Increased Heat From Arctic Rivers Is Melting Sea Ice in the Arctic Ocean and Warming the Atmosphere

Arctic River

Water from Canada’s Mackenzie River enters the blue Arctic Ocean in July 2012. White areas in the top half of the photo are largely sea ice, while those below are clouds over land. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

A new study shows that increased heat from Arctic rivers is melting sea ice in the Arctic Ocean and warming the atmosphere.

The study published recently in Science Advances was led by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, with contributing authors in the United States, United Arab Emirates, Finland, and Canada.

According to the research, major Arctic rivers contribute significantly more heat to the Arctic Ocean than they did in 1980. River heat is responsible for up to 10% of the total sea ice loss that occurred from 1980 to 2015 over the shelf region of the Arctic Ocean.

That melt is equivalent to about 120,000 square miles (310,000 square kilometers) of 1-meter (3.3-foot) thick ice. That is roughly 20% the size of Alaska, explained Igor Polyakov, co-author and oceanographer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ International Arctic Research Center and Finnish Meteorological Institute.

Rivers have the greatest impact during spring breakup. The warming water dumps into the ice-covered Arctic Ocean and spreads below the ice, decaying it. Once the sea ice melts, the warm water begins heating the atmosphere.

Arctic River-Related Heat Sinks/Sources

This diagram shows the relative amount of warming caused by Arctic rivers, with the sources of heat in orange and the heat sinks in turquoise. In spring, rivers flow into the Arctic Ocean, warming the water and melting sea ice, which in turn warms the atmosphere. A feedback occurs as the reflective ice disappears, allowing the dark ocean water to absorb more heat and melt more sea ice. Credit: Graphic adapted from Science Advances paper

The research found that much more river heat energy enters the atmosphere than melts ice or heats the ocean. Since air is mobile, this means river heat can affect areas of the Arctic far from river deltas.

The impacts were most pronounced in the Siberian Arctic, where several large rivers flow onto the relatively shallow shelf region extending nearly 1,000 miles offshore. Canada’s Mackenzie River is the only river large enough to contribute substantially to sea ice melt near Alaska, but the state’s smaller rivers are also a source of heat.

Polyakov expects that rising global air temperatures will continue to warm Arctic rivers in the future. As rivers heat up, more heat will flow into the Arctic Ocean, melting more sea ice and accelerating Arctic warming.

Rivers are just one of many heat sources now warming the Arctic Ocean. The entire Arctic system is in an extremely anomalous state as global air temperatures rise and warm Atlantic and Pacific water enters the region, decaying sea ice even in the middle of winter. All these components work together, causing positive feedback loops that speed up warming in the Arctic.

“It’s very alarming because all these changes are accelerating,” said Polyakov. “The rapid changes are just incredible in the last decade or so.”

Reference: “Increasing riverine heat influx triggers Arctic sea ice decline and oceanic and atmospheric warming” by Hotaek Park, Eiji Watanabe, Youngwook Kim, Igor Polyakov, Kazuhiro Oshima, Xiangdong Zhang, John S. Kimball and Daqing Yang, 6 November 2020, Science Advances.
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abc4699

Authors of the paper include Hotaek Park, Eiji Watanabe, Youngwook Kim, Igor Polyakov, Kazuhiro Oshima, Xiangdong Zhang, John S. Kimball and Daqing Yang.

Funding for Polyakov’s component of the research was provided by the National Science Foundation.

10 Comments on "Increased Heat From Arctic Rivers Is Melting Sea Ice in the Arctic Ocean and Warming the Atmosphere"

  1. Under water volcanoes are melting the Arctic, A 0.5 Degree increase in surface temperature would do nothing to melt ice.
    Was hotter 8,000 years ago with lower CO2.

