Protecting the Arctic
Supplementary written evidence submi t ted by Professor Peter Wadhams
I am writing in response to information provided recently by Professor Julia Slingo OBE, Chief Scientist, Meteorological Office, firstly in the report 'Possibility and Impact of Rapid Climate Change in the Arctic' to the Environmental Audit Committee and subsequently in answering questions from the Committee on Wednesday 14 March 2012. In the responses, the Met eorological Office refers to an earlier presentation to the Committee by myself, made on 21 February 2012.
The following comments are based on the uncorrected transcript of Professor Slingo’s presentation to the EAC, 14 March 2012 session, as at:
1. Speed of ice loss
In response to questions from the Chair, Prof. Slingo ruled out an ice-free summer by as early as 2015. Furthermore, Prof. Slingo rejected data which shows a decline in Arctic sea ice volume of 75% and also rejected the possibility that further decreases may cause an immediate collapse of ice cover.
The data that Prof. Slingo rejected are part of PIOMAS, which is held in high regard, not only by me, but also by many experts in the field. From my position of somebody who has studied the Arctic for many years and has been actively participating in submarine measurements of the Arctic ice thickness since 1976, it seems extraordinary to me that for Prof. Slingo can effectively rule out these PIOMAS data
in her consideration of the evidence for decreasing ice volume, when one considers the vast effort and diligence that has been invested over such an extended period in collecting data under the ice by both British and US scientists. Prof.
Slingo offers no reason whatsoever for dismissing this extremely pertinent set of measurements and their associated interpretation, arguing that "the observational estimates are still very uncertain". This is not the case. I expand on this in an Appendix to my letter.
It has to be said that it is very poor scientific practice to reject in such a cavalier fashion any source of data that has been gathered according to accepted high scientific standards and published in numerous papers in high-profile journals such as Nature and Journal of Geophysical Research, the more so when the sole reason for this rejection appears to be perceived uncertainty. If other data are in conflict with one’s own data, then caution should be given to the validity of one’s own data, while this should immediately set in train further research and measurement in efforts to resolve possible conflicts. In this case, however, the crucial point is that there is currently no rival set of data to compare with the scale and comprehensiveness of the PIOMAS data; Prof. Slingo sets against the clear observational database only the Met. Office’s models. These models (and in fact all the models used by IPCC) have already shown themselves to be inadequate in that they failed to predict the rapid decline in sea ice area which has occurred in recent years. It is absurd in such a case to prefer the predictions of failed models to an obvious near-term extrapolation based on observed and measured trends.
Regarding the possibility of an imminent collapse of sea ice, Prof. Slingo ignores a point raised earlier by herself, i.e. that, apart from melting, strong winds can also influence sea ice extent, as happened in 2007 when much ice was driven across the Arctic Ocean by southerly winds (not northerly, as she stated). The fact that this occurred can only lead us to conclude that this could happen again. Natural variability offers no reason to rule out such a collapse, since natural variability works both ways, it could bring about such a collapse either earlier or later than models indicate.
In fact, the thinner the sea ice gets, the more likely an early collapse is to occur. It is accepted science that global warming will increase the intensity of extreme weather events, so more heavy winds and more intense storms can be expected to increasingly break up the remaining ice, both mechanically and by enhancing ocean heat transfer to the under-ice surface.
The concluding observation I have to make on this first point is that Prof. Slingo has not provided any justification for ignoring the measurements that we have of ice volume changes and the clear trend towards imminent ice-free summers that they indicate.
2. Methane – potential emissions and escalation
My second point of contention is Prof. Slingo’s position on the possibility of imminent large releases of methane in the Arctic, which is consistent
with her sanguine attitude to the rate of loss of ice cover. She states "Our estimates of those (large releases of methane) are that we are not looking at catastrophic releases of methane." Prof Slingo suggests that there was "a lack of clarity in thinking about how that heating at the upper level of the ocean can get down, and how rapidly it can get down into the deeper layers of the ocean". This appears to show a lack of understanding of the well-known process of ocean mixing. As Prof. Slingo earlier brought up herself, strong winds can cause mixing of the vertical water column, bringing heat down to the seabed, especially so in the shallow waters of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. A recent paper shows that "data obtained in the ESAS during the drilling expedition of 2011 showed no frozen sediments at all within the 53 m long drilling core" (Dr. Natalia Shakhova et al. in: EGU General Assembly 2012; http://meetingorganizer.copernicus.org/EGU2012/EGU2012-3877-1.pdf ).
