The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice: Environment crisis- “Arctic Meltdown”

The staggering decline of sea ice at the frontline of climate change

Scientists on board Greenpeace’s vessel exploring the minimum extent of the ice cap are shocked at the speed of the melt

  • John Vidal in Arctic : Scientist John Fletcher from Cambridge University Measuring Arctic Sea Ice
The scientist John Fletcher from Cambridge University measures the thickness of an ice floe in the Arctic. Photograph: Alex Yallop/Greenpeace

We are a few hundred miles from the north pole. The air temperature is -3C, the sea freezing. All around us in these foggy Arctic waters at the top of the world are floes – large and small chunks of sea ice that melt and freeze again with the seasons.

Arne Sorensen, our Danish ice pilot, is 60 feet up in the crow’s nest of the Arctic Sunrise vessel. Visibility is just 200 yards and he inches the 1,000-tonne Greenpeace ice breaker forward at two knots through narrow passages of clear water. The floes are piled up and compressed in fantastic shapes and shades of grey and blue; they crack, rumble and groan as we nudge them aside or climb over them. Two polar bears on our port side lift their heads but resume hunting.

Sorensen has sailed deep into ice at both poles for 30 years, but this voyage is different, he says. The edge of the Arctic ice cap is usually far south of where we are now at the very end of the melt season. More than 600,000 square kilometres (sq km) more ice has melted in 2012 than was ever recorded by satellites before. Now the minimum extent has been nearly reached and the sea is starting to refreeze.

“This is the new minimum extent of the ice cap,” he says, the “frontline ofclimate change“.

“It is sad. I am not doubting this is related to emitting fossil fuels to a large extent. It’s sad to observe that we are capable of changing the planet to such a degree.”

The vast polar ice cap, which regulates the Earth’s temperature and has been a permanent fixture in our understanding of how the world works, has this year retreated further and faster than anyone expected. The previous record, set in 2007was officially broken on 27 August when satellite images averaged over five days showed the ice then extended 4.11 million sq km, a reduction of nearly 50% compared to just 40 years ago.

But since 27 August, the ice just kept melting – at nearly 40,000 sq km a day until a few days ago. Satellite pictures this weekend showed the cap covering only 3.49m sq km. This year, 11.7m sq km of ice melted, 22% more than the long-term average of 9.18m sq km. The record minimum extent is now likely to be formally called on Monday by the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) in Colorado.

The record hasn’t just been broken, it’s been smashed to smithereens, adding weight to predictions that the Arctic may be ice-free in summer months within 20 years, say British, Italian and American-based scientists on board the Arctic Sunrise. They are shocked at the speed and extent of the ice loss.

The Cambridge University Sea ice researcher Nick Toberg, who has analysed underwater ice thickness data collected by British nuclear submarine HMS Tireless in 2004 and 2007, said: “This is staggering. It’s disturbing, scary that we have physically changed the face of the planet. We have about 4m sq km of sea ice. If that goes in the summer months that’s about the same as adding 20 years of CO2 at current [human-caused] rates into the atmosphere. That’s how vital the arctic sea ice is.

“In the 1970s we had 8m sq km of sea ice. That has been halved. We need it in the summer. It has never decreased like this before”.

“We knew the ice was getting thinner but I did not expect we’d lose this much this year. We broke the record by a lot”, says the NSIDC scientistJulienne Stroeve.

“The acceleration of the loss of the extent of the ice is mostly because the ice has been so thin. This would explain why it has melted so much this year. By June the ice edge had pulled back to where it normally is in September,” she says.

“The 2007 record was set when you had weather conditions which were perfect for melting. This year we didn’t have those. It was mixed. So this suggests the ice has got to a point where it’s so thin it doesn’t matter what the weather is, it’s going to melt in the summer. This could become the new normal,” says Stroeve.

In the past Stroeve has shown that ice melt has been happening far faster than the models predicted. Her new research, published last month in the journal Geophysical Research Papers, shows humans may have been responsible for most of the ice loss in recent decades.

“It suggests 60% of the observed decline in ice extent in Septembers from 1953-2011 was due to human activity. The decline is linked to the increase in temperatures,” she says.

“This year is significant. At the moment the [ice extent] is below what the next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report will show in 2014. We are on the extreme edge of the models, suggesting that ice loss is happening much faster than the models suggested,” says Stroeve.

All over the Arctic the effects of accelerating ice loss and a warming atmosphere are being seen. The ecology is changing rapidly as trees and plants move north, new beetles devastate whole forests in Canada, Siberia and Alaska, and snowfall increases. Inuit and other communities report more avalanches, the erosion of sea cliffs and melting of the permafrost affecting roads and buildings. Whole coastal communities may have to be moved to avoid sea erosion.

With the ice loss has come a rush by industry for Arctic resources. Oil, gas, mining and shipping companies are all expanding operations into areas that until only 20 years ago would have been physically impossible. They bring new opportunities for trade, but new threats to the environment. On Monday, a historic first drilling operation by Shell in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska was halted after sea ice was seen moving towards the oil company’s drill ship.

