Want to Save The Ice in the Arctic?

I wrote below about Chinese pollution, but here is one other thought.  Shifting Chinese focus from reducing CO2 with unproven 21st century technology to reducing particulates with 1970s technology would be a great boon for its citizens.  But it could well have one other effect:

It might reverse the warming in the Arctic.

The reduction of Arctic ice sheet size in the summer, and the warming of the Arctic over the last several decades, is generally attributed to greenhouse warming.  But there are reasons to doubt that Co2 is the whole story.   One is that the sea ice extent in Antarctica has actually been growing at the same time the Arctic sea ice cover has been shrinking.  Maybe there is another explanation, one that affects only the northern hemisphere and not the southern?

I don't know if you have snow right now or even ever get snow.  If you do, find some black dust, like coal dust or dark dirt, and sprinkle it on a patch of snow.  Then come back tomorrow.  What will you find?  The patch of snow you sprinkled in dark dust melted a lot in comparison to the rest of the snow.  This is an albedo effect.  Snow takes a while to melt because it reflects rather than absorbs solar radiation.  Putting black dust on it changes that equation, and suddenly solar radiation is adsorbed as heat, and the now melts.  Fast.  I know this because I run a sledding hill in the wintertime, where snow falls on a black cinder hill.  The snow will last until even the smallest patch of black cinders is exposed.  Once exposed, that small hole will grow like a cancer, as it absorbs solar energy and pumps it into the surrounding ground.

By the way, if you have not snow, Accuweather.com did the experiment for you.  See here.  Very nice pictures that make the story really clear.

So consider this mess:


Eventually that mess blows away.  Where does it end up?  Well, a lot of it ends up deposited in the Arctic, on top of the sea ice and Greenland ice sheet.

There is a growing hypothesis that this black carbon deposited on the ice from China is causing much of the sea ice to melt faster.  And as the ice sheet melts faster, this lowers the albedo of the arctic, and creates warming.  In this hypothesis, warming follows from ice melting, rather than vice versa.

How do we test this?  Well, the best way would be to go out and actually measure the deposits and calculate the albedo changes from this.  My sense is that this work is starting to be done (example), but it has been slow, because everyone who is interested in Arctic ice of late are strong global warming proponents who have incentives not to find an alternative explanation for melting ice.

But here are two quick mental experiments we can do:

  1. We already mentioned one proof.  Wind patterns cause most pollution to remain within the hemisphere (northern or southern) where it was generated.  So we would expect black carbon ice melting to be limited to the Arctic and not be seen in the Antarctic.  This fits observations
  2. In the winter, as the sea ice is growing, we would expect new ice would be free of particulate deposits and that any new deposits would be quickly covered in snow.  This would mean that we should see ice extents in the winter to be about the same as they were historically, and we would see most of the ice extent reduction in the summer.  Again, this is exactly what we see.

This is by no means a proof -- there are other explanations for the same data.  But I am convinced we would see at least a partial sea ice recovery in the Arctic if China could get their particulate emissions under control.

Update:  Melt ponds in Greenland are black with coal dust



  1. Ignoramus:

    There's science that says that because the Earth wobbles a bit in relation to the Sun, there's symmetrical variance over time in how much light the Northern Hemisphere gets compared with the Southern. This explains regular patterns in how much ice there is at the North Pole versus the South. When one has less, the other has more. There may of course be other factors that play a role in how much ice there is at the North Pole, but I continue to be amazed at how much the pseudo-science of "Climate Studies" makes bold conclusions without fully understanding the biggest driver of them all -- the Sun!

  2. sean2829:

    The ice in the arctic may simply be a reflection of the state of the AMO. There is plenty of ice in the southern oceans which are cold, plenty of ice on the Pacific side of the arctic which is in its cold phase but little on the Atlantic side. The AMO is at its peak right with a lot of warm water in the north Atlantic now and I suspect the state of the arctic ice will be shown to be related to the temperatures of the waters of the Atlantic that are carried in their with natural currents. Look at this article from Judith Curry's weblog, particularly slide 11

  3. OMMAG:

    Not above the 49th parallel pal. AT least on the prairies .... the snow and the ice stay until the weather actually does warm up.

  4. FelineCannonball:

    Dust and aerosols are components of consensus global climate models and particularly important for predicting snow pack persistence, glacier and sea ice melting etc. Some of this is anthropogenic and some is related to dust storms in the Gobi and US SW. The relative importance of different components is best determined through accurate modeling based on real physics and real small scale data. The economic viability (or lack there of) of any potential "solution" is a separate issue. I really don't see where climate scientists would disagree with things you point out other than the fact that they continue to trust the basic physics of albedo effects after they are plugged into models (with appropriate accumulated uncertainty).

    That China has any interest in addressing global warming isn't clear to me. Maybe there are development grants they pursue, but aerosol/particulate reduction is going to be driven by domestic discontent and HSR and fancy renewable projects are going to be driven by ego and graft and a little economics. As far as I can tell the global tree hugging community has about as much influence on the Chinese leadership as IP and patent attorneys.

  5. MikeC:

    I'm no expert on the albedo of open water in the Arctic, but I wonder if the effects of open water are exaggerated. At 80North and at the summer solstice the sun angle is only 33 degrees.However, at the solstice, the Arctic ice extent has decreased only from 14 million sq kilometers to 10 million on its way to the seasonal minimum of roughly 5 million in mid-September. By August 1 the sun angle is 27 degrees and by mid-September (at ice extent minimum) only 12 degrees. It seems to me that by the time there is a significant amount of open water in the high Arctic, the solar angle is so shallow that only a minimal amount of solar radiation will be absorbed and hence contribute to any warming of the sea.

  6. MingoV:

    "The reduction of Arctic ice sheet size in the summer, and the warming of
    the Arctic over the last several decades, is generally attributed to
    greenhouse warming."

    What a crock of crap. In the 1800s, the Northwest Passage was open to wooden sailing ships about one summer in four. Open meant that sailing ships could traverse the entire passage, which took approximately six weeks. In the past twenty years, the Northwest Passage was closed almost every summer. It has opened a few times since 2001, but only because powerful icebreaker ships forced their way through. The passage was never open for six weeks. These recent open passages would have been deemed closed passages 150 years ago. The Northwest Passage data indicates cooling throughout the 1900s and 2000s, not warming.

  7. CT_Yankee:

    I'm sure you are aware that the smog helps protect China by interfering with the guidance systems on US missiles, therefore any effort to reduce emissions must be regarded as an attempt to leave the Chinese defenseless against US.

    Note: I did not have to make this up myself, the idea originated in a Chinese newspaper report

  8. Paul A:

    All food for thought the more I devour the more I think global warming is a croc