Tag Archives: Arctic

On thin ice: Tragedy strikes in a rapidly changing Arctic climate

The story of Marc Cornelisen and his colleague, Philip DeRoo, is by turns comic and tragic, an epic that is nearly twenty years in the making. Cornelisen had been traveling out to the North Pole nearly every year since 1996, braving the extreme temperatures and seasons as an explorer and scientific researcher. He experienced firsthand many of the drastic changes in temperatures reported by scientists throughout the years, investigating climate change to give further depth to his life-long career as an explorer. A number of measurements he recorded and reported back himself, in an attempt to understand the rapid decline of ice – something that was likely contributed to his untimely death at the age of 46. DeRoo is also presumed dead, shortly after his 30th birthday, which took place during their Arctic adventure. Their final mission was a region of North America, known ominously as “The Last Ice,” the last chance at solid ground before entering the foreboding Arctic Sea, and perhaps one of the regions of the world that’s the most unchanged since the end of the last Ice Age.

Cornellisen died with his boots on, both literally and figuratively, on April 29, doing what he loved the best. It was the idea of the primitive man vs. nature conflict that first attracted him to the region, shortly after finishing school with a degree in architecture. He thought it would be his last chance at an epic adventure, before having to settle down with a boring 9 to 5 desk job – it was meant to be a one time visit to the magnetic North Pole, where he first arrived with his mountain bike, a move that brought him derision from the local Inuits: “Why don’t you bring a phone booth? It’s going to be as much use as a mountain bike,” one of them laughed at Cornelissen.

The former’s prediction was proven right. The mountain bike, despite being designed specially for the voyage, sank into the snow by its wheels. Determined, Cornellisen quickly switched over to skis. The first trip emphasized to him the virtue of staying patient while traveling in extreme environments. This was the first in his life that he had encountered young sea ice, known locally as nilas. Nilas is only several centimeters thick and while it is durable enough for walking on, it is not stable enough for a person to stand on. When someone skies across a sheet of very thin nilas, the ice vibrates in a wave, not too different from an echo. Veteran Arctic travelers know not to stop when they feel this. Instead, they pick up their in order to stay ahead of any shattering ice.

In another five years, Cornelissen had been to both the North and South poles of the world and had traversed across nilas thousands of times over the Arctic Ocean. He began to experience firsthand the impacts caused by man-made climate change at higher latitudes in which the sea ice is declining rapidly due to rising temperatures and greenhouse gases. The average thickness of sheets of sea ice back in 2012 was only about 1.25 meters, which is a considerable drop from the 3.59 meters recorded back in 1975, according to the newest studies.

One particularly unusual episode transpired back in 2005, when Cornelissen sat on an outdoor toilet and looked up, into the eyes of a polar bear who ventured too close to the encampment. With his heart pounding, his initial resolve was to surrender, as he recollected later during an interview with a Dutch adventure magazine. He then thought of his daughter back at home in the Netherlands and quickly gathered up some new found strength. He picked up a nearby shovel and began shaking it in the bear’s face, as the animal had already begun standing up on its hind legs, prepared to size up its prey.

Cornelissen shouted, and one of his colleagues immediately leapt from the tent with a rifle, running to his rescue. While the bear was so close to Cornelissen that shooting it was out of the question, a warning shot was ample enough for the two men to scare it off.

Cornelissen quickly became interested in the climate problem, particularly as this land so close to his heart was at risk. Determined to find what he could do to help, he quickly discovered that the most productive way for him to contribute was through working with scientists and taking measurements throughout his own expeditions. Thus for over a decade, he forged a collaboration working with the European Space Agency’s Cryosat program.

Scientists have done measurements of sea’s ice thickness in the Arctic for a number of years, but the reliability of this data often varies, and it’s been even more difficult to obtain by satellite. Even the older measurements taken have been somewhat haphazard in matters of space and time. Placing a scope into what is a continuously shifting, moving mass of ice at one fixed location really doesn’t tell us much about the entire Arctic Sea as a whole – much less how uniform the process of decline in thickness is with latitude. In order to compensate for the lack of any comprehensive measurements, ESA designed and launched the Cryosat-2 satellite back in 2010, the first satellite for measuring ice thickness along the poles.

