Arctic feedback cycle

Here’s a disquieting press release from NASA:

NASA Satellites Measure Increase of Sun’s Energy Absorbed in the Arctic

NASA satellite instruments have observed a marked increase in solar radiation absorbed in the Arctic since the year 2000 – a trend that aligns with the steady decrease in Arctic sea ice during the same period.

While sea ice is mostly white and reflects the sun’s rays, ocean water is dark and absorbs the sun’s energy at a higher rate. A decline in the region’s albedo – its reflectivity, in effect – has been a key concern among scientists since the summer Arctic sea ice cover began shrinking in recent decades. As more of the sun’s energy is absorbed by the climate system, it enhances ongoing warming in the region, which is more pronounced than anywhere else on the planet.

So there keeps being more dark water, so there keeps being more of the sun’s energy being absorbed, so there keeps being more dark water, repeat repeat; feedback cycle; problem.

Since the year 2000, the rate of absorbed solar radiation in the Arctic in June, July and August has increased by five percent, said Norman Loeb, of NASA’s Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia. The measurement is made by NASA’s Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) instruments, which fly on multiple satellites.

While a five percent increase may not seem like much, consider that the rate globally has remained essentially flat during that same time. No other region on Earth shows a trend of potential long-term change.

Oh it seems like much. That’s in only 15 years. Yes, that’s much.

As a region, the Arctic is showing more dramatic signs of climate change than any other spot on the planet. These include a warming of air temperatures at a rate two to three times greater than the rest of the planet and the loss of September sea ice extent at a rate of 13 percent per decade.

While these CERES measurements could ultimately become another of those signs of dramatic climate change, right now scientists say they have obtained the bare minimum of a data record needed to discern what’s happening over the long term.

Getting data beyond 15 years will allow scientists to better assess if recent trend falls outside the realm of natural variability, said Jennifer Kay, an atmospheric scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research and Environmental Science at the University of Colorado.

So it could be a fluke instead of a trend. The feedback cycle might not go on forever; more data needed. Fingers crossed.

Increasing absorbed solar radiation is causing multiple changes in the sea ice cover, said Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. Two of those changes include the timing of the beginning of the melt season each year and the loss of older, thicker sea ice.

The onset of the melt season in the high Arctic is now on average seven days earlier than it was in 1982, Meier said. Earlier melting can lead to increased solar radiation absorption. This is one step in a potential feedback cycle of warming leading to melting, melting leading to increased solar radiation absorption, and increased absorption leading to enhanced warming.

Since 2000, the Arctic has lost 1.4 million square kilometers (541,000 square miles) of older ice that is more than 3 meters thick, which during winter has essentially been replaced by ice that is less than 2 meters thick, according to data provided by Mark Tschudi at the University of Colorado. Once again, Meier said, this trend is a step in a feedback cycle.

“Having younger and thus thinner ice during winter makes the system more vulnerable to ice loss during the summer melt season,” Meier said.

But maybe there will be a miracle.




  1. Crimson Clupeidae says

    So it could be a fluke instead of a trend. The feedback cycle might not go on forever; more data needed. Fingers crossed.

    If I was a bettin’ man, I know where I’d put my money.

  2. Trebuchet says

    But it’s a good thing! Cruise lines will be able to take you to the North Pole! And before long, to the interior of Bangladesh!

  3. komarov says

    Nope, I wouldn’t count on the arctic ‘fixing’ itself either. Maybe if nothing else changed the arctic would eventually reach some sort of equilibirium again, maybe one with a reduced ice cap. But of course we are still pumping out more greenhouse gases which push the feedback loop along.

    And there are other systems that global warming will eventually push over the edge, for example greenhouse gases locked in the permafrost – for now – or methane clathrates, to give just two examples. If we push the climate too far those will start their own vicious cycles, probably releasing catastrophic amounts of greenhouse gases and driving the temperature up even more. Then we have not one feedback loop but several working in conjunction to heat up our formerly lush planet.

    There are bound to be more of these fragile equilibria out there which, if pushed too hard, will break down and wreak havoc. We just haven’t found all of them yet. Personally I think this is the best argument and most pressing reason to do something about emissions and global warming now. At present it looks to me like effective action won’t be taken until after all these delicate systems have been tipped over, at which point it might not matter if we magically achieved zero emissions overnight. Natural sources would make up for it, and then some.

    I’d like to finish on a cheerful note but all I can think of is, “I hate soggy cake!”

  4. peterh says

    There have been massive, long-term ice events – at least 4 of them – and other long-term warm periods, all of them before humans could have numbered more than a few million at most. That we are adding to the factors influencing another warming trend cannot be denied (unless you’re a Republican), and we may soon have undeniable evidence of the effects of exponential increases in feedback loops. We don’t yet have all the proper questions much less the answers to understanding an amazingly complex interplay of natural vectors now with undeniable human activities tossed into the mix. As Komarov observes, ” We just haven’t found all of them yet.”

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