Thursday, 20 September 2012

Arctic meltdown sounds alarm bells

You would expect it to be front-page news, but with everything else going on at the moment, the story was shoved beyond page 20 in your newspaper or worse, consigned as a NIB.

Yesterday, it was confirmed by the US National Snow and Ice Center that the Arctic sea ice had shrunk by 18% (some 700,000 sq km) compared to 2007 levels, reaching a record low of 3.41 million sq km in the process. The culprit is clear; between 70% and 95% of the shrinkage can be explained by human activity, according to the Environmental Research Letters.

After the findings were released, Climate Change and Energy Secretary Ed Davey reiterated the UK’s policy to steer the 2013 climate change talks in Doha towards 30% emission reductions for all members. “The fact is we cannot afford to wait”, he said.

We certainly can’t. In fact, it’s more than likely that any resolutions from the summit will be too little too late from the Arctic’s point of view. According to Professor Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University, all of the ice will be completely gone by 2016, bringing with it destruction of local ecosystems and communities, while compounding the speed of global warming.

The warming process is a vicious circle of destruction. Progressively fewer of the sun’s rays are being reflected back into space, instead being absorbed by the darker body of seawater. The result is the melting of permafrost, which in turn releases methane, trapped since the last ice age. The global warming process could well accelerate.

What’s more, although this is much more difficult to predict precisely, extreme weather brought about by the effect to the jet stream is likely to become more common. The warmer air rising from the ever-expanding Arctic sea has both weakened the jet stream and caused it to move further north. The Met Office says the shrinkage has caused drier, colder winters in the UK which will continue for years to come.

And the sad irony is that as the ice melts, more opportunities are presented to offshore oil drilling, worsening the situation even more. There are 19 geological basins in the Arctic region altogether, which between them hold an estimated 13% of undiscovered global oil supplies. Since the 1970s, around half have been explored, although many projects have been botched due to soaring costs and safety concerns.

Many, including the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), are pointing the finger at Shell’s huge $4.5 billion offshore project, which was postponed until 2013 this week after spill-containment dome Arctic Challenger was damaged. This has raised deep concerns about Shell’s code of practice.

Not only this, but pollutants including “black carbon” have been darkening the ice since oil drilling began, exacerbating the melting process. Meanwhile, physical (and also noise) pollution in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas is likely to affect the 7,500 Inupiat people dependent on marine mammals for food.

The sooner the UN’s International Marine Organization comes up with a strict “Polar Code” outlining clear regulations on such matters, the better.

There is perhaps a crumb of comfort in all this. Precisely 0.1% of comfort, in fact. According to a Norwegian study, that is how much CO2 emissions could be cut each year if global shipping routes were re-wired to utilise the new Arctic shortcuts, although the impact of shipwrecks and soot were not accounted for.

But this crumb of comfort is crushed by the despair which confronts the world’s climate, the northern hemisphere weather system and, most of all, the Arctic region. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if we are to save the Arctic ice, something extraordinary needs to be achieved very quickly indeed.

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