Other new research suggests that the loss of ice could be could be affecting the path and speed of the jet streams, possibly explaining why extreme weather in the northern hemisphere is lasting longer.

“There is evidence of stronger and more intense north Atlantic storms and extreme weather, says Stroeve. “We are thinking we are entering a new climate state. Until we get the next push and reach a new equilibrium.”

From now on until June, the Arctic sea ice will refreeze. First it will be glassy, thin “shuga”, “grease” or “pancake” ice, unable to bind the floes together. But within weeks, the whole icecap will visibly reform, growing up to 100,000 sq km a day until the melt season begins again next year.

But, says Toberg, because of the massive melt this year, there will be less old, or multiyear, ice which is thicker and less prone to melting. The new ice formed this winter will be weaker and more vulnerable to melt, hastening the loss of ice next year. “It is preconditioned to melt”, he says.

Now, “feedbacks” are thought to be hastening the ice retreat. In recent summers, say ice experts, Arctic sea surface temperatures have been well above normal, partly because there is less ice to reflect heat back into the atmosphere. The darker open waters now absorb more solar radiation, accelerating the melt.

“The ice is weak so it opens up water and allows more sunlight in which warms the water more which makes the ice break up more – so it accelerates the melt. There is hardly any old, multi-year ice left, so first year ice is now dominant. We are seeing less and less old thick ice,” says Toberg.

The longer term implications of the great melt of 2012 are hard to call, say climate scientists who caution that more research is needed. Sea ice plays a critical role in regulating climate, acting as a giant mirror that reflects much of the sun’s energy, helping to cool the Earth.

What is suspected is that the formation of the sea ice produces dense salt water which sinks, helping drive the deep ocean currents. Without the summer sea ice, many scientists fear this balance could be upset, potentially causing major climatic changes.

“The Arctic ice cover is a lid on the planet that regulates the temperature. By taking it off you are warming it. Temperatures [everywhere] depend on it,” says Toberg.

Sea ice extent has varied naturally over the decades with some Russian data suggesting similar or even greater ice loss in some local areas in the 1930s. But the models are clear, says Stroeve. If you omit the observed records, keeping CO2 levels at pre-industrial levels, then none show a decline of ice cover. When you do put CO2 into the models, they all show a decline, she says.

“Just because there was possibly less ice in some areas at other times, that doesn’t mean it’s not human-induced now”.

“We can expect the Arctic to be ice-free in summer within 20 years, she says. “The ice won’t go away the whole year. It will still be cold enough in the Arctic to freeze in winter. But by 2030 I’d say we will have an ice-free summer Arctic. That does not mean that natural ice variability cannot bring it back again, but the trend, we think, will be downward.”

“This is a defining moment in human history,” said Kumi Naidoo, director of Greenpeace International in Amsterdam. “In just over 30 years we have altered the way our planet looks from space and soon the north pole may be completely ice-free in summer.

“Fossil fuel companies are still making profits despite the fact that climate change is so clearly upon us. Our politicians are putting corporate interests above scientific warnings and failing in their duties to the public”.

Arctic sea ice shrinks to smallest extent ever recorded

Rate of summer ice melt smashes two previous record lows and prompts warnings of accelerated climate change

An iceberg melts, drips water in Kulusuk Bay, eastern Greenland

Satellite images show that the rapid summer melt has reduced the area of Arctic sea ice to less than 3.5 million square kilometres this week. Photograph: John Mcconnico/AP

Sea ice in the Arctic has shrunk to its smallest extent ever recorded, smashing the previous record minimum and prompting warnings of accelerated climate change.

Satellite images show that the rapid summer melt has reduced the area of frozen sea to less than 3.5 million square kilometres this week – less than half the area typically occupied four decades ago.

Arctic sea ice cover has been shrinking since the 1970s when it averaged around 8m sq km a year, but such a dramatic collapse in ice cover in one year is highly unusual.

A record low in 2007 of 4.17m sq km was broken on 27 August 2012; further melting has since amounted to more than 500,000 sq km.

The record, which is based on a five-day average, is expected to be officially declared in the next few days by the National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado. The NSIDC’s data shows the sea ice extent is bumping along the bottom, with a new low of 3.421m sq km on Tuesday, which rose very slightly to 3.429m sq km on Wednesday and 3.45m sq km on Thursday.

Scientists predicted on Friday that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summer months within 20 years, leading to possibly major climate impacts. “I am surprised. This is an indication that the Arctic sea ice cover is fundamentally changing. The trends all show less ice and thinner ice,” said Julienne Stroeve, a research scientist with the NSIDC.

Arctic sea ice lossThe shrinking of the ice cap was interpreted by environment groups as a signal of long-term global warming caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions. A study published in July in the journal Environmental Research Letters, that compared model projections with observations, estimated that the radical decline in Arctic sea ice has been between 70-95% due to human activities.

“We are on the edge of one of the most significant moments in environmental history as sea ice heads towards a new record low. The loss of sea ice will be devastating, raising global temperatures that will impact on our ability to grow food and causing extreme weather around the world,” said John Sauven, director of Greenpeace UK.

