What's really happening to Arctic ice?

Thursday 14 February 2013, 17:24

Paul Hudson Paul Hudson

There’s been a sharp gain in Arctic sea ice since the summer record minimum in September 2012, which Real Science has claimed to be the biggest recovery on satellite record.


But a team team of scientists led by University College London yesterday reported there was a substantial decline in ice volume during the previous two winters.


The analysis uses data from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Cryosat satellite, using its high resolution radar altimeter.


This confirms reports that alongside the decline in the spatial extent of ice which has been widely reported using satellite data since 1979, there is crucially much less multi-year (year-round) ice.


This is important, since multi-year ice is older and hence thicker and slower to melt in summer.


First year ice, which is forming now in the Arctic following the record ice-loss this summer, is thinner and much more prone to melting.


Nevertheless it’s been an impressive recovery in Arctic sea ice since last summer.


It’s important to us here in the UK because scientists believe what’s happening in the Arctic may have a direct impact on our summer climate.


According to research at Sheffield University, which I wrote about here, the decrease in Arctic ice extent may be to blame for our run of poor summers – and if it continues, cool wet summers may be something we have to get used to.


Only time will tell whether the recovery in sea ice extent so far this winter is the start of a new trend, or, as most scientists believe, just one of the many false dawns when it comes to talk of a proper meaningful recovery in Arctic sea ice.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    'Recovery' probably the wrong word to use. After a record minimum the ice will always return due to how cold it is in winter. The last record recovery was in 2008, the winter after the last record minimum.

    Winter maximums are on a downward trend, summer minimums are on a greater trend.

    The recovery is nothing to be excited about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    The only “difference” in this winter’s re-freeze appears to be the Kara Sea.


    Whether that will transpose into more ice being retained in the area come summer only time will tell.

    “First year ice, which is forming now in the Arctic following the record ice-loss this summer, is thinner and much more prone to melting.”

    For there to be an increase in “multi-year (year-round) ice” surely it would have to start with “first year ice”?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    So what is the norm for Arctic sea ice extent and volume? The satellite record is too short to establish a norm. There is anecdotal evidence that the extent in the 1930's was less than what we have seen during the satellite era. And as we all know parts of Greenland were settled and cultivated for a couple of hundred years in the MWP which suggests there was generally less ice around. So what is the norm? One might assume that the norm is that sea ice extent fluctuates and always has.

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    Comment number 4.

    Long-term prediction from short-term data. That would be stupid.

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    Comment number 5.

    There are good records back to the 1930's/40's. Satellite data from 1979. We know it's in decline. We know it's thinner. We know it's warmer.

    CO2 or another reson doesn't change that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Paul Hudson wrote:

    "Nevertheless it’s been an impressive recovery in Arctic sea ice since last summer."

    Perhaps the reason for the "impressive recovery" (meaning the difference from the previous minimum) is that the previous minimum was the lowest on record? http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/files/2000/09/Figure3.png

    The ice "recovered" so quickly because there was more open water to freeze this winter than in any other since records began. And yes, open water will freeze in winter in the Arctic, global warming or no global warming.

    That anyone would be impressed by the obvious 'spin' being put on this manufactured 'record' by the usual suspects defies credulity. Anthony Watts has called it a “stunning rebound”. Well, since the September 2012 minimum the following sea ice extents have been recorded in the Arctic (NSIDC and all in million km2):

    Oct: 7.0 (2nd lowest Oct extent on record)
    Nov: 9.9 (3rd lowest Nov extent on record)
    Dec: 12.2 (2nd lowest Dec extent on record)
    Jan: 13.8 (6th lowest Jan extent on record)

    That's some "stunning rebound".

