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The Changing Arctic — Part 4

The weather page is prepared by Daniel Bezte. Dan has a BA Honours degree in geography, specializing in climatology, from the U of W. He has taught climate and weather classes at the U of W, and is a guest climate expert on CJOB’s morning show with Larry Updike. Daniel runs a computerized weather station on his 10 acres near Birds Hill Park, which he plans to develop into a small vegetable and fruit hobby farm.

Daniel welcomes questions and comments at [email protected]

After taking a couple of weeks away from our discussion of Arctic sea ice, it’s time for us to begin wrapping up this discussion and begin to look ahead at the upcoming growing season. In our last Arctic sea ice article we discussed how increasing the amount of open water in the Arctic can create a positive feedback loop that may help to increase the rate of ice melt. We also discussed how satellites are being used to create fairly accurate records of sea ice coverage and how this record has shown a fairly dramatic decrease in the amount of Arctic sea ice, especially in the summer months.

I had several emails over the last couple of weeks about the March and September ice coverage graphs from my last article on Arctic sea ice. Every single one of those emails pointed out to me that the graphs showed an increase in ice cover over the last three years and wouldn’t that increase indicate that the downward trend is over and the ice cover is now on the increase?

The answer to that is, possibly, but I really doubt it. A three-year increase does not really make a trend. If you go back and look at the graphs you would see that ice coverage increases for a couple of years, then decreases for a couple. This increase and decrease goes back and forth. What you need to look at is the longer-term trend.

Take September’s values as an example. In 2007, we saw a record low amount of sea ice. This record low was due to a nearly perfect coming together of weather conditions over the Arctic which created conditions ideal for ice melt. So it is no wonder that the next couple of years showed an increase in ice coverage. If you actually look at the amount of September ice coverage in 2008 and 2009 you would find that while it was up from 2007, it was still lower than any other year on record.

Some readers also pointed out to me that the satellite records are not as reliable as they are made out to be and that we really shouldn’t trust them. To this point I also have to agree, at least a little bit.

Satellite records or remote sensing is not an exact science. Satellites record various areas of the electromagnetic spectrum and then, using math, turn that information into an estimate of surface conditions. Satellites can go wonky and record bad information and the math used to estimate surface conditions can be off. Fortunately, a lot of work is put into the data collected from satellites looking for possible errors and then correcting those errors.

While satellite records can give false data at times, for some reason people seem to always think that these errors will be on the side of showing less ice cover. I guess it is all the global warming conspiracy theories out there, or maybe people just don’t want to believe what is happening. Last summer, researchers went up to the Arctic to check out the ice conditions first hand, and using maps produced by satellite images they went looking for thick multi-year ice.

What they found was rather disturbing. Where the satellites were recording thick multi-year ice, the researchers found rotten multi-year ice, on the verge of breaking apart and disintegrating. So it looks as if the satellites are overestimating the amount of thick multi-year ice in the Arctic. This could lead to even larger declines in summer sea ice in the upcoming year.

What effect could this decrease in Arctic sea ice have on our weather? Well, the simple answer is – we just don’t really know. When the climate system is disrupted on a large scale, it tends to search for a new stable state. What this means is that while Arctic ice was stable, the Arctic weather patterns where rather stable. As the ice melt increases, Arctic weather becomes increasingly unstable. New weather patterns emerge and these patterns influence the weather in other regions of the world. Remember, our weather is strongly controlled by what goes on in the Arctic.

Already we have seen a new pressure pattern emerge in the Arctic over the last few years, known as the Arctic Rapid Change Pattern, or Arctic Dipole. This pattern brings milder weather into the Arctic and displaces the colder air farther south. Interestingly, this new pressure pattern is helping to reinforce the positive feedback loop that causes even more sea ice loss.

This feedback loop increases the likelihood that an ice-free Arctic in the summer will be seen by 2030, as many Arctic experts are predicting. It’s worth noting that such an atmospheric circulation shift was not predicted by the climate models. Indeed, the loss of Arctic sea ice over the past three years exceeds what any of the models were predicting.

In the next issue we will conclude our look at the Arctic sea ice and how its decline is affecting not only the Arctic weather but weather around the globe.

About the author

Co-operator contributor

Daniel Bezte

Daniel Bezte is a teacher by profession with a BA (Hon.) in geography, specializing in climatology, from the U of W. He operates a computerized weather station near Birds Hill Park.



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