the projected damage if we do nothing is absolutely staggering. But in addition to that, the lives of hundreds of millions will be ruined. Can humankind respond with the kind of immediate, large-scale planetary change that is required, or is it already too late? Will we act, or have we sold ourselves out to the forces of depravity?
Hofstadter, Richard. 1996. The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Originally published in 1952.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2018. Global Warming of 1.5°C (Draft). Downloaded 11/24/2018 from https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15.
Krugman, Paul. “The Depravity of Climate-Change Denial.” The New York Times, November 26, 2018. Viewed online 12/1/2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/26/opinion/climate-change-denial-republican.html.
In the previous post, I reported that the recent IPCC report, Global Warming of 1.5°C, concludes that it is theoretically possible to limit global warming to 1.5°C, but it would require drastic change: a 50% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030, and zero net GHG emissions by 2050. In this post, I will discuss some of what the report says about making such a change.
The IPCC reviewed a number of computer models to explore scenarios that limited global warming to 1.5°C. Assumptions varied between the models, and they consequently yielded different results. They can be grouped into several categories: models that projected an increase in Global Mean Surface Temperature (GMST) that stayed below 1.5°C, models that projected a small overshoot of 1.5°C (eventually returning to 1.5°C), models that projected a large overshoot of 1.5°C (eventually returning to 1.5°C), models that projected a 2.0°C increase in GMST, and models that projected a large increase above 2.0°C.
According to the report, limiting the increase in GMST to 1.5°F would require putting a substantial price on carbon emissions. Estimates vary widely, thus, there is substantial uncertainty about just how large the price increase would need to be. It is clear, however, that the smaller the increase in GMST, the higher the price would have to be, and in all cases, the price would need to rise over time. Figure 1 shows the findings. The required price of carbon emissions is on the vertical axis, and the year is on the horizontal axis. The different colored columns represent the categories defined in the preceding paragraph.
The projected price for 2030 ranges from $135 to $5500 per metric ton of CO2e. The projected price in 2050 ranges from $245 to $13,000 per metric ton of CO2e. For comparison, at 11:22 a.m. CST on 12/4/18, Bloomberg reported the current price for emissions on the European Emissions Exchange was €20.72 ($23.48). Thus, the estimate for 2030 ranges from about 6 to 234 times the current price. I don’t know if fossil fuel prices would increase equally, but you can be sure they would increase a lot!
Carbon pricing, however, would not be sufficient in and of itself, and other policies would be required. The strategies mentioned in the report include using less energy, converting electricity generation to methods that don’t release carbon dioxide, converting all fuels to types that don’t release carbon dioxide, converting all energy end use to use decarbonized electricity (e.g. electric cars that run on renewable electricity), and some form of carbon sequestration. This is an intimidating list of changes. It would involve transforming basically all of our energy use infrastructure.
I couldn’t find an estimate of the cost of making the required transformation.
IPCC also doesn’t make specific predictions about the consequences of unchecked global warming, such as “Miami will flood,” or “400 million people will die of famine.” Rather, they speak of threats, how many people will be exposed to them, and which natural systems will be impacted. Figure 2 shows that for all of the systems considered, the threat increases the higher GMST goes. The increase in GMST is shown on the vertical axis. In the columns, white means the system will not impacted. Yellow means it will be impacted moderately. Red indicates that the impact will be severe and widespread. Purple indicates that the impacts will not only be severe, but perhaps irreversible, and also that the ability to cope with and adapt to the change will be limited. It is easy to see that for all systems, the risks increase as global warming increases. Some of the systems enter the red or purple color at or below 1.5C. But many of them only turn red or purple between 1.5 and 2.0°C.
