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The main nursery of Arctic sea ice in Siberia has yet to freeze in late October for the first time since records began. Climate scientists warn of potential knock-on effects across the polar region. 

The delayed annual freeze in the Laptev Sea has been caused by heatwaves in northern Russia and the intrusion on Atlantic waters. Areas in Siberia experienced temperatures 10℃ above average in June and this year’s wildfires in the Arctic set pollution records. Ocean temperatures in the area also recently climbed to more than 5℃ above average. 

This trapped heat takes a long time to move into the atmosphere, even at this time of year when temperatures are getting cooler.

Graphs showing sea-ice extent in the Laptev Sea, which usually show a seasonal pulse, have flat-lined, causing a record amount of open sea in the Arctic. 

Zachary Labe, a postdoctoral researcher at Colorado State University, says, “the lack of freeze of sea ice so far this fall is unprecedented in the Siberian Arctic region.” He attributes this to the human-driven climate crisis. 

The climate crisis is pushing warmer Atlantic currents into the Arctic and breaking up the usual stratification between warm deep waters and the cool surface, making it difficult for ice to form. Much of the old ice in the Arctic is now disappearing, leaving thinner seasonal ice. Overall, the average thickness of it is half of what it was in the 1980s.

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This trend is likely to continue until the Arctic has its first ice-free summer, which will likely occur between 2030 and 2050. 

Scientists warn that this delayed freeze could amplify feedbacks that cause the ice caps to melt quicker. Smaller ice sheets mean that there is less white area to reflect the sun’s heat back into space. 

Ice forms along the coast of the Laptev Sea in early winter, which then drifts westward carrying nutrients across the Arctic, before breaking up in the spring in the Fram Strait between Greenland and Svalbard. If this ice forms late in the Laptev Sea, it will be thinner and more likely to melt before it reaches the Fram Strait. This could result in fewer nutrients for Arctic plankton, which will lose its ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Further, more open sea also means more turbulence in the upper layer of the Arctic ocean, which will bring up more warm water from the deeper parts.

This feedback loop is something that has been forecast for a long time, so it should come as no surprise that we are starting to see it happen. However, there has been little response by lawmakers to reverse or even slow down this process. The Arctic should be receiving as much attention as any other environmental problem in the world as the demise of its ecosystem will have catastrophic consequences for the rest of the planet. 

Featured image by: Flickr

The polar regions of the Earth are known as areas of harsh weather extremes. However, in the current warming climate, we are seeing record breaking temperature spikes, rapid sea ice loss and increased rainfall compared to snow accumulation in Arctic regions, that seemingly far surpass weather variations of the recent past. In fact, a recently published study has determined that the Arctic is shifting to a new and different climate, one characterised less by ice and snow and more by open water and rain.

The study, published in Nature Climate Change in September, utilised five climate models to investigate the potential emergence of a new Arctic climate in three different factors across ocean and land: sea ice, air temperature and precipitation phase, i.e. snow vs rain. By identifying the emergence of a new climate, which has previously been seen in terrestrial systems and subpolar latitudes, it is possible to gain insight into future weather extremes, which have great importance for both the environment and the people who live there. The three factors investigated by this study are not only important indicators of a new climate but are also highly interconnected. 

Arctic temperatures are rising at a rate of nearly twice the global average due to an effect known as Arctic amplification. Arctic amplification is largely attributed to the loss of sea ice as the ice plays two key roles in regulating near-surface air temperature. First, it provides an albedo feedback. Simply put, the light colour of the sea ice, compared to the Arctic ocean beneath it, reflects a majority of incoming solar radiation back into the atmosphere, preventing it from being absorbed and warming the environment. Second, its thickness provides insulation between the warmer ocean below and the cooler air above. Therefore, as temperatures rise and sea ice melts, more of the Arctic ocean will be exposed meaning more solar radiation will be absorbed by the darker ocean, causing the ocean temperatures to rise. Further, with sea ice thinning, or being lost completely, insulation provided by the sea ice decreases, resulting in increased air temperature due to its closer proximity to a warmer ocean. As air temperatures rise, the phase of precipitation changes in concert leading to rainfall replacing snowfall and an extension of the rainy season. 

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In order to classify the emergence of a new climate for any of these three factors, researchers needed to characterise twentieth century climate and compare it to observed and simulated twenty-first century climate to determine if the extreme changes occurring are a result of climate change, and thus a new climate, or if they fall within natural internal variability. While the problem seems straightforward, coming to a solution is anything but. Observational data in the Arctic is sparse and is sourced largely from the modern satellite era, beginning in 1979, which itself was a period of drastic change in the Arctic. Further, limited records also suggest a period of warming and sea ice loss during the 1950’s, making it extremely difficult to characterise twentieth century Arctic climate. Yet, using a multi-model, the study was able to robustly characterise the past Arctic climate and simulate the twenty-first century climate using the representative concentration pathway (RCP) 8.5 scenario put forward by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, commonly referred to as the ‘worst case scenario’ or ‘business as usual’ projection for greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere. 

The study concludes that the Arctic is already transitioning from a cryosphere-dominated system, with the average extent of sea ice in September, the time of year when sea ice extent is at its minimum, having decreased by 31% from the beginning of the satellite era (1979 – 1988). Further, they report a new Arctic climate of sea ice as having already emerged, beginning in the late twentieth century to the beginning of this century. 

Using the RCP 8.5 scenario, all five models simulate a completely ice-free summer by 2100 with air temperatures exceeding those of lower latitudes. Daily fall-winter temperatures are also projected to increase by 16 – 28 °C for most of the Arctic Ocean. Lastly, rainfall will replace snowfall with an extension of the rainy season by 2 – 4 months. This new Arctic climate and the predicted changes set to accompany it will take a heavy toll on both the ecosystem and people who live and rely on these Arctic environments. 

It is important to remember, however, that these simulations are based on the ‘worst case scenario’ of greenhouse gas concentrations, with the study noting that a reduction in greenhouse gases could postpone or even completely prevent the emergence of future new Arctic climates. This is important as the study estimates that a new climate of air temperature and precipitation phase change will emerge in the first to middle half of this century and in the middle half of this century respectively.  It is therefore still feasible that this future does not need to become our new reality. With efforts and plans made now, we can all decrease our carbon footprint and ensure that the ‘worst case scenario’ is not the path we choose to follow. 

Featured image by: Flickr

The Trump administration has announced that it will open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, which will allow oil and gas rights to be auctioned off in one of the country’s iconic places for wildlife by December 2021. The refuge has remained an oasis for wildlife thanks to protections put in place 60 years ago, and this represents yet another blow to lobbyists calling for the administration to reduce fossil fuel consumption in the face of the climate crisis.

Should we drill for oil and natural gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is estimated to sit above billions of barrels of oil, but the 19 million acre landscape is home to polar bears, waterfowl, migrating caribou and Arctic foxes. Overall, the refuge is home to over 270 species, including the world’s remaining Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears, 250 musk oxen and 300 000 snow geese, according to EcoWatch.

The Trump administration plans to open 1.6 million acres to drilling, moving forward with a 2017 Budget bill passed by a Republican-led congress. 

Under the 2017 law, the federal government must conduct two lease sales of 400 000 acres each by December 2024. The administration estimates that drilling could begin in roughly eight years and that the operations could last for about half a century. 

The Department of the Interior says that it has completed all the required reviews and intends to start selling leases to the land soon, expressing belief that the first lease sale could happen by the end of the year. It calls the leases “a new chapter in American energy independence.” 

According to research from thinktank Centers for American Progress, the drilling would emit more than 4.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to roughly 75% of the country’s annual emissions. 

The Trump administration has expanded oil and gas drilling, weakened gas mileage standards and rolled back methane emissions standards, among other measures in recent months. 

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The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management concluded that establishing a network of well pads and pipelines for drilling would not pose a threat to the wildlife living in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. However, the plan calls for the construction of as many as four airstrips and major well pads, over 280km of roads, vertical supports for pipelines, a seawater treatment plant and a barge landing and storage site. 

Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska’s Wilderness League, says, “This is our nation’s last great wilderness. Nowhere else in the five-nation polar north do you have such abundant and diverse wildlife.”

Kolton adds that his organisation, as well as environmentalists will take the administration to court. “We will continue to fight this at every turn,” he says. “Any oil company that would seek to drill in the Arctic Refuge will face enormous reputational, legal and financial risks.”

Featured image by: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters

Herds of horses, bison and reindeer could play a significant part in saving the world from an acceleration in global heating. That is the conclusion of a recent study showing how grazing animals can slow down the pace of thawing permafrost in the Arctic.

The study — a computerized simulation based on real-life, on-the ground data — finds that with enough animals in the Arctic used, 80% of all permafrost soils around the globe could be preserved through 2100.

The research was inspired by an experiment in the town of Chersky, Siberia featured on CBS News’ “60 Minutes.” The episode introduces viewers to an eccentric scientist named Sergey Zimov who resettled grazing animals to a piece of the Arctic tundra more than 20 years ago.

Zimov is unconventional, to say the least, even urging geneticists to work on resurrecting a version of the now-extinct woolly mammoth to aid in his quest. But through the years he and his son Nikita have observed positive impacts from adding grazing animals to the permafrost area he named Pleistocene Park, in a nod to the last Ice Age.

Permafrost is a thick layer of soil that remains frozen year-round. Because of the rapidly warming climate in Arctic regions, much of the permafrost is not permanently frozen anymore. Thawing permafrost releases heat-trapping greenhouse gases that have been buried in the frozen soil for tens of thousands of years, back into the atmosphere.

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Arctic animals permafrost
Permafrost in the Arctic is thawing- a new study shows how grazing animals could help with this (Photo by: Jefferson Beck/NASA).

Scientists are concerned that this mechanism will act as a feedback loop, further warming the atmosphere, thawing more soil, releasing more greenhouse gases and warming the atmosphere even more, perpetuating a dangerous cycle.

Last year their fears were confirmed when a study led by scientists at Woods Hole Research Center revealed that the Arctic was no longer storing as much carbon as it was emitting back into the atmosphere.