The measurements taken by the satellite needed to be ground-truthed. Cornelissen continued to make his routine trips to the Arctic, where he measured the ice thickness and snow depth, invaluable data for the ESA to calibrate its satellite findings. When he was back home in Europe, he began an effort to educate people about the dangers of climate change and the implications it had on the future. Between the years 2005 and 2007, he took with him a group of young Europeans to the Arctic, towards the top of the world where they would have first-rate views of the changes that were rapidly occurring. Most of his former students were inspired and to this day remain as avid communicators on the current shape of the environment, according to Cara Augustenborg, who went with Cornelissen on an expedition back in 2007. Augustenborg herself currently serves as a spokeswoman on climate change for the Green Party of Ireland.

“He might be this relatively unknown figure in the world, but when you look at his impact, it is actually enormous,” she said.

During one memorable trip, Cornelissen got in touch with George Divoky, an ornithologist and researcher with the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who spent the last 37 years at the remote Cooper Island where he dedicated his study to the migration of local seabirds. The two quickly recognized a kindred spirit, as they both regularly returned to the Arctic year after year out of a strong desire, leaving the comforts of home, a wife and children behind them to brave the wilderness.

“Even though there is a personal life and also all the comforts when you aren’t in the Arctic, there is this compulsion to go back,” Divoky said.

In April of this year, the wanderlust brought Cornelissen and de Roo to Resolute Bay, the northernmost point in Canada, and miles away from any human settlements. It was from here that they undertook a further expedition for mapping the sea ice thickness, the beginning of “The Last Ice” expedition.

According to scientists, the Last Ice Area may perhaps be the most resilient when it comes to global warming. Sea ice there during the summer months will continue to hold out for decades, despite the rest of the Arctic sea ice melting away, a disastrous scenario that may commence as early as the year 2040.

The Last Ice Area encompasses about 500,000 square miles in and around Canada. So pristine is this northernmost point that the World Wildlife Foundation and ColdFacts, Cornelissen’s company, have suggested the region should be declared a special management area.

Concrete scientific data regarding the ice conditions are required for establishing a reserve revolving around the idea of the most resilient glacial ice, something that the two friends hoped to provide soon. On April 6, Cornelissen and de Roo took off on their skis, the first day they would attempt to map ice conditions across a route stretching 249 miles northward from Resolute Bay. They had planned to share their data with local researcher Christian Haas, a scientist from the University of York in Canada. Haas failed to respond to ClimateWire’s request for a comment.

Cornelissen and de Roo waited out their first few days making little progress while training the watchdog the brought along named Kimnik, who kept spirits up throughout the trip with her inexhaustible store of energy and playfulness. Kimnik had been specially deputized to guard against polar bears after Marc’s 2005 encounter. While she was a large dog, she was described by Cornelissen as being playful like a puppy in a voice dispatch.

She was not interested in pulling her own sled, so de Roo and Cornelissen were forced to lug 30 to 50 kilograms of dog food each during the trip’s first few days. It was relentlessly cold and windy as they continued the hike north, “but that’s part of the deal, no complaining on this end,” Cornelissen said.

The explorers surveyed the ice measurements as they made their travel and discovered that this thickness was diminishing when compared to Resolute Bay. It was 1.6 meters, which “isn’t too much,” Cornelissen said. “It will be interesting to see what happens as we travel northwards.”

When the evening shades drew on, they set up their camp and enjoyed an evening supper of rice, shrimp, chili and sometimes they would have an even more elaborate meal whipped up by “Chef Marc” Cornelissen — from raw materials found in the wilderness, along with a cup of coffee. Either Cornelissen or de Roo would then use their satellite phone for relaying voice messages back home to discuss their day before quitting for the night.

April 10 proved to be eventful. When the men took their routine scientific measurements, Kimnik mustered her brute strength in order to break free from her leash and with great excitement, bounded over to her two companions. She was by now very attached to her new owners. When the team skied that afternoon, clouds drifted overhead. The sun finally slid through, casting a calm light that revealed a pristine landscape.

The next day, as though the magical wintertime atmosphere had an effect on her too, Kimnik started carrying her own sled. Later that evening, Cornelissen instructed de Roo to stay in his sleeping bag until 8 o’clock in the morning. When de Roo finally crawled out, he found the tent decorated, a birthday cake, greeting cards and even small presents lying about. It was officially de Roo’s 30th birthday.