The consequences are dramatic. The report discusses the specifics at great length, and they are far too numerous and complex to try to summarize here. However, I will say that the reports quotes estimates that, if no policy is instituted to limit global warming, GMST would rise 3.66°F by 2100, and it would reduce global Gross World Product (GWP) by 2.6%. According to the CIA World Factbook, GWP in 2017 was $127.8 trillion. Thus, even if GWP does not grow over time, a 2.6% reduction would equate to $3.3 trillion. In comparison, limiting global warming to 2°C would result in a decrease in GWP of 0.5% ($639 billion), and the 1.5°C scenario would result in a reduction of 0.3% ($383 billion).
Thus, the damage associated with global warming increases dramatically the more it warms. Limiting climate change to 1.5°C compared to 2.0°C would prevent $256 billion in economic loss every year. Thus, over a 10-year period, if you spent $2.5 trillion on climate change prevention, it would still be justifiable on the basis of avoided damage. A few trillion dollars here, hundreds of billions of dollars there – pretty soon, it will add up to real money!
The report includes population projections in its modeling of future climate change: increasing the population increases GHG emissions, and hence, it increases future climate change. The report does NOT address, however, limiting population as a strategy for limiting climate change, and least I could not find a section that did. Hmm! (If it’s there and I missed it, please let me know in a comment.)
The report is based on more than 6,000 scientific references. It contains a great deal of information, far too much to adequately summarize here. It should make clear, however, that the denial of climate change is no longer viable. If you ask me, it’s been clear for a long time, but this is pretty definitive.
Drastic change is required immediately if we are to avoid terrible damage to our planet. Even in only economic terms, the projected damage if we do nothing is absolutely staggering. Can humankind respond with the kind of immediate, large-scale planetary change that is required, or is it already too late?
Bloomberg.com. Markets: Energy. Viewed online 12/4/2018 at https://www.bloomberg.com/energ.
Central Intelligence Agency. 2018. The World Factbook 2016-17. Viewed online 11/30/2018 at https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2018. Global Warming of 1.5°C (Draft). Downloaded 11/24/2018 from https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15.
Can we limit global warming to 1.5°C? What would it require? Would there be real advantages compared to letting earth’s climate warm more than that? These are the questions that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report 15, Global Warming of 1.5°C seeks to answer. IPCC is, of course, discussing human-induced global warming, not natural climate change. I will discuss their answer to the first question in this post, and the other two questions in the next post.
Let’s start by understanding what we can expect from this report.
Figure 1 shows an image of something. It appears to be something white. It is too far away and out of focus to see more. Figure 2 moves a little closer. Now it is possible to see that that it is a white rectangle with some gray smudges on it.
Figure 3 moves a little closer. You can’t see the whole of the white rectangle, but the gray smudges can now be seen to be a word: “Titanic.” But the writing is still out of focus. Figure 4 moves a little closer still, and the writing is now in clear focus.
Over the years, the IPCC has issued a series of reports on global warming/climate change. Over that time, the basic understanding of global warming has not changed. But as we have gotten closer, it has come more clearly into focus, and it has become possible to make out details that we couldn’t see before. We still don’t have global warming in full focus; we’re not to Figure 4 yet. But it has become possible to ask specific questions and give answers that, while not yet fully specific and detailed, are getting there. So, Global Warming of 1.5°C doesn’t contain radical new understandings. Rather, it is more detailed, and that is useful.
By the way, I chose the word “Titanic” on purpose. That ship was not built to survive a catastrophic iceberg strike, substandard steel may have been used to construct her, and she didn’t have enough lifeboats for all of the passengers. The captain denied the risk and sailed through the night into an iceberg field. By the time the iceberg was spotted dead ahead in the middle of the night, it was too late to turn and too late to stop. By that point, nothing they could do could change their fate: the Titanic was going to hit that berg and sink, and thousands were going to die.
Did I really write that? That’s really catastrophic, apocalyptic even! According to the IPCC report, we are very, very close to being like the Titanic. It may already be too late, but perhaps if we try really, really hard, it isn’t. Read on.
