This website is the digital version of the 2014 National Climate Assessment, produced in collaboration with the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

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Welcome to the National Climate Assessment

The National Climate Assessment summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States, now and in the future.

A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.

Explore the effects of climate change
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Melting Ice

Rising temperatures are reducing ice cover on land, lakes, and sea and this is expected to continue. The Arctic Ocean is expected to become essentially ice free in summer before mid-century.

Explore declining ice cover.

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Convening Lead Authors

John Walsh, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Donald Wuebbles, University of Illinois

Lead Authors

Katharine Hayhoe, Texas Tech University

James Kossin, NOAA, National Climatic Data Center

Kenneth Kunkel, CICS-NC, North Carolina State Univ., NOAA National Climatic Data Center

Graeme Stephens, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Peter Thorne, Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center

Russell Vose, NOAA National Climatic Data Center

Michael Wehner, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Josh Willis, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Contributing Authors

David Anderson, NOAA, National Climatic Data Center

Scott Doney, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Richard Feely, NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory

Paula Hennon, CICS-NC, North Carolina State Univ., NOAA National Climatic Data Center

Viatcheslav Kharin, Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis, Environment Canada

Thomas Knutson, NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory

Felix Landerer, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Tim Lenton, Exeter University

John Kennedy, UK Meteorological Office

Richard Somerville, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Univ. of California, San Diego

Introduction

This chapter summarizes how climate is changing, why it is changing, and what is projected for the future. While the focus is on changes in the United States, the need to provide context sometimes requires a broader geographical perspective. Additional geographic detail is presented in the regional chapters of this report. Further details on the topics covered by this chapter are provided in the Climate Science Supplement and Frequently Asked Questions Appendices.

The chapter presents 12 key messages about our changing climate, together with supporting evidence for those messages. The discussion of each key message begins with a summary of recent variations or trends, followed by projections of the corresponding changes for the future.

Key Message 11: Melting Ice

Rising temperatures are reducing ice volume and surface extent on land, lakes, and sea. This loss of ice is expected to continue. The Arctic Ocean is expected to become essentially ice free in summer before mid-century.

Supporting Evidence
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Supporting Evidence

Process for Developing Key Messages

Development of the key messages involved discussions of the lead authors and accompanying analyses conducted via one in-person meeting plus multiple teleconferences and email exchanges from February thru September 2012. The authors reviewed 80 technical inputs provided by the public, as well as other published literature, and applied their professional judgment.

Key message development also involved the findings from four special workshops that related to the latest scientific understanding of climate extremes. Each workshop had a different theme related to climate extremes, had approximately 30 attendees (the CMIP5 meeting had more than 100), and the workshops resulted in a paper.10 The first workshop was held in July 2011, titled Monitoring Changes in Extreme Storm Statistics: State of Knowledge.11 The second was held in November 2011, titled Forum on Trends and Causes of Observed Changes in Heatwaves, Coldwaves, Floods, and Drought.12 The third was held in January 2012, titled Forum on Trends in Extreme Winds, Waves, and Extratropical Storms along the Coasts.13 The fourth, the CMIP5 results workshop, was held in March 2012 in Hawai‘i, and resulted in an analysis of CMIP5 results relative to climate extremes in the United States.10

The Chapter Author Team’s discussions were supported by targeted consultation with additional experts. Professional expertise and judgment led to determining “key vulnerabilities.” A consensus-based approach was used for final key message selection.

Description of evidence base

The key message and supporting text summarize extensive evidence documented in the climate science peer-reviewed literature. Technical Input reports (82) on a wide range of topics were also reviewed; they were received as part of the Federal Register Notice solicitation for public input.

There have been a number of publications reporting decreases in ice on land1 and glacier recession. Evidence that winter lake ice and summer sea ice are rapidly declining is based on satellite data and is incontrovertible.2,3

Nearly all studies to date published in the peer-reviewed literature agree that summer Arctic sea ice extent is rapidly declining,4 with even greater reductions in ice thickness5,6 and volume,7 and that if heat-trapping gas concentrations continue to rise, an essentially ice-free Arctic ocean will be realized sometime during this century (for example, Stroeve et al. 20128). September 2012 had the lowest levels of Arctic ice in recorded history. Great Lakes ice should follow a similar trajectory. Glaciers will generally retreat, except for a small percentage of glaciers that experience dynamical surging.2 Snow cover on land has decreased over the past several decades.9 The rate of permafrost degradation is complicated by changes in snow cover and vegetation.

