Andreas Späth

Arctic alarm bells

2012-10-08 13:00

Andreas Späth

What's happening in the Arctic should be of grave concern to us. The region has been described as the "frontline of climate change" and what’s going on there right now is the equivalent of our planet waving a red flag.

Nowhere else on Earth are the symptoms of our addiction to fossil fuels visible quite so graphically and on so gigantic a scale. And nowhere else are the potential consequences as far-reaching.

With the exception of Greenland, a few other isolated islands and the northern edges of America and Eurasia, the area around the North Pole is covered by sea - the Arctic Ocean. Most of this ocean is more or less permanently covered by a thick layer of floating ice - the Arctic sea ice.

The areal extent of this sea ice fluctuates steadily, reaching a maximum at the end of the northern winter in around March and thawing to a summer minimum in September. It's one of the Earth's great natural cycles.

Rising average temperatures caused by human activities - predominantly our profligate burning of oil, coal and gas - are throwing this great seasonal rhythm out of kilter, and they are doing so much faster than previously predicted.

On the 16th of September this year, the extent of the Arctic sea ice fell to an all-time low of 3.41 million km², well below the previous daily record set on the 18th of September 2007. And this is just the latest measurement confirming an accelerating trend.

The extent of the sea ice at the end of the summer melt has been shrinking steadily since satellite monitoring started in the late 1970s. The six lowest years on record have occurred in the last six years, from 2007 to 2012.

Satellite studies indicate that it’s not just the area of sea ice that is decreasing rapidly, but the thickness, too. The University of Washington’s Pan Arctic Ice Ocean Model Assimilation System estimates that in late August, sea ice volumes dropped to around 3500 km³, representing a 72% decline from the 1979–2010 mean.

"So what?" you might say. "It's a shame about the poor polar bears and all, but why should we, at the southern tip of Africa, give a hoot about the melting Arctic?"

It turns out that the Arctic sea ice plays a very important air-conditioning role for the entire planet: it keeps the northern polar region cold and helps to moderate the global climate.

Sea ice reflects a large amount of sunlight back into space. By contrast, open Arctic Ocean water absorbs most of its energy. Shrinking sea ice exposes more open ocean to the sun's rays, causing temperatures to rise further and even more ice to melt, etc, etc. It's called a positive feedback loop, but it has very negative consequences.

According to Peter Wadhams, Professor of Ocean Physics at the University of Cambridge, the effect will amount to the "equivalent of about 20 years of additional CO2" being added to the atmosphere by humans. We set the process in motion, but once it gets going it avalanches, feeds on itself and is nigh-on impossible to stop.

Increased amounts of melt water, including increased volumes of river discharge from the warming continental areas of the region, stand to lower the salinity and raise the surface temperature of Arctic sea water, causing yet more melting and weaker water circulation in the Atlantic Ocean which in turn has significant effects on multiple and very large biological and weather systems.

The impact of the melting Arctic ice cap will influence us regardless of how many thousands of kilometres away from us it’s happening. As Africa's most carbon-intensive nation, burning coal and soon perhaps fracked shale gas with gay abandon, we most certainly share part of the responsibility and are culpable for what’s happening at the North Pole.

I'm not in the habit of quoting politicians, but I’ll make a rare exception and give the last word to British MP Joan Walley, chair of the UK Environmental Audit Committee which has recently called for a moratorium on Arctic oil drilling: "The shocking speed at which the Arctic sea ice is melting should be a wake-up call to the world that we need to phase out fossil fuels fast."

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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