“I can’t believe that he took that [weight] the whole way and the first part of the expedition with him,” de Roo said. “It is really, really special to be over here and celebrate [the birthday] over here on the ice with Marc [Cornelissen].” Their camaraderie was a weathered constant, contrasted with the ever mounting challenges from both the weather and terrain. Throughout the course of their next week, the two men confronted changing winds and temperatures that dropped as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius. The terrain now transformed into a mixture of flat ice, rubble and large areas of open water known as polynyas.

Kimnik was an indispensable companion for the trip, since she had a nose perfect for sniffing out any natural passages within the rubble. At nightfall, she would sleep outside their encampments where she would be on the lookout for any “very white animals on four legs.”

By April 19, Cornelissen and de Roo had covered 125 miles of terrain. They spoke to Haas, the scientist from York University responsible for their project, and it was then that they “decided to make their route a bit more interesting and challenging,” according to Cornelissen. They decided they would travel northeast instead of going straight north. This path would bring them into contact with more rubble as well as multi-year ice.

Within several days, the terrain turned to slush, almost an icy quicksand, where they risked sinking in when they traveled on foot. They decided to measure the thickness of ice below the slush, where they discovered “surprisingly thin ice, about 80 centimeters,” in thickness, Cornelissen recorded on April 24. Along the horizon, the men saw gray smoke climbing into the air, a sort of relief when traveling in the Arctic which announces you’re near a source of open water.

“[Open water] is something we can encounter any moment from now, it is not sure how things progress from here,” he said. “That is OK, we’ll deal with it.”

On April 26, the explorers skied past tracks of polar bears — likely a family, with tracks from big males as well as females guiding their cubs.

“Don’t be panicked, don’t be alarmed,” Cornelissen said. “We can deal with it; we have good systems, good attitude, and no one will get hurt—no polar bears, no humans involved.”

April 28 surprised them with some unseasonably warm weather. “It was a strange day,” Cornelissen recalled later that night. The temperatures actually reached a high of zero Celsius, typical winter weather for the American East Coast. It was so warm that day that the explorers were unable to ski with their polar outfits, so they stripped down to their long underwear.

“It is very good that you guys don’t have picture of this from the ice,” he laughed.

“We think we see thin ice in front of us, which is quite interesting,” he added. “We are going to research some more of that if we can.”

The next day, the Resolute Bay Royal Canadian Mounted Police got a distress call sent by the two men. An aircraft circled over the area, discovering their two sleds, alongside open water and poor ice conditions – not a good sign. One sled and several personal items were found in the water. Nearby, was a second sled that had been partially unpacked. Kimnick stood guard over the site. The explorers had vanished – nowhere to be found.

The RCMP determined that the men had drowned and put a halt to their search.

“Evidently, one of them had broken through the ice, and it would seem the other one has gone to help him and suffered the same fate of falling through,” according to Mark Drinkwater, an ESA mission scientist and a longtime collaborator of Cornelissen’s.

That the region was full of thin ice was apparent, particularly with such warm conditions. Why remains a mystery. It could have been that due to strong ocean currents, the ice had been thinned, continuously hit from below by bursts of warm water, or directly from the wind, which is strong enough to sometimes generate open water areas. We may never know the answer for sure. Climate change could have had a part to play, but not necessarily. One thing is clear, however. The Arctic is warming at a much faster rate than anywhere else on the planet, but it is difficult to truly say what the impact due to warming ice throughout the region is when it comes to thickness, relying on a number of factors that can make it dangerously unpredictable, according to Drinkwater.

“Who is to know if that’s the underlying reason why the ice was so unpredictably thin or dangerous at that time of year?” he said.

These men were far thrill seekers, which their friends all attested to. They were seasoned adventurers uncovering new knowledge in the name of science, who would have avoided the ice had they been aware of its instability.

“This is definitely not an expedition where they took unreasonable risks,” said Marielle Feenstra, spokeswoman from Cold Facts, the organization which Cornelissen worked for. “It is a tragic accident, proving that this is a very fragile region that really needs more information to make sure this will be protected.”

Kimnick has since been found and rescued, but persistent bad weather has stalled efforts to retrieve the men’s bodies Due to blizzard, helicopters are stranded from leaving Resolute Bay. Because of the fragile ice, however, landing is also a dangerous task.

Friends hope that, while they may never have the opportunity to say goodbye to these brave men, their tragedy will at least make people more conscientious of the massive changes taking place throughout the Arctic.

“This is meant to be the Last Ice Area, and it is meant to be the thickest,” Divoky of the University of Alaska said. “One of the things that’ll come out of this tragedy is that people will be more aware of just how thin the ice is.”

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.

Meet Loki – one of our oldest, primeval ancestors

The Arctic might seem like a desolate place, but in fact new research suggests a lot of vibrant activity beneath its rapidly diminishing sheets of ice, with a rather surprising find hidden rather deep within the hydrothermal vents at the floor of the Arctic Ocean, where scientists discovered a new and unusual organism which may finally bring to light a significant evolutionary link from the days when life on Earth was simple, comprised of a single cell to when cells became multiple and further complex life forms first took shape.

The recently discovered microbe along with its relatives belonged to the group Lokiarchaeota, named for the trickster god from Norse mythology. They were described in depth in the latest issue of the journal Nature – single-celled organisms who display a rather unusual mix of traits more commonly found among eukaryotes — the taxon that consists of all complex cellular life forms on Earth – including all species of animals, plants and fungi. Even the single-celled protozoan such as amoebas are eukaryotes.

Evolutionary biologists have estimated that the earliest line of the eukaryotes first evolved some two billion years ago, in what was perhaps the most significant transition in the history of life on this planet – the moment at which it was determined beings like us would one day exist. However, until now there has been very little evidence of when these events began to take place, with few fossilized remains to help them map out the gradual process along the way, and a lack of transitional forms from prokaryotic to eukaryotic.

On Wednesday, a team of scientists changed all this when they proudly announced the discovery of such a transitional form. In the far depths of the Arctic Ocean, where just enough heat circulates to encourage life, the scientists discovered microbes which contain many — but not all — of those features which had previously only been singular in eukaryotes. These microbes could provide us with an indication of what the precursors of complex cellular organisms actually looked like.

“This is a genuine breakthrough,” said Eugene Koonin, an evolutionary biologist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information who did not partake in the research. “It’s almost too good to be true.”

Back in the 1970s, scientists picked up the first major piece of evidence about how life evolved from a single cell to many. Carl Woese, a microbiologist from the University of Illinois, along with his colleagues looked at the genetic material across different species in order to reconstruct the tree of life, an effort that would later become the scientific practice of phylogenetics. This analysis broke life forms down into three major branches.

The first branch included bacteria, with such familiar species as E. coli, located in the intestines of living animals. A second branch was described by Dr. Woese as archaea, consisting of the lesser-known species of microbes, extremophiles, which thrive in high stress environments such as bogs or hot springs. Eukaryotes, which comprise the third branch, have much more in common with archaea than they do with bacteria, and are more closely related to the former.

Over the last four decades, during which scientists identified new species of microbes and created powerful new ways for comparing their DNA, Woese’s tree of life has become clearer. Many of the most recent studies now indicate that eukaryotes are in fact not a third individual branch. Rather, they evolved from the archaea.

Thijs J. G. Ettema, a microbiologist at Upssala University in Sweden, was particularly enamored by the fact that many species of archaea closely related to eukaryotes grew colonies on the deep sea floor. It remains likely that in the near future, scientists could discover even closer relatives between the two, hiding near the hydrothermal vents.

It was discovered quite by accident, when Steffen L. Jorgensen, a microbiologist from the University of Bergen, was digging up samples of sediment at a full two miles beneath the surface of the Arctic Ocean. An initial glimpse of this sediment revealed several types of archaea living among the layers. Dr. Jorgensen then offered some of his samples to Dr. Ettema so he could take a closer look.

Dr. Ettema and his colleagues took it a step further, attempting to extract DNA out of the sediment for further analysis, which is quite a risky undertaking.

Dr. Jorgensen was only able to provide a teaspoon size amount of the sediment, one that Dr. Ettema was sure couldn’t contain too many microbes.

As the environment they are used to is cold and dark, the microbes barely grow. If you offered a spoonful soil out of your own backyard, it would likely contain a million times the amount of microbes.

It soon became clear that Dr. Ettema and his colleagues would have to spend just about every bit of the sediment just to get enough DNA for an accurate analysis. Any accidents that might happen along the way would leave them nothing to study.

“There was just one shot,” Dr. Ettema recalled.