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Arctic sea ice decline is likely linked with the AMO in my opinion and will tend to vary in exetnt and thickness accordingly. That said, I would agree with 5&6, that there is strong evidence that minimums are lower now than when the sat records began around 30 years ago, and reasonably good evidence that they are lower than at the start of the 20thC. By how much is open to question.
    This is what you might expect in a warmer world generally, but clearly the low extent in 2012 was not a result of one single year's temp and the role of soot is still being assessed.
    If, for the purposes of argument, we accept that a decline Arctic sea ice extent/volume is driven by warming alone, then it begs the question of how long term feedbacks can manifest beyond the length of any single solar cycle or any naturally occurring ocean cycle. This makes a mockery of AGW claims by the likes of Tamino that he can identify and remove a natural signal from a temp record. It is also generally assumed that Arctic sea ice has been trending downwards since the LIA which also begs the question of how does one determine when the recovery from the LIA actually ended. Does anybody know the source of the apparent scientific consensus that recovery from the LIA ended in the mid 20thC?

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    @8 ukpahonta

    Surely that headline should be -


  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Geo scientists/engineers seem like a reasonably well informed bunch - ideal for this type of study I would have thought. Did you actually read it John? The intent of the study was not to undermine the consensus - that was an incidental discovery of the survey. The study appeared to be more about finding common pathways for progress in environmental legislation through a better understanding of professional and psychological identity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    #9 john_cogger

    You wouldn't be suggesting bias in the reporting of a peer reviewed survey, would you?
    Surely that should never happen. /sarc

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    From the study:

    ".... we reconstruct the frames of one group of experts who have not received much attention in previous research and yet play a central role in understanding industry responses – professional experts in petroleum and related industries."

    As far as I can see the scientists and engineers who took part in the survey all work in the petroleum and related industries. So what the study is dealing with here is experts from a specialised sector that have a 'motivation'. In fact, that seems to be a central issue of the study - how these motivations frame the experts' views on climate change.

    This is a small subset of specialists, all of whom exclusively depend on the petroleum industry for a living. Even then 36% of them acknowledged that recent climate change was largely the result of fossil fuel combustion. As for the other 64%, the phrase 'turkeys don't vote for Christmas' springs to mind. You cant really blame them.

    But as far as using this survey to provide evidence that most scientists and engineers reject AGW, I'm afraid it's a non-starter, despite the typical Heartland spin (that never mentions the occupation area of the study group, not surprisingly). The survey group is too specific and too motivated to provide a fair representation of a broad scientific consensus.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    ahh spin . . . don't you just love that word! It's crept into everyday language, much like 'nimby', as some sort of all encompassing get out of jail free card - no reasoned argument required. Well let's try a different spin shall we? The scientists and engineers that were asked to participate, make a living by knowing their stuff - if they get it wrong, they can and will, get the boot. Those running on government funds on the other hand - well, let's just say, the buck stops (very rarely) with the lowest denominator. Some say you should trust one group more than another. We're all driven by self interest - that applies as readily to Mr Shell as it does to Prof Climate Consensus. I should think it applies even more to junior climate scientists with any academic ambition.


  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    If a survey finds X number of people support a certain view, then fine, thats what the data shows.

    However, the Headline is 'Majority of Scientists. which clearly isn't the case.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    #12 newdwr54

    You seem to imply that those who took part in the survey were motivated mainly by maintaining their income .
    Could not the same be said for those in previous surveys who are dependent upon research grants?
    Are the individuals not to be trusted to provide an unbiased view point?

    A small subset of specialists. Where would you expect the largest subset of geological scientists and engineers to be working in the private sector?

    Heartland spin, I don't see the link anywhere in the study or article, perhaps I missed it, you didn't just make that bit up did you?

    ' The survey group is too specific and too motivated to provide a fair representation of a broad scientific consensus.'
    Was that about this study or the Doran study?

    The Doran paper has been criticised by many sceptics in the past, where a survey of 10,256 with 3146 respondents was whittled down to 75 out of 77 “expert” ’active climate researchers’ (ACR) to give the 97% figure, based on just two very simplistic (shallow) questions that even the majority of sceptics might agree with.

