My Question at 38,000 feet Altitude near Greenland: How’s the ice doing?

A changing climate is an undeniable given.  But…

This is the North Pole Sea Ice anomaly graph (red is 2012, updated till Sept. 7 / Check most recent at source), shows a pretty impressive melt this summer:

Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center (NERSC) – Arctic Regional Ocean Observing System (ROOS)- Click the pic to view this and many other related data and graph sources, compiled at WUWT’s Sea Ice Reference Page.  Note that the vertical axis doesn’t start at zero, but at 2 million square kilometers of ice, most of which is over 2 meters thick.

It was ALL over the news in both July and August:  Unprecedented melting of Greenland’s ice sheet has stunned NASA scientists” and that “Manhattan-Sized Icebergs” were breaking off, ETC.   (See related news coverage examples at  The New York Times, Huffington Post, National Geographic, Fox News, LA Times, MSNBCBBC, The Guardian, some exceptionally deceptive feat at Media Matters, and to be “fair” (8:1), the skeptical blog WUWT  added its voice to the matter – to name just a few.)

How truly ‘unusual’, ‘unprecedented’ or ‘alarming’ was this recent Greenland ice melt, really?   Not much attention was given to the nuance, but the July 24, 2012 NASA Press Release did mention:

“Ice cores from Summit show that melting events of this type occur about once every 150 years on average. With the last one happening in 1889, this event is right on time,” says Lora Koenig, a Goddard glaciologist and a member of the research team analyzing the satellite data.”

I want to see the graph that shows those melt events.  My search for this was pretty much the journey that lead to this post.

First this photo which I took at the end of August at 38,000 ft (11582 meter) altitude, a little south of Greenland above the Atlantic Ocean, where I happened to be sitting watching movies in an airplane, undoubtedly blasting enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere… :

If you wonder about the screen at the bottom, I was watching the sci-fi movie ‘Prometheus’.  Click image for trailer.  Certainly NOT a must-see.

Climate Change is of all ages and its effects on agriculture, sea level and comfort levels in general, can be so drastic, it would be odd not to concern oneself with its fluctuations.  If you live on Earth, climate change is a given.   Climates change, always have and – except in the unlikely event of flawless geo-engineering advances – always will.

  • Here’s a 20,000 year temperature graph (based on proxies from ice cores) for one of those places in south-central Greenland covered in about 3 kilometers of thick ice, where the GISP2 ice core was drilled:

10,500 years of temperature changes in central Greenland. Recent ice melt clearly can not be ‘unprecedented’, as other warm spells have occurred over the centuries, some much warmer than the Modern Warm Period. Sources for all data are linked from article I picked the graph from. Click Image for source and additional resources.

Temperature over such long periods don’t show enough detail to even remotely hint at warmer peak days, which can be very brief, as Arctic weather often shifts dramatically and quickly.  The next graph (with HOUR resolution!) compares this summer melt to the previous six years’ summers:

  • In the North, at the Summit Camp drill site (where the NGRIP ice core record is from) in the middle of Northern Greenland, the surface melt events apparently were very brief:

The graph below shows hourly average summer temperatures at Summit Station, Greenland. Gray lines show temperatures from 2005-2011; 2012 summer temperatures through late July are shown in red.  Click for Source: NOAA, (I added the date July 12, 2012 in turquoise, and as you can see it really was only on that day that the melt was all accross Greenland, including in spots that rarely see temperatures above freezing.  Looks like a little thaw happened… for an afternoon… )

Looking at that graph above, all in all, temperatures barely peaked out of the freezing zone for 1 day at Summit Camp, and from the data it looks like this thaw happened only a couple days here and a couple days there in the area that’s white in the left photo of the NASA press release shown below:

Using the data for the meltiest of days, July 12, 2012, (which I added to the above graph to illustrate which day they picked, sure initially gave me the impression that “the situation on Greenland this summer” was pretty alarming at first.  Little did I know it was the peak of a very short warm spell, most likely only representing a few hours in that afternoon.  Knowing this, I find this “Greenland melt map”, which accompanied most news articles, somewhat misleading.  

I’ve added the above graph’s drill locations to these maps:

For a couple hours in the afternoon of July 12, 2012, temperatures peaked out of the deep-freeze zone, causing a pathetic tidbit of surface melt, yet giving the visual impression that even places covered in 2 miles of ice were in danger of disappearing before our eyes… Click image for article example at the Christian Science Monitor, July 25, 2012. (NGRIP (north, central) and GISP2 (south-central) ice core drill locations added by me.)