Luckily, Dr. Ettema and his colleagues were successful in their experiment. It so happened that this particular sample of the sediment held DNA carried from a lineage of archaea that was unlike any kind ever discovered before. The scientists decided to call it Lokiarchaeum, for the hydrothermal vent near where it was found, which is known as Loki’s Castle.

Analyzing the DNA, the researchers found that Lokiarchaeum is far more closely related to eukaryotes than any other known species of archaea. But even more surprising was that it had genes for many traits that had only been found previously in eukaryotes.

Among the bundles of genes they discovered were ones that coded for special compartments within eukaryote cells. These compartments, which are known as lysosomes, allow the eukaryote cells to eliminate any defective proteins.

All eukaryotes also possess a cellular skeleton which is constantly being rebuilt and torn apart as their shape changes. Dr. Ettema, along with his colleagues found that many of the genes in Lokiarchaeum code for the same type of proteins necessary for building such a skeleton.

It could be likely that the Lokiarchaeum use their skeletons for crawling over surfaces in the same way that protozoans do. Lokiarchaeum’s genes also indicate that they may be able to swallow up molecules or smaller microbes just as eukaryotes do.

At the present time, Lokiarchaeum appears to be far more complex than other archaea and bacteria, although not as complex as true eukaryotes. The new study indicates that they lacked a nucleus and mitochondria.

But Dr. Ettema’s discovery sheds light on how a creature resembling the Lokiarchaeum may have subsequently evolved into the first full-blown eukaryotes.

After the ancestors of eukaryotes had developed a complex skeleton, the second major step could have been the beginning of mitochondria, which provides energy to the cell.

Scientists have long known that mitochondria evolved from bacteria. They carry their own DNA, which more closely resembles the genetic strands found in free-living bacteria than the genes within the cell’s nucleus.

A number of the researchers propose that the common ancestors of all eukaryotes consumed some free-living bacteria. The bacteria became mitochondria, providing fuel for their host cell.

Lokiarchaeum, which holds the potential to graze for microbes, may be exactly the type of microbe needed for this scenario.

Once the early eukaryotes developed mitochondria, they acquired the energy needed for fueling a much larger and more complex cell. In 2006, Drs. Koonin and William Martin at the University of Düsseldorf suggested that the development of mitochondria encouraged the gradual evolution of the cell’s powerhouse – a nucleus.

The two different sets of genes could cause a whole host of damage, were they to interfere with each other. Drs. Koonin and Martin suggested that eukaryotes gradually build a barrier to keep them separated.

As much as the Lokiarchaeum’s genes may reveal, there are limits on how many clues they can give the scientists. “We don’t even know how big the cells are,” said Dr. Ettema.

Dr. Ettema and his colleagues are now focusing on the Lokiarchaeum microbes. They’ve acquired some new sediment samples, and they are now able to determine how many microbes are inside them. Unfortunately, due to the pressure and harsh lighting of a laboratory setting, the microbes often die out before the scientists are able to find out much about them.

So the researchers have another task lying ahead: how to best recreate the conditions suitable for the growth and survival of these microbes will replicating the extreme temperatures and high pressure that the Lokiarchaeum have grown accustomed to. Before they can do that, however, they still need to determine some other factors necessary for the survival of the microbes, such as the type of carbon necessary for their survival.

“It’s definitely not easy,” said Dr. Ettema, “but we’re not giving up. There are so many questions — this is a whole new biology we have to study.”

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.

Atlantic Ocean Current Growing Weaker Over Last Millennia

The Atlantic has had an uneasy last few centuries – from a 990 mile patch of garbage found in its northern portion (about the distance from Cuba to Virginia), and growing by eight tons of plastic each year, to the heavy absorption of man-cause CO2 cooking its vast quantities of shellfish from rising acid levels, one imagines what else could possibly go wrong. Now the ocean conveyor system, important for carrying warmer tropical waters upstream into the North Atlantic is gradually growing weaker, with a circulation that hasn’t been witnessed in over one thousand years, according to a recent study in the journal Nature Climate Change.

So what’s behind all of this, and should we be worried? It seems as though we have enough on our plate as it is, if we’re already looking at fixing the current troubles. Well, the cause is one we’ve been aware of all along. Ice in the Arctic Ocean up north was already at record lows this winter. The resulting cold water seceding away from Greenland’s sheet of ice is slowing down the circulation of the ocean to levels not experienced since the High Middle Ages, according to the paper, an age that also consisted of a considerable warming period before slowing down in the 14th century AD.