    Perhaps you should argue the points that you made against both surveys!

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    My 1950's Encyclopedia says that Russia had built a thriving shipping industry along its northern coast transporting mainly flax during the early years of the that century. I'm old enough to know that the arctic ice increased dramatically in the1950's and that shipping industry closed down as a result. The amount of time the shipping lanes were open reduced to uneconomic levels.

    As already mentioned our current measurements go back to the 1970's when the ice would have been much higher from the rising of the 1950's/60's of which there are plenty of reports to reference.

    So to me the whole process is cyclic and I do not believe we have enough knowledge or much understanding of this topic to be able to make many, if any, confident claims.

    Although it's fun to try.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    15. ukpahonta

    Your implication is that climate scientists, who after all specifically study climate and past climates, as opposed to those scientists working in specialised fields such as medicine or mining, etc will only be awarded grants if they discover warming as opposed to cooling. Why would that be the case?

    If you were to ask a group of climate scientists (and *only* climate scientists) their views on, say, the benefits or otherwise of strip mining, would you use their views to proclaim that a 'majority of scientists' thought this or that?

    My point is that this result does not (and was never intended to) illustrate the views of a majority of geophysicists. It specifically studied the views of geophysicists and engineers working in a very specific field and one that is regarded by the vast majority of climate scientists (as the study itself says) as being the prime contributor to climate change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    #17 newdwr54

    Why would that be the case? It certainly was the case as referenced within the paper:

    "The proportion of papers found in the ISI Web of Science database that explicitly endorsed anthropogenic climate change has fallen from 75% (for the period between 1993 and 2003) as of 2004 to 45% from 2004 to 2008, while outright disagreement has risen from 0% to 6% (Oreskes, 2004; Schulte, 2008)."

    I think that you will find the term 'climate scientist' actually covers those of a more specialist nature that have contributed work from their individual fields of study to the general argument, so I think your question to a climate scientist (and "only" climate scientists) is a bit mute.

    Lets not be naive, that very specific field that you mention is probably the largest employer of geophysicists in the private sector. The choice of candidates by the study should be representative of the overall majority, of geophysicists.

    Your point about the headline statement in Forbes though is valid and I agree with you but should you now not apply the same logic and reasoning across the board?

    What are your conclusions about the Doran survey, with regard to 97% of climate scientists?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    In view of the record low level of Arctic ice in the summer, a "record" rebound was almost inevitable and the real test will be next summer.
    However it does appear that according to JAXA, sea ice is currently slightly above the 2000 mean and there are physical limits to how much the extent can increase in winter.
    I agree with "greensand", that ice has to start off as "first year ice", before it can become "mult-year ice".
    If global temperatures are at least partially cyclical, and temperatures generally decline over the next decades, than Arctic sea ice should recover.
    I also agree with "lateintheday", that ice extent has been declining since the LIA, which was itself a "blip" in the decline since the "Real" ice age. As I have pointed out before, about 10,000 years ago, Britain was covered in an ice sheet. I am sure that even the most extreme "climate change" zealots wouldn't want to go back to that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    18. ukpahonta

    "The proportion of papers found in the ISI Web of Science database that explicitly endorsed anthropogenic climate change has fallen from 75% (for the period between 1993 and 2003) as of 2004 to 45% from 2004 to 2008, while outright disagreement has risen from 0% to 6% (Oreskes, 2004; Schulte, 2008)."

    The authors go on to remark that this may well be because anthropogenic climate change is now 'taken as read' (paraphrase) by most current authors. Explicit endorsement shouldn't be conflated with basic acceptance.

    "What are your conclusions about the Doran survey, with regard to 97% of climate scientists?"

    I think this is the one that examined past published papers? If so, then in my opinion the only way this can be dismissed is by invoking a conspiracy of some sort. I think that a conspiracy on that scale is highly unlikely.


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