In winter the permafrost in Chersky, Siberia stays at about 14 degrees Fahrenheit. But the air can be much colder, dropping down to 40 below zero Fahrenheit. Typically there is a thick blanket of snowfall in winter which insulates the soil, shielding it from the frigid air above and keeping it milder.

The idea behind Zimov’s on-the-ground Pleistocene Park experiment was to bring grazing animals with their stamping hooves back to the land to disperse the snow, compress the ground and chill the soil.

Turns out, it worked. The 100 resettled animals, across a one-square-kilometer area, cut the average snow cover height in half, dramatically reducing the insulating effect, exposing the soil to the overlying colder air and intensifying the freezing of permafrost.

In an effort to see what impact this method could have on a much larger scale, beyond the confines of Pleistocene Park, Professor Christian Beer of the University of Hamburg conducted a simulation experiment. His team used a special climate model to replicate the impact on the land surface throughout all of the Arctic permafrost soils in the Northern Hemisphere over the course of an entire year.

The results, published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, show that if emissions continue to rise unchecked we can expect to see a 7-degree Fahrenheit increase in permafrost temperatures, which would cause half of all permafrost to thaw by 2100.

In contrast, with animal herds repopulating the tundra, the ground would only warm by 4 degrees Fahrenheit. That would be enough to preserve 80% of the current permafrost though the end of the century.

“This type of natural manipulation in ecosystems that are especially relevant for the climate system has barely been researched to date, but holds tremendous potential,” Beer said.

CBS News asked Beer how realistic it is to expect that the Arctic could be repopulated with enough animals to make a difference. “I am not sure,” he replied, adding that more research is needed but the results are promising. “Today we have an average of 5 reindeers per square kilometer across the Arctic. With 15 [reindeer] per square kilometer we could already save 70% permafrost according to our calculations.”

“It may be utopian to imaging resettling wild animal herds in all the permafrost regions of the Northern Hemisphere,” Beer concedes. “But the results indicate that using fewer animals would still produce a cooling effect.”

Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the International Arctic Research Center in Alaska, agrees that snow disturbed and trampled by animal herds is a much less efficient insulator, but he has his doubts about implementing this idea. “Unless the plan is to cover millions of square kilometers with horses, bison and reindeer, how could this possibly have any significant impact? I certainly would not call it ‘utopian’ to destroy permafrost lands as we know them by having these animals in the distribution and numbers required.”

Beer and his team did consider some potential side effects of this approach. For example, in summer the animals would destroy the cooling moss layer on the ground, which would contribute to warming the soil. This was taken into account in the simulations, but the cooling impact of the compressed snow effect in winter is several times greater, they found.

“If theoretically we were able to maintain a high animal density like in Zimov’s Pleistocene Park, would that be good enough to save permafrost under the strongest warming scenario? Yes, it could work for 80% of the region” said Beer.

As a next step, Beer plans to collaborate with biologists in order to investigate how the animals would actually spread across the landscape.

Featured image by: Flickr

This story originally appeared in CBS News and is republished here as a part of Earth.Org’s partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

The last fully intact ice shelf in Canada in the Arctic has collapsed, having lost about 80 sq km, or 40%, of its area over a two-day period in late July, according to the Canadian Ice Service. The collapse of the 4 000 year-old Milne Ice Shelf was exacerbated by record-setting temperatures in the region, which measured 5 degrees Celsius above the 30-year average this past summer, as well as wildfires.

A research camp was lost in the collapse, as well as the northern hemisphere’s last known epishelf lake, which is a freshwater lake damned by ice that floats on top of salty ocean water. Additionally, two of Canada’s ice caps, located on the Hazen Plateau in St. Patrick Bay, disappeared this summer, two years earlier than predicted. 

Unlike glaciers, ice shelves are part of the ocean. The ice shelf on Ellesmere Island in Canada’s Nunavut territory fell into the Arctic Sea and started to drift before breaking into two large chunks. Images captured by the Copernicus Sentinel satellite captured the event, showing that when the fallen pieces split into two, the large piece formed an iceberg roughly the size of Manhattan

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canada ice shelf
The Milne Ice Shelf in Canada lost nearly 40% of its ice over a two-day period in late July (Source: Sentinel Playground, Sinergise Ltd.). 

Adrienne White, ice analyst at the Canadian Ice Service, says, “This is a huge, huge block of ice. If one of these is moving toward an oil rig, there’s nothing you can really do aside from move your oil rig.”

The service explained that above normal air temperatures, offshore winds and open water in front of the ice shelf contribute to ice shelf break up. 

Now that a large part of the ice shelf is in the ocean, there is potential for additional cracking and movement, the Water and Ice Research Laboratory (WIRL) said in a press release. It warns that the ice shelf is still unstable and further ice breaks are possible in the coming days and weeks.

Ice shelves can help limit rising sea levels because they act like a dam. As average Arctic temperatures warm, more sea ice has been melting during the summer than in previous decades. With more melting, the Arctic Ocean absorbs more of the sun’s rays and gets warmer, delaying ice from growing back again until later in the fall. However, with less sea ice present in the autumn to reflect sunlight, the entire region warms up even more, perpetuating this feedback loop.

Studies estimate that global sea level rise could be between 0.91 meters and 1.5 meters, which will have detrimental effects on coastal cities. 

The Arctic has warmed at twice the global average rate in recent decades, but scientists say that this summer was even more extreme. In July, Arctic sea ice hit its lowest recorded extent, while the Russian Arctic has experienced record heat and wildfires, with temperatures exceeding 37 degrees Celsius in the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk in late June.  

Featured image by: U.S. Geological Survey

On June 18 2019, the Canadian government declared a national climate emergency. The following day, the same government approved the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, capable of transporting close to 600 000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to the port of Burnaby in British Columbia. This is an example of how Canada is a climate hypocrite, where the government claims to prioritise the environment but its actions have the opposite effect, choosing to instead prop up fossil fuels.

Canada, which is in close proximity to Antarctica and is partly located within the Arctic Circle, is extremely vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Declaring a state of climate emergency was a necessary response from the Canadian government in tackling the climate crisis. 

This year, a prolonged heatwave in the Arctic that caused temperatures to soar to 38℃ in parts of Siberia, also caused wildfires to rage through parts of Siberia, as well as Canada, Alaska and Greenland. In June, fires in the region emitted 16.3 million tons of carbon- or about 60 million tons of carbon dioxide, the highest levels since 2003 and almost nine times more than the same month in 2018. Since the polar regions are warming at a faster rate than the rest of the world, this puts Canada further at risk.

However, the approval of projects like the Trans Mountain pipeline completely contradict the nation’s goal of reaching zero-net carbon emissions by 2050. A statement issued by the Canadian government outlined that the profits generated from the Trans Mountain pipeline will aid renewable energy projects and support cleantech research within the country, prompting critics to accuse the government of hypocrisy as the pipeline would be emitting large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further exacerbating global warming. 

Controversy: Canada’s Prime Minister 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won his second election by forging solidarity with environmentalists and climate activists, saying that he shares the same view in needing to act in favour of the climate and strive for a greener society. Interestingly, in 2017, Trudeau spoke to Texan oilmen, saying that “no country would find 173 million barrels of oil in the ground and leave it there.” This would mean that Canada, home to 0.5% of the planet’s population, would plan to use nearly a third of the planet’s remaining carbon budget through intensive use of fossil fuels. While it is very possible to change stances on the issue of the climate crisis when confronted with indisputable evidence, in February this year, it emerged that the government was likely to approve the Teck mine, 181 sq km of petroleum mining, located just 25km from a national park. Canadian authorities were aware of the potential environmental harm it would cause, but ruled that it was nonetheless in the ‘public interest’. Thankfully, the mining giant withdrew its plans later that month, but it sealed Canada’s fate as a climate hypocrite. 

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Expected Projects 

Despite many delays, three major pipeline projects are expected to enter service by the end of 2023- namely, TC Energy Corporation’s Keystone XL, Enbridge’s expansion of its Line 3 and the Canadian government’s expansion of the Trans Mountain line.

The three pipelines have already encountered challenges; the Line 3 project continuously faces opposition in Minnesota, where it hopes to expand to, while the Keystone XL project is tackling legal challenges and the Trans Mountain remains disputed by indigenous and aboriginal communities in British Columbia.

Environmental risks of such projects range from water contamination to wildlife habitat disturbances. Provinces and cities have voiced opposition to such projects. Vancouver filed an empirical report on how the Trans Mountain project is ‘not worth the risk’ because ‘tanker traffic spills would be devastating to the coastline’ and in British Columbia, the controversial Bill C-48 issues a suspension on oil tankers carrying large quantities of crude oil along the northern coast to protect the ecosystem. 

New pipelines breach demand levels required under the Paris Agreement. Canada has struggled to establish their natural resources development plans in shifting towards a greener society and divesting from fossil fuels. The Canadian government’s support for proposed pipelines and pipeline extension projects risk the country’s reputation of being one of the few who have shown strong leadership in addressing the climate crisis. 

Carbon Tracker, an independent financial think tank that assesses climate risk, conducted an analysis on the impact of Canada’s pipelines, and found that new oil sands are unnecessary in a low carbon world. The analysis showed that additional pipeline capacity significantly exceeds supply levels across two low carbon demand scenarios, meaning that large portions will end up wasted or underutilised, resulting in stranded assets. Even in the case where new pipelines have lower crude transportation costs and reduce pricing, for example, the entirety of Canada’s unsanctioned oil sands projects would still not comply with a Paris-aligned world of weaker oil demand. 

All proposed new pipelines from Western Canada, primarily Keystone XL and Trans Mountain expansion, do not comply with a Paris-compliant world, the report stated. Under the International Energy Agency’s Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS), for instance, all future oil supplies from Western Canada can be accommodated by alterations and replacements made to already existing pipelines- demonstrating there is no need to build new pipelines. Even if greater pipeline capacity is reduced due to quality and transport challenges, and comply with the requirements of a greener society, new projects will remain uneconomic under the SDS, and therefore the appropriateness of such pipeline projects should be reconsidered. 

