Why NASA’s Latest Photo of Alaska is Freaking People Out
Rare Clear View of Alaska On most days, relentless rivers of clouds wash over Alaska, obscuring most of the state's 6,640 miles (10,690 kilometers) of coastline and 586,000 square miles (1,518,000 square kilometers) of land. The south coast of Alaska even has the dubious distinction of being the cloudiest region of the United States, with some locations averaging more than 340 cloudy days per year. That was certainly not the case on June 17, 2013, the date that the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Terra satellite acquired this rare, nearly cloud-free view of the state. The absence of clouds exposed a striking tapestry of water, ice, land, forests, and even wildfires. Snow-covered mountains such as the Alaska Range and Chugach Mountains were visible in southern Alaska, while the arc of mountains that make up the Brooks Range dominated the northern part of the state. The Yukon River -- the longest in Alaska and the third longest in the United States -- wound its way through the green boreal forests that inhabit the interior of the state. Plumes of sediment and glacial dust poured into the Gulf of Alaska from the Copper River. And Iliamna Lake, the largest in Alaska, was ice free. Photo: NASA, Image Credit
29 June, 2013
At first glance, it’s just a great photo of nearly the entire state of Alaska on an exceptionally clear day. What could be the problem?
The melt in Greenland and the high temperatures in Alaska may be more signs—like we needed more—of the reality of climate change. Even scarier is the fact that the climate models used before didn’t predict this sort of thing. The climate is very complex, and it’s hard to model it accurately. This is well-known and is why it’s so hard to make long-term predictions.
But before the deniers crow that climatologists don’t know what they’re doing, note this well: The predictions made using these models almost always seem to underestimate the effects of climate change. That’s true in this case, too. So it’s not that the models are wrong and therefore climate change doesn’t exist. It’s that the models aren’t perfect, and it’s looking like things are worse than we thought.
Atmospheric and oceanic climate forcing of the exceptional Greenland ice sheet surface melt in summer 2012
The research, published today in the International Journal of Climatology, clearly demonstrates that the record surface melting of the GrIS was mainly caused by highly unusual atmospheric circulation and jet stream changes, which were also responsible for last summer's unusually wet weather in England.
The analysis shows that ocean temperatures and Arctic sea-ice cover were relatively unimportant factors in causing the extra Greenland melt.
Professor Hanna said:
“The GrIS is a highly sensitive indicator of regional and global climate change, and has been undergoing rapid warming and mass loss during the last 5-20 years. Much attention has been given to the NASA announcement of record surface melting of the GrIS in mid-July 2012. This event was unprecedented in the satellite record of observations dating back to the 1970s and probably unlikely to have occurred previously for well over a century.
“Our research found that a ‘heat dome’ of warm southerly winds over the ice sheet led to widespread surface melting. These jet stream changes over Greenland do not seem to be well captured in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) computer model predictions of climate change, and this may indicate a deficiency in these models. According to our current understanding, the unusual atmospheric circulation and consequent warm conditions of summer 2012 do not appear to be climatically representative of future ‘average’ summers predicted later this century.
“Taken together, our present results strongly suggest that the main forcing of the extreme GrIS surface melt in July 2012 was atmospheric, linked with changes in the summer North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), Greenland Blocking Index (GBI, a high pressure system centred over Greenland) and polar jet stream which favoured southerly warm air advection along the western coast.
“The next five-10 years will reveal whether or not 2012 was a rare event resulting from the natural variability of the NAO or part of an emerging pattern of new extreme high melt years. Because such atmospheric, and resulting GrIS surface climate, changes are not well projected by the current generation of global climate models, it is currently very hard to predict future changes in Greenland climate. Yet it is crucial to understand such changes much better if we are to have any hope of reliably predicting future changes in GrIS mass balance, which is likely to be a dominant contributor to global sea-level change over the next 100-1000 years.”