Sea ice experts on Friday said they were surprised by the collapse because weather conditions were not especially conducive to a major melt this year. The ice is now believed to be much thinner than it used to be and easier to melt.

Arctic sea ice follows an annual cycle of melting through the warm summer months and refreezing in the winter. The sea ice plays a critical role in regulating climate, acting as a giant mirror that reflects much of the Sun’s energy, helping to cool the Earth.

David Nussbaum, chief executive of WWF-UK, said: “The disappearance of Arctic ice is the most visible warning sign of the need to tackle climate change and ensure we have a world fit to pass on to the next generation. The sheer scale of ice loss is shocking and unprecedented. This alarm call from the Arctic needs to reverberate across Whitehall and boardrooms. We can all take action to cut carbon emissions and move towards a 100% renewable economy.”

Ed Davey, the UK climate and energy secretary, said: “These findings highlight the urgency for the international community to act. We understand that Arctic sea ice decline has accelerated over recent years as global warming continues to increase Arctic temperatures at a faster rate than the global average.

“This government is working hard to tackle climate change and we are working closely with our international partners not to exceed 2C above 1990 levels by 2050. I am calling for the EU to increase its emission target from 20% to 30% and will be taking an active lead at the UNFCCC climate change talks in Doha later this year, where I will push for further progress towards a new global deal on climate change and for more mitigation action now. The fact is that we cannot afford to wait.”

Canadian scientists said this week that the record melt this year could lead to a cold winter in the UK and Europe, as the heat in the Arctic water will be released into the atmosphere this autumn, potentially affecting the all-important jet stream. While the science is still developing in this area, the Met Office said in May that the reduction in Arctic sea ice was contributing in part to the colder, drier winters the UK has been experiencing in recent years.

Arctic sea ice minimum map by US National Snow & Ice Data Center

Arctic sea ice extent on 12 September 2012, in white, compared with the 1979-2000 median, marked with a red line. Photograph: NSIDC• John Vidal was hosted aboard a Greenpeace research vessel. The NGO did not have control over editorial copy

Vanishing Arctic ice is the planet’s white flag of surrender

The planet’s last great global ice melt left a benign and balmy climate in which civilisation was cradled: the new great melting heralds a grave threat to civilisation

Arctic ice : North Pole Webcam picture showing ice cap melting

A webcam at the north pole shows ice cap melting on 22 August 2012. Photograph: University of Washington/ North Pole Environmental Observatory/NOAA

Our planet is waving the white flag of surrender. But as the polar flag becomes ever more tattered, with holes scorched by hotter ocean waters, humanity pumps ever more globe-warming gases into the air.

The story of the Arctic ice cap is the story of modern environmentalism. In 1968, as satellites began to document the vast ice field blanketing the north pole, the iconic Earthrise image was beamed back to the ground. It revealed a planet of awesome beauty, deep blue oceans, verdant continents and crowned with at least 8m square kilometres of gleaming ice. The image kickstarted the global green movement.

In 2007, a new record was set for the minimum summer sea ice cover in the Arctic had halved. This furious flag waving attracted attention. That year, the world’s scientists declared the end of any doubt that our addiction to burning fossil fuels was changing the face of the planet. Al Gore expounded his inconvenient truth and the world seemed set to act.

Today, that 2007 record is smashed and the shredded white flag is now flickering rathering than flashing. But the danger is greater than even, even if the alarm signal is frayed.

The last great global ice melt the planet witnessed came 10,000 years ago at the end of a deep ice age. As glaciers retreated, a benign and balmy climate emerged in which the human race has flourished. Our entire civilisation is built on the warm soils left as the ice sheets melted.

This new great melting heralds the polar opposite: the gravest of threats to civilisation. Removing the lid from the pole will release heat equivalent to fast-forwarding human-caused climate change by two decades, say scientists.

Will this be the first great tipping point to tumble the world into a new and hostile climate regime, as the cooling, reflective ice vanishes? Will the new, warm Arctic radically alter the temperate weather enjoyed by Europeans, for whom global warming has seemed a distant concern?

We seem to be prepared to take that chance. The shrinking ice has not opened new leads for decisive global action to tackle climate change. Instead, in a vicious irony, the new channels are being exploited for oil and gas exploration, unearthing more of the very fuels driving the warming.

Decades from now, will today’s record sea ice low be seen as the moment when our Earthly paradise gave up the ghost and entered a hellish new era? I sincerely hope not, but with this global distress signal failing to attract attention, I fear the worst.

Source: The Guardian

SELVA Vida Sin Fronteras acknowledges Kevin Schafer’s important contribution towards protecting the highly endangered Amazon pink fresh water dolphin. Title photographs of our “The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice” were taken by Mr. Schafer. 

Editorial: SELVA-Vida Sin Fronteras

Editorial Committee

David Dunham

Arno Ambrosius

Gustavo López Ospina

Mariana Almeida

Pieter Jan Brouwer

Assistant: Emilia Romero

The Amazon Pink Dolphin’s Voice is associated with the International Environmental Mission, a grass roots citizens movement created by Chilean Senator Juan Pablo Letelier.

~ by FSVSF Admin on 14 September, 2012.

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