Arctic sea ice has already melted to a record low this year, in thickness and extent. And summer's not over yet. According to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, record melt has occurred for the past six years. Both the NSIDC and the European Space Agency say ice is thinning at a rate 50 per cent faster than scientists predicted, mainly because of global warming, and that summer Arctic ice could soon disappear altogether.
The implications for global climate and weather, and for animals and people in the North, are enormous. One would think the urgency of this development would draw a swift and collaborative response from government, industry, media, and the public. Instead, news media have downplayed the issue, the only mention made of climate change at the recent Republican National Convention was to mock the science, and many government and industry leaders are rubbing their hands in glee at the thought of oil and gas extraction opportunities and shipping routes that will open up as the ice disappears.
Subscribe to Science Matters
We just don't get it. As ice melts, more of the sun's energy, which would normally be reflected back by the ice, is absorbed by the dark water, speeding up global climate change and warming the oceans. The Arctic is now heating at almost twice the rate as the rest of Earth. There's also the danger that methane could be released as ice and permafrost melt. It's a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide, so this would accelerate global warming even further. Scientists believe methane may also be uncovered by the warming Antarctic.
The Arctic ice cap also helps regulate weather, affecting ocean currents and atmospheric circulation. "This ice has been an important factor in determining the climate and weather conditions under which modern civilization has evolved," NASA chief scientist Waleed Abdalati told Associated Press. A study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters concludes that melting Arctic ice could lead to more extreme weather events, including drought, floods, heat waves, and cold spells — especially in Europe and North America.
This not only threatens our future and that of our children and grandchildren; it could also have tremendous negative economic impacts. Because climate change affects agriculture and food supply, energy systems, water availability, and weather conditions, it will be expensive. A study conducted for the Pew Environment Group concludes, "In 2010, the loss of Arctic snow, ice and permafrost is estimated to cost the world US$61 billion to $371 billion in lost climate cooling services. By 2050, the cumulative global cost is projected to range from US$2.4 trillion to $24.1 trillion; and by 2100, the cumulative cost could total between US$4.8 trillion and $91.3 trillion."
That doesn't take into account the effects on the animals and plants in the Arctic — including polar bears, whales, seals, and walruses — and the people who depend on them.
What's the solution? During a recent trip to the North, Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed that sovereignty and resource extraction are his government's priorities for the region. And as Guardian writer George Monbiot points out, companies largely responsible for the climate disaster are scrambling to get as much profit from the situation as they can. Oil companies including Shell and Russia's Gazprom are taking advantage of the melt to speed up exploratory drilling. Greenpeace activists recently chained themselves to Gazprom's supply ship in an attempt to stop that company's activities.
We can't all chain ourselves to ships, so we have to tell our elected representatives, as well as people in the media and industry, that we expect better than short-term gain for long-term pain. Doing all we can to combat climate change comes with numerous benefits, from reducing pollution and associated health-care costs to strengthening and diversifying the economy by shifting to renewable energy, among other measures.
From year to year, environmental changes are incremental and often barely register in our lives, but from evolutionary or geological perspectives, what is happening is explosive change. Politicians and businesspeople focused on short-term agendas continue to ignore or downplay the hazards. But the more we stall, the worse it will get. The Arctic warnings provide an opportunity to get things right.