Arctic "death spiral" leaves climate scientists shocked and worried
Multiple feedback loops amplify global warming.
As the sea ice disappears, a series of interconnected feedback loops are significantly increasing global warming. The stronger these feedback loops grow, the faster and deeper our cuts in fossil fuel CO2 emissions will need to be to compensate.
New sources of global warming include:
- Albedo flip.
Sea ice reflects sun's rays back into space keeping the planet cooler. As sea ice disappears the uncovered ocean absorbs this energy, making the planet hotter. One estimate says the extra heat gained equals the global warming from an additional 20 years of human CO2 pollution.
As the Arctic rapidly heats up, the "permanently" frozen soils (permafrost) also have started to melt at any increasingly rapid pace. As permafrost thaws it releases methane and CO2 -- both potent greenhouse gases. A new study by University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver and others predicts that Canada's melting permafrost will accelerate global warming more than 0.5 C by the end of the century. That is about half the warming we still have left before most climate scientists predict dire impacts on humans.
- Methane hydrates melting.
Tremendous amounts of methane are frozen on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean. As water temperatures increase, the threat of large emissions of methane bubbling out of the sea grows. Climate scientist James Hansen of NASA says the melting of methane hydrates in the earth's past has triggered rapid global warming leading to major extinction events.
- Dying forests.
Rapid warming is causing the entire western boreal forest to start dying faster than it is growing back according to recent research. This gigantic swath of landscape has shifted from an absorber of CO2 to an emitter of CO2 in recent years. This is creating a feedback loop where over-heating forests release CO2 that then over-heats the forests even more. Forest fires are also increasing in the boreal and arctic, releasing ever more CO2. Meanwhile, the voracious mountain pine beetle that has been unleashed by warming temperatures has already eaten half the pine trees in BC and across large areas of western North America. These dying pine forests are releasing huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. Experts predict that with unchecked global warming the native pine beetles will expand in a few decades into the boreal forest and eat that forest down from coast to coast.
- More fossil fuels to burn.
The Arctic Ocean has huge quantities of oil and methane that humans have not yet been able to turn into CO2. The sea ice has kept us from extracting and burning them. Now, as the sea ice vanishes, a black gold rush is kicking in. Shell Oil just put the very first drilling rig in. Scrabbling for more carbon to burn in an over-heating Arctic reminds me of people smoking cigarettes through their tracheotomy hole. It might not be illegal, but piling on more of what caused a crisis is likely to end badly.
- Vanishing spring snow cover.
One of the most dramatic but least discussed climate changes on our planet has been the rapid decline in our spring snow cover. Warmer temperatures are melting snow earlier each year. In fact the area of missing snow cover is much greater than the area of missing sea ice. The snow cover is retreating northward at a rate of 60 km per year. This huge decline in snow cover is driving the same kind of global warming feedback loop as the vanishing sea ice. Instead of snow reflecting sunlight back into space in spring and summer, the snow-free land absorbs it, ratcheting up global temperatures.
More extreme weather
In addition to the global warming feedback loops mentioned above, the Arctic meltdown is also driving extreme weather in another surprising way -- by destabilizing the polar jet stream.
The speed of the jet stream is driven by the difference in air temperature between the Arctic and the tropics. This difference is shrinking as the vanishing sea ice pushes the Arctic to heat up faster than any place on earth. Similar to what happens when you remove a hot-tub cover, the removal of the sea ice cover allows heat from the water below to escape and warm the air above.
Measurements show the polar jet stream has been slowing down and getting "stuck" more easily. Weather patterns are staying stationary for longer periods. Also known as "blocking" patterns, this stuck weather phenomenon has been behind several of the worst extreme weather events, and crop failures, in recent years.
Sunny weather that gets stuck can turn into extreme heatwaves and drought, as seen in Russia, Europe and the USA recently. Rainy weather that gets stuck can turn into weeks of extreme rain and flooding as seen around the globe recently. Snowy weather that gets stuck can turn into "snowmaggedons".
Arctic ecosystems unravelling
The amplified warming in the Arctic is unravelling huge ecosystems. Animals that depend on summer ice like polar bears, walrus, seals and whales are struggling. Permfrost is collapsing, wave heights growing, shorelines eroding, sea level rising, wildfires increasing, temperature zones shifting, forests dying and a string of record-breaking storms pounding away on it all.
NASA satellite image of an unusually powerful and long lasting Arctic storm in August 2012.
Now what? More fossil fuel CO2?
With extreme weather increasing, crops failing and a series of nasty feedback loops accelerating in the Arctic it seems like a prudent time to stop throwing fuel -- fossil fuel CO2 -- on the climate fire.
In BC, the promising first steps towards removing carbon pollution -- and therefore carbon risk -- from our economy have faltered. The current Clark government is instead working to increase the amount of carbon flowing through the BC's economy. In addition they have frozen the carbon tax, exempted whole industries from paying it and are keeping most of our economy's carbon off the books.
Pumping ever more carbon into our economy, while ignoring most of it when making policy decisions, seems increasingly reckless. It increases the pace of climate change while also increasing our economy's exposure to carbon risk.
This kind of wilful ignorance of accelerating risk didn't work out well for Enron, dot-com shareholders or American mortgage holders. In the end, unsustainable bubbles pop.
The rapidly destabilizing Arctic shows that we are already late in waking up to the carbon threats facing our climate and our economy.