The study obtained its data from coral samples, which are subject to bleaching and gradual death due to increasing acidity levels in the oceans across the globe, as well as from ice cores and tree rings to index the Atlantic winds’ long history of depreciation. The research also made use of the sea-surface temperature data found in previous studies (which are often more telling than surface temperatures) to create a new index — one which marks a trend of decline in the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC). You might never have heard of it, but it’s one of the most important circulation systems on the planet – crucial for distributing the density of ocean water. Think of it as the ocean’s air conditioning system, bringing cooler waters to the deeper Atlantic and warmer waters northward, critical for the functioning of the vast majority of the Atlantic’s ecosystems in sustaining plant and animal life.

According to their data, there already was a powering down of the AMOC that took place in modern times, indicating a depreciation between 1970 and 1990, that scientists have already found. A partial recovery has happened, but not anything significant enough to bring the ocean’s current back to what it was in the days before the Industrial Revolution. It could be another irreversible effect of climate change – something that can’t be fixed even if we successfully do reduce CO2 levels.

The research was conducted primarily by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research of Germany. If their unfortunate forecast is upheld in future studies, it could suggest that as ice continues to disappear in the Arctic, the water it releases “might lead to further weakening of the AMOC within a decade or two, and possibly even more permanent shutdown of its integral components” warn the researchers in their paper’s conclusion.

While these findings might seem “dramatic” to you, as other scientists would agree, the numbers have shown to be consistent from computer climate models that other researchers have been projecting, according to Stephen Griffies, who has designed such models for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA.) Although Griffies did not participate in the study or the paper, he is no stranger to AMOC. A previous study in which he contributed was to one that linked abrupt changes in AMOC to a never before seen five-inch increase of sea levels along the Northeast U.S. coastline between 2009 and 2010. Bear in mind that 2010 prior to last year had set NOAA records for being one of the planet’s hottest years. He isn’t alone either. Previous research has shown a link between this same depreciation in AMOC slowdown with some of Europe’s harsh winters and even a spike in hurricane activity.

“It’s inevitable, from my perspective, that we will start to see more and more evidence for the slowdown of the circulation,” Griffies said. “If the overturning circulation slows down further, these extreme sea-level events on the East Coast will become more frequent.”

Michael Mann, prominent climatologist and the director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center was one of the new study’s authors, in which he emphasizes that the rapid depreciation of Greenland’s ice is happening even faster than earlier researchers had projected, a possible explanation of why the winding down of AMOC is taking place at a rate “decades ahead of schedule.” The abrupt slowdown in the AMOC that took place in 1970 “looked like an aborted collapse” when compared with the rest of the data, giving us a rather unpleasant preview of what a “full-on collapse” may look like, a probable event that the next few decades might show us.

Many of you are wondering what, if at all, are the exact consequences brought about by a slowdown in the AMOC, with occurrences as divergent as higher sea levels on the Eastern Seaboard and European blizzards, so what’s the range of what to expect if the decline actually is irreversible? According to Mann, the consequences are somewhat hard to predict, but our own global food security is at risk. Not only do the currents provide ideal waters for the fish and mollusks we eat, but they need to move rapidly in order to provide the flora and fauna with the right nutrients for their survival. Withholding these nutrients can not only lead to a buildup of them in the deep sea, but also a complete disruption of the Atlantic Ocean food chain.

“The most productive region, in terms of availability of nutrients, is the high latitudes of the North Atlantic,” Mann said. “If we lose that, that’s a fundamental threat to our ability to continue to fish.”

While it’s been a staple of the argument of many climate deniers that extreme cold periods disprove the idea of a planet growing warmer, the AMOC could potentially cause parts of the Northern Hemisphere to become cooler. However, this is because the AMOC is no longer transporting warmer waters out of the tropics to different regions. The result of that, according to Mann, is that we could be looking at a sizable increase in hurricanes, Nor’easters and other types of storms, since they provide the hotter weather with new paths on which to travel. Already winters in the Northeast, and pretty much only the Northeastern United States have had colder periods than usual, wh

“If you shut down this mode of ocean circulation, you’re denying the climate system one of its modes of heat transport,” Mann warned. “if you deny it one mode of transport, it’s often the case that you will see other modes of transport increase.”

