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Tag Archives: climate change

Greenland Ice, Changing Albedo, and a Feedback Loop

The BBC reports: Sea Level Fears as Greenland Darkens. The article discusses a possible feedback loop where as temperatures warm algae growth may flourish, which darkens the surface and changes the albedo to increase melting.

One concern now is that rising temperatures will allow algae to flourish not only on the slopes of the narrow margins of the ice-sheet but also on the flat areas in the far larger interior where melting could happen on a much bigger scale.

We joined the latest phase of research in which scientists set up camp on the ice-sheet to gather accurate measurements of the “albedo” or the amount of solar radiation reflected by the surface.

White snow reflects up to 90% of solar radiation while dark patches of algae will only reflect about 35% or even as little as 1% in the blackest spots.

Other highlights from the article include:

Currently the Greenland ice sheet is adding up to 1mm a year to the rise in the global average level of the oceans.

It is the largest mass of ice in the northern hemisphere covering an area about seven times the size of the United Kingdom and reaching up to 3km (2 miles) in thickness.

This means that the average sea level would rise around the world by about seven metres, more than 20ft, if it all melted.

You can get Greenland Ice Data from NASA’s Vital Signs of the Planet page as noted in a past post.

No El Nino, Yet 2017 on Track to be 2nd-Hottest

Climate Central reports, At Midway Point 2017 Is 2nd-Hottest Year on Record, and notes in the first line that this is a surprise given it is not an El Nino year (graph here is by and links to NASA).

“Personally, I wasn’t expecting it to be as warm as it has been,” Ahira Sanchez-Lugo, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate scientist, said in an email. “After the decline of the strong El Niño I was expecting the values to drop a bit and rank among the top five warmest years. This year has been extremely remarkable.”

According to NOAA we just had the second hottest June with the hottest three Junes occurring in the last three years. You can get the data for June since 1880 from NOAA here and details about June  from their Global Climate Report  – June 2017.

Where Do Carbon Emissions Go?

Where do carbon emissions go seems like an obvious question. Into the air of course. If so, then one would expect a near perfect linear relationship between emissions and atmospheric CO2.  The graph here has yearly carbon emissions in million tonnes per year (as reported by the Global Carbon Project)  vs atmospheric CO2 in ppm from Mauna Loa (see data in the calculus project page).  The graph may not be as linear as expected and, while maybe some of it is explained by issues of mixing in the atmosphere or the need for a lag, part of the answer is based on where the carbon goes after it has been emitted.  A recent NYT article, Carbon in the Atmosphere is Rising – Even as Emissions Stabilize, sheds some light on the issue:

Scientists have spent decades measuring what was happening to all of the carbon dioxide that was produced when people burned coal, oil and natural gas. They established that less than half of the gas was remaining in the atmosphere and warming the planet. The rest was being absorbed by the ocean and the land surface, in roughly equal amounts.

In essence, these natural sponges were doing humanity a huge service by disposing of much of its gaseous waste. But as emissions have risen higher and higher, it has been unclear how much longer the natural sponges will be able to keep up.

In fact, much of the carbon is absorbed in the ocean and land surface, and that will add variability to the relationship. The Global Carbon Project has this data available and it can be used by teachers. Go to their page and click on the global budget link for the data, which includes ocean and land sinks of carbon.  If you want the data that created the graph on this page go here.

Oceans as a Heat Sink: Possible Feedback Loop

Ocean currents are a complex mechanism that contribute to absorbing CO2 and heat. The NASA article, NASA-MIT study evaluates efficiency of oceans as heat sink – atmospheric gases sponge, discusses the role of ocean currents as part of climate change. The possible feedback loop is suggested by this:

In addition, they found that in scenarios where the ocean current slows down due to the addition of heat, the ocean absorbs less of both atmospheric gases and heat, though its ability to absorb heat is more greatly reduced.

The article includes this must see 40 seconds animation of ocean currents and a engaging 3D graph with the depth of the ocean as the z-axis:

Arctic Ice and Global Warming

An article from this past February, Rapid warming and disintegrating polar ice set the stage for ‘societal collapse’ – Carbon pollution is destabilizing both the Arctic and Antarctic, provides a nice overview of issues of warming and ice. For instance, there is the albedo feedback loop:

Climate models have long predicted that if we keep using the atmosphere as an open sewer for carbon pollution, the ice cap would eventually enter into a death spiral because of Arctic amplification — a vicious cycle where higher temperatures melt reflective white ice and snow, which is replaced by the dark land or blue sea, which both absorb more solar energy, leading to more melting.

The graph here is historical January Arctic ice extent and the data can be downloaded from the National Snow and Ice Data Center Sea Ice Data and Analysis Tools page.  Go to Sea ice analysis data spreadsheets and then to monthly data by year. As you’ll see there is other data there worth exploring. There are projects using Arctic ice data on both the calculus and statistics pages on this blog. If you are a real ice junkie take a look at the interactive sea ice graph and keep track of the current ice extent.  Finally, as a reader of this blog you know that you can make your own global temperature maps like the one in the article from reading April Second Warmest on Record.



Glacier Pairs

NASA’s Global Ice Viewer for Glaciers provides stunning pairs of images of glaciers taken many years apart at the same location. The viewer starts with a map of the world with links for seven locations. Each link brings you to glacier pair images from that location with information about the images. For example, here is a pair of images from Bear Glacier in the Alaskan Range. The top image was taken on July 20, 1909 and the second on Aug 5, 2005. Here is what the site says about glaciers:

Glaciers are sentinels of climate change. Ice that took centuries to develop can vanish in just a few years. A glacier doesn’t melt slowly and steadily like an ice cube on a table. Once glacial ice begins to break down, the interaction of meltwater with the glacier’s structure can cause increasingly fast melting and retreat.

Widespread loss of glaciers would likely alter climate patterns in complex ways. Glaciers have white surfaces that reflect the sun’s rays.  This helps keep our current climate mild. When glaciers melt, darker surfaces are exposed, which absorb heat.  This raises temperatures even more.

A Feedback Loop: The Alaska Tundra

A recent NASA report Alaska tundra source of early-winter carbon emissions provides another example of a feedback loop. Global warming has slowed the refreezing of the Alaska tundra allowing for increased CO2 releases.

A new paper led by Roisin Commane, an atmospheric researcher at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, finds the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from northern tundra areas between October and December each year has increased 70 percent since 1975.

“In the past, refreezing of soils may have taken a month or so, but with warmer temperatures in recent years, there are locations in Alaska where tundra soils now take more than three months to freeze completely,” said Commane. “We are seeing emissions of carbon dioxide from soils continue all the way through this early winter period.”

How much carbon is stored in the frozen soils. According to the report

The soils that encircle the high northern reaches of the Arctic (above 60 degrees North latitude) hold vast amounts of carbon in the form of undecayed organic matter from dead vegetation. This vast store, accumulated over thousands of years, contains enough carbon to double the current amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere.

April Second Warmest on Record

A NASA report notes that April 2017 was second-warmest April on record.

April 2017 was the second-warmest April in 137 years of modern record-keeping, according to a monthly analysis of global temperatures by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York.

Last month (meaning April) was 0.88 degrees Celsius warmer than the mean April temperature from 1951-1980. The two top April temperature anomalies have occurred during the past two years.

If you like the cool map here that was in the NASA report you can make your own for various time period at Global Maps from GHCN v3 Data. This is a great app and can be used for discussions about means vs distributions in stats or QL classes, for example. The article also has links to data sources.

Larsen C Update

Project MIDAS recently posted Larsen C takes another step towards calving.

In the largest jump since January, the rift in the Larsen C Ice Shelf has grown an additional 17 km (11 miles) between May 25 and May 31 2017. This has moved the rift tip to within 13 km (8 miles) of breaking all the way through to the ice front, producing one of the largest ever recorded icebergs. The rift tip appears also to have turned significantly towards the ice front, indicating that the time of calving is probably very close.

STEM folks are presented with challenging problems modeling and predicting changes in ice and glaciers due to climate change.

Arctic Sea Ice Visual

Thanks to the folks at the NASA Scientific Visualization Studio for this visualization of Annual Arctic Sea Ice Minimum 1979-2015 with Area Graph (click on the visual to play). Arctic ice data is available in the calculus and statistics sections. A recent Economist article The thawing Arctic threatens an environmental catastrophe adds some context.

The Arctic has been warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world for decades because of feedback loops that have reduced the albedo effect, a measure of the way Earth reflects heat. Unlike the rest of the planet the polar regions release more heat into space than they absorb, in effect cooling the planet, because sunlight is reflected by ice and snow. When it is replaced by water or dark ground, more heat is retained. That is precisely what is happening in the Arctic’s defrosting landscape.