Warming Arctic Dooming Earth?

Just as frogs are an environmental harbinger of worse to come, the Arctic now appears to be giving humanity a foretaste of the extent to which climate change may alter the globe.

In past few years, Arctic warming has become unprecedented. In the summer of 2007, Artic ocean ice-melt reached a record. This year, somewhat cooler summer temperatures allowed newly-formed ice to survive longer, so that ice loss did not exceed 2007, but air temperatures over the Arctic this fall have reached records.

Climatologists suspect these record air temperatures, 41 degrees (Fahrenheit) above normal, are the result of previous sea ice losses, and climate experts from U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are now painting a bleak scenario for future climate change in the region.

Ice reflects sunlight, keeping temperatures lower. When it melts, the darker sea water absorbs more of the sun’s radiation and heats up. This cascade failure, less ice and more warming, is exponential. Every year winter sea ice is cut back, the formation of ice the following summer is reduced by a factor of two.

According to James Overland, an NOAA oceanographer, this domino effect from multiple causes is nowhere more apparent than in the Arctic. Ice loss in Greenland and Northern Canada is accelerating, and Arctic species from caribou to polar bears are declining.

“Because it’s a sensitive system,” Overland adds, commenting on the most recent Arctic Report Card. “It often reflects changes in relatively fast and dramatic ways.”

This Arctic Report Card, initiated in 2006 an updated yearly (in October) by NOAA’s Climate Program Office, establishes a baseline of 21st century Arctic conditions as a means of monitoring divergence from the norm. Parameters include Arctic atmosphere, sea ice, biology, ocean and land masses, including Greenland.

This year’s Report Card shows three of the six parameters (atmosphere, sea ice, and Greenland) coded red to indicate changes strongly associated with warming. The other three areas are code yellow, a mixed signal for Arctic climate change.

On a graph of increasing warmth, 2008’s cooling is scarcely more than a blip on a downward trend that began in 1979. This summer, the extent of Arctic ice was nine percent greater than in 2007, but a 30-year chart shows a 34-percent loss year over year.

A longer tally, from 1880 to the present, shows combined global land and ocean surface average temperature for September of 2008 tied with September 2001 as the ninth warmest.

Like Michael Mann’s global warming ‘hockey stick’ graph, the chart is much maligned but inevitably vindicated. It’s pretty hard to argue with pictures of polar bears clinging to ice floes in any case. Additional proof of warming, in everything from tree rings to ice cores, suggest the earth is warmer now than it has been at any time in the past millennium.

For example, the three warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998, and 19 0f the 20 warmest years have all taken place between 1980 and the present. Studies of ocean temperatures suggest even more warming is in the offing, since ocean currents translate to land temperatures via earth’s natural winds.

Climate change is happening faster than previously predicted, according to a new assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This Fourth Assessment Report (published in 2007) has as its tagline, “faster, stronger, sooner”, none of them words climatologists really wanted to hear, but the evidence is overwhelming.

One of these pieces of evidence – that the Arctic Ocean is losing sea ice 30 years ahead of former IPCC assessments made in 2002 – suggests that earth may have passed some elemental tipping point beyond which change is truly irreversible. A further prediction, that the Arctic Ocean may be open to summer travel as soon as 2013, is like the final nail in the coffin of catastrophic climate change.

NOAA geoscientist and report author Dr Tina Tin describes the accelerated warming as “positive feedback mechanisms”, and suggest that these mechanisms amplify climate change in much the same way that bi-directional antennas amplify Internet speeds.

Less ice leads to a warmer Arctic, leads to warmer temperatures and more melting, leading to rising oceans, northward migrations of entire ecologies, and forced migrations of people living near the Equator, whose former crops no longer grow due to warmer conditions and less rainfall, as well as more intense storms. This is cascade failure in action, and NOAA scientist James Hansen argues that the climate is nearing dangerous tipping points, wherein the elements of a “perfect storm”, or global cataclysm, are assembled.

This perfect storm isn’t restricted to the mechanisms of melting ocean ice, however. As formerly frozen land masses from northern Canada to Siberian Russia thaw, they release trapped carbon dioxide (and methane, another global warming gas), pushing warming along that much faster.

This positive feedback loop creating the conditions for Hansen’s perfect storm could have been ameliorated or even averted any time during the past few decades, but governments chose to focus on oil-driven hyper-prosperity instead. Now, global financial crises threaten to push back mandates for tailpipe emissions, power plant emissions, coal as an energy generator, and even slow or halt the push for alternative energies like wind, solar and geothermal, creating all the conditions necessary for Hansen’s global cataclysm.

If we are doomed, as both James Lovelock (the Gaia Hypothesis) and Dr. Andrew Weaver (Canadian Nobel-winning lead author on the IPCC report) suggest, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Unfortunately, it is our children who will pay the piper.

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