Human activity has already caused our planet’s global mean surface air temperature (GMST) to warm approximately 1°C (1.8°F) since pre-industrial times, according to the report. GMST is increasing by about 0.2°C (0.36°F) per decade. The rate of warming appears to be increasing. Figure 5 shows the temperature trend. The gray line shows the monthly temperatures in the datasets. The orange line shows the change forced by both humans and nature combined, while the yellow line shows the change forced by human activities alone (it is hard to see because it is embedded in the yellow band, look closely) .
GMST is an average across the globe. Some regions have warmed more than others. For instance, the temperature over land has increased more than the temperature over water; 40-60% of human population lives in regions that have already warmed 1.5°C (2.7°F) or more. Thus, a 1.5°C increase in GMST implies a larger than 1.5°C increase over land, with a smaller increase over the ocean.
Past emissions (through 2017) are probably not sufficient to cause GMST to increase more than 1.5°C. Therefore, warming limited to 1.5°C is theoretically possible if human emissions are immediately reduced. Two ways in which the 1.5°C limit could be achieved are discussed in the report. One reduces GHG emissions sufficiently quickly so that the 1.5°C limit is never exceeded. The other would allow a small overshoot of the limit, with temperature then being brought back within the limit by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
To limit the increase of GMST to 1.5°C with no overshoot would require GHG emissions of no more than 25-30 billion metric tons of CO2e per year in 2030 (compared to estimates that under business as usual they will be 50-58 billion metric tons per year). And GHG EMISSIONS WOULD NEED TO DECLINE TO NET ZERO BY 2050. That’s right – no net GHG emissions by 2050. Figure 6 shows the reductions over time in emissions of CO2, methane, black carbon (soot), and nitrous oxide consistent with a 1.5°C increase in GMST.
The no-net-emissions requirement could be met by two strategies: the first would involve reducing emissions themselves. Reducing emissions at this magnitude would require near-total transformations of our energy, transportation, and agricultural systems. The second would involve widely deploying carbon dioxide removal mechanisms. The only currently proven mechanism for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is revegetation, especially reforestation. Attempts to add carbon capture and sequestration to power plants have not yet proven viable.
The limits agreed to in the Paris Climate Agreement are not sufficient to limit the increase in GMST to 1.5°C.
In the next post, I will look at what the report has to say about strategies to meet the limit, and what the costs and benefits might be.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2018. Global Warming of 1.5°C (Draft). Downloaded 11/24/2018 from https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15.
Arctic sea ice apparently reached its annual maximum extent on March 17, 2018, and it was the second lowest in the record, according to a report from the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
Each summer the arctic warms, and as it does, the sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean melts, reaching an annual low-point in late summer. Then, each winter the arctic cools, the surface of the ocean freezes, and the area covered by sea ice expands. The sea ice reaches its maximum extent in late winter, this year on March 17.
The National Snow and Ice Data Center tracks the extent of the sea ice using satellite images, as shown in Figure 1. The map is a polar view, with the North Pole in the center, the sea ice in white, and the ocean in blue. The land forms are in gray, with North America at lower left, and Eurasia running from Spain at lower right to the Russian Far East at the top. The magenta line shows the 1981-2010 average extent of the ice for the month of March. It doesn’t look like much on the map, but the anomaly in 2018 amounts to 436,300 square miles less than average.
(Click on figure for larger view.)
Figure 2 shows the trend in Arctic sea ice from 1979-2018. The declining trend is easy to see. (The y-axis does not extend to zero to better show the change.) The National Snow and Ice Data Center applied a linear regression trend line to the data (blue line), and the trend shows an average loss of 16,400 square miles per year.
What about the annual minimum? That has been shrinking, too. Figure 3 shows the Arctic sea ice minimum in 1980, and Figure 4 shows it in 2012. The prevailing winds tend to blow the ice up against Greenland and the far northern islands of Canada, but you can see that in 1980 most of the sea, from the Canadian islands, to Greenland, to the Svalbard Islands, to Severnaya Zemla (anybody remember the Bond movie “GoldenEye?”), to the north of Far Eastern Russia, was covered by ice. In 2012, however, more than half of the Arctic Sea was ice-free, from north of the Svalbard Islands right around to the Canadian Islands. Even the famed Northwest Passage, a channel through the Canadian Islands, was open.
