On Thin Ice Report

How Cutting Pollution Can Slow Warming and Save Lives

The Cryosphere Action Plan, now termed the “On Thin Ice” report and co-released with the World Bank, is an effort to detail the changes that have occurred in cryosphere regions since the International Polar Year; and to characterize the impact on all larger cryosphere regions of short-lived climate pollutants, especially black carbon, using new modeling. See below for a link to the original modeling concept paper.

The report raises many questions and avenues for further policy and modeling work, and ICCI is actively seeking support to continue 1) detailing the ongoing changes in the cryosphere, based on the newest research and 2) exploring means to mitigate or slow that warming, and help ecosystems and peoples living in polar and mountain regions to adapt in a rapidly changing environment.

Read the ICCI News Release here.

Citation: ICCI & World Bank, 2013. On Thin Ice: How Cutting Pollution Can Slow Warming and Save Lives. International Cryosphere Climate Initiative (ICCI), Stockholm, Sweden; World Bank, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), Washington, DC. 116 pp.

Published: 4 November 2013

Download the Executive Summary Download the report


Late in the evaluation and modeling stage of the 2011 UNEP/WMO Integrated Assessment of Black Carbon and Tropospheric Ozone, researchers were surprised when newly-acquired IIASA numbers regarding measures for domestic heating — replacement of wood burning with pellets in OECD nations — led to about 15% greater cooling in the Arctic region.  Indeed the UNEP Assessment showed a greater temperature response in the Arctic to SLCP measures than that of any other region, or in the globe as a whole.

Much of this greater response arises from the greater impact from black carbon (BC) emissions over the highly reflective surface of ice and snow.  Black carbon researchers today also believe there is less uncertainty overall from sources that carry higher percentages of the more reflective, “white” organic carbon and “yellow” sulfates often co-emitted with black carbon from many sources, especially biomass burning. This is because the lighter organic carbon and sulfates reflect the sun’s rays and thus can actually cool more than black carbon from that same source might warm; but only over a surface that is darker to begin with.  Such a “cooling” impact is absent over a surface that is already white and highly reflective, such as ice and snow.

Because these regions have reacted more strongly in general to global warming, showing an increase in temperature twice that of the global mean, they are also at greater risk. The 2-degree global limit set by the Copenhagen Accord translates into 4-5 degrees in most polar and alpine regions. The IPCC, Arctic Council and others estimate that such a rise in temperature will lead to feedback mechanisms speeding global warming further, chiefly by decreasing the overall reflectivity (albedo) of the globe and by leading to increased emissions of methane and CO2 from permafrost. The record sea ice melting and Greenland-wide melt of summer 2012 only underscores the vulnerability of all cryosphere regions.

SLCP reductions, if taken in concert with the CO2 reductions and in the same time frame, offer the best and perhaps only means easily available to slow this trend in the near-term, by the critical 2030-2050 time frame. At the same time, it is important from an economic and development perspective to ascertain which kinds of SLCP reduction measures provide the greatest climate, health and crop co-benefits so that the most effective measures can be targeted.  This is especially the case for black carbon measures because they are highly regional in their impacts and dependent on regional factors such as wind direction and precipitation. Black carbon measures also have important impacts on other kinds of climate responses, especially seasonal precipitation patterns, most notably the Asian monsoon, but more detailed modeling may uncover other regional patterns as well.

Why A Cryosphere-Specific Assessment?

The 2011 UNEP Assessment of necessity contained only the beginnings of work on cryospheric climate change, with specific analysis for the Arctic alone as a sub-region. Perhaps even more significantly, in its modeling UNEP was unable to really quantify certain sources of black carbon that UNEP nevertheless identified as potentially important, especially from field and forest burning, due to lack of reliable emissions inventories. Analysis of stove use patterns (both wood and coal) have also greatly improved since the original UNEP study with the founding of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC) and new work by the Arctic Council and IIASA on domestic heating. Since these sources are also rich in the lighter organic carbon, this was assessed as not critical for the global estimates of climate benefits – the change in warming or cooling was assessed as minimal. In the cryosphere though, over snow and ice, these same sources can become powerfully warming, and measures aimed at abating them can have powerful regional health and climate impacts.

The UNEP/WMO Assessment thus most likely underestimated the potential positive impact of SLCP emissions in the cryosphere and, consequently, the potential to slow cryospheric warming in the near term. As a result, ICCI — which participated as an advisor and author in the UNEP/WMO Assessment — in summer 2012 commissioned a follow-on modeling study using the same teams from the EC’s Joint Research Centre and NASA/Goddard, complemented with additional modelers from the University of Reading using Hadley Centre models; and involving also additional cryosphere-specific expertise.

This new modeling effort and report on climate change in the cryosphere will therefore seek to provide this greater detail in these specific regions where the combination of methane measures and regional black carbon measures could be quite powerful indeed.  Modeling began in earnest in fall 2012 with the support of the Flora Family Foundation and continued well into the summer of 2013.  Convinced of the development implications of this work, the World Bank joined the effort with additional support early in 2013. The report, now titled “On Thin Ice: How Cutting Pollution Can Slow Warming and Save Lives,” is scheduled for joint release in early November.

Read about the background and action plan (pdf).

The ICCI presented a side event at the Bonn Climate Change Conference – June 2013

A Near-Term Action Plan for the Cryosphere
Presented by the ICCI and the Clean Air Task Force (CATF)

Read about the side event here

Rapid Climate Change in Polar and Mountain Regions
Black Carbon Reductions for Regional Mitigation of Glacier and Ice Loss?
Wednesday June 12, 13:15-14:45


I. Latest Cryosphere Developments: Antarctica and the Global Climate
Dr. Mike Sparrow, Executive Secretary
Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR)

Drop Box Presentation at:
MAC: https://t.co/eo8mS1YwDg
PC: https://t.co/hX0okM4ILz

II. Black Carbon and Climate Change in the Tropics (8.9 MB)
Dr. J. Srinivasan, Chair Person
Divecha Centre for Climate Change, Indian Institute of Science

III.  Cryosphere Mitigation Actions Report: Preliminary Results and Plans (1.5 MB)

Dr. Elisabetta Vignati, Head of Air and Climate
European Commission, DG Joint Research Centre

Organized by the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative (ICCI)
Questions/follow-up:  Dr. Svante Bodin, +46-70-695-2116, svante@bodin.com or
Ms. Pam Pearson, +46-70-57 522 57, pam@iccinet.org.