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Timing the Apocalypse Pt 1: The Blue Ocean Event -Milestone or Inflection Point?

NASA image of the lowest Arctic sea ice extent in the satellite record on September 16, 2012, the day that the National Snow and Ice Data Center identified to be the minimum. The yellow outline shows the average sea ice minimum from 1979 through 2010.

"If we lose the Arctic, we lose the globe. That is reality." President Niinistö of Finland said during a meeting with Former President Trump on August 28th, 2017. In one short statement, he summarized the importance of sustaining the Arctic in an age of environmental collapse.

The Arctic is the northernmost region of the earth consisting mainly of the Greenland Ice Sheet and water, much of it frozen. This frozen seawater is called Arctic sea ice. Much of this sea ice stays frozen for most or all of the year. The Arctic has often been called the planet's air conditioner because of its vital role in regulating the world's climate. This is primarily due to the massive ice sheet covering Greenland and the enormous quantity of sea ice flowing and shifting in the Arctic Ocean. Unfortunately, because of human industrial civilization, the planet's air conditioner is breaking down. The Arctic sea ice is melting fast. How low will it go? And what will happen when all of it has melted?

This image demonstrates the steady decline of Arctic sea ice over the last 40 years.

The “Blue Ocean Event," or BOE is when for the first time in recorded human history, virtually all of the Arctic sea ice is gone. There are varying interpretations of what a BOE entails. The most common definition, and what will be used here defines a Blue Ocean Event as having less than 1 million square kilometers of sea ice. The first BOE is predicted to occur at the end of the Artic Summer in September. Please watch this excellent video from PhysicsHigh that demonstrates via simple experiment what may soon happen to the Arctic Ocean without its stabilizing sea ice.

Once all the ice is gone, the water gets much warmer very quickly. The energy needed to change state from solid ice to liquid water is the same amount of energy needed to heat an equivalent volume of liquid water all the way up to 79 °C.

Normally, the Arctic maintains a relatively stable temperature near freezing throughout the year allowing it to quickly refreeze after the summer melt season. However, over the last 40 years, there has been a dramatic drop in the amount of sea ice as shown in the spiral graph above. There are various predictions on when we will see the first ice-free Arctic. Renowned Artic Scientist Peter Wadham's stated in his 2016 book Farewell to Ice that he expected it to be gone by the mid 2010s. Other researchers have predicted this year, 2022 which is unlikely at the time of this writing. Recent studies, including those used in IPCC reports, predict the timing of the first BOE to be within a few decades to mid-century.

In the next video, Mark Lynas, author of Our Final Warning Six Degrees of Climate Emergency predicts a Blue Ocean Event sometime in the 2030s.

As Lynas states, various models have the first BOE occurring as early as 1.5 °C above the preindustrial baseline. We are currently at 1.2 °C in 2022 in a La Niña year. During the next El Niño year, Earth's global temperature could temporarily reach 1.5 °C. If conditions are right, we could see a summer ice-free Arctic faster than expected. The graphic below demonstrates that the difference between a La Niña year and an El Niño year could easily be 0.3 °C

In the next video, activist Roger Hallam of Extinction Rebellion talks about his encounter with IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) scientists giving their honest assessment of our shared predicament and the possibility of the first BOE as early as 2025.

So, what are the consequences of a BOE? A typical ocean albedo is approximately 0.06, while sea ice varies between 0.5 and 0.7. This means that the ocean reflects only 6 percent of incoming solar radiation and absorbs the rest, while sea ice reflects 50 to 70 percent of incoming solar energy. According to current and former researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, losing the remaining Arctic sea ice and its ability to reflect incoming solar energy back to space would be equivalent to adding one trillion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere, on top of the 2.4 trillion tons emitted since the Industrial Age. At current rates, this equates to roughly 25 years of global CO2 emissions. If all of the sea ice was gone year-round this could equate to around 0.5C of global heating. This could happen very quickly.

In the next video climatologist Paul Beckwith describes what could happen in the aftermath of a Blue Ocean Event. He describes extreme changes in weather that could make it very difficult for us to grow crops at scale leading to worldwide famine.

The final issue that needs to be addressed is the colossal amounts of methane that seems poised to be release from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. This continental shelf is extremely shallow, only about 50 metres deep. These deposits would be severely compromised during a Blue Ocean Event. The rapid release of even a small percentage of these enormous quantities of methane would be catastrophic for humanity. From the 2013 paper Gail Whiteman, Chris Hope, and Peter Wadhams Vast Costs of Arctic Change:

As the amount of Arctic sea ice declines at an unprecedented rate, the thawing of offshore permafrost releases methane. A 50-gigatonne (Gt) reservoir of methane, stored in the form of hydrates, exists on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. It is likely to be emitted as the seabed warms, either steadily over 50 years or suddenly.

Atmospheric rivers have been in the news a lot lately. In the past year, they have caused devastation around the world causing flooding thought to be once in a thousand-year events. They have been discovered to have been wrecking havoc in the polar regions for years. A recent study found that 60% of calving events from ice shelves in the Antarctic Peninsula had atmospheric rivers as a trigger. What if a large atmospheric river or a series of them appeared over a softened ice-free East Siberian Arctic Shelf? Could this be the spark that ignites the fabled methane bomb described by Natalia Shakhova in 2008?

Of course, there is another side to this debate. There are some reputable scientists that make a strong argument that a BOE will essentially be a non-event. They argue that a Blue Ocean Event would be more of a signpost along the road of climate change than a civilization shaking cataclysm. Please click the link and read the article. It is always good to hear out arguments from the other side. But as you might suspect, I'm not buying them. The situation is dire.

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Michael Dowd
Michael Dowd

Excellent post...thanks! I respectfully (and playfully) disagree with your last sentence, however.

See this 8-minute video clip of HBO's "The Newsroom" (the most accurate portrayal of the consequences of abrupt climate mayhem ever shown on American television) and you'll know why your last sentence misses the true nature of our predicament :-)

fyi... My sense of our predicament and what's inevitable and still possible, based on 9 years of research, can be found in my "All You Can Eat" version of "Ten Inevitables: Post Doom, No Gloom":

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