Of course, the above news was picked up far and wide, and in many places ran under terribly alarmist (and truly misleading) headlines like, “‘Astonishing’ Heat Wave Melts 97 Percent of Greenland Ice Sheet“, or in Dutch: “Groenland smelt weg” (Greenland melts away).  The actual articles (like the press release) may add nuance, but it’s the headline with its dramatic image that sticks for much of the public.

While it’s still hot in much of the Northern hemisphere this early September, who would guess it’s already 40 below (-40C = -40 F) at Summit Camp right now (at time of posting)?  (You can check the weather there on the Summit Station webcam).  Or who would have guessed that the day that news was spreading like wildfire, it was actually already snowing there again?  

Now check this out:  This Holocene melt record, below, (which might indicate more significant melts than the little but widespread thaw seen on July 12th) puts the claim of “unprecedented melt event” further to shame.  (Note that the horizontal x-axis, indicating TIME expressed in years before 1950 runs from the past on the right to 1950 at the bottom of the left’s y-axis!)  I’ve added an extra green line to suggest 2012‘s melt year, as well as the previous one found in ice layers at Summit Camp, of 1889.  Before that, it was very cold for awhile, a period known as ‘The Little Ice Age’, which followed the Medieval Warm Period (also with a few melt layers), the colder “dark ages”, the Roman Warm Period, and so on, until the end of the last ice age on the right:

Melt against age (upper panel) and July insolation against age (lower panel) for the GISP2 site. Years containing melt features are shown by thin dotted lines. The heavier textured line is the 100-a running mean of melt frequency (number of melt features per 100 years), and the heavy black line is the 1000-a running mean. The lower panel shows deviation of July insolation from modern values in calories/cm2/day, from Berger (1978; 1979); positive values indicate more insolation than today. Data from: Alley, R.B. and S. Anandakrishnan. Variations in melt-layer frequency in the GISP2 ice core: implications for Holocene summer temperatures in central Greenland. Annals of Glaciology 21, 64-70 (1995) / + annotations by me.

And that ends my little investigation.

My Ending Notes:

  • In terms of human lifespan, it was a rare event.  On a 10,000 year interglacial time scale, it’s relatively common.  And it was a lot more common several thousand years ago than it has been in the past millennium.
  • Whoever claimed such summer ice melts are ‘unprecedented’ was basically full of it.  Unprecedented means without precedent, as in “it never happened before”.  That’s clever on the part of NASA/NOAA, of course, as it’s true that satellites never saw such a melt before.  In previous melts there were no satellites.  It’s to be expected that when NASA/NOAA pitches it that way to the media, that it will only lead to alarmism and hype.   The dramatic presentation and cherry-picking of that 1 day snapshot could do little else than fan the flames of global warming alarmism.  Perhaps that was the whole point.
  • “Every 150 years on average”  My guess is that it’s perhaps the Holocene average, but that would still leave the statement of “right on time” a bit… odd.  For starters, 2012 – 1889 = 123.  If the average is 150, it’s not right on time, it’s a early.  Unless the margin for the periodic 150 melt year precision is +/- 100 years or so.   Likely.
  • This is only the 2nd such event in the last 500 years, and the overall trend is clearly downward, after the Holocene peaking 7-8000 years ago.  Which one would be more alarming: a couple more of these in the next decades, or none?
  • Where do people get a statistical signal of of this that somehow this was man-caused?  If ALL previous ones weren’t man-made, why would this one be?

My earlier climate-related posts were:

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3 Responses to My Question at 38,000 feet Altitude near Greenland: How’s the ice doing?

  1. Pingback: Northern Atlantic Covered in Icebergs | Not All Alleged Is Apparent…

  2. Mikey says: We still are not quite as warm as the MWP. Tree stumps revealed by the receding Mendenhall glacier inconveniently indicate there was a forest there 1000 years ago.

  3. MVB says:

    Thanks, Mikey. Interesting.

    Yeah, there’s lots of local examples of the Medieval Warm Period having been warmer than the current warm phase.

    On the global average temperature, the scientific views diverge. But on the Roman Warm Period and the one before, there’s no disagreement among scientists: they were significantly warmer than anything since.

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