Climate Change, Nature

Scientists Concerned About Rapid Change in Arctic River Ice

Arctic river ice is melting at an accelerating rate.

The Arctic continues to bear the brunt of climate change’s current effects, with new research showing that Arctic river ice is accruing in smaller amounts and melting earlier in the season.

Arctic groundwater comes to the surface and freezes on top of already frozen rivers, and these deposits of ice grow throughout the season until whole river valleys are covered. Some river icings have grown to over 4 square miles, and as deep as 33 feet. Traditionally, they start melting in the middle of July, which keeps many rivers running long after they would otherwise have dried up, and provides fresh water for many different creatures and habitats.

But over the past 15 years, there has been less of that ice forming, and it’s been melting about a month earlier. This means habitats that rely on that water melting later are getting less water overall, as it melts too soon and there is less of it to melt in the first place.

Looking at 147 rivers icings in the U.S. and Canadian Arctic using satellite data, Pavlesky and Zarnetske discovered that 84 of those are becoming smaller or disappearing earlier in the season. The minimum area of ice also shrank a lot during the study period. In 2000, there were 30 square miles of ice, but there were only 2 square miles in 2010. The minimum ice area has rebounded a little bit: it was up to 3 square miles in 2015.

“This is the first clear evidence that this important component of Arctic river systems—which we didn’t know was changing—is changing and it’s changing rapidly,” said lead author Tamlin Pavelsky of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

The exact mechanisms of how climate change is affecting these rivers is as yet unknown, it could be that higher temperatures are directly affecting the ice, or that it is more subtly impacting groundwater, and how that water interacts with rivers.

“While glaciers tell us about climate in the mountains and sea ice tells us about sea-atmosphere interactions, the processes that control river icing may offer great insight into how groundwater and surface waters are connected in the Arctic and how our headwaters will be connected to the ocean in the future,” said study co-author Jay Zarnetske of Michigan State University.

In the meantime, these rivers and their related ecosystems are going to continue to change as the world’s overall climate warms.

Climate Change, Environmental Hazards, Science

Arctic Puts in Overtime When it Comes to the Nitrogen Cycle

The arctic works overtime at removing nitrogen.
Photo: Shutterstock

Nitrogen is necessary for all life on Earth, but like many things, its possible to have too much of it.

For most of the Earth’s history, there was a careful nitrogen balance maintained between land, sea, and atmosphere. This was done through a process called denitrification. However, human activity has caused high levels of nitrogen in the earth’s oceans.

When fertilizer and sewage make their way into the ocean, it produces areas where there is simply too much nitrogen. This produces fish kills, toxic algae blooms, shellfish poisoning, and loss of coral reefs, seagrass meadows, and other coastal habitats.

One of the denitrification processes is handled by microbes found on seabeds of continental shelves. Interestingly the Arctic, which only accounts for 1 percent of these shelves, is actually responsible for 5 percent of global ocean nitrogen removal.

“The role of this region is critically important to understand as humans put more nitrogen into the ocean,” says Amber Hardison of the University of Texas at Austin, one of the authors of the paper. “The Arctic is also undergoing dramatic changes linked to climate change, including a rapid decline in sea ice. As sea ice shrinks, it disrupts the natural functioning of the ecosystem, including potentially limiting the vital nitrogen removal process.”

Animals living on and in the seafloor also play a role in denitrifiation. These creatures, including worms and clams, make tubes and burrows in the seabed, which makes a space for the microbes to do their job.

This new information might help us to better understand how ocean nitrogen removal works, as well as how our on actions impact it. By studying the microbes in the Arctic seabed, scientists can get a better understanding of how this denitrification process works. Then, by comparing them to other, similar microbes, they can get an idea of why Arctic microbes are so much better at denitrification. This could help them come to a conclusion about how to assist that process, which could help us offset the extra nitrogen that we’ve been leaking into the ocean.

This also means that protecting the Arctic is even more important. Oil and gas companies have been eyeing Arctic waters as a possible place to find untapped quantities of fossil fuels. They can only do because global climate change, brought about by the use of fossil fuels, has made those waters more accessible, but numerous scientists have argued that tapping such reserves could be bad for the Arctic and the world at large.

Climate Change, Science

NASA Study Finds Historical Gaps in Climate Data

Ice floes near Iceland. We are missing historical climate data from the Arctic.
Many of the gaps in our historical climate record are from the Arctic. Photo: Shutterstock

If you follow climate science or environmental news, you are no doubt aware of the fact that there are a lot of seemingly conflicting reports about how much the global average temperature has risen and is rising.

Scientists, even the vast majority who support the existence of climate change, can disagree on just how much temperatures have changed, or how much they’re going to change. And the difference is largely due to how they get their data.

Estimates of temperature change based on computer models are often more severe than those based on historical data, looking at temperatures from various points around the world throughout the last century and a half. The reason for that difference is that historical records are incomplete.

Any historian would tell you that no historical record is complete, but in many cases, we don’t know what’s missing there. But in the case of climate data, we now for sure that many of the gaps are from the Arctic.

The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the Earth, but that’s hard to tell from historical data because there are long periods where those temperatures weren’t being measured. Different sources of data such as air temperatures versus water temperatures can yield different results. Water warms more slowly, so water temperatures do not reflect changing global temperatures as quickly.

This doesn’t mean that historical data isn’t useful. It still remains an important part of studying human effects on the world, but it is an incomplete part. Computer modeling can be used to try and fill in some of those gaps, and efforts to do that have found estimates of future temperature change that are more in line with purely computer-modeled systems.

Science is as much about what you don’t know as it is about what you do, and knowing now what we didn’t know can help us in the future.

Climate Change, Conservation, Science

Thirsty Yet? Climate Change is Drying Up Your Drinking Water!

The Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest watersheds drain into Hubbard Brook, and then into Mirror Lake, pictured here.
The Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest watersheds drain into Hubbard Brook, and then into Mirror Lake, pictured here. Photo: Chemical Heritage Foundation | WikimediaCC.

Climate change is shrinking global drinking water resources, reveals a recent study published by researchers from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. The research is based on over 40 years of water samples taken in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest.

What the study finds is that water from more recent samples is coming from different parts of the world that it used to, namely from the Arctic. Isotopic analysis of the water samples allows us to know where rain and snow came from in the first place, because water from different parts of the world has different isotopic identifiers.

The water that has been falling on New Hampshire, where the Hubbard Brook forest is located, has been coming from the Arctic because ice levels are dropping there and more water is evaporating.

Subsequently, the polar vortex that has been responsible for record low temperatures in places as diverse as New York and Florida in recent years, not to mention huge blizzards in recent memory, has also been bringing that water some 2,500 miles south to New England.

About 85% of the world’s population lives in the driest half of the planet, and some 783 million people do not have access to clean water, so figuring out how climate change impacts the distribution of water around the globe is of great importance.

Further research along these lines will be necessary for scientists to understand some of the more subtle effects of climate change, and for policymakers to take that information into account when determining how to deal with climate change in the future.

More research will be forthcoming to help scientists build a better picture of how water resources are distributed globally. This information may help us to find ways to harness that information and improve the lives of people around the world.

Climate Change, Science

Global Temperature Increase Means Higher Local Increases

An increase in global temperatures will lead to higher sea levels and the release of greenhouse gasses currently sequestered in permafrost.
An increase in global temperatures will lead to higher sea levels and the release of greenhouse gasses currently sequestered in permafrost. Photo: Kelm@s | FlickrCC.

If you’ve been following climate science for the last few years, and especially the Paris climate talks late last year, then you’re no doubt aware of the goal to keep global temperature rise at around 1.5 C. That rise is compared to global, preindustrial temperatures, considered by most climate scientists to be the standard for the recent epoch of the Earth’s history.

The argument goes that, if global temperatures rise more than that, we’re in serious trouble, and so we need to keep temperature change in check, which is going to be pretty hard, all things considered. It’s a goal that much of the world has agreed to though, so there is some hope.

Unfortunately, global temperatures have been rising already, and even if we can rein it in, and keep the change to 1.5 C or less, we’re still going to be facing higher temperatures around the world. Because land-based temperatures rise at a faster rate than global averages, and because different regions have different effects on weather, some parts of the world will be getting warmer faster.

For example, by 2030, parts of the Mediterranean, Brazil, and the United States could see an overall increase of 2 C by 2030, even though, if things stay as they are, global averages aren’t expected to rise that much until the 2040s. It’s even worse in the Arctic, where temperatures could rise by as much as 4.4 C. And that’s if we keep change down to 1.5 C.

Under a scenario where global averages go up by 2 C, we’re looking at an increase of anywhere from 5.5 to 8 C in the Arctic. That’s bad because higher temperatures in Canada, Northern Europe, Russia, and other countries with Arctic holdings means more melting ice, which means higher sea levels and the release of additional greenhouse gasses held in permafrost or under the ice.

Conservation, Environmental Hazards, Nature

Polar Code to Regulate Arctic Waters

Ship traveling through Arctic waters
The Polar Code is set to regulate shipping in the Arctic.
Image: Shutterstock

Last week, the International Maritime Organization completed its draft of the first-ever binding set of international rules for Arctic shipping. The United Nations has approved the second half of the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (the Polar Code), with the next portion to be reviewed at the May 2015 meeting with the intent to put the Code into practice beginning in 2017.

The Code covers a variety of Arctic issues, including the design, construction, equipment, operation, training, and search and rescue for ships in the Arctic and Antarctic waters. These include:

  • Preventing oil pollution, including discharge restrictions and structural requirements to protect shipments
  • Controlling pollution caused by noxious liquid substances transported in bulk
  • Preventing pollution caused by sewage from ships
  • Restrictions on garbage created by ships passing through the region

Paul Crowley, head of the World Wildlife Fund’s Canadian Arctic Program, celebrated the new code but also pointed out that there are missing elements, including rules for dealing with heavy fuel oils, ship noise, and black carbon emissions.

Russia, on the other hand, was less than pleased with these new environmental measures. They had hoped to gain an exemption for discharge from ships on domestic routes through the Arctic, which tend to be at sea for long periods of time. Deputy Minister of Transportation Victor Olersky urged the International Maritime Organization not to promote “rigid, prohibitive measures that will prevent shipping companies from using the Northern route.”

Despite these concerns, the Code appears to be moving forward. In addition to the rules and regulations about waste disposal, the finalized Code is likely to include a requirement that ships operating in polar waters plan routes around marine mammal habitats by 2017 and be 30% more energy efficient by 2025.