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Earth has seen some highly unusual weather patterns over the past three years, and three new studies published this year point to Arctic sea loss as a potential important driver of some of these strange weather patterns. The record loss of sea ice the Arctic in recent years may be increasing winter cold surges and snowfall in Europe and North America, says a study by a research team led by Georgia Institute of Technology scientists Jiping Liu and Judith Curry. The paper, titled "Impact of declining Arctic sea ice on winter snowfall", was published on Feb. 27, 2012 in the online early edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Summertime Arctic sea ice loss: 40% since 1980
The Arctic has seen a stunning amount of sea ice loss in recent years, due to melting and unfavorable winds that have pushed large amounts of ice out of the region. Forty percent of the sea ice was missing in September 2007, compared to September of 1980. ... The Georgia Tech study found that Arctic sea ice loss had caused a 20 - 60% weakening of the west-to-east belt of winds circling the pole in recent years, producing broader meanders in the jet stream that allowed it to get "stuck" in place 20 - 60% more often. When the jet stream gets stuck in place for a long period of time, we say a "blocking pattern" has set up. ... Such a blocking pattern began on January 26, 2012 and lasted until February 11, bringing and exceptionally cold and snowy conditions to much of Europe, which lay on the cold side of an elongated loop of the jet stream that got stuck in place. Conversely, most of North America and northern Siberia saw unusually warm temperatures during this period, since they were on the warm side of the jet stream.
Two other studies link Arctic sea ice loss to atmospheric circulation changes
"The question is not whether sea ice loss is affecting the large-scale atmospheric circulation...it's how can it not?" That was the take-home message from Dr. Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University, in her talk "Evidence Linking Arctic Amplification to Extreme Weather in Mid-latitudes, presented at December's American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. Dr. Francis presented new research that has just been published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, which shows that Arctic sea ice loss may significantly affect the upper-level atmospheric circulation, slowing its winds and increasing its tendency to make contorted high-amplitude loops. High-amplitude loops in the upper level wind pattern (and associated jet stream) increases the probability of persistent weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere, potentially leading to extreme weather due to longer-duration cold spells, snow events, heat waves, flooding events, and drought conditions. Dr. Francis describes her work in a March 5, 2012 post on the Yale environment360 web site.
"Even if the current weather situation may seem to speak against it, the probability of cold winters with much snow in Central Europe rises when the Arctic is covered by less sea ice in summer." That was the opening sentence of a January 26, 2012 press release by a group of European scientists, led by Ralf Jaiser of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany.
Why was the winter of 2011 - 2012 so warm in the U.S.?
The winter of 2011 - 2012 in North America was unusually warm--the fourth warmest on record. The cold air spilling out of the Arctic during the winter was confined to Europe, unlike that previous two winters, which were unusually cold and snowy in the Eastern U.S. Obviously, loss of Arctic sea ice is not having the same impact each winter; such factors as El Niño/La Niña, the phase of the 11-year sunspot cycle, and the amount of snow cover in Siberia also have strong influences on the winter weather pattern that sets up. Cold air is less likely to spill out of the Arctic during a solar maximum, as we are now headed towards, so this factor may tend to reduce the odds of getting big cold blasts in the U.S. during the coming two winters. However, cold air may be more likely to spill out of the Arctic in winter due to the decades-long pattern of warming and cooling of Atlantic Ocean waters known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO). A 2012 study by NASA scientists found that the warm phase of the AMO (like we have been in since 1995) causes more instances of atmospheric blocking, where the jet stream gets "stuck" in place, leading to long periods of extreme weather
The Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere each have both a polar jet and a subtropical jet. The northern hemisphere polar jet flows over the middle to northern latitudes of North America, Europe, and Asia and their intervening oceans, while the southern hemisphere polar jet mostly circles Antarctica all year round.
Sea ice volume is an important climate indicator. It depends on both ice thickness and extent and therefore more directly tied to climate forcing than extent alone. However, Arctic sea ice volume cannot currently be observed continuously. Observations from satellites, Navy submarines, moorings, and field measurements are all limited in space and time. ...
This time series of ice volume is generated with an updated version of PIOMAS (June-15,2011). This updated version improves on prior versions by assimilating sea surface temperatures (SST) for ice-free areas and by using a different parameterization for the strength of the ice. Comparisons of PIOMAS estimates with ice thickness observations show reduced errors over the prior version. The long term trend is reduced to about -2.8 103 km3/decade from -3.6 km3 103/decade in the last version.
It takes energy to melt sea ice. How much energy? The energy required to melt the 16,400 Km3 of ice that are lost every year (1979-2010 average) from April to September as part of the natural annual cycle is about 5 x 10^21 Joules. For comparison, the U.S. Energy consumption for 2009 (www.eia.gov/totalenergy) was about 1 x 10^20 J. So it takes about the 50 times the annual U.S. energy consumption to melt this much ice every year. This energy comes from the change in the distribution of solar radiation as the earth rotates around the sun.
To melt the additional 280 km3 of sea ice, the amount we have have been losing on an annual basis based on PIOMAS calculations, it takes roughly 8.6 x 10^19 J or 86% of U.S. energy consumption.
In 1610, shortly after viewing the sun with his new telescope, Galileo Galilei (or was it Thomas Harriot?) made the first European observations of Sunspots. Continuous daily observations were started at the Zurich Observatory in 1849 and earlier observations have been used to extend the records back to 1610. The sunspot number is calculated by first counting the number of sunspot groups and then the number of individual sunspots.
Early records of sunspots indicate that the Sun went through a period of inactivity in the late 17th century. Very few sunspots were seen on the Sun from about 1645 to 1715 (38 kb JPEG image). Although the observations were not as extensive as in later years, the Sun was in fact well observed during this time and this lack of sunspots is well documented. This period of solar inactivity also corresponds to a climatic period called the "Little Ice Age" when rivers that are normally ice-free froze and snow fields remained year-round at lower altitudes. There is evidence that the Sun has had similar periods of inactivity in the more distant past.
ScienceDaily (Jan. 30, 2012) — A new international study may answer contentious questions about the onset and persistence of Earth's Little Ice Age, a period of widespread cooling that lasted for hundreds of years until the late 19th century.
Arctic sea ice on the rise, year's ice extent is highest since 2006, according to NORSEX SSM/I data
Good news from the Arctic. Sea ice extent (area covered by ice greater than 15%*) is at a seven-year high (See NORSEX SSM/I ). It’s nearly back to within one standard deviation of the 30 year normal at 14.5 million square kilometers.
This year's ice extent is the highest since 2006 at this point in the year.
Temperatures in the arctic remain well below freezing and should remain there through March. So, more ice should be added in the next few weeks. We are nearing the peak of sea ice in the Northern Hemisphere. Once April roles around, warmer temperatures will move north from the equator. That's when ice extent will begin its yearly decline toward mid-summer
A lot has been made of disappearing Arctic sea ice and the prospects of ice-free summers due to global warming. But, let’s put that into perspective. The problem with much of this debate is the fact that accurate ice measurements go back only a few decades. Satellite measurements date back only to 1979 for Arctic sea ice, so accurate data is barely 30 years old. So, what was the state of Arctic sea ice before then? We just don't know.
I just don't think we have enough data to really know the big picture.