The analysts highlighted that the scenarios used in the report still fall short of the Paris Agreement target to limit global warming to 1.5˚C. The analysis showed that the first scenario, the SDS limits warming to 1.7-1.8˚C and the second scenario, Beyond 2 Degrees Scenario (B2D2), to 1.6˚C. 

Economic Viability of Oil Projects

The report stated that ‘investors in oil sands face depressed cash flows in a low carbon world of falling oil demand and weak pricing, but will be forced to produce or pay the price due to inflexible “take-or-pay” transport fees for excess new pipeline capacity’. 

Furthermore, the Canadian government’s stakes in Keystone XL and Trans Mountain could rely on public tax money, which would be far better spent on environmentally friendly and sustainable projects. 

Canada’s leadership position on the climate crisis may be subverted by its support for projects reliant on the failure of the Paris Agreement, indicating that the country’s aspiration of complying with the Paris-aligned world is doubtful. 

Evidently, there remains a divide between environmental motivation and monetary incentives- such that people tend to perceive the two as mutually exclusive. However, if a global, widespread effort is made towards shifting to a greener economy, then the two will inevitably go hand-in-hand. Without this shift, a limbo between wanting to mitigate the climate crisis and wanting to ensure financial stability will continue to prevail. Because of how vulnerable it is to global warming, it is certainly in Canada ’s best interest to divest from use of fossil fuels and instead invest in projects that will green the economy while ensuring profitability. 

Featured image by: kris krüg

In mid-May, a pocket of scorching hot air flowed north from Siberia and fanned out across the Arctic Ocean reaching as far as Greenland and triggering an unprecedented heatwave. In Khatanga, a Russian village above the Arctic Circle which normally remains below freezing in the spring, the mercury hit 25 degrees Celsius, smashing the previous record by 13 degrees C. According to temperature records which go back to 1958, no other year has been hotter in the Arctic for this same time period. This weather anomaly has since ignited significant wildfires in Russia and contributed to the rapid melt-out of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean — possibly jumpstarting this year’s melt season. Indeed, sea ice is currently at its fourth lowest for this time of year since record-keeping began in the 1970s. Could this increased Arctic ice melt actually be linked to the COVID-19 pandemic?

“Overall, this winter wasn’t particularly warm, but now that’s flipped around in the last month and we’re really seeing the effects,” says Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). “Big holes are opening up along the Siberian coast where it’s been the warmest.”

This Central Arctic heatwave may not be a one-off event only occurring in spring 2020, researchers suggest. Rather, if levels of global industrial air pollutants continue to fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the current Arctic warmth could be a bellwether of what’s to come later this summer when sea ice melt annually kicks into high gear.

According to a recent study in Nature Climate Change, daily global greenhouse emissions dropped by 17 percent in early April compared to last year’s numbers. If maintained, a decline in carbon pollution is a good thing for global climate stability and for avoiding the most severe consequences of climate change.

But in the short-term, a drop-off in atmospheric pollutants can actually cause a slight increase in global warming. That’s because heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide and methane aren’t the only thing released by burning fossil fuels. Sulphate aerosols are also spewed into the air, and these aerosols are known to produce a cooling effect on the planet, mitigating some of the warming from greenhouse gases. If aerosol emissions are going down, it’s possible we could see a slight temperature bump upward this spring and summer which could speed up Arctic sea ice melt.

“Ultimately we need to eliminate sulfur pollution and sulphate aerosols, which cause lots of other problems too, such as acid rain,” says Michael Mann, a renowned climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. “But it is a ‘Faustian bargain’ in the sense that [reductions in aerosols] unmasks some of the global warming that had been hidden for decades by the sulphate aerosol pollution.”

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Sulphate Aerosols Reflect Solar Heat

Unlike greenhouse gases which can remain in our atmosphere for years, sulphate aerosols are relatively short-lived. They’re typically washed out of the troposphere in a matter of weeks, and therefore need to be constantly replenished by industry to maintain their cooling benefits.

Sulphate aerosols counteract planetary warming in two different ways. For one thing, they’re highly reflective. “They reflect a lot of sunlight back into space, rather than have it absorbed and warming the earth,” explains Michael Diamond, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington. “They can also change cloud properties. Clouds aren’t just pure water — they need a seed or a nuclei to form.” Sulphate aerosols provide such nuclei for water to condense around, creating a greater abundance of clouds, and more reflective clouds as well — an effect known as ‘cloud brightening.’

“It’s like a lot of little mirrors reflecting sunlight back to space,” says Diamond.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has long struggled to quantify the exact cooling impact of sulphate aerosols. According to Mann, aerosols have likely been responsible for offsetting about 0.4 degrees Celsius of global surface warming, and a much larger amount — more than 1 degree C (1.8 degree F) — in the mid-latitude regions during summer when there is more sunlight to reflect back.

An AGU Advances study published in March 2020 sought to further quantify the aerosol impact on cloud brightening, with researchers zeroing in on a shipping lane in the southeast Atlantic. Diamond, who served as lead author of that study, found that sulphate aerosols from shipping were responsible for reducing warming by two watts per meter squared. To put that in perspective, greenhouse gases are responsible for warming of about 4 watts per meter squared. When Diamond and his team calculated the global cooling effect from all industrial activity around the world, on land and at sea, they found that sulphate aerosol-seeded clouds masked about a third of all warming from greenhouse gases.

covid-19 arctic ice melt
As sunlight intensifies in the Arctic during the spring and summer, clouds matter; the fewer the clouds, the more sunshine, and the more melt (Source: VisualHunt).

And Then Came COVID-19

Researchers around the world are now trying to parse out how Coronavirus lockdown measures have affected global emissions. In the Nature Climate Change study published last month, an international team of scientists found that daily CO2 emissions dropped by 17% at the peak of the coronavirus shutdown. However, emissions are creeping back up as shelter in place measures are relaxed. By year’s end it’s expected 2020 CO2 emissions will end up between 4 and 7% lower than 2019 — the biggest drop since World War II.

Another study published in Geophysical Research Letters in May found that nitrogen dioxide pollution over China, Western Europe, and the United States decreased by as much as 60% in early 2020 compared to the same time last year. And a study focused on northern China found that levels of Particulate Matter 2.5, a notable human health hazard, decreased by approximately 60% in January and February.

But Diamond says the picture is a bit more muddied when it comes to aerosols. His research group has been examining emission levels from China in February 2020. “In the clouds over the South China Plain and East China Sea, you don’t see any difference in the size of those cloud droplets,” he says, indicating there hasn’t been a significant change in the level of sulphate aerosols in the atmosphere. One explanation could be that though passenger traffic has fallen during the pandemic, electricity generation for industrial combustion is only down by about 10%, according to data from the Chinese government.

However, coincidentally, in January 2020, the United Nations International Maritime Organization implemented a policy banning ships from using fuels with a sulphur content above 0.5%, resulting in a seven-fold reduction from 3.5%. “Any signal we’re seeing in international shipping right now is a combination of this policy and the pandemic,” says Diamond.

Sulphate aerosols have been decreasing in the United States under the Clean Air Act as well, says Patricia Quinn, atmospheric chemistry leader at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab. Since the 1980s, sulphate aerosols have likely declined by between 30 and 50 percent. “It’s not serving as big as a mitigator [of warming] as it once was,” Quinn said. “Coal-fired power plants — a major source — aren’t being used as much as they were a few years ago because it’s a more expensive form of energy production now.”

Indeed, in a 2017 study, scientists posited that the sulphate aerosols released due to human activity masked the decline in Arctic sea ice in the mid-20th century, before the Clean Air Act went into effect, and actually led to periods of ice growth.

A Riddle, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside an Enigma

So how might a reduction in sulphate aerosol levels affect the Arctic during the Coronavirus pandemic?

Quite a lot — maybe. Juan Acosta Navarro is an environmental scientist at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center. He says that, “The Arctic appears to be quite sensitive to changes in emissions of sulphate aerosols.” Using earth system computer modelling, his simulations showed that sulphate aerosol reductions in Europe since 1980 could potentially explain a significant fraction of Arctic warming over that period. Specifically, the Arctic received approximately 0.3 watts per meter squared of energy, warming by 0.5 degrees C (0.9 degrees F) on average as Europe’s sulphur emissions declined. “We conclude that air quality regulations in the Northern Hemisphere, the ocean and atmospheric circulation, and the Arctic climate are inherently linked,” his 2016 Nature Geoscience study stated.

But weather variability and climate system chaos — as always — still provide an obstacle to making any long-term predictions about the sea ice outcome this year, or any year.

“Patterns of the atmospheric circulation are going to play a huge role in what summer looks like,” says NSIDC’s Serreze. “Could we be looking at a record high global temperature this year? Maybe. We’re kind of on track for that right now. What’s going to happen with the sea ice? We know it’s well below average right now, but [weather variability] can counter the effects of greenhouse gases” in the short term.

Still, he’s energized — certainly not by COVID-19, but by the prospect of being able to test the role of sulphate aerosols on global warming. “Here we are, in a serendipitous sense, presented with this incredible global experiment. We can perhaps see what the effects are [of sulphate aerosol reduction] and how this relates back to the sea ice.”

“Every cloud has a silver lining,” he concludes.

Featured image by: Polar Cruises

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Gloria Dickie , and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 


A prolonged heatwave in the Arctic that caused temperatures to soar to 38℃ in parts of Siberia, is causing wildfires to rage through parts of Siberia, Alaska, Greenland and Canada. In June, fires in the region emitted 16.3 million tons of carbon- or about 60 million tons of carbon dioxide, the highest levels since 2003 and almost nine times more than the same month in 2018. Earth.Org has compiled satellite images capturing the fires. 

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. With the rise in temperature and heat comes increased dryness, causing the soil and permafrost to lose their moisture. This extreme dryness, combined with the rise in temperature, creates an optimum environment for wildfires to flourish. Dried peat is of particular concern as the large amounts of stored carbon allow it to burn rapidly and efficiently. 

The region is considered a tundra biome: a cold, dry desert with sparse vegetation apart from shrubs and mosses. Underground, permafrost resides, which significantly slows down the rate of peat decomposition, storing carbon as a result. When it thaws however, methane is released, making the conservation of peatlands vital.

Arctic Heatwave

Europe’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service shows that the fire activity has been further to the east in the Siberian Arctic than in 2019, with more widespread fires in the non-Arctic parts of eastern Siberia. Mark Parrington, CAMS senior scientist, says, “It is very surprising how similar the daily trend in the fire activity has been compared to 2019, especially as it is so unusual to all the other years of data that we have.”

Throughout the heatwave, some parts of the Arctic registered temperatures as much as 16℃ higher than usual in May.

The fire season typically starts in early May and picks up at the beginning of June, but it started earlier this year, with satellites registering wildfires as soon as March. Fires generally burn through forests and peatlands in Siberia. The dry vegetation on these plains can burn under the snowpack of winter and satellite data suggested that high temperatures were reigniting these ‘zombie fires’. The warm air spreading from Siberia across the Arctic doesn’t directly cause fires, but together with low soil moisture levels and low precipitation, it can contribute to conditions conducive for fires to spread. 

The summer of 2019 endured record-breaking levels of smoke and smog throughout the Arctic tundra and surrounding forests. In just two months, it was estimated that approximately 100 intense wildfires spanned Alaska, Siberia, Canada and Greenland, with some reported to be ‘as big as 100 000 football fields’. In Siberia alone, the wildfires burned for 3 months and consumed over 4 million hectares of forest. 

As the areas within and surrounding the Arctic Circle tend to be remote, fires can burn indefinitely, jeopardising carbon stores and releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that have knock-on effects on the rest of the world

“Fires are a natural part of the ecosystem, but what we’re seeing is an accelerated fire cycle: we are getting more frequent and severe fires and larger burned areas,” said Liz Holy, a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland.

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arctic wildfires
Fire occurrence in North-Eastern Russia between the 7th of June and 7th of July, from 2017 to 2020. Retrieved using the NASA FIRMS fire detection system.


This summer, the fires have already burned through 333 000 hectares of land, according to Greenpeace. On June 20, the meteorological service of Russia recorded a peak of 38 in Verkhoyansk, the highest recorded temperature since records began in the late nineteenth century. Siberia is renowned for having a wildly fluctuating climate, holding the world record for temperatures ranging from -68 to 37

Climate scientists have stressed how ‘alarm bells should already be ringing’- especially in response to the catastrophic effects the Arctic wildfires will have on amplifying the rate of global warming

Another component essential for the unprecedented levels of wildfires in the Arctic is the number of storms prevalent. Between the years 2012 and 2018, a total of only 3 lightning strikes were recorded in regions close to the Arctic Ocean. However in 2019, a two-day period produced approximately 48 lightning strikes. The combination of lightning and dried earth propagates the energy and fuel required to start fires.

Moreover, the soot produced by the Arctic’s wildfires can be detrimental to humans and animals alike, inducing fatal chronic health conditions such as asthma attacks and strokes. The soot also contributes to the rising temperatures of the Arctic by settling on layers of ice and decreasing the albedo value of such surfaces- resulting in an increase in heat absorption and a decrease in light reflection, and therefore reinforcing the Arctic warming cycle.

Estimates from 2019

According to an article published by Harvard University, one peat fire can produce approximately 80 tons of carbon per acre, the equivalent of ‘the annual emissions of around 20 cars’. Estimates  suggest that the Arctic wildfires in 2019 produced a total of approximately 140 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions- the equivalent to ‘the annual emissions of over 20 million cars’. 

Though predictions are not always accurate, and have previously underestimated the fires which occurred last year, they do help researchers understand what is yet to come. Satellite images assist to monitor the fires by allowing experts to analyse characteristic smoke patterns and to measure heat output

In addition to reducing human activities that dehydrate the Arctic fringes, researchers suggest ‘actively re-wetting the peatlands and removing plants that could fuel a fire and replacing them with mosses that can keep the ground wet’. Though this method has not been tested on a large scale, such innovation demonstrates that attempts of combating and mitigating the Arctic wildfire problem is hopefully underway.

Featured image by: Western Arctic National Parklands

A new study has found that climate change models have underestimated the amount of carbon emissions from thawing permafrost by as much as 14%. Current models do not take into account organic carbon released from thawing permafrost that is flushed into waterways and then converted into carbon dioxide by sunlight. 

How much carbon is stored in permafrost?

There are about 100 billion metric tons of carbon stored in Arctic permafrost. Scientists believe that 5-15% of this could be emitted as carbon dioxide by 2100. This, spurred by microbial action, could be enough to raise global temperatures by 0.3 to 0.4 degrees Celsius. However, these estimates do not include the carbon dioxide that forms when organic carbon escaping from permafrost soil is flushed into Arctic lakes and rivers and is oxidised by sunlight- a process called photomineralisation. 

Published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, researchers at the University of Michigan studied organic carbon from six Arctic locations and found that a significant amount of carbon dioxide emissions could be released through photomineralistion, enough to raise permafrost-related carbon dioxide emissions by 14%. 

