Arctic in the Holocene, narwhals, and all that

UPDATE: Apparently Joe Romm can’t handle this information. Ecotretas records the action here.

Readers may have seen this BBC story:

BBC – Earth News – Climate change threatens slow swimming narwhals

“That places them at high risk from climate change, as narwhals will not be able to cope with shifting, highly mobile ice floes caused by warmer seas.”

As explained below, a narwhal fossil find suggests that the Arctic may have been more open and warmer in the past.

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_iCyUsWAeuro/TIaRLyhhAnI/AAAAAAAABd0/Nv7FrXDnKdI/s1600/wardhunt3.jpg

Guest post by Ecotretas (visit his blog here)

In early August, an ice island calved from Greenland’s Petermann Glacier. Later in the month, an ice chunk broke off Ellesmere Island, away from the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf. An interesting phrase from the CBC article caught my attention:

At 40 metres thick, the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf is estimated to be 3,000 to 5,000 years old, jutting off the island like an extension of the land.

The key detail was the age of the ice shelf. Being 3000 to 5000 years old correlates very well with the existence of the Holocene climatic optimum. This data is confirmed from several sources, including references several decades old:

Radiocarbon dates and glaciological features of the Ward Hunt area along northernmost Ellesmere Island suggest the following chronology, which is consistent with world-wide climatic oscillations: 1) 10,000-4100 B.P.: deglaciation, and development of several marine levels, particularly one now 40 m. above sea level, at 7500+-300 B.P.; 2) 4100-2400 years B.P.: climatic deterioration, glacial readvance and formation of ice shelves; 3) 2400-1400 years B.P.: general climatic amelioration; development of dust ablation horizon on Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, glacial retreat; 4) 1400 B.P. – present : climatic deterioration, with renewed thickening of Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, and beginnings of growth of ice rises; the last-mentioned experienced maximum growth in the interval between 350-170 years ago; slight glacial readvance.

Steve McIntyre brought up some interesting questions several years ago, and has raised the issue several other times. Other indirect evidence of less ice in the Holocene, and one of my favorites, is given by the discovery of a narwhal tusk, on the northwest coast of Ellesmere Island, that was radiocarbon dated at 6,830 ± 50 B.P. From the abstract of “An early Holocene narwhal tusk from the Canadian high Arctic” we can read:

The specimen represents an early Holocene range extension of 400–700 km over the present. Because the narwhal requires abundant open water to survive, the Holocene tusk is an important independent item of proxy data on palaeoclimatic change. Contemporary migration routes are directly related to seasonal sea ice in the inter-island channels of the central Canadian Arctic archipelago. The presence of a narwhal on the northwest Ellesmere Island coast at 6,830 ± 50 B. P. suggests that sea ice and ice-shelf conditions were more favourable at that time. A comprehensive chronological framework for late Quaternary and Holocene geomorphic/climatic events from northern Ellesmere Island records a warm early Holocene characterized by abundant driftwood entry into the high Arctic.

The same issues can naturally be also found for the Nares Strait, where the Petermann glacier drains. A paper by John England, referenced in the CBC article above, doesn’t leave any doubts about what was going on several millenia ago:

Re-entry of the sea throughout Nares Strait is shown by a series of paleogeographic maps based on geomorphic evidence and radiocarbon dates on shells associated with marine limit. Deglaciation at the north end of the strait occurred by 10.1 ka BP and, at the

south end, by 9.0 ka BP. Nares Strait may still have been blocked by ice north of Kane Basin at 8 ka BP, however by 7.5 ka BP it provided an unobstructed seaway from the Arctic Ocean to Baffin Bay.

Other papers, like “Late Pleistocene-Holocene Marine Geology of Nares Strait Region“, from Mudie et al., don’t leave much doubts about what was the past climate of the region:

Palaeoceanographic reconstructions from dinocyst assemblages show that from ~6.5 to 3.3 ka BP, there were large oscillations in summer sea surface temperature (SST) from 3 °C cooler than now to 6 °C warmer, and that variations in SIC ranged from two months more to four months less of heavy ice compared to now.

While it is sad that ice sheets are melting, it’s nothing new for Nature. In historical terms, ice sheets have gone, and gotten back. One might just wonder what was causing climate change then? Or understand that this melting may even be good for science, as collecting samples from where ice is gown, will certainly reveal our past history in more detail…

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41 thoughts on “Arctic in the Holocene, narwhals, and all that

  1. Once again, the idea of CO2 warmed seas is placed on a pedestal. But with no plausible mechanism, the [report, article, research] referred to above is best used as bird cage lining.

  2. Do Diatoms Beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet Indicate Interglacials Warmer Than Present?
    Basal sediment debris from the Greenland Ice sheet was examined in the hope of recovering microfossils that could be used to determine and date changes in the ice sheet sizes through time. Basal debris and debris-laden ice from the lower 18m of the Camp Century ice core, north Greenland, revealed the presence of common freshwater and rare marine diatoms… A warmer and/or longer interglacial period than the present Holocene “interglacial” is suggested to explain the large decrease in ice sheet volume.
    http://pubs.aina.ucalgary.ca/arctic/Arctic39-4-304.pdf

  3. We currently live at the lower 1/3 of that 9 degree C range, and the high end is well behind us.
    A 6 degree C warmer world has only 2 to 4 months more ice-free passage in the Nares Strait?
    In the future, we may see the NW passage as a snowmobile track, rather than by ship.
    Snow Plows will replace Ice Breakers.
    But what would be the point? Alaska & Siberia would be uninhabitable, like Baffin Island, Ellesmore and Svallbard today.
    If that’s Utopia, Al Gore can kiss my grits.

  4. We geo’s have been telling people for years, probably longer then I have been in the profession the arctic has been ice free in the past on more then one occasion. It just doesn’t make headlines so we get ignored.

  5. Modern climate science explains the past in the same manner as was popular in Russia in the 1930’s when dealing politically incorrect ideas and people – They make it disappear.

  6. It is a tough life being a Narwhal. There is either too much or too little ice but never a “just right” amount of ice. That seems odd.
    You can find the following from here:
    http://www.acsonline.org/factpack/Narwhal.htm
    “NATURAL HISTORY: The narwhal is a deep-water cetacean, and has been known to dive to 1,200 feet. It has up to 4″ of blubber under its skin, which is needed for protection in the cold arctic waters. Becoming trapped in forming ice is not uncommon; in Greenland such an entrapment is called a “savssat”. The most sever savssat occurred in the winter of 1914-1915, when over 1,000 narwhals died in an entrapment.”
    And also this:
    “Narwhals are also important to many Eskimo cultures. Although the meat is used primarily for sled dogs, the skin is an important source of Vitamin C. This chewy delicacy is called “muktuk”. Current population estimates in the Northwest Atlantic region are thought to be around 50,000, and worldwide estimates are not available. Dangers to the various populations currently exist. There are still over 1,000 narwhals killed each year between Canada and Greenland, which is thought to be above a sustainable level. Their habitat is being mined and drilled and already there are concerns about heavy metal levels in narwhal tissues.”
    We could ship a couple thousand carcasses of methane belching cattle northward at little cost for the sled dogs and create a chewy substitute for muktuk – fried pork rinds, maybe. Then we could seed the northern ocean with a chelation agent or engineer arctic cod to produce such an agent. The WWF or some such group could fund all this and not notice the small drain on their yearly take. Some results would be immediate.
    I didn’t find a firm date for their appearance but I did find this:
    http://www.novelguide.com/a/discover/grze_15/grze_15_00916.html
    “In the case of narwhals, the low level of nucleotide diversity found in animals from the eastern Canadian Arctic, west Greenland, and east Greenland has been interpreted as indicating a rapid and recent expansion from a small founding population (“recent” meaning, in this context, perhaps several tens of thousands of years ago).”
    This does suggest they may have experienced colder and warmer periods since their arrival in the Arctic Ocean and nearby waters.

  7. Excellent post. Thank you for that.
    As for the “melting ice sheets” and the “loss”…for whatever reason….even some of the brightest among our very young species [only approaching the 200,000 year mark] are led astray where they can’t see the flippin forest through the bloody trees.
    All of this Chicken Little fight or flight mentality reflects that we have a long way to go with our evolution if we are going to continue our right to share the biosphere.
    And if we don’t learn to adapt then that is our fault.
    Even if the bloody Arctic melted on a dime….still that is a non-issue.
    The issue is about those species who learn to adapt.
    So in this light….the terms “death spiral” and “statistically significant decline” and “loss”…all become rather meaningless.
    Chris
    Norfolk, VA, USA

  8. Dennis Nikols, P. Geol. says:
    September 7, 2010 at 9:15 pm
    That would make for a good post. Do tell about when the times were that the Arctic was ice-free.
    And what kind of animal & plant life lived there.

  9. If the font has changed, you might want to check for an unterminated FONT setting in the posting. I’ve even seen a comment with an unterminated FONT setting cause the following comments to get shifted…

  10. Did anyone ask the narwhales whether they cared about the ice? Has anyone seen the icebergs in the Vancouver Aquarium? No? Funny. I saw a narwhale there. As for their number one enemy? That would be the unendangered polar bear. Also sinking because it can’t swim./

  11. According to what I am finding, it is not out of question that the Arctic stays relatively warm while the parts of the north hemisphere get colder. It is all meter of the currents circulation and jet stream tandem:
    http://www.whoi.edu/cms/images/oceanus/2006/1/map_18930.gif
    As warm waters inflow increases, keeping Arctic’s temperature up, so it does outflow of the cold currents. This shifts ‘jet stream’ further to the south in the NW Atlantic http://minnesota.publicradio.org/collections/special/columns/updraft/assets_c/2010/03/1jet_stream-thumb-500×490.jpg
    as it was the case in the recent months.

  12. vukcevic says:
    September 8, 2010 at 12:28 am
    A most interesting phenomenon to think about.
    The warmer air/water goes where it is not needed, and the colder air/water goes where it is not wanted.
    That would be an unwelcome zero-sum for civilization if that was the end of it.
    The specter of the ‘heat energy’ escaping the planet at the Polar terminus is daunting.
    Take this seasonal example of microcosm:
    It takes 6-7 months to climb out of winter to reach summer peaks.
    It takes 2-3 months to drop back down to winter lows.
    Mileage varies, but the net shape of the thing resembles Ice Age to Interglacial to Ice Age too much for comfort.
    We need better rounded climatology studies than the dried burgers we have been getting the last 20-30 years.

  13. The polar bears forgot how to swim, and now the narwhals forgot how to hold their breath. Boy, the animal kingdom is surely getting dumber. Must be the public school system.
    But wait, global warming, bane of the bi-polar bears, is GOOD for the narwhals. Less ice means more open spouting reaches. So if we shut down our economy and stop breathing ourselves, and thank Gore the Arctic freezes solid for a few years, the narwhals will all drown! Oh no, competing charismatic megafauna! What will Congress do about that?
    Lucky for the narwhals, they didn’t have Congress worrying about them during the last 18 Ice Age stadials, when for over a million cumulative years the Arctic was one big ice cube. That was some mighty impressive breath-holding.
    And what about the unicorns? Did CO2 extinctify them, too? I’ll go down to the local soup kitchen and ask one of the scientists there. They need something to occupy their massive brains now that the Obamacession is doing what the anti-science Right Wing never could do — divesting “our” universities of useless baggage.

  14. During the Medieval Warm Period Greenland was settled by the Vikings. Areas where now is thick ice were cultivated for wheat and other crops. They remained there for about 400 years. We have about 30 years of complete data for ice cover in the arctic and since climate cycles are around 1000 years long we have very little evidence to maintain the claim that the Arctic should be ice covered at all times and any small reduction is doom.
    There was another BBC program that made the point that the narwhal migration through the Arctic required leads in the ice for their safe transit. Leads are narrow areas of ice clear water created primarily by wind action and warming. So narwhals need an ice reduced Arctic to survive the transit which they do every year.

  15. Given Ecotretas’ article, and some of the comments here, I’m scratching my head as to what level of research Williams, Noren and Glenn actually performed.
    I guess as long as it concludes: “may be affected by climate change”, their funding is assured, eh?

  16. Hi Bob
    I accumulated lot of info about the Greenland-Scotland ridge and its hydrology controlling ‘in and out’ Arctic flow.
    http://www.whoi.edu/cms/images/oceanus/Dickson_map_550_52088.jpg
    My initial conclusion is as outlined in my post.
    On more cheerful note, I know you are a California man, enthusiastic observer and researcher of climate there, got this link
    http://www.geochemicaltransactions.com/content/8/1/2/figure/F1?highres=y
    from TonyB which shows 1100 years tree rings from a single sample of a sequoia collected in Mountain Home State Forest.

  17. It is not many years since it was generally believed that variations of climate came to an end with the Quaternary Ice-Age, a period moreover which was placed hundreds of thousands years ago. The post-glacial or ‘Recent’ period was supposed to show merely a more or less rapid warming up to the present level, followed by a long period in which the climates of the different parts of the world were exactly as we now find them. It was the International Geological Congress at Stockholm in 1910 which first made the majority of geologists familiar with the existence of a warm period intercalated between the Ice-Age and the present. About the same time, a number of investigations in different countries combined to prove that the ice-age itself was not so remote as it had seemed to be, and that in fact the posti-gacial ‘geology’ of Europe was partly contemporaneous with the ‘history’ of Egypt. But since the geological deposits undoubtedly point to changes of climate, slight indeed in comparison with the preceding ice-age, but still marked enough to leave their traces permanently written on the face of the earth, the unvarying climate of history is evidently a myth.”

    CEP Brooks, Climate through the Ages 1926, Part III The Climates of the Historical Past, Ch 17 the nature of the evidence, p321.

  18. Interesting post. Good work.
    Redwar’s (Greenpeace) counter to the Viking habitation of the Greenland Peninsular is that they suffered from a “hard life”, probably cut down too many trees leaving them with no fuel, & some silly nonsense about poor agricultural practices! It appears to have escaped their attention that life was “hard” everywhere in those days, unless one was rich beyond avarice, not just in Greenland! Not even such wealth could protect the inhabitants of Planet Earth from diseases, infections, gneral childhood mortality, & mortality in general, & the very occasional raping & pillage expedition. Old people were realitvely few & far between, & someone aged 50+ was considered very old! Danish historians would be rather vexed I suspect!

  19. Alan the Brit says:
    …they suffered from a “hard life”, probably cut down too many trees leaving them with no fuel,…

    Miss Semple also gives many other facts which seem much more consistent with climatic changes than with uniformity. At least, they seem so to persons with a geological training. Such persons have become more and more accustomed not only to the idea of repeated climatic fluctuations of all grades throughout geological times, but to the idea that such fluctuations have caused the destruction of many types of plants and animals, and have hastened the development and migration of new types. The [geographer who follow the historical method], on the contrary, is accustiomed to attribute almost everything to purely human action. Hence, in the absence of [written] records to the contrary, he assumes that human causes are mainly responsible for such facts as deforestation, changes in trade routes, the apparent drying up of sources of water, the abandonment of settlements in the drier parts of the world, and the migrations which so largely originate in dry regions.

    Huntington Civilization and Climate, Ch 15 ‘The Pulsatory Hypothesis and its Critics’ addendum to the 3rd Ed of 1924, p341-2

  20. berniel says:
    September 8, 2010 at 5:03 am
    Alan the Brit says:
    …they suffered from a “hard life”, probably cut down too many trees leaving them with no fuel,…
    Miss Semple also gives many other facts which seem much more consistent with climatic changes than with uniformity. At least, they seem so to persons with a geological training. Such persons have become more and more accustomed not only to the idea of repeated climatic fluctuations of all grades throughout geological times, but to the idea that such fluctuations have caused the destruction of many types of plants and animals, and have hastened the development and migration of new types. The [geographer who follow the historical method], on the contrary, is accustiomed to attribute almost everything to purely human action. Hence, in the absence of [written] records to the contrary, he assumes that human causes are mainly responsible for such facts as deforestation, changes in trade routes, the apparent drying up of sources of water, the abandonment of settlements in the drier parts of the world, and the migrations which so largely originate in dry regions.
    Huntington Civilization and Climate, Ch 15 ‘The Pulsatory Hypothesis and its Critics’ addendum to the 3rd Ed of 1924, p341-2
    Wonderful stuff. I never cease to be amazed at what has been recorded in the past about this wonderful lump of rock we call home. Pity people keep wanting to re-write stuff for the sake of it, or more likely to conform to an agendum!

  21. “They appear to be one of the slowest swimmers out there.”
    Nonsense. They can outrun a killer whale.
    As with the whole Poley Bear “issue”, the biggest threat is human hunting. In the case of the Narwhal, though, their tusk alone can fetch $4,500 in the eurasian market.

  22. Just wanted to add that the graph in the Wikipedia entry on the Holocene Climatic Optimum is one of those that convinced me that AGW is a complete fabrication.

  23. I’m getting a terrible feeling that anthroprogenic Native Americans and their domesticated Narwals are going to now be blamed for melting the Arctic Ice Cap when the Bag Guys forced millions of Narwals to dive under the ice when trying to escape the dinner table and they released all that terrible methane in fear of the imminent demise of one of their number at the hands of 2 1/2 men. There’s just no other proven settled scientific explanation for it. Fat Albert will no doubt get another Noble Casino Chip and ‘Unofficial’ Grand Peace Prize for this discovery, and Nature Magazine scientific article, and Book, and TV special for Kindergardners to watch, etc., etc.. What a guy! What a worthless, @#$%%^&##@ guy! (Poor Tipper! She left too soon.)

  24. Very interesting Ecotretas, I have placed link to your Blog in my pages: http://www.oarval.org/ClimateChange.htm – Climate Change; The cyclic nature of Earth’s climate
    http://www.oarval.org/CambioClima.htm – Cambio Climático; La naturaleza cíclica del clima Terrestre
    http://www.oarval.org/meteorologFL.htm – Meteorology for South Florida and the Caribbean
    http://www.oarval.org/meteorolog.htm – Meteorología para Caracas, Venezuela, y el Caribe
    Keep up the good work!

  25. Gee I was hoping for comment by R Gates, paulw, Anu, and a few others who usually appear to admonish skeptics’ and crow about small victories. I guess they cherry-pick their posts too. They show up for all the zags but skip the zigs. Integrity much?

  26. Isn’t there a theory that the earth’s axis shifts every 10,000 years and this affects our climate? I though the last incident was about 6000 years ago.

  27. The narwhals are safe for this year:
    http://discover.itsc.uah.edu/amsutemps/execute.csh?amsutemps
    The warmest year on record which GISS decided on the basis of first half of 2010 temp results may have jumped the gun a bit – the temp has slipped below last years’ just now and with the deepening La Nina and hurricanes fizzling out, loose ice for narwhals to bump their heads on will soon be getting scarce again.

  28. John F. Hultquist says:
    berniel & Alan the Brit
    You two probably know more about academic studies based on environmental determinism than do I. Quoting Ellen Churchill Semple and Ellsworth Huntington suggests so. Anyway, the facts you take from them, perhaps, are allowed. Their viewpoint is much tarnished as is their interpretation of events.
    http://geography.about.com/od/culturalgeography/a/envdeterminism.htm

    We sceptics would want to be especially sensitive about summary moral encoding of science and of particular movements in science. The application of eugenics theory in 1930s Germany makes it very difficult to deal with a whole lot of science that emerged out of Darwinism before WWII.
    Some of this science was infused with, and in support of, colonalist racial chauvanism. Huntington? Yes, outrageously so! Nonetheless it is undeniable (but yet ignorable) that some influencial and valuable ideas developed in this milieu, ideas lately re-packaged in a new softer language, and now only becoming permissible in the sociology and psychology.
    The article linked above counters what was labelled harshly as ‘determinism’ with the softer ‘possibilism’ — where “the environment sets limitations for cultural development but it does not completely define culture.” Would you trust an Alarmist’s account of a sceptics position? Read Huntington yourself and you will find that this is pretty much what he defends against his contempory critics in just the text I quoted. (As for his racial chauvinism, no defence was called for!)
    You caution that “the facts you take from them, perhaps, are allowed.” Why not allow all the facts of their scientific speculations? Why not allow a debate over Huntington’s hypothesis of natural climate fluctuation (ie, roughly sinc-ed ‘pulsations’ of various amplitudes and frequencies) since the retreat of the last Ice Age — an hypothesis first proposed to a barrage of criticism in 1907, and then supported by the ingenious new methods of paleo-climatology invented by forgotten Austrian, Swedish, English and America field researchers during the following decades.
    Today the contras of AGW are forever portrayed as unscientific, novel and from outside of science; where as in fact, ‘though obscured, the whole history of the science is found solid below them — and this AGW scare is found to emerge a late and perverse interpretation of the evidence.
    Only after we bravely abandon Mr Hultquist’s ‘perhaps’ can we scrape back the whitewash covering the implication of our own current advancement in the (real and fantastic) crimes of our fathers. We are bound to do this because it is just as Mr Orwell said: “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.”
    (I hope to explain more about Huntington and his contemporaries in a blog post shortly.)

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