All That Heat….

Chances are pretty good that you have not been obsessively tracking the profound amount of  heat that has built up in the Arctic Ocean over the past few seasons.  That being the case, it is almost a certainty that you have not been looking at how all that anomalous heat is interacting with the atmosphere and affecting things such as wind and weather patterns and the polar vortex.  No problem.  Pull up a chair and spend a few minutes on this important topic and you’ll be up to speed.  Or at least, closer to being up to speed.

If you want to track the air and ocean surface temperatures for various regions of the world on a daily basis, you can do so at a site called climate reanalyzer.  The site is maintained by the University of Maine and it turns constant data into graphics that are easy to understand.  The site also has fantastic weather predictions and other trend tracking rendered into visual data.  The illustrations below are from the site.

For some time now, the Arctic Ocean has been getting warmer and warmer compared to the temperature it is usually at for any given time of year.  This year, the heat stored in the Arctic Ocean more or less exploded, with anomalous (unusual) temperatures at or above 8 degrees F above normal.  Using the climate reanalyzer site, the whole of the arctic ocean (the part that wasn’t ice, at least) was rendered in a copper color, meaning that  it was about 8F warmer than normal.  Today, much of the Arctic Ocean has frozen over (yes, warmer than normal does not mean “warm” and so the ocean does freeze over), trapping the unusual heat under a layer  of insulating ice.  You can still see the anomalous heat at  the edges of the ice in the rendering below:

Sea surface temp anomaly 29 Octoebr 2014

The Arctic Ocean has become a heat sink that is absorbing heat from the atmosphere (and the air in the arctic has been very, very anomalously warm – up to 30F degrees warmer than normal) and from the sun.  And, with the warmer-than-normal water insulated for the winter under a blanket of ice, the ocean will start off next spring already warmer than normal.  You might expect that all of this heat in the Arctic Ocean would eventually melt some of the polar ice  cap, and you’d be right.  It has been melting the polar ice cap for decades.  You can see  the steady loss of ice extent (the area of the ocean covered by ice) in the graph below.

sea ice extent October 29 2014

Right off you will note that 2014 was not a really bad year for ice loss – it is barely below the average from 2000 – 2009.  But that doesn’t tell the story because this graph looks at ice extent – the surface area of the ice.  What we need is a graph that looks at total ice volume in the Arctic.   We should expect some correlation, but we  should also expect that, if warm water is trapped below the ice over the winter, we will see more ice volume loss than ice extent loss.  Here is the ice volume graph:

Sea Ice Volume 29 October 2014

The trend is very, very clear.  And that trend is worrying because less ice volume means that the Arctic Ocean is more interactive with the atmosphere for longer periods each year, which in turn means that our jet stream and storm systems (and polar vortex) are less and less stable.  The loss of ice in the arctic, we are finding, seems to be linked to everything from extreme storms in the Midwestern US to the drought in California and the west.  And, if the above graphs are pointing us in the right direction, we can expect more and more instability in weather and storm systems which will, in turn, affect agriculture, transportation, health, property values, business costs, etc., etc.

It just keeps coming and coming and next years problems are currently sleeping out the winter, biding their time, under and ever-thinning layer of ice.

Scott Christiansen