The East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS), where the intensive seabed methane emissions have been recorded, is only about 50 m deep. Throughout the world ocean, the Mixed Layer (the near-surface layer where wind-induced mixing of water occurs) is typically 100-200 m deep. It is shallower only in areas where the water is extremely calm. This used to be the case for the Arctic Ocean because of its ice cover, but it is no longer the case, because of the large-scale summer sea ice retreat which has created a wide-open Beaufort Sea where storms can create waves as high as in any other ocean, which exert their full mixing effect on the waters. It is certain that a 50 m deep open shelf sea is mixed to the bottom, so I am at a loss to understand Prof. Slingo’s remarks, unless she is thinking of the deep ocean or deeper shelves elsewhere than the East Siberian Sea.
Furthermore, Prof. Slingo states that "where there is methane coming out of the continental shelf there it is not reaching the surface either, because again the methane is oxidised during its passage through the sea water and none of those plumes made it to the surface. So there is a general consensus that only a small fraction of methane, when it is released through this gradual process of warming of the continental shelf, actually reaches the surface." This statement is also incomprehensible as far as the East Siberian Arctic Shelf is concerned. With such a shallow water depth the methane plume reaches the surface within a few seconds of release, giving little opportunity for oxidation on the way up. She may be confusing this situation with that of the much deeper waters off Svalbard where methane plumes are indeed observed to peter out before reaching the surface, due to oxidation within the water column.
To illustrate the reality of this warming of ESAS shelf water, I reproduce (fig. 1) a satellite sea surface temperature data (SST) map from September 2011, provided by Dr James Overland of Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL), Seattle. This shows that in summer 2011 the surface water temperature in the open part of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas reached a massive 6-7°C over most of the region and up to 9°C along the Arctic coast of Alaska. This is warmer than the temperature of the North Sea at Scarborough yesterday. This extraordinary warming is due to absorption of solar radiation by the open water. These are not the temperatures of a very thin skin as suggested by Prof. Slingo. The NOAA data apply to the uppermost 7 m of the ocean, while PMEL has backup data from Wave Gliders (automatic vehicles that run oceanographic surveys at preprogrammed depths) to show that this warming extends to at least 20 m. We can conclude from fig.1 that an extraordinary seabed warming is taking place, certainly sufficient to cause rapid melt of offshore permafrost, and this must cause serious concern with respect to the danger of a large methane outbreak.
Once the methane reaches the surface, one should note that there is very little hydroxyl in the Arctic atmosphere to break down the methane, a situation that
again becomes even worse with large releases of methane.
3. The choice of pursuing geo-engineering or not.
Finally, I would like to address Prof. Slingo’s closing remarks on geo-engineering.
Both Professor Slingo and Professor Lenton repeat a point made by many critics of geo-engineering that once you start geoengineering you have to continue. On this point, I like to draw attention to evidence earlier provided to the Environmental Audit Committee by Professor Stephen Salter, as can be found at
Prof. Salter responds: "I must disagree. You have to continue only until emissions have fallen sufficiently or CO2 removal methods have proved effective or there is a collective world view that abrupt global warming is a good thing after all. No action by the geo-engineering community is impeding these. Indeed everyone working in the field hopes that geoengineering will never be needed but fears that it might be needed with the greatest urgency. This is like the view of people who hope and pray that houses will not catch fire and cars will not crash but still want emergency services to be well trained and well equipped with ambulances and fires engines." Basically he is talking about the precautionary principle.
I fully agree with Prof. Salter on this point, and I also fully share with Prof. Salter the anxieties of the Arctic Methane Emergency Group. A highly proactive geo-engineering research programme aimed at mitigating global warming is more rational than expecting the worst but not taking any action to avert it.
Professor of Ocean Physics,
Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP),
University of Cambridge
Member of Arctic Methane Emergency Group; Review Editor for Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 5th Assessment (chapter 1).
FIG.1. September 12-13 2011. NOAA-6 and-7 imagery of sea surface temperature in Beaufort Sea (courtesy of J. Overland). Alaska is brown land mass in bottom half. Note 6-7°C temperatures (green) in west, over East Siberian Shelf, and up to 9°C (orange) along Alaskan coast.
Appendix. The scientific database for sea ice loss.
On a previous occasion (21 February) I testified to the Committee and showed them the results of submarine measurements of ic thickness combined with satellite observations of ice retreat. When these two datasets are combined , they demonstrate beyond doubt that the volume of sea ice in the Arctic has seriously diminished over the past 40 years, by about 75% in the case of the late summer volume. If this decline is extrapolated, then without the need for models (which have demonstrably failed to predict the rapid retreat of sea ice in the last few years) it can be easily seen that the summer sea ice will disappear by about 2016 (plus or minus about 3 years). It might be useful to summarise the history of research in this subject.