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Rose Cory, an environmental scientist at the university who helped to lead the research, says, “Only recently have global climate models included greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost soils. But none of them contain this feedback pathway.”

This pathway has been debated because it can be difficult to measure exactly how sunlight interacts with soil carbon; each wavelength of light has a different effect on soil organic carbon. Cory and her team developed a tool that uses LED lights to measure the impacts of different wavelengths of light on organic carbon, which allowed them to determine how light exposure affects the amount of soil carbon converted to carbon dioxide emissions.

The team also used carbon dating to age the soil organic carbon and the carbon dioxide emitted from it to demonstrate this oxidation was happening to ancient permafrost, not just that which thaws annually. Soil that thaws annually would release a much smaller amount of carbon dioxide than what’s available in these ancient soils. The researchers determined that it was between 4000 and 6300 years old, showing that permafrost carbon is susceptible to oxidation to carbon dioxide.

Including these findings into climate change models means that there could be a release of 6% of the 100 billion metric tons of carbon currently stored in Arctic permafrost, the carbon equivalent of 29 million cars evaporating into the atmosphere. 

Featured image by: UBC Micrometeorology

Russia has announced a national-level state of emergency after 21 000 tons of diesel fuel spilled from a reservoir that collapsed in late May. The spill has polluted large stretches of Arctic rivers- colouring tundra waterways bright red- and was caused by melting permafrost, according to Russian officials. While Russia has ordered a review of infrastructure in vulnerable zones, this oil spill incident highlights the danger of the climate crisis for Russia as areas locked by permafrost for centuries thaw amid rising temperatures. 

Norilsk Oil Spill: The Effects

The spill happened when a fuel tank at a power plant near the city of Norilsk collapsed. A subsidiary of Norilsk Nickel, the world’s leading nickel and palladium producer, owns the plant. According to reports, a criminal case has been launched, as there was reportedly a two-day delay in informing the Moscow authorities about the spill. Minister for Emergencies in Russia Yevgeny Zinichev claims that the plant spent two days trying to contain the oil spill before alerting his ministry, however Norilsk Nickel says that the incident was reported in a ‘timely and proper’ way.

The oil leaked at least 12km from the accident site, turning stretches of the Ambarnaya River deep red and has overall contaminated a 350 sq km area.The spill also polluted 180 000 sq metres of land before reaching the river, regional prosecutors said.

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russia oil spill
A gif showing the reach of the oil spill in Norilsk, Russia (Source: European Space Agency).

The Ambarnaya River feeds into Lake Pyasino, a major body of water and the source of the Pyasina River that is extremely important to the entire Taimyr peninsula. Satellite images released by the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos show that a large spot of reddish fuel travelled over 20km towards the lake from the spill site. 

President Vladimir Putin told Norilsk Nickel chief Vladimir Potanin that he expects the company to pay for clean-up operations. Potanin estimates that the operations will cost about US$146 million, on top of any fines, and says, “We will spend whatever is needed. We will return the ecosystem back to normal.” The country’s technical safety watchdog says that since 2016, it has been unable to check the condition of the reservoir, because the company said it was under repairs. 

Floating barriers erected on the river by responders are unable to stop most of the pollution, which can quickly dissolve or sink, according to Russia’s fisheries agency. 

The state of emergency means that extra forces are going to the area to assist with the clean-up operation, however environmental groups say that the scale of the spill and geography of the river mean it will be difficult to clean up. 

The area has been affected by decades of pollution from metals production and other activities in Norilsk, which is Russia’s most polluted city.

Environmentalists say that the spill is the worst such accident ever in the Arctic region and Alexei Knizhnikv, an expert from the World Wildlife Fund, says that the accident is believed to be the second largest in modern Russian history in terms of volume. 

He added that despite melting permafrost, the incident could have been avoided if the company followed the rules, such as erecting a barrier around its fuel reservoir to contain spillage.

Arctic permafrost has been melting in exceptionally warm weather for this time of year; Russia recently experienced its warmest winter temperatures ever recorded. Moscow reported temperatures 7.5 degrees Celsius above average and set 11 all-time daily temperature records. 

Russia is warming 2.5 times faster than the world average. 65% of the country is covered by permafrost and the environment ministry warned in 2018 that the melting of permafrost threatens pipes and structures, as well as buried toxic waste, which can seep into waterways. This makes it all the more important that Russia follows through with its climate action targets. In September 2019, the nation formally ratified the Paris Agreement, saying that climate change could endanger key sectors like agriculture as well as the ‘safety of people living in areas with permafrost’ and has pledged to reduce emissions to 25 to 30% below 1990 levels by 2030.

Update, June 29: Norilsk Nickel has said that it has suspended workers at a metals plant who were responsible for pumping wastewater into nearby Arctic tundra. The workers dumped about 6 000 cubic metres of liquid used to process minerals at the facility. The plant says that it is impossible to determine how far the wastewater has dispersed.

Update July 31: Norilsk Nickel has been fined $2.1bn over the spill.

Featured image: ESA

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