Weather Watch

Record Arctic sea ice loss is threatening coastal cities — like SLO — worldwide

“April reached a new record Arctic low sea ice extent. Sea ice loss was rapid at the beginning of the month because of declines in the Sea of Okhotsk. The rate of ice loss slowed after early April, due in part to gains in extent in the Bering and Barents Seas. However, daily ice extent remained at record low levels throughout the month.”

That’s according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

This condition is a far cry from what had occurred nearly 60 years ago and is a testament to the rapid rate of change of sea ice extent due to Arctic Amplification (the Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the earth).

The first vessel to reach the Arctic Circle was the nuclear-powered submarine USS Nautilus, which voyaged under the ice cap to the geographic North Pole in August 1958. She attempted this incredible journey several months earlier in June 1958 but was turned back by the thickness of the ice in shallower Arctic waters.

Understandably, the Navy has maintained meticulous records on ice thickness and extent in the Arctic Ocean. In the 1990s, Navy submarines reported a shocking loss of thickness in the Arctic sea ice. In the years since, satellite altimetry confirmed this.

To make matters worse, the ice melt was faster than earlier climate models had predicted. Not only is our great country surrounded by large bodies of water — from the Pacific to the west, Atlantic to the east and the Arctic to the north, but 80 percent of the planet’s population lives in or near coastal areas.

Nearly all global commerce is conducted by the sea. It’s the Navy and Coast Guard’s mission to deter aggression and maintain the freedom of the world’s oceans, seas and waterways. I served for 24 years in the Navy and came to deeply appreciate the tireless commitment and courage of my fellow sailors to carry out this mission, even in treacherous conditions.

The diminished ice levels may cause a more considerable amount of competition for Arctic resources, such as oil, but may also open previously frozen seas for commercial shipping, fishing and tourism, according to the Department of Defense. With this competition will come other countries’ navies.

The rapid reduction of sea ice may allow shipping companies to travel straight across the North Pole, making the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route nearly obsolete during the summer months. These Arctic routes can reduce the distance traveled by ship by almost 5,000 miles between Europe and Asia and decrease transit times by two to three weeks while eliminating the need to pass through the Suez Canal.

Unfortunately, the reduction of sea ice and land covered by snow in the Arctic region is leading to some horrible consequences. The light-colored Arctic ice and snow reflects much of the sun’s light toward the atmosphere and space, while the much darker ice-free seas and snowless tundra and lands absorb most of the sun’s heat.

This acts as a positive feedback loop and one of the reasons why the Arctic is warming so much faster than the rest of the earth. This additional heat is also thawing the permafrost, releasing vast amounts of carbon dioxide and methane that in turn produces more global warming.

Not only does the Navy have to worry about the Arctic, but the subsequent unrelenting rise in sea levels will affect coastal installations and will also put Navy ports throughout the world at risk, especially during storms that generate increasing sea-level surges.

You see, when the water warms, it expands. During strong El Niño events, when seawater temperatures along our coastline are warmer than normal, water levels can be several inches higher than those predicted in the tide tables. This is due to the thermal expansion of the water column in the upper levels of the ocean.

Historical records indicate gradual changes in sea level over hundreds or thousands of years, but we have not seen anything quite as dramatic as the past few decades. Couple that with what we are witnessing today — extreme heat waves and droughts that have devastated wildlife and ruined crops — the reduction of human-made greenhouse gases will benefit us and generations to come.

Make sure Mother’s Day balloons are secured

Mother’s Day often means flowers and chocolates. Balloons are one of the ways to show your mom just how much you care. Unweighted balloons — particularly metallic ones — can cause lots of problems, however, and here’s why. On average each year, metallic balloons that drift into PG&E power lines cause 500 outages and affect electric service to more than 265,000 homes and businesses throughout Northern and Central California. Make sure helium-filled metallic balloons are securely tied to a weight heavy enough to prevent them from floating away.

John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is PG&E’s Diablo Canyon marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at or follow him on Twitter: @PGE_John.
Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune