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“What happens in the Arctic, does NOT stay in the Arctic.”
– Paul Beckwith, Climate Systems Scientist
What is the Blue Ocean Event (BOE)?
One of the big questions about global warming is when — or if — the Arctic will be ice-free each summer. Scientists have recently come to refer to this as a blue ocean event. As Arctic sea ice gets thinner and thinner, a blue ocean event looks more imminent every year. Generally scientists define a blue ocean event as a complete absence of Arctic sea ice (a common threshold is when the area is less than 1 million sq. km.). This would allow the heat of the sun to fully penetrate the open waters of the Arctic.
There is no question that Arctic ice is in serious decline. According to Wikipedia, “observation with satellites shows that Arctic sea ice area, extent, and volume have been in decline for a few decades. Sometime during the 21st century, sea ice may effectively cease to exist during the summer. Sea ice extent is defined as the area with at least 15% ice cover. The amount of multi-year sea ice in the Arctic has declined considerably in recent decades. In 1988, ice that was at least 4 years old accounted for 26% of the Arctic’s sea ice. By 2013, ice of that age was only 7% of all Arctic sea ice.”
In the following video Paul Beckwith introduces the BOE concept and shows several resources that scientists use for monitoring the ice such as NASA Worldview. University of California, Irvine PhD student Zachary Labe also posts updates on arctic sea ice and provides list of charts and graphs anyone can use to check out this data for themselves.
It is thought that Arctic ice melt beyond a certain point will not regenerate. There is an ongoing debate as to whether the Arctic Ocean has already passed this “tipping point.” A tipping point is defined as a threshold breached for abrupt and irreversible change. In any case, it is a dangerous tipping point to approach at all. Arctic sea ice is melting at its fastest rate in 1,500 years and the warmer winters are suggesting disastrous changes to come.
However, a BOE is not considered a complete meltdown, just an indication of an impending one. A BOE would happen in the summer according to polar researchers and the ice could still refreeze in the winter. If the ice becomes unable to refreeze in the winter, we will soon be in a new world. It would be a worst-case scenario never seen in recorded human history.
If we allow all the ice to melt, there will be nothing to prevent the arctic waters from rising above freezing. The amount of energy absorbed by melting ice is as much as it takes to heat an equivalent mass of water from zero to 80°C. This latent heat effect of increasing open water pools, known as polynyas, will produce knock-on cascading warming for the globe and weather chaos. This means, in effect, that the Northern Hemsphere’s air conditioner would fail. We would quite literally lose our cool.
It would also mean the loss of the ancient lands of the ice and snow from which our ancestors immigrated (video) that has served us for 11,000 relatively stable years of the Holocene. Knowing that we are in any way approaching this dangerous point of no return should be enough to jolt anyone into action toward mitigating climate change, implementing sustainable economies (video), and saving the Arctic.
Melting ice dramatically reduces albedo and accelerates the rate of warming in the Arctic. The reduced albedo effect due to vanishing sea ice is already responsible for about 25 percent of global warming, according to Jennifer Francis, a research professor at Rutgers University. The more the ice melts the more algae blooms take over and create what is known as watermelon snow. This is just another indication of the many feedbacks at work here.
We’re already getting hotter because sea ice is shrinking. NASA reported that winter Arctic sea ice extent has already hit an all-time low. Arctic sea ice figures and graphs show this happening at an unexpected rate. The summer of 2012 is on record as the lowest in year-to-year Arctic sea ice extent.
However, it is worth noting that the extent (video) is likely a more deceptive measurement than ever before because the ice itself is now thin, young, spread out by winds, and buffeted by ocean currents. It is likely to look bigger than it is because of this and because it has lost significant volume. Most of the multiyear ice is now gone. It is also important to understand and also monitor the ice volume or thickness also known as concentration, which is often overlooked. NSIDC provides a daily updated concentration report.
NOAA released their 2018 Arctic Report Card back in December with some fairly stark warnings about the status of that region. Since then further updates have suggested that this year could be one of the most precarious for Summer Arctic Sea Ice, says David Borlace of Just Have a Think. In the following video the latest update on Arctic sea ice loss discusses what’s happening in the Arctic and why scientists are so concerned:
Why is the Ice Melting?
The shrinking sea ice is clearly and simply caused by rising global temperatures that stem from the burning of fossil fuels, such as oil, gas and coal, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
Also, it is important to note that just because it’s cold outside or we get a snow storm, doesn’t mean the polar regions are not warming overall and in decline. This article discusses how it happens that a warming Arctic is linked to extreme cold and heavy snowfall in the U.S.
Founded in 2007 by James Balog, the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) is an innovative, long-term photography program that integrates art and science to give a “visual voice” to the planet’s changing ecosystems. This project has resulted in thousands of incredible images documenting this changing landscape and the loss of ice around the world.
The EIS project provides video and expertly photographed footage of what is happening in places most of us will never be able to visit because they are so distant, cold, and remote. There are two powerful documentary films about the project, including Extreme Ice (video) and Chasing Ice (video).
What is Polar Amplification?
Sea ice changes have been identified as a mechanism for polar amplification. According to Wikipedia, paleoclimatology records show “evidence of polar amplification, both from the Arctic and the Antarctic. Polar amplification is the phenomenon that any change in the net radiation balance tends to produce a larger change in temperature near the poles than the planetary average.” It is the mechanism by which the poles warm at faster rates than at mid-latitudes. It is heavily influenced by various feedback loops. The Arctic is warming up at least twice as fast as the rest of the world. Paul Beckwith says it might be as much as 3-5 times faster (video).
Recent studies have hypothesized that Arctic amplification, i.e. the enhanced warming of the Arctic region compared to the rest of the globe, will cause changes in mid-latitude weather over the twenty-first century. Elizabeth Barnes of Colorado State and collaborators did climate model projections of arctic warming (and sea ice loss) and how it affects atmospheric circulation over North America.
When is the First BOE Expected?
This is where it gets really tricky. Apparently, predicting when this will happen not only requires significant data modeling, but also a crystal ball. One study on this topic said if the world warms above 2°C degrees this century, the Arctic will likely have a three-month, ice-free period each summer by 2050. For warming above 2°C, frequent ice-free conditions could be expected, potentially for several months per year. Other researchers are saying we certainly don’t have until 2050.
For example, the US Navy researchers predicted a sea-ice-free Arctic by the summer of 2016. According to this report we are already over due for this event. Furthermore, eminent Polar explorer and Climate Scientist, Professor Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University predicted in 2012 that the Arctic would be ice-free in the summer by 2016, plus or minus 3 years. We are still inside that range and could see the first BOE yet in 2019. Paul Beckwith, Climate Systems Scientist at the University of Ottawa, has said that 2022 is the year we might see the first BOE.
“We are hurtling towards the Blue Ocean Event (BOE) in the Arctic. Nobody knows for sure when it will happen. From my analysis, which I discuss in this video, my best guess is that the BOE will happen in 2022. After this BOE happens, then what will follow in subsequent years? I think that by BOE+2 years the Arctic Ocean will be ice free for August, September, and October. By BOE+4 years it will be ice free for 5 months, and by BOE+10 years the Arctic Ocean will be free of sea ice year round.” – Paul Beckwith, Climate Systems Scientist
We are in the midst of a long-term decline in Arctic sea ice which many have described as a ‘death spiral.’ Arctic sea ice is thinning rapidly. The Arctic will eventually be ice-free in the summer. When exactly this will happen is an ongoing matter of scientific investigation and inquiry.
What Are the Consequences?
The main consequence of an ice-free arctic is that the blue open ocean is much less reflective than sea ice, which leads to significantly more solar radiation being absorbed. Additionally, there is the latent heat effect. In short, a BOE means the beginning of the end of cooling because huge amounts of sunlight won’t get reflected back into space anymore, resulting in much more warming. With less Arctic ice the planet’s ability to cool itself becomes more and more uncertain.
“The Arctic is a natural freezer,” says Michael Mann, a climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, in an email to The Verge. “Just like you’d be concerned if all of the ice in your freezer melted, so should you be concerned about the loss of Arctic sea ice.”
During this period of increased and continued ice loss, researchers are saying that our climate and weather patterns will be profoundly disrupted and unstable. According to the latest IPCC report the coming consequences of the melting poles are nothing short of scary (video), and include increases in extreme weather and storms, flooding, famine, refugees, disease, drought, wildfires, and much more.
There are also feedbacks on various peoples whose livelihood depends on the sea ice ecosystem which will have to adapt to other ecosystems or perish. Inuit populations have already begun to deal with relocation. There will be enormous risks to the global food supply. Additionally, there will be impacts on geopolitics requiring new rules for opening up the arctic for shipping, naval exercises, and fossil fuel extraction.
“Despite its importance, the Arctic Ocean sometimes goes missing from public [discussion].” – World Economic Forum
According to this article, we can also expect to see sea levels rise, albedo impacts, more extreme weather, and thawing permafrost just to name a few more. Additionally, NASA is saying that ice loss on the Arctic will even affect the Earth’s obliquity. Impacts on El Niño and La Niña phases are also expected along with wavier jet streams and a regularly disrupted polar vortex. Bubbling methane release from Thermokarst or thaw lakes is also accelerating permafrost melt. One study published in Nature Geoscience in 2012 estimated that thawed permafrost could contribute up to 1.7°C of warming.
Let’s not even talk about the implications of the theoretical 50 gigaton methane burst known as the methane time bomb, or the clathrate gun hypothesis, or the melting glaciers at Novaya Zemlya which are known to be leaking radiation from the Tsar Bomba detonation into the already badly polluted oceans. Carl Sagan (video) once said that “an organism at war with itself is doomed,” and he couldn’t have been more prescient.
What About Greenland?
Greenland is also melting (video) more in the summer. This will contribute significantly to sea level rise. It is now becoming widely known that Greenland’s ice is melting much faster than we thought. Here’s why that’s scary. Greenland loses on average of 270 billion tons of ice each year.
This study adds to the research showing that Greenland’s ice is not just trickling into the ocean, but actually melting significantly in large spikes. Beyond rising seas, this will increase freshwater running into the ocean which can slow down the Atlantic Conveyor, a massive pattern of currents in the Atlantic Ocean. There are numerous terrifying implications here that should make us strongly consider stopping business as usual immediately when it comes to burning fossil fuels and polluting our planet.
Arctic vs Antarctic Melting Trends
The BOE is a phenomenon that is particular to the Arctic region. However we cannot forget that Antarctica is also hemorrhaging ice. Of course, Antarctica will not leave an open blue ocean, because it has a large land mass underneath it, but it will have enormous and frightening consequences as it loses ice as well which is also happening right now. If we lose the ice on this continent, it is well-known that it will contribute to massive sea level rise.
A large piece has just been reported to have broken off of Pine Island Glacier in the first week of the 2019. You can use NASA Worldview to monitor this situation for yourself. NSIDC has tons more information and analysis on the differences between Arctic vs Antarctic ice loss. The mysterious Blood falls may also shed light on how Antarctica has responded to climate change.
Could Marine Cloud Brightening (MCB) Save the Arctic?
If things keep going this way, we will be left with no other options except to try risky gambles with new technologies. In his book Farewell to Ice (video), Peter Wadhams suggests a non-toxic geoengineering technique called marine cloud brightening (MCB) as one way to save the Arctic should things keep getting worse as they are. It is highly experimental, in fact its never been done on a large scale and not much outside the laboratory either. But it maybe our only chance.
Some are also asking if it will be possible to refreeze the Arctic (video)? What about artificial glaciers (video)? Scientists and engineers are now researching ways of refreezing the Arctic, even though geoengineering is still a taboo topic. We need to begin development and testing procedures now, and come up with governance structures while we still have time. This is a complex problem.
Explore Further >>
More discussion on marine cloud brightening (MCB) and other geoengineering techniques to save the Arctic can be found on the SW Geoengineering Page.
- Arctic Sea Ice Loss Update 2019 | Just Have a Think (video)
- Arctic Change Has Widespread Impacts | Phys.org
- Daily Ice Analysis | NOAA
- End of Ice with Dahr Jamail | Ralph Nader Radio Hour
- Farewell to Ice | Professor Peter Wadhams on TEDx (video)
- Greenland Melting Due to Rain | BBC
- Multi-meter Sea Level Rise, Antarctica Too | Climate State (video)
- Naval Ice Thickness Map
- NSIDC Extent and Concentration Maps
- Polar Portal
- The Third Pole | Professor Paul Beckwith (video)
The changes that are happening in the Arctic don’t just affect the Arctic. Our planet is an interconnected system, and the vanishing ice is already having ripple effects around the globe. Our planet is warming and its cryosphere, the Earth’s frozen layer, is melting and the looming consequences are nothing short of scary. Sharp and potentially devastating temperature rises of 3C to 5C in the Arctic are now inevitable even if the world succeeds in cutting greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris agreement, research has found.
We must still do all we can despite the outcomes. While there is still ice on the poles, the earth might be able to regenerate and come back from some of the devastation we have caused. The safety window is closing, but if we act now and take the emergency steps required to change our fate we might still have a chance to avoid a hothouse Earth.
- 3:30 pm Jan. 20, 2019 – Shani Cairns – (Added new history and references short codes. Added references).
- 1:30 pm Jan. 10, 2019 – Shani Cairns – (Edited final content. Added regarding the Latent Heat effects of a BOE with updated resources links, also added topics regarding the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), Immigrant Song, and Polynyas. Published content live).
- 12:00 pm Jan. 10, 2019 – Charles Gregoire – (Reviewed Shani’s page on the BOE. Made small changes to some of the phrasing. Suggest something be added regarding the Latent Heat effects of a BOE).
- 2:05 pm Jan. 06, 2019 – Shani Cairns – (Added Blue Ocean Event initial content write up, resource lists, and associated “History” page).
Note: This page as with many wiki pages, is a work in progress. It aims to introduce topics related to melting in the Arctic, an ice-free Arctic, and what is called the Blue Ocean Event (BOE).