New information and remaining uncertainties

The rate of sea ice loss through this century is a key issue (uncertainty), which stems from a combination of large differences in projections between different climate models, natural climate variability and uncertainty about future rates of fossil fuel emissions. This uncertainty is illustrated in Figure 2.29, showing the CMIP5-based projections (adapted from Stroeve et al. 20128).

Viable avenues to improving the information base are determining the primary causes of the range of different climate model projections and determining which climate models exhibit the best ability to reproduce the observed rate of sea-ice loss.

Assessment of confidence based on evidence

Given the evidence base and uncertainties, confidence is very high that rising temperatures are reducing ice volume and extent on land, lakes, and sea, and that this loss of ice is expected to continue.

Confidence is very high that the Arctic Ocean is projected to become virtually ice-free in summer by mid-century.

Confidence Level

Very High

Strong evidence (established theory, multiple sources, consistent results, well documented and accepted methods, etc.), high consensus

High

Moderate evidence (several sources, some consistency, methods vary and/or documentation limited, etc.), medium consensus

Medium

Suggestive evidence (a few sources, limited consistency, models incomplete, methods emerging, etc.), competing schools of thought

Low

Inconclusive evidence (limited sources, extrapolations, inconsistent findings, poor documentation and/or methods not tested, etc.), disagreement or lack of opinions among experts

Melting Ice

Rising temperatures across the U.S. have reduced lake ice, sea ice, glaciers, and seasonal snow cover over the last few decades.2 In the Great Lakes, for example, total winter ice coverage has decreased by 63% since the early 1970s.3 This includes the entire period since satellite data became available. When the record is extended back to 1963 using pre-satellite data,16 the overall trend is less negative because the Great Lakes region experienced several extremely cold winters in the 1970s.

Figure 2.27: Ice Cover in the Great Lakes

Ice Cover in the Great Lakes

Figure 2.27: Bars show decade averages of annual maximum Great Lakes ice coverage from the winter of 1962-1963, when reliable coverage of the entire Great Lakes began, to the winter of 2012-2013. Bar labels indicate the end year of the winter; for example, 1963-1972 indicates the winter of 1962-1963 through the winter of 1971-1972. Only the most recent period includes the eleven years from 2003 to 2013. (Data updated from Bai and Wang, 201214).

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Sea ice in the Arctic has also decreased dramatically since the late 1970s, particularly in summer and autumn. Since the satellite record began in 1978, minimum Arctic sea ice extent (which occurs in early to mid-September) has decreased by more than 40%.4 This decline is unprecedented in the historical record, and the reduction of ice volume and thickness is even greater. Ice thickness decreased by more than 50% from 1958-1976 to 2003-2008,5 and the percentage of the March ice cover made up of thicker ice (ice that has survived a summer melt season) decreased from 75% in the mid-1980s to 45% in 2011.6 Recent analyses indicate a decrease of 36% in autumn sea ice volume over the past decade.7 The 2012 sea ice minimum broke the preceding record (set in 2007) by more than 200,000 square miles. Ice loss increases Arctic warming by replacing white, reflective ice with dark water that absorbs more energy from the sun. More open water can also increase snowfall over northern land areas17 and increase the north-south meanders of the jet stream, consistent with the occurrence of unusually cold and snowy winters at mid-latitudes in several recent years.18,17 Significant uncertainties remain at this time in interpreting the effect of Arctic ice changes on mid-latitudes.19

Figure 2.28: Decline in Arctic Sea Ice Extent Decline in Arctic Sea Ice Extent Details/Download

The loss of sea ice has been greater in summer than in winter. The Bering Sea, for example, has sea ice only in the winter-spring portion of the year, and shows no trend in surface area covered by ice over the past 30 years. However, seasonal ice in the Bering Sea and elsewhere in the Arctic is thin and susceptible to rapid melt during the following summer.

The seasonal pattern of observed loss of Arctic sea ice is generally consistent with simulations by global climate models, in which the extent of sea ice decreases more rapidly in summer than in winter. However, the models tend to underestimate the amount of decrease since 2007. Projections by these models indicate that the Arctic Ocean is expected to become essentially ice-free in summer before mid-century under scenarios that assume continued growth in global emissions, although sea ice would still form in winter.8,20 Models that best match historical trends project a nearly sea ice-free Arctic in summer by the 2030s,21 and extrapolation of the present observed trend suggests an even earlier ice-free Arctic in summer.15 However, even during a long-term decrease, occasional temporary increases in Arctic summer sea ice can be expected over timescales of a decade or so because of natural variability.22 The projected reduction of winter sea ice is only about 10% by 2030,23 indicating that the Arctic will shift to a more seasonal sea ice pattern. While this ice will be thinner, it will cover much of the same area now covered by sea ice in winter.

Figure 2.29: Projected Arctic Sea Ice Decline

Projected Arctic Sea Ice Decline

Figure 2.29: Model simulations of Arctic sea ice extent for September (1900-2100) based on observed concentrations of heat-trapping gases and particles (through 2005) and four scenarios. Colored lines for RCP scenarios are model averages (CMIP5) and lighter shades of the line colors denote ranges among models for each scenario. Dotted gray line and gray shading denotes average and range of the historical simulations through 2005. The thick black line shows observed data for 1953-2012. These newer model (CMIP5) simulations project more rapid sea ice loss compared to the previous generation of models (CMIP3) under similar forcing scenarios, although the simulated September ice losses under all scenarios still lag the observed loss of the past decade. Extrapolation of the present observed trend suggests an essentially ice-free Arctic in summer before mid-century.15 The Arctic is considered essentially ice-free when the areal extent of ice is less than one million square kilometers. (Figure source: adapted from Stroeve et al. 20128).

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While the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents, Antarctica is a continent surrounded by ocean. Nearly all of the sea ice in the Antarctic melts each summer, and changes there are more complicated than in the Arctic. While Arctic sea ice has been strongly decreasing, there has been a slight increase in sea ice in Antarctica.24,25 Explanations for this include changes in winds that directly affect ice drift as well as the properties of the surrounding ocean,26 and that winds around Antarctica may have been affected by stratospheric ozone depletion.27

Snow cover on land has decreased over the past several decades,9 especially in late spring.28 Each of five recent years (2008-2012) has set a new record for minimum snow extent in June in Eurasia, as did three of those five years in North America.

The surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet has been experiencing summer melting over increasingly large areas during the past several decades. In the decade of the 2000s, the daily melt area summed over the warm season was double the corresponding amounts of the 1970s,1 culminating in summer surface melt that was far greater (97% of the Greenland Ice Sheet area) in 2012 than in any year since the satellite record began in 1979. More importantly, the rate of mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet’s marine-terminating outlet glaciers has accelerated in recent decades, leading to predictions that the proportion of global sea level rise coming from Greenland will continue to increase.29 Glaciers terminating on ice shelves and on land are also losing mass, but the rate of loss has not accelerated over the past decade.30 As discussed in Key Message 10, the dynamics of the Greenland Ice Sheet are generally not included in present global climate models and sea level rise projections.

Glaciers are retreating and/or thinning in Alaska and in the lower 48 states. In addition, permafrost temperatures are increasing over Alaska and much of the Arctic. Regions of discontinuous permafrost in interior Alaska (where annual average soil temperatures are already close to 32°F) are highly vulnerable to thaw. Thawing permafrost releases carbon dioxide and methane – heat-trapping gases that contribute to even more warming. Recent estimates suggest that the potential release of carbon from permafrost soils could add as much as 0.4ºF to 0.6ºF of warming by 2100.31 Methane emissions have been detected from Alaskan lakes underlain by permafrost,32 and measurements suggest potentially even greater releases from thawing methane hydrates in the Arctic continental shelf of the East Siberian Sea.33 However, the response times of Arctic methane hydrates to climate change are quite long relative to methane’s lifetime in the atmosphere (about a decade).34 More generally, the importance of Arctic methane sources relative to other methane sources, such as wetlands in warmer climates, is largely unknown. The potential for a self-reinforcing feedback between permafrost thawing and additional warming contributes additional uncertainty to the high end of the range of future warming. The projections of future climate shown throughout this report do not include the additional increase in temperature associated with this thawing.

References

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  2. Archer, D., 2007: Methane hydrate stability and anthropogenic climate change. Biogeosciences, 4, 521-544, doi:10.5194/bg-4-521-2007. URL

  3. Bai, X., and J. Wang, 2012: Atmospheric teleconnection patterns associated with severe and mild ice cover on the Great Lakes, 1963–2011. Water Quality Research Journal of Canada, 47, 421–435, doi:10.2166/wqrjc.2012.009.

  4. Bai, X., J. Wang, C. Sellinger, A. Clites, and R. Assel, 2012: Interannual variability of Great Lakes ice cover and its relationship to NAO and ENSO. Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, 117, C03002, doi:10.1029/2010jc006932.

  5. Cavalieri, D. J., and C. L. Parkinson, 2012: Arctic sea ice variability and trends, 1979-2010. The Cryosphere, 6, 881-889, doi:10.5194/tc-6-881-2012. URL

  6. Dahl-Jensen, D., J. J. Bamber, C. E. Bøggild, E. Buch, J. .H.Christensen, K. Dethloff, M. Fahnestock, S. Mashall, M. Rosing, K. Steffen, R. Thomas, M. Truffer, M. van den Broeke, and C. van der Veen, 2011: Ch. 8: The Greenland Ice Sheet in a changing climate. Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA): Climate Change and the Cryosphere. Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP),, Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme. URL

  7. Derksen, C., and R. Brown, 2012: Spring snow cover extent reductions in the 2008–2012 period exceeding climate model projections. Geophysical Research Letters, 39, L19504, doi:10.1029/2012gl053387. URL

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  13. Kwok, R., and D. A. Rothrock, 2009: Decline in Arctic sea ice thickness from submarine and ICESat records: 1958–2008. Geophysical Research Letters, 36, L15501, doi:10.1029/2009gl039035. URL

  14. Laxon, S. W., K. A. Giles, A. L. Ridout, D. J. Wingham, R. Willatt, R. Cullen, R. Kwok, A. Schweiger, J. Zhang, C. Haas, S. Hendricks, R. Krishfield, N. Kurtz, S. Farrell, and M. Davidson, 2013: CryoSat-2 estimates of Arctic sea ice thickness and volume. Geophysical Research Letters, 40, 732-737, doi:10.1002/grl.50193.

  15. Liu, J., J. A. Curry, H. Wang, M. Song, and R. M. Horton, 2012: Impact of declining Arctic sea ice on winter snowfall. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109, 4074-4079, doi:10.1073/pnas.1114910109. URL

  16. MacDougall, A. H., C. A. Avis, and A. J. Weaver, 2012: Significant contribution to climate warming from the permafrost carbon feedback. Nature Geoscience, 5, 719-721, doi:10.1038/ngeo1573.

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  26. Shi, X., S. J. Déry, P. Ya Groisman, and D. P. Lettenmaier, 2013: Relationships between recent pan-Arctic snow cover and hydroclimate trends. Journal of Climate, 26, 2048-2064, doi:10.1175/jcli-d-12-00044.1. URL

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  28. Turner, J., J. C. Comiso, G. J. Marshall, T. A. Lachlan-Cope, T. Bracegirdle, T. Maksym, M. P. Meredith, Z. Wang, and A. Orr, 2009: Non-annular atmospheric circulation change induced by stratospheric ozone depletion and its role in the recent increase of Antarctic sea ice extent. Geophysical Research Letters, 36, L08502, doi:10.1029/2009gl037524. URL

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The National Climate Assessment summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States, now and in the future.

A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.

United States Global Change Research Program logo United States Global Change Research Program participating agency logos