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What's Up In Climate Change? Trouble in the Arctic, mystery craters in Siberia and a surprising carbon flatline for 2014

The winter Arctic sea ice maximum is at its lowest level since record keeping began in 1979. Credit: NSIDC


Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Monday, March 16, 2015, 10:55 - Arctic sea ice may have reached in the lowest maximum on record, Siberian mystery craters keep popping up but a ray of hope as carbon emissions flatline in 2014? It's What's Up In Climate Change.

Trouble brewing in the Arctic

At a time when Arctic sea ice usually goes through one final surge of growth before it reaches its maximum extent for the year, the amount of ice cover took a sharp downturn in the last week of February and has been dwindling since. As of March 4, 2015, Arctic sea ice extent measured by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) fell below all previously recorded levels for this time of year.

Below is an animation of Arctic sea ice extents, measured by the NSIDC, showing all years from 1979, then the previous lowest years (2011 and 2006, along with 2012 which had the lowest summer extent), and finally 2015 on its own.


Graphs courtesy NSIDC, animation by Scott Sutherland

While there is a chance that a final growth surge for the season could still happen, if ice levels have already reached their maximum, it will be the lowest winter max since record keeping began back in 1979. 

What's going on in the Antarctic?

While ice extents in the Arctic and Antarctic are not tied to each other, and show no balancing trend, it's worth noting that Antarctic sea ice is above average, but certainly isn't breaking any records (and hasn't been since Feb 10). As the animation below shows, 2008 and 2013 both had higher minimum sea ice extents surrounding the Antarctic continent during the February/March minimum.


Graphs courtesy NSIDC, animation by Scott Sutherland

What will a low Arctic maximum mean for the rest of the year?

If this is, indeed, the maximum that we'll see for the year, it represents a problem. In other years, the maximum was not only higher, but it was reached later in the year. With more open, ice-free water exposed to sunlight for a longer period of the year it will mean more energy being stored up, and more heat in the Arctic Ocean. This could lead to an even warmer Arctic during 2015, which could feed into more melting. Weather patterns play a big role in this, of course, which are largely a random roll of the dice. However, the warming climate feeds into the weather, effectively loading the dice.

So, while it remains to be seen exactly what will happen through spring and summer, as Jennifer Francis, an Arctic researcher with Rutgers University, told Climate Central on Wednesday: "The fact that we're starting the melt season with low - maybe record low - winter extents cannot be good."

Siberian Mystery Craters Blamed on Climate Change

More craters are showing up in northern Siberia, with a total of seven found so far, and according to scientists there could be as many as 30 more that have yet to be discovered.

The reason for these strange craters appearing seemingly out of nowhere? It's not aliens or meteorite impacts. It's climate change.

How can climate change cause these strange craters to form?

One possibility put forward by investigators is that melting permafrost, due to the warming climate, is releasing methane gas that's been trapped in the soil as methane hydrate - a solid, similar to ice, composed of methane molecules trapped in a crystal structure with water molecules. These hydrates can remain stable for a very long time, but if they convert to gas, a trapped pocket of methane could be put under enough pressure by the soil above that they explode.

The only problem with this explanation, according to Carolyn Ruppel, the scientist in charge of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Gas Hydrates Project, is that methane hydrates need high pressures to remain stable, much higher than there would be at the shallow, 130-230 foot depths of these craters. She told National Geographic that the craters likely started out as pingos - accumulations of ice under the ground that can grow quite large, pushing the ground upward into a hill up to 230 feet tall, while compacting the soil underneath. According to Ruppel, a melting pingo could easily create a crater, and release methane gas that was trapped under the ice 'plug', causing the eruption of soil and rocks that have been found around the craters.

The real problem with these, beyond the safety of people living in those areas, is that this release of methane is very dangerous for the state of Earth's climate. Although excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the dominant driver of current warming trends, methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2.

Surprise! Carbon Emissions Flatlined for 1st Time in 40 Years!

The International Energy Agency (IEA) had some surprising news on Friday. For the first time in 40 years, while economic growth continued in 2014, carbon dioxide emission did not rise in step. In fact, emissions between 2013 and 2014 flatlined, at a total of 32.3 billion tonnes of CO2.

"This is both a very welcome surprise and a significant one," Fatih Birol, Chief Economist for the IEA, said in a statement. "It provides much-needed momentum to negotiators preparing to forge a global climate deal in Paris in December: for the first time, greenhouse gas emissions are decoupling from economic growth."

According to the IEA:

                    

In the 40 years in which the IEA has been collecting data on carbon dioxide emissions, there have only been three times in which emissions have stood still or fallen compared to the previous year, and all were associated with global economic weakness: the early 1980's; 1992 and 2009. In 2014, however, the global economy expanded by 3%.

                    

What's behind this stall in emission increases?

The IEA attributes it to the increasing use of renewable energy, such as hydroelectricity, solar power and wind power, less reliance on coal, and working towards greater energy efficiency, all have an impact on reducing carbon emissions.

"This gives me even more hope that humankind will be able to work together to combat climate change, the most important threat facing us today," said Birol.

Sources: Climate Central | NSIDC | The GuardianEarthSkyNational Geographic | Climate Central | IEA

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