Figure 5 charts the trend in the annual minimum. At its low in 2012, it was less than half of what it was in 1980.
The volume of the polar ice cap also depends on how thick the ice is. Satellites can photograph the entire ice cap, but data on thickness come to us from on-site measurements at a limited number of points. I don’t have a chart to share with you, but the data seem to indicate that compared to the years 1958-1976, in 2003-2007 the thickness had declined about 50% to 64%, depending on where the measurement was taken. (This change is approximate, being read off of a graph by Kwok and Rothrock, 2009.)
Thus, the decline in the arctic ice cap is actually much larger than suggested by the change in its extent.
Why does arctic sea ice matter? First, Arctic sea ice does not form primarily from snowfall, as does the snowcap in the western United States. Arctic sea ice forms because the temperature is low enough to cause the surface of the water to freeze, just as the your local pond or lake freezes if it gets cold enough. Thus, declining Arctic sea ice is a sign that the Arctic is warming. The Arctic seems to be the part of the planet that is warming the most from climate change, and this is a clear and graphic sign of that change.
Oddly, the warming arctic is one reason for the bizarre weather we have had in Missouri this winter. As noted in a post on 1/22/2015, the warming arctic weakens the polar vortex, which allows arctic cold to escape and travel south, impacting us in Missouri. Figure 6 shows the anomaly in Arctic temperatures from December, 2017 through February, 2018, in C. While it was warm over the entire Arctic, as much as 7°C above average (12.6°F), it was 2-3°C cooler than average over North America (3.6-5.4°F).
Second, it matters because ice is white, but the ocean is blue. That means that sunlight hitting ice reflects back towards space, and is not absorbed. Being blue, however, the ocean absorbs the light, and converts the energy to heat. This reflective capacity is called “albedo,” and the albedo of ocean is less than that of ice. Thus, the ice is melting because of global warming, but then, the melting contributes to even more global warming through the change in albedo. People are fond of saying that the earth has buffering mechanisms that tend to inhibit large climate changes, and such mechanisms do exist, but not everywhere in all things. This is one example where the earth shows positive feedback that destabilizes the climate even further.
Melting Arctic ice is not a major factor in the rising sea level. The reason is that the ice is already in the water. When the ice in your glass of iced tea melts, it doesn’t make the glass overflow. In the same way, as this ice melts, it has only a small effect on sea level. On the other hand, the Greenland Ice Cap and the Antarctic Ice Cap are not already in the water, and as they melt, they do affect sea level.
One final word: the data above are not computer models of future events. They are the best data available of what has already been happening, and what is happening now. To deny the reality of climate change is like denying that a river will flood, even as its water already swirls around your knees.
Kwok, R., and D./A. Rothrock. 2009. “Decline in Arctic Sea Ice Thickness from Submarine and ICESat Records: 1958-2008. Beophysical Research Letters 36:L15501. Cited in National Snow & Ice Data Center. State of the Cryosphere. Viewed online 4/12/2018 at http://nsidc.org/cryosphere/sotc/sea_ice.html.
NASA Global Climate Change. Arctic Sea Ice Minimum. Downloaded 4/12/18 from https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/arctic-sea-ice.
NASA Scientific Visualization Studio. Annual Arsctic Sea Ice Minimum 1979-2015 with Area Graph. Downloaded 4/12/18 from https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/4435.
NASA Scientific Visualization Studio. Annual Arsctic Sea Ice Minimum 1979-2015 with Area Graph. Downloaded 4/12/18 from https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/4435.
National Snow & Ice Data Center. “2018 Winter Arctic Sea Ice: Bering Down. Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis. 4/4/2018. Downloaded 4/12/2018 from http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews.