Arctic Sea Ice Extent Rapidly Decreasing Because of Climate Change; Weather & Climate Implications

Today, NOAA presented the State of the Arctic report at the American Geophysical Union annual conference in New Orleans. The news from the report was devastating for potential weather and climate impacts. Lots of important info to talk about from this! Let’s summarize:

  1. Annual Arctic sea ice extent is the lowest in 1600 years. This is based on proxy data (tree rings, lake sediments, ice cores from the Greenland Ice Sheet). There has been an abrupt decrease in extent during the 20th century (continuing to present). 24991395_10215050817330895_108575701643656859_n
  2. Arctic sea ice extent reached a record minimum in the warm season in 2012. However, 2015-17 witnessed consecutive record low maximum extents in the cold season. 2016 also had the lowest extent on record in November or December. 2017 is also witnessing top two or three low daily extents in November into December, with record low sea ice in the northern Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea (north of the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia). Also very notable, sea ice VOLUME (which includes thickness of ice) has continued to suffer with 2015-17 in the top 4 for the lowest volume on record going back to 1979 (and based on decreasing of sea ice extent and thickness, likely much much longer than that). Multi-year ice…ice more than a year old…is now nearly extinct in the Arctic Ocean.

    Arctic Sea Ice Volume since 1979. Note consistent and accelerating collapse of sea ice volume. Arctic ice volume may fall below the 2012 record at some point in the month of September in the next several years.
  3. The Arctic had its warmest year on record in 2016 and its second warmest year on record in 2017 in reliable records. The climate of the Arctic is warming to the point that permafrost is increasingly melting releasing methane and carbon dioxide, methane emissions from what are called methane hydrates (methane gas locked in water ice) are increasing from the very shallow continental shelves surrounding the Arctic Ocean and mid-latitude weather patterns are becoming altered because of reduced sea ice (more on this shortly). The Arctic tundra is also greening at an increasing rate because of rapid warming.
  4. NOAA specifically states that “the Arctic shows no signs of returning to a reliably frozen region of recent decades” because of continued climate change related warming.

Discussion – Leaving the Ice Age Era:

One thing that we must remember about the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean (and the Southern Ocean around Antarctica) is that sea ice is a product of Ice Age eras. Our planet has had a tendency historically to flip between two global climate equilibrium states with dramatically different regional weather and seasonal patterns. The Ice Ages and the Hot House “Jurrasic Park” climates have been the two long-term dominating climate regimes in Earth’s history. One characterized by huge ice sheets and low sea levels, the other characterized by no ice sheets, no sea ice and high sea levels. Human civilization has flourished in the latest interglacial period in the Ice Age era because the climate has remained largely stable for roughly 10,000 years (-1 to +0.5 degrees C relative to mid-20th century climate) and mild enough to for extensive agriculture and settlements.

Estimated temperature of Planet Earth from 550 million years ago to the end of the 20th century.

But now, because of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) from climate change, we are leaving that stability in the geologic blink of an eye.

Projected rise in global temperature of 4 degrees C/8 degrees F (relative to mid-20th century) during the 21st century relative to the past 10,000 years.

Probably the most important regulars of climate during Interglacials are the “refrigerators” of the north and south…the Arctic Ocean sea ice and Antarctic Ice Sheet (also Greenland Ice Sheet). However, as temperatures warm because of human carbon dioxide emissions trapping heat in the global climate system, that heat warms the atmosphere and ocean, attacking the sea ice by providing excess latent heat of melting. For the Arctic, this reduces the sea ice extent and volume decade after decade. Eventually, it will get to a point, where sea ice will become so thin and tenuous, it will undergo collapse to what has been called a “blue ocean” event with 1,000,000 sq km or less ice at a minimum in September (2012 extent minimum record was 3.41 million sq km). The 2016 and 2017 extent minimums were in the top 10 with 4.14 and 4.64 million sq km, 2nd and 8th respectively. 8 of the top 10 warm season minimum extents (in km) have occurred since 2010 in the now 39 year record. The Arctic Ocean and lower atmosphere are warming and becoming more like the high latitude North Atlantic. Eventually sea ice is expected to disappear completely in the warm season in the Arctic. Some climate scientists have suggested over the past several years that the “blue ocean” event resulting from a collapse of sea ice extent could occur between 2015-2020 or so as multi-year ice has nearly gone extinct, leaving thin ice vulnerable to quick melting and battering waves from cyclones. Computer models have been terrible at dealing with the end of sea ice in the Arctic, suggesting it would stick around into the second half of this century.

Discussion – Weather and Climate Implications:

So why does loss of sea ice matter? Sea ice regulates the climate of the world in multiple ways. It acts as large white surface which reflects most of the shortwave solar radiation from the sun (high albedo). As a result, it keeps the Arctic and Northern Hemisphere (and world) cooler than otherwise. It’s wide physical presence means heat entering the Arctic Ocean goes into melting the ice in the warm season (latent heat of melting; heat goes into phase change of water from solid to liquid) instead of heating the ocean and atmosphere dramatically (sensible heat to change temperature). Losing sea ice ends its presence as a climate regulator, allowing for more abrupt warming of the atmosphere-ocean system and increasing moisture content in the atmosphere (water vapor is an additional greenhouse gas; and increased clouds may reflect some radiation, but also can limit cooling in darkness). In addition, the Arctic Ocean will warm as it is a dark surface (low albedo). Increasing ocean warming in the marginal seas of the Arctic Ocean is already leading to increased methane emissions from the shallow continental shelves (as subsea permafrost thaw the clathrates) and more rapid warming will lead to an increase in emissions of methane and carbon dioxide from land permafrost (see discussion by Arctic climate scientist Dr. Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University on YouTube). Methane is over 100 times more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide on a timescale of several years (it dissipates far faster in the atmosphere, but sudden releases can increase warming quickly). And all of these feedbacks will much more quickly destroy the sea ice extent through further warming for a longer period in the warm season until ice disappears completely.

Increased warming of the Arctic also has impacts on mid-latitude weather. There has been research suggesting that the jet stream can be strongly influenced by Arctic warming and sea ice extent (see discussion by Dr. Jennifer Francis on YouTube). This can include a weakening of the upper-level jet stream which depends on the temperature difference between the upper-level mid-latitudes and polar atmosphere (known in meteorology as “baroclinic instability”). This weakening can lead to the jet stream developing high-amplitude waves more frequently, allowing for powerful upper-level ridges of high pressure to develop and cause blocking of the progressive westerly flow. This blocking can cause more frequent stagnant weather for locations, developing droughts in some areas through prolonged dryness, long periods of heavy precipitation in other regions as well as places of very abnormally warm temps (greater extreme summer heat) vs. colder temperatures (but the warmth always significantly outpaces the cold). Increased warming of the atmosphere in general also increases rainfall rates. In addition, paradoxically, while parts of the mid-latitudes may go through below normal temps and cold weather, the powerful ridging can produce extremely abnormally warm temperatures over the Arctic regions, intensifying the warming of the far north.

An identical pattern to this has largely set up over the Northern Hemisphere November into December.

Powerful high-amplitude ridges over the Eastern Pacific and North Atlantic. Pattern relatively stagnant at this time.
Reanalysis of the average temperature of Earth and specified regions over the last 30 days (1981-2010 baseline…add 0.7 C to compare to late 19th century). Note extensive, persistent anomalous warmth of the Arctic.

These effects may overall lead to more abrupt warming of the world as a whole as well as (more importantly) changes in rainfall and snowfall patterns, relevant for crops and food security from increasing summer extremes (heat stress and heavy rainfall) and water resources (snow pack, groundwater, etc). Also relevant for forest health (destruction by increasing wildfires as well as bug infestations killing hundreds of millions of trees in the Western US). And a running theme in stories on climate change recently? “Faster than expected” or “Faster than previously thought”. The importance of Arctic sea ice cannot be overstated and, unfortunately, this major tipping point…which I would consider a “keystone” tipping point because of what effects it can have down the line on other parts of the climate system…seems to be on the brink. It has been 2.6 million years since significant sea ice did not regularly exist in the warm season in the Arctic Ocean.

The statistics of weather has already changed significantly because of global warming with far more extreme heat events, drought periods and heavy precipitation events than in the mid-20th century (see presentation by Dr. Aaron Thierry on shift to more extreme weather conditions; starts 12:30 min, recommend watching through 20:30 min; also see discussion of climate change on increasing extreme events by Dr. Stefan Rahmstorf). Going past tipping points far earlier than expected by climate models will increase the likelihood for far more extreme weather events as weather patterns and circulations change (in some cases difficult to predict ways). Clearly, the world still needs adequate mitigation and adaptation measures to deal with these rapid and possibly abrupt changes.

For more info into how climate change influenced global extreme weather events in 2016, see the latest report (issued today) by the American Meteorological Society with attribution studies on last year’s significant events.

–Meteorologist Nick Humphrey

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Very above normal temperatures dominating US to end November

Much above normal temperatures are dominating much of the United States right now. This is largely a product of a zonal or progressive jet stream moving along the northern tier states and southern Canada locking colder air over interior Canada and the Arctic (although, I note, the Arctic is seeing much above normal temperatures relative to what they should be seeing as well!).

My area…Eastern Nebraska…has been seeing many days of 60s and even mid-70s, including today. The average temperatures this time of year should be in the low to mid-40s for highs and near 20 for lows. Instead it’s been feeling like it’s around birthday time for me. My birthday is in May.

Global Forecast System model analysis of surface air temperature anomalies for November 27th. The GFS tends to have a minor warm bias from reality, but it is accurate is showing significant above normal temps over the western and central sections of the United States. The baseline normal period is 1979-2000, prior to the significant amplification of climatic warming in the Arctic (occurring because of anthropogenic global warming).
Global Forecast System model forecast depiction of upper-air wave pattern at 250 millibars (~10,200 meters/33,500 ft) valid Wednesday morning. The jet stream will remain largely over the northern tier and southern Canada this week with above normal temps of varying departures over the US.

As we move into the first week of December, trends point to some dip in the jet stream over the Western US early next week causing below normal temperatures. However, this will also amplify the jet stream over the eastern two-thirds, producing significantly above normal temperatures yet again.

One additional thing of note. Snow cover is virtually non-existent in the contiguous US today (Nov. 27th). Only 4% of the CONUS has snow cover today. Going back to 2003, this is lowest snow cover extent for this particular date. The second and third lowest for Nov. 27th were 8.7% (2009) and 10.2% (2011). The snow cover area extents on Nov. 27th in 2010, 2012-2015 were in the range of 20-35%. 2016 was fairly low at 15.4%. The data is available HERE.

Snow depth analysis map for the US and southern Canada for November 27, 2017.

I don’t know date prior to 2003, however it is known that climate change is reducing snow cover extent and depth in the US and the Northern Hemisphere beyond natural variability. The aforementioned trough in the West should increase that extent somewhat next week.

Is it a Heat Wave or a BBQ Pit? Fires Add Smoke to the Misery

It was VERY smoky in the Northwest Wednesday unfortunately because of major fires in the Interior US and Canada.

Satellite image of Washington State showing abundant smoke over much of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca Wednesday.
Photo from Seattle’s Lake Washington of the sunset view Wednesday evening through the thick smoke haze produced from Canadian fires. (Photo by NWS Seattle on Twitter)

BELOW were the highs Wednesday for select cities. Southwest WA and Western OR are being particularly hit hard by this heat wave. Interior Western WA and Puget Sound were actually sparred some of the worst of the heat today by the smoke; it was thick enough to act as a cloud to dampen the radiation and limit warming in places such as Seattle. It remains to be seen if that will be the case Thursday. If not, the hottest day if the heat may very well be Thursday for Western WA (and about the same for Western OR). This, along with an Air Quality Alert in effect for much of Western WA/OR means those in the area will need to not only be careful with strenuous activity to avoid heat-related illnesses, but also avoid breathing problems, if sensitive to such smoke particulates.

(record highs in red)


Seattle (National Weather Service Office): 88

Seattle (International Airport): 91 – Old Record 89 (2009). Special Note: Seattle also shattered its daily record for warmest minimum temperature with a morning low of 69 (old record was 61 set back in 2015) and it ranks as the 2nd warmest daily minimum temperature on record.

Olympia: 91

Hoquiam: 89 – Old Record 81 (1993)

Vancouver: 102

Quillayute (North WA Coast): 98 – Old Record 89 (1993). Special Note: This was likely caused by easterly downslope winds; easterly surface winds flowing along the higher hilly terrain descends down the slopes resulting in “adiabatic heating” (compression heating from increasing pressure on the air molecules as the flow drops in elevation). This hot air blows into town and shoots the temperature up fast. This process occurs throughout the region and is the reason why it is typically a “dry heat” in Western WA/OR during heat waves. The heated air becomes dry, with little moisture added to it.


Astoria: 93 – Old Record 88 (1939)

Portland (International Airport): 103 – Old Record 96 (1986)

Troutdale (East Portland Metro): 105 – Old Record 99 (1995)

Hillsboro: 105 – Old Record 99 (1939)

Salem: 107 – Old Record 102 (1939)

Eugene: 102 – Old Record 99 (1939)

Medford: 112 – Old Record 105 (1993)

Klamath Falls: 99 – Old Record 94 (1977)

As you see, for Oregon, there was a major theme in the records for Wednesday’s climate stations. It was the hottest day many of these locations had seen on this date since 1939.

Please be safe if you live in this region the next couple of days. Drink PLENTY of water, take breaks from the heat as necessary, use fans if you don’t have air conditioning (common problem in this region, I lived there without air conditioning and the summers statistically are generally getting warmer because of anthropogenic climate change…), and again, like me, I have asthma; if you don’t need to do anything strenuous outside DON’T! Just drive instead of walk or just stay inside, cool and relax. The slightly cooler weather (still above normal, however) starts Friday.

August 21, 2017 Eclipse is on its way! What to expect?

We’re now less than four weeks away from the historic total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017! This will be the first total solar eclipse in the contiguous United States since February 1979 when a total eclipse swept through northern Oregon, southern Washington, into Idaho, Montana and the Canadian Prairies. Much of the Northwest dealt with clouds in the coastal and western regions as cities such as Portland fell into a post-sunrise darkness.

Well now it’s 2017 and this eclipse is in a much better month…August. While this doesn’t guarantee good weather for any location along the path of totality; convection (thunderstorms) and cloud debris can cause issues on the Plains, while marine clouds can cause problems in the Pacific Northwest for example, generally quieter conditions with the jet stream and the domination of summer time high pressure and upper-air subsidence across the continent during the late summer means more opportunity for less cloud cover and quieter conditions across more parts of the country to view the eclipse in August than, say February.

Path of umbra (inner lunar shadow) where totality will be observed as well as coverage of penumbra (outer shadow) where ONLY partial eclipse will be observed. The center line of the umbra will reach the Oregon Coast at ~17:16 UTC (1:16 pm EDT) moving at 2,416 mph and exit the South Carolina Coast at ~18:49 UTC (2:49 pm EDT) moving at 1,489 mph. ( map found on Wikipedia)
In order to assess the the most important aspect of observing an eclipse – sky conditions – the University of Idaho School of Natural Resources performed a climate analysis for the United States to determine the probability that a location will have clear skies at 10:30 am local time on August 21st. This time is picked because of the arrival of totality on the West Coast.

Clear Sky Probability for the contiguous United States for 10:30 am local time August 21st. High probabilities are over portsions of the Western US, minus Western WA/OR and CA valleys where morning low marine clouds can occur. (U of Idaho College of Natural Resources)
While clear skies would be absolutely optimal for an eclipse, ESPECIALLY totality,  few to scattered cloud coverage (25-50%), while less fortunate in terms of direct solar photography and SAFE solar viewing, can still yield interesting observations leading up to and during totality. Because the umbra is quite thin, interesting atmospheric optics can occur. Although the area under totality becomes relatively dark, the light outside of the shadow can still be seen to observers. And the reflected light will appear to be twilight-like in color and glow. You could call it “eclipse twilight”. And with any cloud in the area, they will change colors or change in reflection of light as the darkness rolls over them, great for photographic and video effect. Just before totality, the sun itself will start to appear as if it’s “dying” in the final minute or two and the shadow will start to rapidly advance out of the western sky like a monster storm…except it’s not a storm 😀

In addition, regardless of scattered or no clouds, in the last min or so before (and after) totality, if you look at plain surfaces you may witness wavy motions like those in water known as shadow bands. These form as the focused, but rapidly weakening light of the sun is being distorted by the dense atmosphere of Earth. Those very near the totality path may also witness them.

This YouTube video I found some weeks ago shows both the prominent shadow bands and the “eclipse twilight” with clouds.

Now I’m a meteorologist. So when we talk about having a giant astronomical object blasting a shadow across a continent at 2000 mph and putting regions into nighttime in the middle of the day, a meteorologist is going to ask, how is this going to impact the weather?

For those at 75% percent partial eclipse and higher, the surface temperature will start to become depressed temporarily as the incoming solar radiation is reduced. This will be especially apparent for eclipses during the midday. As totality approaches, any winds may calm as a result of “fair weather convection” weakening as surface heating completely shuts down (this is where upward vertical motions produced by surface heating, leading to local winds die down).


Here’s an EXCELLENT website using a Google Map layout where you can click on a location for eclipse “contact” times (start of partial, start and end of totality, end of partial) and maximum obscuration of the solar disk (areal coverage by the moon): HERE

In a couple weeks, numerical models will START to give us some distant idea of how the weather patterns may evolve for August 21st. I’m especially interested, because my location (Lincoln, NE) WILL experience totality. Will likely head to the south side of town to experience roughly 1 min 45 seconds of it and some of the very partial eclipse before that. It would be my first total solar eclipse since I was born and raised in Seattle but that event didn’t happen there and happened 5 yrs before I was born anyways.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks as weather updates come!