The new AMOC index “will certainly attract a lot of attention,” said Stephen Yeager, a researcher from the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s division of oceanography. Yeager, however, is doubtful over how reliable the temperature data used in the study actually is, suspecting that the circulation slowdown may actually be due to overall rising temperatures rather than a buildup of melted water from Greenland, and hopes to pursue it in further research.

“The paper presents an exciting new perspective,” Yeager said. “Many of the ideas put forth in this paper will require substantial further scrutiny and testing.”

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.

Arctic Sea Is Getting Thinner Faster

Many have pointed to the recent cold winter temperatures – particularly in the American Northeast and Midwest, as disproving the very imminent threats of global warming. Yet, these symptoms are actually directly related to the problem – as winter storms move further south, and Arctic ice diminishes, allowing cold winds to move freely. These temperatures have even correlated with the loss of ice in the Arctic Sea. While ice has disappeared from the Arctic at a consistently steady pace, the remaining ice is also becoming significantly thinner than normal – making it more prone to melting. At risk are not only the local ecosystems – something evidenced by the release of gases from thawing permafrost in Russia, but also shipping routes and routine ocean and atmospheric patterns. Even an event like the distant Arctic melting can have serious economic implications for everyone else.

The newest data has been gathered from a myriad of sources — Navy submarines as well as weather satellites — and points to the fact that the rate of thinning is occurring much more swiftly than what climate models have proposed, as indicated by an ambitious study seeking to draw a link between the wide variety of data. Researchers of the University of Washington Ron Lindsay and Axel Schweiger have calculated that within the Arctic Ocean’s central basin, the sea ice has shown a massive decline – thinning by about 65 percent since 1975. During September, the end of summer, at which point the ice is typically at its minimum levels for the year, ice thickness has been observed receding by an overwhelming 85 percent.

While the results hardly come as much surprise to those who have long accepted the science behind anthropogenic climate change, this information is crucial in one particular way. By next century, when temperatures are expected to rise by an estimate of 33.5 degrees Fahrenheit, parts of the Arctic may actually be free of ice – at least at certain times of the year.

The extent of ice lost has been readily available by NASA and NOAA weather satellites, but the particular thickness has not always been easy to measure. Knowledge of the ice volume might be of more immediate value when it comes to predicting the decline of ice as it varies depending on its proximity to the sea. It may be affected by not just overall surface temperatures, but also the temperature of the water as well. Although submarines as well as boats and helicopter missions take measurement of ice volume, along with some satellites already in space, each utilizes a different method of measurement, and getting the data to sync up is sometimes frustratingly difficult. The ESA’s Cryosat 2 for example, uses radar for measuring, while NASA’s ICESat used laser impulses to study the free flow of water through the Arctic in order to calculate volume.

With their new study, Lindsay and Schweiger worked to resolve differences between the measurements, an effort which Lindsay referred to as “an attempt to get all the ice thickness measurements into one place.” The study’s ultimate objective, according to Lindsay, is “to get a broad picture of what the sea ice is doing in the Arctic Ocean that is based more on observations than on a model.”

Their most shocking discovery when all the measurements were put together: On average, sea ice across the Arctic basin has decreased by about 18 inches per decade since the turn of the 21st century.

Since the earliest of the measurements taken in 1975, the annual average thickness in only the Arctic basin’s central portion declined from about 11 feet to only four feet — indicating an overall 65 percent decrease. Worse, this decline is almost double of the 36 percent decrease that a previous study had recorded between 1975-2000.

Although this new estimate of sea ice thinning which Lindsay and Schweiger described in the journal The Cryosphere, is far more dramatic than the projections of most climate models, Lindsay does agree that our current models do a reasonably decent job in predicting the loss of ice.

Julienne Stroeve, a sea ice researcher with the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., who was not involved with the research said in an email, “It would be great to have a long-term sea ice thickness dataset,” reminiscent of the the one pieced together by Lindsay and Schweiger, but the data is not without inherent, sometimes varying biases, meaning that often conclusions resulting from data combined in this way is sometimes difficult to trust.

In their paper, Lindsay and Schweiger fully acknowledge the potential errors that can be made from combining the data in such a way.

“This is just one attempt to put it together,” Lindsay asserted. “I think it is just a first step.”

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.