The Arctic ice cap is melting - and with it goes our future
OPINION: It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of what is currently unfolding in the Arctic region
THE TRUTH, as Winston Churchill put it, is incontrovertible. “Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.” Scrape away the layers of denial, obfuscation and spin that cloud climate change and one unvarnished truth emerges: the Arctic ice cap is dying – and, with it, humanity’s best hopes for a prosperous, predictable future.
In the most dramatic reconfiguration of the map of the world since the end of the last Ice Age, the Arctic ice cap is now committed to accelerated collapse.
In 2007, the intergovernmental panel on climate change warned that, unless emissions were drastically curbed globally, the Arctic ocean could be clear of summer sea ice towards the end of this century.
They were hopelessly optimistic. On September 16th last, Arctic sea ice hit its lowest level ever recorded, at 3.41 million sq km, barely half the 1979-2000 average. The area of sea ice lost is 41 times larger than the island of Ireland. While the drop in sea ice extent is alarming, the 72 per cent decline in its volume is worse. Not only is ice cover shrinking, the surviving ice is thinning precipitously.
Prof Peter Wadhams of the Polar Ocean Physics Group described the September 2012 figures as a “global disaster”. He now projects the destruction of Arctic summer sea ice by 2015-16 – more than half a century ahead of the IPCC’s projections. “The final collapse towards that state is now happening and will probably be complete by those dates,” he added.
It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of what is now unfolding in the Arctic region. The Arctic ice cap used to cover 2 per cent of the Earth’s surface, and the ice albedo effect meant vast amounts of solar energy were bounced back into space from the bright white ice mass.
Losing this ice, and replacing it with dark open ocean, creates a dramatic tipping point in planetary energy balance.
“The extra radiation that’s absorbed is, from our calculations, the equivalent of about 20 years of additional CO2 being added by man,” Prof Wadhams said.
With global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions already spiralling far beyond the levels that scientists have warned present grave risks to humanity, the injection of a massive new source of additional energy into Earth systems could hardly have come at a worse time.
The northern hemisphere is experiencing sharp foretastes of future climate destabilisation driven by the Arctic meltdown.
The jet stream, which operates between the cold Arctic and the warmer mid-latitudes, dominates much of our weather, and it is weakening and becoming more erratic as Arctic ice melt accelerates and the region warms. The severe cold snaps that brought Ireland to a shivering halt in 2010 and 2011, as well as this summer’s relentless rainfall, are probably connected to Arctic ice cover loss. Jet stream weakness is leading to what are known as blocking events – episodes of extreme weather, be they droughts, freezes or flooding, persisting for unusually long periods. The Russian heatwave of 2010 and the extreme US drought this summer are two more related events.