The Arctic Turns Ugly

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Above photo: From IntelliHub.com

Runaway global warming is far and away humankind’s biggest nightmare, and the Arctic is the likely perpetrator. If it happens, it’ll blister agricultural foodstuff before it can reach the outstretched arms of the multitudes. Then what?

Dr. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute of California recently warned, “What is happening in the Arctic now is unprecedented and possibly catastrophic. The evidence is very clear that rapid and unprecedented changes are happening in the Arctic.”1

Dr. Gleick finds a growing body of “pretty scary” evidence that increasing temperatures create horrendously dangerous storms throughout the Northern Hemisphere. For example, the polar vortex and anomalous jet streams brought record-breaking hot and cold weather to the U.S. in 2015. In the UK, unusually strong storms brought massive flooding with record rainfall.

Understandably, it is especially difficult for people, other than scientists, to comprehend the risks associated with an unusually warm ice-free Arctic. After all, the Arctic is so remote, at the top of the world, the North Pole with its attendant fantasies, like images of Santa Claus and playful reindeer, fuzzy polar bear cubs, and cute little baby seals.

But, metaphorically, the Arctic has turned sour, frowny-faced as it rapidly loses its structure, built on multi-year ice, but multi-year ice is going fast, very fast, fading, losing integrity, infrastructure, its permanence. This is comparable to the walls of a home collapsing.

Yet, dangerous storms are only one part of the story. “As the water of the Arctic Ocean keeps getting warmer, the danger increases that heat will reach the seafloor where it can trigger release of huge amounts of methane (CH4), in an additional feedback loop that will make warming in the Arctic accelerate and escalate into runaway warming.”2

Runaway global warming is exactly like it sounds, an earth-shattering asteroid collision that turns the planet into a fireball.

According to Paul Beckwith, Laboratory for Paleoclimatology and Climatology, University of Ottawa:

The Arctic is absorbing a lot more solar energy, and by itself at a much greater rate, than anywhere else on the planet. In fact, on average, in the last number of decades, the Arctic temperature has risen 1.0C per decade whereas the global average temperature rise has been about 0.15C per decade. So that ratio is 6 or 7 times more.

And, just to think, for perspective purposes, when the nations of the world met in Paris for COP21 only a few months ago, they talked about keeping global temps below an increase of 2.0C since the start of the industrialization. Meanwhile, the renegade Arctic’s temperature on its own is increasing by 1.0C per decade, blowing the lid off the rest of the planet. The dynamics are complex and very concerning.

Here’s a daunting outcome: “The scary conclusion is that the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) alone holds up to 1700 Gt of methane in the form of methane hydrates and free gas [in shallow water-gulp!] contained in sediments, of which 50 Gt is ready for abrupt release at any time. The warning signs keep getting stronger.”3

For comparison purposes, there is currently 5 Gt of methane in the atmosphere. An abrupt release of 50 Gt would be very, very, very, infinitely abrupt!

Leading researchers, like Peter Wadhams, professor of Ocean Physics and Head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group, Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge for years have repeatedly warned, over and over again, the day will come when the Arctic will be ice-free. That’s when bright red flashing lights and sirens start going off, as the water will be absorbing all but 6% of sunlight. Whereas with its icy cover, the Arctic reflects up to 90% of sunlight back to space, no harm, no foul.

When Dr. Wadhams was asked in an interview if “civilization could withstand a 50-gigaton release of methane,” he answered: “No, I don’t think it can.”

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center:

January Arctic sea ice extent was the lowest in the satellite record, attended by unusually high air temperatures over the Arctic Ocean… January 2016 was a remarkably warm month. Air temperatures at the 925 hPa level were more than 6 degrees Celsius (13 degrees Fahrenheit) above average across most of the Arctic Ocean.

By way of comparison, Venus’s atmosphere is 97% CO2, producing surface temperatures of 864 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s one Hot Tamale!  Earth’s atmosphere has a little over 400 ppm CO2 or much, much, much less than 1% of the atmosphere. Still, Earth is already, yes already, heating up with low levels of greenhouse gases as compared to Venus, but if methane (CH4) comes on strong, it traps 100 times more heat in the atmosphere than CO2 within a 5-year period and 72 times more within a 20-year period. It is an intense climate changer!

The likely upshot of intense climate change, beyond catching humanity with its pants down, is rapid increase in sea levels, flooding coastal cities, embedded droughts, diminishing agricultural production, severe storm activity, and horrific heat throughout the mid latitudes, resulting in panic, illness, and sudden death. The world turns chaotic. Whew! Dismally, more than telltale evidence indicates that this is already happening.

However, it is important to note (for balance) that there is no scientific consensus that an abrupt release of methane is in the cards; rather, it is disputed within the scientific community. Still, it’s the scientists in the field, like Natalia Shakhova, head of the Russia-U.S. Methane Study at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and the Pacific Oceanological Institute, Far Eastern Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences, who travels and works in the East Siberian Sea who is most alarmed. Dr. Shakhova and her team have personally witnessed and measured vast plumes of methane erupting from the Arctic sea floor.

