Tipping point: the Arctic is a slowly boiling jug of ice water

Summer is the period when sea-ice reaches it’s minimum extent in the Arctic, but thanks to climate change this extent has been declining rapidly.

There are signs the Arctic is approaching a death spiral, when the Arctic will be ice-free during the summer months. 

This will have profound effects on the planet’s climate.

As Robert Scribbler notes in his blog the past few weeks have been concerning:

Over the past month, warmth and energy have been building in the Arctic. All around, from Siberia to Scandinavia to Alaska, heatwaves have flared beneath anomalous long-wave patterns in the Jet Stream. Patterns, that in many cases have persisted for months. The Alaskan heat dome sent temperatures there to 98 degrees (Fahrenheit). Temperatures in Siberia flared to the low 90s. And heat built and flared again in Scandinavia and Northeastern Europe, sending Arctic temperatures first into the 80s and then to 92. 

This building and highly anomalous heat was coupled by another unusual event — a long duration series of Arctic storms that have thinned and weakened large sections of sea ice near the North Pole. This Persistent Arctic Cyclone has flared and faded, remaining in the Arctic since late May. 

Now, with central sea ice weakened and with heat circling in from all around, the Arctic appears to be bracing for a period of rapid sea ice loss.

Last year we saw a record decline in sea ice. This year’s decline did not seem as precipitous, tracking slightly below the 1981-2012 average extent and within standard deviation.

As the above graph from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center indicates, the trend of the past few weeks looks worrisome.

A sharp decline is obvious, pushing it closer to the 2012 record minimum – though I hasten to add within the standard deviations.

Noise or signal?

Hard to say at this point, but I’ll be watching the trend over August. What ever the outcome, low and declining sea-ice extent during the summer months can be considered “the new normal”.

Tipping point cometh?

The oceans cover 70% of the planet’s surface, and are a crucial component of the climate system itself.

But at some point the oceans will stop soaking up the extra heat/energy we’re adding to the climate system.

Like a slowly boiling jug of ice water, we’ll reach a tipping point.

At first the temperature rise is imperceptible.

Slowly the heat builds – slowly the ice begins to melt.

Linear – manageable.

To preserve the ice, one merely has to remove the source of the heat. 

But what if you don’t?

What if you continue to expose the contents of the jug to the same – or increased – levels of heat?

Slowly the heat builds – slowly the ice melts.

But there comes a point when the ice is gone.

A tipping point is reached and passed.

Within moments, the water reaches boiling point.

This simple brute fact of physics is now playing out in the Arctic.

16 thoughts on “Tipping point: the Arctic is a slowly boiling jug of ice water

  1. I am going to play Devils Advocate here.

    In this recent blog post, Andrew Bolt claimed, I assume, the opposite.


    • With all due respect Savvas, but citing Andrew Bolt is not playing Devil’s advocate but rather Moron’s advocate. You are putting a right-wing loony hack journo on the payroll of Murdoch and Rinehart against the brightest minds in polar climate science. To truly play devil’s advocate when discussing science, you should bring forward a counter view from someone of an equal weighting or qualification. Andrew Bolt doesn’t come anywhere close.

    • john byatt says:

      Bolt’s graph is two weeks ago when the weather was conducive to maintaining ice cover,

      As you can see from the above graph the extent has fallen off a cliff in the last two weeks, will bolt update his post?. interesting that he refers to the melt season as “the ice is growing”

    • Gregory T says:

      Savvas, I did a quick check for Bolt on the web and found no indication of him being a member, or associated with any scientific group or organisation. Why would you assume that anything he writes or says has any bearing on anything scientific?

      • Gregory T says:

        Further to my previous post, I have peer (being a non scientist and opinionated) reviewed Bolts articles and I have found them to be wanting of any substantial intellectual substance, that could be rationally interpreted as truth. Or in layman’s terms, complete and utter bullshit.

  2. Ant says:

    Er, a bit alarmist I think. Get yourself a stop watch, fill your kettle with ice, switch it on and observe 1) the time it takes the ice to melt and 2) the time it takes the water to boil.

  3. I just realised how Bolt was trying to deceive his audience. I suppose my point is that people like him (appear) to have clout. And whilst not giving him oxygen is perhaps the best method, as long as his blog and articles are read by a large audience, you have to tackle him, and tackle him HARD!!

    Throughout his whole 15 years as a tabloid opinionista, he is rarely taken to task for his outrageous views.

    The reason I posted was because there was an opportunity to immediately counter something he said, due to the fact that both he and WtD posted about the the same issue within hours of each other.

    I also see that it appears this discussion ended up involving a major Climate Change denier in Watts. This is where i get disappointed in ‘our’ side. It appears to me we just wasted a whole lot of energy and nothing was gained.

    • john byatt says:

      check out the bottom comments friend at is it necessary post, i cannot spell your name

      watts knew about the problem with his graph last year,

      what was very telling was that none of his followers new of the std dev graphs existence and thought that it depicted error bars or a confidence range,

      it has not been wasted as any future recovery posts by him will be seen in the context of reality,

      I think that deltoid had a lot of posts re bolt and the australian but decided he was not worth the bother

  4. metzomagic says:

    Thing is, the extent as of 7 July *would* have been below the 2 SD line, if NSIDC hadn’t changed their baseline period to a more recent one just a few days ago, on 1 July, 2013. It was 1979 – 2000 until then, but now it’s 1981 – 2010. I didn’t notice myself until another reader pointed it out, over at tamino’s I think.

    Of course, Anthony Watts has terrible problems understanding how baselines work. That’s why he prefers the satellite temp records to the land-based ones: they have a later baseline period when global temps were higher already, because satellite records only started relatively recently. So that makes their temp anomalies smaller, and in Watts’ eyes makes the AGW problem seem not as bad. Pathetic, I know, but that’s what we’re up against.

    • CDJacobs says:

      Actually, what you’re “up against” is…

      (1) … the excessively pessimistic projections made over the last few years boldly pointing to an ice-free Arctic by 2013. These were loud and breathless predictions that are so far off they’re not even wrong.
      (2) … equally bombastic announcements that the Arctic is essentially a harbinger of what’s to come. With Arctic temperatures above 80N displaying the fewest number of days below freezing ever recorded in DMI data, does this portend a similarly cold fate for the world? According to the solemn predictions, yes.
      (3) … and finally, really hyperbolic words like these: “This simple brute fact of physics is now playing out in the Arctic” as the 2013 minimum is right around the corner, all the while Antarctic extent is once again racing toward a record.

      You’re “up against” your own shrill and unfounded chatter.

      • uknowispeaksense says:

        1. Which scientists predicted that and in which journal did you read it?
        2. “a similarly cold fate for the world” is quite possibly the stupidest thing I have read yet. This type of childishishness is moronic beyond belief.
        3. Squirrel! By the way dipshit, the Antarctic’s mass wastage is what is important and that is on the up. It is actually the increase in circumpolar winds pushing the ice in the Antarctic that accounts for the increase in ice extent and as it is Winter at that time, it is very cold causing infilling as the ice is shoved outwards. What do you think is causing the increase in circumpolar winds?

        Drawing an analogy for the sake of your ridiculously silly argument between the Arctic in Summer and the Antarctic in Winter isn’t even comparing apples and oranges. You’re comparing apples with chimpanzees. But while we are in the Antarctic, the average temperature over the west Antarctic ice sheet in summer is higher than anytime that we have records for, be they instrumental or proxy.

        So it would seem that what we are up against is moronically simplistic arguments from simpletons.

        • CDJacobs says:

          Goodness… what a rude and cranky poster. (BTW, idonotknowuspeaksense. Mostly you are just insulting.)

          (1) “Which scientists predicted that and in which journal did you read it?” Start with Jay Zwally, ice satellite project scientist at NASA Goddard. He uses the same “tipping point” language in his interviews (one shown here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztz3ZdPbdKo from NOAA news). One of the most famous is Wieslaw Maslowski who predicted this in 2007 and 2008, and was quoted by VP Gore in his Oslo speech accepting the Nobel.

          (2) uknow, if you’re saying that the meme of “arctic climate change is a predictor for the world” doesn’t hold water, then of course I agree. The absurdity that permeated the alarms in 2007/8 was silly, and so would be any similar analogy that an abnormally cold year above 80N predicts a cold world. The idea that Arctic weather portends the world’s fate IS INDEED “childish” — you make my point, so thanks.

          (3) Parkinson and Cavalieri from NASA buy your circulation suggestion.
          But wait: Jiping Liu of Georgia Tech says its ocean warming causing snow.
          Hang on a minute… Bintanja et al from the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute say that as the Antarctic ice shelves melt, the resulting cool fresh water has actually served to insulate the offshore sea ice from the warming ocean beneath the floating floes. So, as a consequence, in southern ocean ice keeps getting larger because of melting… It’s a little like the Christian who says God caused his cancer to strengthen his faith, and then cured it. Whatever happens, God caused it. Couldn’t be anything else. Same here: whatever happens with sea ice, carbon dioxide caused it. The power of belief is awesome.

        • uknowispeaksense says:

          You are so clever and original changing my pseudonym like that. Really. Yes, I am insulting. I like to call a spade a spade and you are an idiot. I know you probably don’t like that but then that’s probably because deep down you know its true. As for the rest well, where to begin? I know… melbourne university is offering a free online course about climate change. Go look it up and enrol. Then, when you have successfully completed it, you can see the errors of your way. If you like I can also send you the lecture materials from the module I teach called “understanding science “.

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