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Arctic

Energy and Climate Change written question – answered on 18th July 2013.

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Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

(1) what recent assessment he has made of (a) the area of Arctic sea ice that will remain during September 2015 and (b) the plausible date range for the earliest ice free summer in the Arctic; and if he will make a statement;

(2) what recent assessment he has made of scenarios and probabilities on (a) further Arctic warming, (b) sea ice melt, (c) increasing climate extremes and reduced crop production, (d) Arctic methane emissions and (e) global sea level rise until 2100; and if he will make a statement;

(3) what recent assessment he has made of (a) the amount of solar energy that was absorbed in the Arctic ocean during 2012 and (b) the minimum cooling required to halt this level of retreat of sea ice; and if he will make a statement;

(4) what recent discussions he has had with the Natural Environment Research Council about the CryoSat-2 satellite measurements of Arctic sea ice (a) extend and (b) volume; and if he will make a statement.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change

The complexity and variability of the Arctic environment means that it is not possible to make predictions for a specific year several years in advance. Therefore DECC has not made an assessment of the likely area of Arctic sea ice for September 2015. However, we expect that in the long term the annual minimum extent of Arctic sea ice will continue to decline as a result of man-made global warming.

Results from most recent climate models suggest that the Arctic could be virtually ice-free for a short time in late summer as early as sometime between 2025 and 2030.

Although no recent assessment has been made of the amount of solar energy absorbed by the Arctic ocean during 2012, work is currently in progress using climate models and the most up-to-date observations to assess the energy budget of the Arctic, which will include the solar energy absorbed by the Arctic ocean.

Halting the current long-term decline in summer Arctic sea ice would require stopping the current rise in global temperatures caused by rising greenhouse gas concentrations. However, due to the thermal inertia of the oceans, Arctic sea ice would likely still decline for several years even if concentrations were stabilised.

Temperatures in the Arctic have risen more than twice as quickly as the rest of the world over the past 40 years and climate models suggest that the Arctic will continue to warm faster than the global average, at rates ranging from 0.9 to 1.5°C per decade over the rest of this century. Rising temperatures are likely to increase the risk of methane release from hydrates in the Arctic ocean and shelf seas and also from thawing permafrost, which would amplify global warming. There are, however, major scientific uncertainties over the potential size and risk of such methane release and DECC is working with the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to improve our understanding of the potential for methane release in the Arctic.

Extreme weather events form part of natural weather variability and some, such as maximum temperatures, are likely to become more frequent, widespread and/or intense as part of a changing climate(1). Research techniques now allow us to quantify how much more likely some such events have become as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. A combination of changing average temperature, water availability and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels is already affecting crop yields(1). It is also clear that changes in extreme weather events can have serious impacts on crops, for example, through direct impacts from flooding, drought and heatwaves.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (2007) estimated a global average sea-level rise of between 0.18 and 0.59 million for the period 1980-99 to 2090-99. However, these figures do not include all the possible contributions from ice sheets.

The Science Volume of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, which will include the IPCC's latest climate and sea level projections, is due to be published in September 2013 and will provide a comprehensive assessment of these aspects of the climate system.

The Department has not had any recent discussions with the NERC about the CryoSat-2 satellite measurements of Arctic sea ice. Recently published findings(2) from these measurements are making an important contribution to the assessment of the ongoing decline in both the extent and volume of Arctic sea-ice.

Recent changes in the Arctic are another clear sign of man-made climate change and reinforce the need for a global comprehensive international agreement in 2015 to deal with the global rise in greenhouse gas emissions and avoid dangerous climate change. We are pressing hard for that to happen, and we are taking action domestically to reduce our emissions and so play our part in the global effort.

(1) IPCC. (2012). Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation. Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Geneva.

(2) Laxon et al, 2013. CryoSat-2 estimates of Arctic sea ice thickness and volume. Geophysical Research Letters DOI; 10.1002/grl.50193.

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