Researchers say IPCC models under-estimate Arctic warming

Last month, I wrote about the likelihood that we’re under-estimating the amplifying feedbacks that can cause global warming to push itself along, even without further help from us. Today’s bit of news adds to that worry, though it’s focused on the Arctic. If you saw the video I posted about diving in an Antarctic lake, you’ll have some notion of the conditions involved in polar expeditions. Antarctica may be a harsher place than the Arctic in some ways, but in both cases, the brutal conditions make research extremely difficult, and often dangerous. This means that we’re pretty much always short on data from those regions, despite their importance in understanding the single biggest threat facing humanity.

In case it’s not clear to anyone, I think that climate research in general is underfunded, and that includes polar research. It’s so bad that at least one research team turned to crowdfunding (a campaign to which I contributed) to finance research in Greenland. This dearth of data seems to have lead to an unsurprising result – the climate models that the IPCC has been relying on seem to be falling behind the actual rate of change:

Two recent scientific studies involving researchers from the University of Gothenburg compared the results of the climate models with actual observations. They concluded that the warming of the Arctic Ocean will proceed at a much faster rate than projected by the climate models.

Models underestimate the consequences

“These climate models underestimate the consequences of climate change. In reality, the relatively warm waters in the Arctic regions are even warmer, and closer to the sea ice. Consequently, we believe that the Arctic sea ice will melt away faster than projected,” explains Céline Heuzé, climatologist at the University of Gothenburg and lead author of one of the studies.

Warm water flows into the Arctic Ocean via Fram Strait between Greenland and Svalbard. However, the volume of water in these ocean currents and its temperature in the climate models are too low, which is one of the reasons why the climate models’ projections will not be accurate. Even the stratification of the Arctic Ocean is incorrect. The researchers argue that since roughly half of the models project an increase and the other half a decrease in stratification, the consequences of global warming cannot be estimated accurately.

These days, I often feel a bit fatalistic about our ability to accurately estimate what’s coming. We’ve a solid understanding of what’s coming for longer than I’ve been alive, and the older I get, the more that fact makes the lack of drastic action unconscionable. What’s the point in having good warnings if they’re just going to be ignored in favor of insatiable greed? Well, part of the point is the effort to reshape society so that we can heed those warnings, and until we do reach that point, I think there’s at least some utility in being able to point to all the missed opportunities and corrupt choices from the aristocracy.

One of those “corrupt choices” is the ongoing under-funding of Arctic and Antarctic research (fossil fuel “research” doesn’t count, and will doom us all). It’s always hard to tell, in liberal societies, whether this kind of thing is deliberate neglect because a lack of certainty benefits fossil fuel corporations, or just a “passive” effect of a societal infrastructure primarily designed to serve capitalists. I think the lack of certainty about that is also something that benefits corporations, as neutrality and stagnation generally only serve those at the top. Regardless, whether its through political efforts or through crowdfunding, I agree with the conclusion of this research report:

Acquiring hard data must be prioritised

“This is a serious situation. If governments and organisations all over the world are going to rely on these climate models, they must be improved. Which is why research and data acquisition in the Arctic ocean must be prioritised. At present, we cannot provide a useful prediction of how quickly the Arctic sea ice is melting,” Céline Heuzé explains.


“We need a climate model that is tailored to the Arctic. In general, you can’t use the same model for the entire planet, as conditions vary considerably. A better idea would be to create a specific model for the Arctic that correctly factors in the processes occurring in the Arctic Ocean and surrounding land areas.”

If I do come across a funding project for research like this, I’ll be sure to post it.


  1. says

    I saw some disturbing commentary about how melting polar ice is going not just raise the water level, it’ll change the albedo of the planet. Maybe that will be canceled out by the increased shininess from larger oceans.

    Meanwhile, the US is not anywhere close to hitting its modest Paris Accord targets, and “drill, baby, drill” is the chant from both sides of the house. The remains of humanity will have 100,000 years to curse our boomer overlords.

  2. StevoR says

    @ ^ Marcus Ranum : Oceans are dark and absorb much more heat, ice is reflective and absorbs much less. 70% or so if memory serves for both albedo ~wise.

    Oh & soot from the massive fires like we’ve had recently in the massive boreal taiga forests and along the Northern hemisphere Arctic margins ( See : ) means alot more ash particles which darkens the ice and snow it blows onto and makes it melt faster and easier which ..

    Escalating feedbacks. Things get ever worse ever quicker.

    Earth isl iterally in the process of losing needlessly having at least one of its poles removed through wilful Climate denial and inaction very fast and for increasingly longer lengths of time. Not sure how long we’ve got given that and the Mas Exticntion it means we are causing as well as living in.

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