Sleepwalking into disaster

Credits: Alastair Rae

Credits: Alastair Rae

According to NASA and the US based National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), satellite images have shown that Arctic ice had shrunk to just 3.41 million square kilometers on September 16th.

This shocking figure is 700,000 square kilometres less than the previous record low of 4.17 million square kilometres set in 2007. For a sense of scale, this is equivalent to losing an area of ice twice the size of the entire UK.

These latest findings continue an alarming trend seen over the last three decades with this summer’s Arctic ice levels being reduced to a third of its 1979-2000 average. A dramatic demonstration of how quickly the Arctic situation is escalating.

The ice cap has decreased in thickness by 40 per cent since the 1980s. Combined with the data regarding area, the summer ice volume is now only 30 per cent of its 1980s levels.

Yet the problem is catalysed further. Gradual thinning of the ice cap has made it more susceptible to the regional cyclones, hurricane force winds and violent waves that break up the ice and further increase melting. The result is a vicious circle whereby the weakened ice cap is less able to withstand weather conditions over time, enhancing ice loss.

Experts have described the figures as ‘disturbing’ and declare that we are now in ‘unchartered territory’. Professor Peter Wadhams of the Polar Ocean Physics Group recently predicted the ‘inevitable death’ of the ice cap, further adding that its decline may accelerate so that the Arctic summers of 2015-16 may be ice free.

The knock-on socioeconomic effects of a loss in summer Arctic ice could be catastrophic, as it plays a crucial role in maintaining the planet’s climate. This big white mass helps to reflect a great deal of the sun’s energy back into space, meaning that its absence would likely cause an accelerated global warming effect.

“The extra radiation that is absorbed is, from our calculations, the equivalent of about 20 years of additional CO2 being added by man,” Professor Wadhams explained.

To add to this, the temperature gradient between the ice caps and the warm tropics drives global weather systems. This is the force behind the jet stream, winds that drive ocean currents and consequently the global patterns of rain distribution.

Changes to any of these will likely bring about an increase in extreme weather events such as droughts, freezes and flooding. With rising flood levels in York, there is growing evidence that this has already begun.

The resultant rise in sea levels would also be very problematic and hit low-lying coastal areas hard. Not to mention that a total summer-melt scenario would also spell the end for the Arctic ecosystem and the array of wildlife we have become familiar with through programs such as the BBC’s Frozen Planet.

Anthropogenic, human-driven, global warming is widely believed to be the predominant cause for the increased melt and we could be very close to the ‘end game’ that experts have long warned about.

These latest figures from the Arctic really serve to reinforce the dire need for governments around the world to take swift, decisive and unified action to bring about a vast reduction in our emission of greenhouse gases. The need to kick our addiction to carbon fuels and invest heavily in cleaner energy sources is becoming an increasingly pressing issue.

However, it is difficult to conclude that the immediate future will hold much change. As more and more developing countries jostle to claim a slice of the global economic pie and we face an ever-increasing global population, fossil fuel consumption is increasing year-on-year.

While politicians argue and dither at climate change summits where nothing but unambitious token efforts are announced, Arctic ice vital for the stability of our planet is melting. All the while, the window of opportunity to prevent dangerous climate change seems to be passing us by.

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