It is common knowledge throughout the world that burning fossil fuel is the bad guy, the major cause behind greenhouse gas emissions, like CO2. Therefore, the big push to “keep fossil fuels in the ground and/or divestment.” But, maybe that’s only the tail wagging the dog. Maybe the real culprit, the real target, is neoliberalism, a world order dedicated to profits and private enterprise over and above human welfare and the sanctity of the ecosystem.

With neoliberalism, everything has a price, except for the ecosystem, hmm. Everything turns into a commodity with a specific trading value. Neoliberalism leaves little room for care or concern about anything other than making a buck. It’s what successful commodity trading is all about, calculatingly cold-blooded, emotionless, unimpassioned, and matter-of-fact. But, real life is full of passion!

Neoliberalism preaches cuts in business taxes, free trade (in secret), busting unions, privatizing education (for profit… seriously?), cutting pensions to meet austerity measures, shipping America’s middle class jobs offshore to lowly bidders, privatizing prisons (for profit… really?), abolishing regulations, privatizing everything (for profits galore!), militarizing police, demonizing government, overfunding warfare, underfunding welfare, denying climate change and/or pretending to do something (cosmetic) about it, aka COP21, all in the name of neoliberal private enterprise. If this doesn’t sound familiar, then get out of the cave a little more often.

The neoliberal school of thought embraces survival of the fittest tactics. But, hasn’t the world outgrown this kind of nonsense, yet?  “Profit for the sake of profits” is a dead end game that ignores and abuses the planet’s one and only ecosystem. With very little surprise, really none whatsoever, the Arctic turns ugly.

Throughout geological history, “Every time we have hit high CO2, we’ve lost the ice caps.”4

  1. Ian Johnston, “Arctic Warming: Rapidly Increasing Temperatures are Possibly Catastrophic for Planet, Climate Scientist Warns”, Independent, February 25, 2016.
  2. “Three Kinds of Warming in the Arctic”, Arctic News, February 26, 2016.
  3. “Three Kinds of Warming in the Arctic”, Arctic News, 26 February, 2016.
  4. Peter Ward, professor, Dept. of Earth & Space Sciences, University of Washington, “Our Future in a World without Ice Caps”, 2013 lecture series.

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.comRead other articles by Robert.

  • PaulK2

    I half-expect this to be the year that the Arctic ice pack shrinks back to maybe 10% of its normal summer range, not quite zeroed out but close enough. The Arctic is off to a flying start this March with a record low ice pack extent for March. This means that areas of the Arctic Ocean that are normally white on March 21 are dark water right now, absorbing solar heat all spring into summer. That’s an awful start.

    We could change the Alaskan tundra’s albedo back closer to normal (snowy until about June) with wind-powered snow making machines. This would also help the local ecology, where tundra mosses are now drying out and catching fire.

    We could passively (or actively) pump good quantities of heat out of the upper Arctic ocean and above the ice floes, putting it into the Arctic winter. Then the colder Arctic ocean would freeze back to its normal depth and the ice would reflect summer sunlight back into space like it used to. My design preserves the naturally anaerobic environment under the ice. We need relatively environmentally benign ways of dealing with climate change, and maintaining low oxygen levels under the ice is important.

  • Peter Baldwin

    I think PaulK2, below, has some interesting mitigation ideas and maybe those and others like them will ward off the worst of the abrupt catastrophic climate change and perhaps that is our only hope and maybe some of our energy and resources ought to go towards developing them. However, shouldn’t we also acknowledge that unfolding climate aberration is only part of the existential cocktail that threatens life on earth. The toxic residue of our industrial age (think Flint) and our materialistic consumptive lifestyles and culture, population, and the resulting environmental degradation all add other factors in the extinction equation.

    Perhaps we might also use some amount of our resources and creative capacity to begin to mitigate and clean up the polluted environment, to engineer decentralized infrastructure for good safe food and water once industrial mono-culture agriculture and especially coastal infrastructure begins to be compromised, and to learn to live powering simple essentials with in-place produced low/non-carbon micro-power. Otherwise, even if we beat the heat, we might not be around to celebrate.

    Yes, we also need to expend some energy “keeping it in the ground”, saying “No” in the streets, if necessary, and countering the suicidal insanity of the dominant extractive, militaristic, and predatory world led by the colonizing model of western greed based life championed by the US. The two places to get the resources we need for all this work is the rich and their military. There needs to be a planetary cease-fire and a universal “standing down” and disarmament and relocation of capital to what serves people and their ability to meet the challenge of survival at this existential cusp.

    To sum it up, we might mitigate the climate and our exposure to pollution, craft low powered localized infrastructure for food, water, shelter, and other essential goods and services, most likely living in a more agrarian contracted urban new culture. Oh, and learn to get along realizing we are one too.:-)