In her testimony Prof Slingo placed her faith in model predictions and in future data to come from satellites on thickness (presumably Cryosat-2, which has not yet produced any usable data on ice thickness). Yet since the 1950s US and British submarines have been regularly sailing to the Arctic (I have been doing it since 1976) and accurately measuring ice thickness in transects across that ocean. Her statement that "we do not know the ice thickness in the Arctic" is false. In 1990 I published the first evidence of ice thinning in the Arctic in Nature (Wadhams, 1990). At that stage it was a 15% thinning over the Eurasian Basin. Incorporating later data my group was able to demonstrate a 43% thinning by the late 1990s (Wadhams and Davis, 2000, 2001), and this was in exact agreement with observations made by Dr Drew Rothrock of the University of Washington, who has had the main responsibility for analyzing data from US submarines (Rothrock et al., 1999, 2003; Kwok and Rothrock, 2009) and who examined all the other sectors of the Arctic Ocean. In fact in his 2003 paper Rothrock showed that in every sector of the Arctic Ocean a substantial hickness loss had occurred in the preceding 20 years. Further thinning has since been demonstrated, e.g. see my latest paper on this (Wadhams et al., 2011). Among the foremost US researchers at present active on sea ice volume decline are Dr Ron Kwok of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Dr Axel Schweiger of University of Washington (leader of the PIOMAS project), and these have both been moved to write to Prof Slingo expressing their surprise at her remarks deriding the scientific database.
Even if we only consider a 43% loss of mean thickness (which was documented as occurring up to 1999), the accompanying loss of area (30-40%) gives a volume loss of some 75%. Summer melt measurements made in 2007 in the Beaufort Sea by Perovich et al. (2008) showed 2 m of bottom melt. If these enhanced melt rates are applied to ice which is mainly first-year and which has itself suffered thinning through global warming, then it is clear that very soon we will be facing a collapse of the ice cover through summer melt being greater than winter growth. These observations do not just come from me but also from the PIOMAS project at the University of Washington (a programme to map volume change of sea ice led by Dr Rothrock himself and Dr Schweiger), the satellite-based work of Ron Kwok, and the high-resolution modelling work of Dr Wieslaw Maslowsky at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey (e.g. Maslowsky et al 2011).
Kwok, R., and D. A. Rothrock ( 2009 ), Decline in Arctic sea ice thickness from submarine and ICESat records: 1958- 2008, Geophys. Res. Lett ., 36, L15501.
Maslowsky, W., J. Haynes, R. Osinski, W Shaw (2011). The importance of oceanic forcing on Arctic sea ice melting. European Geophysical Union congress paper XY556. See also Proceedings, State of the Arctic 2010, NSIDC.
Perovich, D.K., J.A. Richter-Menge, K.F. Jones, and B. Light (2008). Sunlight, water, ice: Extreme Arctic sea ice melt during the summer of 2007. Geophysical Research Letters 35: L11501. doi: 10.1029/2008GL034007 .
Rothrock, D.A., Y. Yu, and G.A. Maykut. (1999). Thinning of the Arctic sea-ice cover . Geophysical Research Letters 26: 3469–3472.
Rothrock, D.A., J. Zhang, and Y. Yu. (2003). The arctic ice thickness anomaly of the 1990s: A consistent view from observations and models. Journal of Geophysical Research 108: 3083. doi: 10.1029/2001JC001208 .
Shakhova, N. and I. Semiletov (2012). Methane release from the East-Siberian Arctic Shelf and its connection with permafrost and hydrate destabilization: First results and potential future development. Geophys. Res., Vol. 14, EGU2012-3877-1.
Wadhams, P. (1990). Evidence for thinning of the Arctic ice cover north of Greenland. Nature 345: 795–797.
Wadhams, P., and N.R. Davis. (2000). Further evidence of ice thinning in the Arctic Ocean. Geophysical Research Letters 27: 3973–3975.
Wadhams, P., and N.R. Davis (2001). Arctic sea-ice morphological characteristics in summer 1996. Annals of Glaciology 33: 165–170.
Wadhams, P., N Hughes and J Rodrigues (2011). Arctic sea ice thickness characteristics in winter 2004 and 2007 from submarine sonar transects. J. Geophys. Res., 116, C00E02.