The Arctic is melting at a rate faster than any climate scientists dared to predict that it would. In what has been very accurately dubbed the ‘Arctic Death Spiral’, the summer minimums of sea ice are getting lower, with each successive summer setting new records for ice lost.
Research from the American Geophysical Union released just this week has shown that not only is the ice melting from the edges faster than predicted, it’s also losing volume, which makes the older ice melt faster too.
It’s likely that the Arctic will be completely ice free in the summer by 2016, and once that multi-year ice is gone, the North Pole will be a floating block of shallow ice that is much easier to melt away each summer, so I guess Santa will need to re-locate his workshop, and the homeless polar bear in that Radiohead video won’t be too far off either.
Homeless Santa (photo: Mark Rain, flickr/creative commons)
The most disturbing thing so far about the Arctic Death Spiral has been the international reaction to it, which has generally ranged from ‘meh, that’s a long way away’ to ‘sweet- let’s drill for more oil’! Seriously? Drill for more oil? Wow, that’s some serious cognitive dissonance there.
Unfortunately for everyone who doesn’t live in the Arctic Circle, this is not another one of those ‘see it on the news, doesn’t affect me’ kind of problems. For those of us in North America, an ice-free arctic is going to seriously mess with our weather. The speed and magnitude of the Jet Stream which you all see in weather reports is caused by the interaction between sub-tropical air masses and dense colder arctic air. A warmer arctic slows down the jet stream, while climate change gives extreme weather events steroids and makes them more likely to be extreme.
This means North America is going to be getting more slowly moving extreme weather – the droughts will last longer, the snowstorms will be more extreme for longer, the rain in Vancouver will last longer, flooding events might take weeks instead of days.
An ice-free Arctic also means the bottom is effectively being pulled out of the food chain in the Arctic. Think growth pattern changes to sea-ice phytoplankton won’t affect humans? Think again. If there is no plankton, or it grows at the wrong time, all the plankton-eating marine species go hungry, which in turn removes the food source for the seals, which removes the food source for the orcas and the polar bears, which removes the tourist dollars because there’s no whales to watch anymore and no polar bears or sea ice to see on your Arctic cruise.
Work the domino effect in whichever direction you like, it will still work its way up the food chain to humans eventually.
But even more horrifying is the addict-like response of oil and gas companies to the melting of the Arctic. While climate change is a large and multifaceted problem to solve, the cause is relatively straight forward. Humans have changed the energy balance of the atmosphere by taking dense, fossilised underground carbon and burning it, releasing it into the atmosphere. So when Greenland starts melting at a rate faster than expected and twice the rate that Antarctica is melting, contributing to rising sea levels, the response is not to keep expanding oil and gas exploration.
To keep enabling and increasing the cause of our warming climate – burning carbon – is insanity. It’s standing on a sinking ship and bailing water into the boat instead of out of the boat. It’s ensuring that by the time I retire, the places in the world I could live in will be limited because climate destruction will already be causing mass migration away from areas that will become inhabitable.
Are we so blinded by our obsession with short term profits at all costs and our ongoing fossil fuel addiction that no-one can see that getting excited about a melting Arctic because it means you can mine it is suicidal?
The climate math is really simple. The scientific best estimate of the remaining space our atmosphere has for more carbon dioxide without completely destroying our biosphere is 565 GT (Gigatonnes). The amount of recoverable reserves that oil and gas companies have on the books is five times that (2,795 GT). So if oil and gas companies have their way, they’ll push humanity over the climate cliff five times over and then still keep looking for more.
This behaviour is suicidal and immoral. It will cause climate chaos within my lifetime and will ensure that humans wilfully cause their own extinction within the next thousand years.
We cannot leave this climate legacy for the next generation without doing our utmost to solve the problem. We need to stop burning carbon. We need to start systematically transitioning to a clean energy economy as fast as possible, which means admitting that we must, for the sake of humanity, stop burning carbon.
Stop burning carbon. Stop spending millions of dollars looking for more carbon to burn. The melting of the Arctic is a forewarning of the climate catastrophe to come, and if we don’t prevent it, the future is not going to be pretty or liveable.