Photo: A worrisome wet wake-up call from the Arctic

Both the NSIDC and the European Space Agency say ice is thinning at a rate 50 per cent faster than scientists predicted. (Credit: Heather Thorkelson via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Editorial and Communications Specialist Ian Hanington.

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.

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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.

September 6, 2012

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Oct 04, 2012
12:54 AM

I need to know: Since the predicition is that we will hit the tipping point by 2015, and that whole ecosystems will be destroyed — possibly every one on Earth — is there any point in continuing on? Is there any point in trying to wake up deaf governments and industry that seems determined to continue in destructive, greedy ways if they simply don't listen? What's the point of even trying anymore?

Sep 19, 2012
2:44 PM

I have a question for Dr. Suzuki or one of the other scientists at the Suzuki Foundation: We keep hearing that when the higher albedo sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the lower albedo sea water will be absorbing more solar energy. Has anyone calculated the latent heat of fusion for all of this ice melt? At 334 kJ/Kg of ice, the phase transformation of sea ice to sea water is absorbing a tremendous amount of energy( a recent CBC article suggesting the ice will be gone in 10 years estimated the ice loss at 900 cu. km. per year since 2004). What percentage of the total energy received from the sun is being absorbed by just this latent heat of fusion phase transformation? And where will this energy go when the ice is gone. It seems to me, that without global warming the polar ice should remain in equilibrium…melting in the summer while being re-frozen in the winter. The net ice loss therefore is the key to understanding how much extra energy the earth is actually absorbing. Once the ice is gone, won't the energy that was melting it go directly into the oceans and atmosphere? Isn't that a sort of tipping point for global warming? I would very much like answers to these questions…either publicly or privately. Sincerely, John Vincent

Sep 16, 2012
11:35 AM

What do we do? The global economy is in rough shape because the nature of capitalism and the economy itself have been transformed into something Adam Smith and other classical economists wouldn't even recognize due to decades of sustained business and bank lobbying on policy issues. The result was a 'gush up' not a 'trickle down' economy. A return to the postwar boom times when everyone prospered (albeit at the expense of the environment) is thus probably not in the cards even if more oil is discovered in the arctic.

Working towards restoring a real economy, as opposed to one balancing the wants of the few against the needs of the many, and supporting individual and community self sustenance with minimal fossil fuel reliance, is the plan I think is most likely to have a happy outcome for people and the environment.

Sep 08, 2012
5:15 PM

human beings have been on this planet just a sliver of time compared with the length of earths history. so maybe we should look back a couple million years and relize that the ice wasn't always there and this is a natural regular change for the earth. look at the big picture

Sep 07, 2012
8:20 PM

"We will always need resupply, because none of the water reprocessing technology that is available right now for space flight … is 100 percent efficient. So there's always some minimal loss," said Marybeth Edeen, deputy assistant manager of environmental control and life support at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

Water is lost by the Space Station in several ways: the water recycling systems produce a small amount of unusable brine

Sep 07, 2012
8:08 PM

II have always thought that the water released into space is something that will never come back to Earth and thus the depletion thereof affects the Earth negatively even in such minute particles. "Jim Reuter, leader of the ECLSS group at the Marshall Space Flight Center. "The Russian module Zarya is packed with contingency water containers (CWCs) that were carried over from the Space Shuttle during assembly missions earlier this year. They look like duffle bags and each one holds about 90 lbs." Jim Reuter, leader of the ECLSS group at the Marshall Space Flight Center. "The Russian module Zarya is packed with contingency water containers (CWCs) that were carried over from the Space Shuttle during assembly missions earlier this year. They look like duffle bags and each one holds about 90 lbs." Shuttle pilot Terry Wilcutt with 7 contingency water containers destined for the space station Mir. Even with intense conservation and recycling efforts, the Space Station will gradually lose water because of inefficiencies in the life support system. Quoted from

Sep 07, 2012
4:41 PM

If it where not for people like you Mr.Suzuki, the world would have not a clue about what's really going on. You are one of the two people I admire the most. The other one is Michio Kaku.

Sep 07, 2012
2:09 PM

Sep 07, 2012
1:30 AM

What's the solution???

Do we shut down the Canadian economy?

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