Andreas Späth

Bi-polar meltdown

2015-05-11 07:25

Andreas Wilson-Späth

The state of the planet’s environment is a depressing thing. Nowhere more so than at the most remote top and bottom of the world. The Arctic and the Antarctic are places many of us associate with untouched wilderness, unspoiled by our propensity to generate trash and pollution. Yet, looked at from a certain perspective, the opposite is true.

Human-caused climate change is impacting the globe’s extreme north and south disproportionately and what happens in these regions should serve as an early warning signal for things going pear-shaped worldwide.

The state of the polar ice caps is one of the most important indicators of planetary environmental health. They hold enormous quantities of water. If increasing amounts of this frozen reservoir melt, not only are we in for a rise in sea level that will encroach on many coastal cities and ecosystems, but worldwide weather patterns will be affected, too. Conditions at the poles have an important influence on both oceanic and atmospheric circulation, two of the most significant drivers of climate everywhere else.

Of course Arctic and Antarctic ice melts and re-freezes seasonally every year. The question is what’s the net effect over longer periods of time and the prognosis isn’t good.

Atmospheric CO2 levels have just breeched 400 ppm for a whole month for the first time since it’s been recorded and experts warn that current commitments by governments to reduce emissions are not enough to halt dangerous climate change. By continuing to pump greenhouse gases into the air, we’re raising temperatures and causing progressive melting at both poles as recent research shows:

- In a paper published last month, researchers using improved analysis of satellite data measured the extent of Antarctica’s ice cover from 2003 to 2014. They found that ice has been melting significantly faster than it has been replaced by snowfall and that overall, the continent is losing ice at an accelerating pace. They believe that on average approximately 92 billion tonnes of ice have disappeared annually since the beginning of 2003. This is in agreement with several recent studies which show that floating ice sheets and glaciers on the continent are shrinking, retreating and thinning.

- US scientists have developed a model which suggests that atmospheric and oceanic warming, together with related mechanical break-up mechanisms, may lead to a collapse of the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet on “decadal time scales”, potentially resulting in a rise in sea level of around three metres within a century.

- While West Antarctica is particularly strongly affected, new research reveals that channels at the base of Totten Glacier, the largest glacier in East Antarctica, may be allowing increasing amounts of warm ocean water to infiltrate the base of the glacier, speeding up melting from below. The Totten Glacier is the most rapidly thinning glacier in this part of the continent.

- The situation on the other end of the world isn’t any better. Last week, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that less ice covered the Arctic this winter then ever since satellite recordings have been available. Arctic winter ice cover has been declining since around 2002 and estimates are that the region will be totally ice-free during summer by 2040.

If you’re still not quite convinced about the reality of global warming and the effect it will have where you live because nothing much seems to be obviously changing in your immediate neighbourhood, it’s worth taking notice of these scientific findings from much further afield.  Alarm bells are ringing at both poles and it’s high time that we take them seriously and do something about them.

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

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