  2. The diagram in the news article has a flawed assumption. It illustrates a feedback loop with the parameters of “reflective ice” and “darker water.” The snow-covered ice is a diffuse reflector that is relatively insensitive to the angle of incidence of the sunlight, and has a high but variable albedo that depends mostly on the age of the snow and the amount of dust collected on the surface. Thus, snow looks bright regardless of where the observer and the sun are located. On the other hand, the open water is a specular reflector that only appears dark because much of the incident light is confined to a narrow sheaf of rays that can only be observed or measured in a unique position, i.e. facing and in line with the sun. Because the reflectivity of water varies significantly between 60 deg (6%) and 90 deg (100%!) angle of incidence(essentially within the Arctic Circle), to analyze the situation properly requires integrating the reflectivity with respect to latitude. After the Vernal Equinox, the sun does not set until the Autumnal Equinox. That means that at ‘night’ the terminator is on the far side of the Earth and the reflectance is 100% on open water. For some areas and particular times, the specular reflectance of water is much higher than for snow/ice. That is to say, the reflectivity varies with date, time, and location, and the feedback loop is overly simplistic.

    Once again, climatologists engage in hand waving instead of using physically realistic models that can yield quantitative results of greater utility than imprecise “reflective” and “darker.”

    • Obviously, the “net” reflectance is all that matters. Microscopic analysis can yield exception in many scenarios; but, what is the aggregate effect considering the entire region and temporality? Wattsupwiththat seems very questionable as a source, and quite possibly, intentionally misleading.

      • Fox
        If you had bothered to check out the link, you would have discovered that I am the source, WUWT is the publisher. Attacking the “source” is effectively an ad hominem attack and is not a rebuttal to the claims made. Basically, you are saying that if you don’t approve of the source, you reject the argument and facts.

  3. Global warming is real and will continue in the years to come. Also, expect to experience drought.

  4. Michael Q. Rudnin | December 5, 2020 at 5:16 pm | Reply

    The first year that the Arctic Ocean goes ice free will be the beginning of the end of our civilization, as the cryosphere will no longer be able to slow climate change and runaway global warming will ensue … ETA 2035, this isn’t some faroff future I’m describing, but an inevitability that will occur during my lifetime unless if our civilization curtails fossil fuel emissions and puts the Green New Deal as a top priority … #BlueOceanEvent

    • Rudnin
      I take it that your world view is that the Arctic is a giant ice cube sitting on top of the Earth and it is what keeps the temperature down. If so, you have cause and effect backwards!

      That is a very naive and inaccurate world model. It is no wonder you think that the GND is our salvation. God forbid that the patients are ever in charge of the loony Bin!

      The donation solicitation you link to has a lot of the expected “may” and “could” qualifiers. What struck me is the quantitative assessment: “… a study by Scripps Institution of Oceanography finds a 5% [FIVE PERCENT!] chance that rapid global warming will be ‘catastrophic’ or worse for the human race.” Put another way, there is a 95% chance that rapid global warming WON’T be catastrophic.

      Your link also says, “observation with satellites shows that Arctic sea ice area, extent, and volume have been in decline for a few decades.” Actually, it has probably been in decline for about 20,000 years, which is when the most recent Pleistocene glaciation came to an end.

      Your link encourages citizen scientists. However, one has to THINK like a scientist, and have a mastery of the facts and vocabulary of the critical sciences. That is something that even some of the recent graduate scientists seem to have a problem with. Your remarks sound more like the dogma of a religious acolyte than the cautious and measured assessment of a scientist who realizes that they are fallible and don’t know everything.

  5. Of course the climate on planet earth, along with CO2 levels are always changing. If considering the planet’s age as a 45 year human, just “4 years ago”, CO2 levels were over 4,000 PPM. Yet here we are!

    When speaking in terms of 1,000 years with respect to the age of the earth, when compared to a human life, that represents a mere 10.3 seconds! Would someone be able to determine the outcome of a person’s life based on a 10.3 second snippet? Yet here we are doing exactly that.

    So here’s a question; the earth begins to cool, which it will, just how much CO2 will be needed to warm up the earth to avoid the new ice age? And to what temperature?

    Which leads to this; what is the temperature of the earth supposed to be?

    • Gemini
      I have yet to find an alarmist that can answer — and logically defend — the question of what the optimal temperature is for life. The unthinking answer seems to be “what the temperature was before industrialization,” when the Earth was coming out of a Little Ice Age.

  6. Interesting research.

    An ecosystems and holistics planetary perspective is important.

    Think of the planet as a a seaparate ecosystem with a great deal of water in nmultiple forms. Mostly liquid forms (Oceans , Rivers. Lakes , Ground water & Undergound rivers etc.) . Lots of Water in gaseous form (amount can be determined and changes as well). When measured in comparision against Ntrogen and Oxygen it may seem very little in percentage numbers. However measure it in terms of how many rivers are already present in the atmosphere and it may be interesting. Especially in nations which are Hot and Humid like mine!! Lots of Water in Solid form. Frozen Continents and Snow etc. Disappearing rapidly across the globe.

    There could be multiple factors driving the changes in the composition of the three forms if we are observing these as a impartial observer from space.

    In addition the recent article in which there was discovery of two different types of water – which exist at extremely low temperatures ( -70 to minus 80 degrees – coincidently the temperature of mars – in liquid form) is a very intersting finding.

    Need to investigate whether these two different type of water (or many more which may exist in water) — also exist at room temperatue, and slightly higer temperatures like hot drinks we consume, as well as cold drinks we consume along with Ice (Iced Tea, Lemonade , alcoholic beverages – Stirred but notshaken!etc. ) and humans and other creations of God require to sustain life and how the consumption of water affects humans. The question is can water take on the charcateristic of the source/ place of origin?

    Wondering how all of this is connected to a riverine artic flows melting the solid form of water? Well , when we look at data and analyze the same and draw concusions it needs to based on all the factors driving the phenomenon we are observing.
    What are the factors driving the melting of the glaciers , ice in solid form when looked at from a planetary perspective? Is it only temperature change. Planet appears to be getting hotter currently.

    How much is it due to natural factors and how much is it due to economic and human activity related factors ? Once we have got a hold on that , we can discuss this ecosystem caled planet earth.

    Look at it from a Doctors perspective. What does he/she do when you visit your family doctor or specialist at the neighbourhood clinin , or hospital and tell her/him you are not feeling well. He takes out a thermometer and takes your temperature. (Symptom #1). Then fhe Doctor holds you wrist and takes your pulse. (Symptom #2).Then the Doctor puts on a sthescope and listens to your heartbeat( Symptom #3). Then the Doctor asks you to explian what is the problem you are actually facing , to try and make assesment about what could be the causitive factor/factors driving the ” Not feeling well symptoms!”. If he/she is not able to determine the causative factors , she/he recommends a series of additional tests to try and find the root ause of the “sickness”!

    Wondering when Climate Scientists will build a comprehensive model to determine the root causes of such changes we are observing in the planetary changes afoot and howmuch each is contributing the observed phenomenon. It may be a complex task but not beyond the ability of humans!

    We have the example of the neighbouring planet which appears RED in the sky , yes I am taking about Mars that we are keen to get back to and where surface temperatures are minus 70 to 80 degrees! Maybe men are all from Mars and Women are from Venus after all!!

    Wonder where all the water and oceans on Mars went!. ?

    Well here is an obvious hypothesis. Water biols at 100 degrees celsius! Water vapour is gaseous. Gases could possibly escape from the planet. However , currently as we go higher the temperature of the atmosphere cools down and hopefully the water vapour we are creating turns into other forms and returns to the planets surface.

    Phenomenon which melt Solid form of water and make it liquid means it is now avaialble for evaporation thanks to life giving suns rays. This paper is very interesting and important to understand and its implications are quite horrendous. Artic Rivers are melting the Frozen wasteland and the liquid flows are warming the atmosphere. All we have to realize that if the Atmosphere is getting warmer and the water cycle is getting disrupted, the Planetary ecosystem of the earth will face challenges in the future — AS — if the atomsphere gets warm enough to permit the water to say bye-bye and leave the planet it is goodbye all life on Planet Earth! This may take time. But when measured in a Time span of the Universe it may be just a blink of an eye!!

    The views expressed are personal and not binding on anyone!

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