The Climate Crisis Begins in the Arctic, It End Wherever You Are
Richard Gale & Gary Null
Progressive Radio Network, November 1, 2018
Earth System Science, a relatively recent multi-disciplinary approach to better understand the daunting complexities of climate change and ecological sustainability, is founded on the understanding that the Earth’s many seeming individual or isolated systems acting co-independently with each other. Our planet, or Gaia, is an enormous systems network, and we need to quickly adapt our minds to this holistic way of perceiving our home on this earth. Causes and their effects are not only local events, but carry global signficance and influence through a composite web of inter-relationships that wraps around the entire world and its numerous biosystems.
Consequently, climate events experienced in the north can be felt in the south and vice versa. There is no part of our world that is truly isolated from another.Melting ice in the Arctic contributes to rising tides and frequent flooding in Miami. An ice-free Arctic, and loss of the Greenland glacial sheets, will generate substantial imbalances throughout the northern hemisphere and force tropical zones to migrate further north. The sands from the great dust storms in the African Sahel are felt in the air above Houston. The Amazon’s tropical rainforest, now threatened to be leveled for corporate profit by Jaio Bolanara’s new fascist government in Brazil, is one of the earth’s most critical filters for reprocessing humanity’s toxic output and releasing oxygen back into the atmosphere. The loss and drying of the Amazon means less rainfall and snow in the American northwest and the Sierra Nevadas. In the North, the great boreal forest stretching across Canada, northern Russia and Siberia and Scandinavia is one of the last remaining natural habitats for numerous species left on the planet. This region contains the world’s largest wetlands that store over 25% of human carbon emissions — more than all tropical forests combined. It is also crucial for keeping the Arctic cooler. Unfortunately, according to the Canadian Forest Service, the rate of boreal wildfires has doubled during the past 20 years. And in the south, the warming of tropical ocean basins is relenteless screaming back as fiercer storms traveling further into the mid-latitudes.
Perceiving our world as a complex network of co-independent relationships between living ecologies , known as biomes, and the earth’s physical systems (biosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, etc.) that account for sustaining life, is now absolutely essential for preparing ourselves for the increasing abnormal changes ahead as the planet gets hotter. Many scientists are now warning that simply reducing or even ceasing fossil fuel emissions altogether is insufficient to turn back the tide on climate change.
As recent as 2014, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) , following an analysis of NASA satellite footage of carbon dioxide movement around the planet, concluded that our warming planet has entered “unchartered territory at frightening speed.” For this reason, climatologists frequently underestimate the swiftness of climate-related events. Statistical and computational simulations are grossly limited for portending timelines for warming trends and their effects on weather conditions and the environment. For this reason, the most recent International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) report, as dire as it may be, has been criticized by many scientists for being too conservative. The report estimates that humanity has 12 years to seriously tackle the problem of humanity’s contribution to accelerated global warming. Paul Beckwith, a climatologist at the University of Ottawa, explains that the IPCC methodology is based upon systemized, gradual metrics to determine the rate of climatic change. Although highly sophisticated, the IPCC’s models are still lacking and unable to account for all of the anomolous variables, particularly actual weather and environmental events such as unforeseeable catastrophes like mammoth biomass emissions from wildfires, Category 4 and 5 superstorms and other natural and human calamities. Nor do these models take into account the many positive feedback loops that interfere with a gradual simulated approach. Therefore Beckwith and others would reduce the IPCC’s 12 year threshold by as much as 5 years. Instead of 2030, humanity may be facing only another 7 years, 2025, to make 180 degree turn to get on a sustainable tract and avoid an inevitable apocalypse in the future.
The Arctic is the key region climate scientists focus upon with the highest worry. Very soon the Arctic region will be ice-free throughout the year. Conservatively the region will lose all its ice during the warmest months before 2030. At one time, many scientists were unable to conceive that the Arctic could be ice-free before the 2070s or later. That has all changed. For 2017, the second hottest year on record, global temperatures are comparable to those that ended the last ice age. Now, with Canadian summers getting steadily hotter and winters milder, some are calculating this Blue Ocean Event may be reached by 2022. We still don’t know precisely many of the long term consequences to the polar region and the planet’s weather patterns and biosystems once no winter ice forms in the Arctic.
The year 2017 was also a record-breaking year for extreme weather and environmental catastrophes since records started to be kept in the 19th century to the present. The Arctic experienced temperatures up to 70 degree above normal, and 2018 posted temperatures of 45 degrees above normal. Siberia was more freakish with a 100 degree F swing in temperature within a two week period. This was recorded in the town of Oymyakon, which the Washington Post reported as “the coldest permanently occupied human settlement in the world.”
Human emissions of greenhouse gases have caused the Arctic to heat up twice as fast as the remainder of the northern hemisphere. This has contributed to two major positive feedback loops. Positive feedback, which should worry us the most, is when a system is placed under extreme stress, it effects another force which in turn intensifies and pushes the momentum of the initial system. Subsequently that system accelerates in the direction it is being forced towards. A positive feedback therefore forces an increase in net temperature change.
The common and obvious example is the Arctic Ocean’s loss of albedo. As the ice melts, there is less white surface to reflect the sun’s solar radiation back into space. The ocean gets darker, absorbs more heat, and further warms the ocean hence accelerating further ice thinning and shrinkage. Scientists have known about the albedo feedback effect for a long time. This is an especially rapid feedback mechanism, called a “charney” loop. The increase of water vapor–another greenhouse gas–released into the atmosphere as the days get hotter is another charney feedback.
A more recent feedback mechanism, primarily observed in Greenland, is that the ice sheets’ albedo has been observed to lessen before ice actually melts. When ice crystals are jagged, more light is reflected. However, with the warming of ice crystals, they become rounded and their potential albedo decreases. According to Bill McKibben, between 2000 and 2011 Greenland’s albedo for a single month’s average decreased 9 percent in this manner.
A third feedback is the annual increase in major wildfires around the globe. In 2017, Greenland experienced its largest wildfire on record from the burning of thawed peatland. Peat has the ability to self-ignite. In 2018, British Columbia experienced the loss of over 3.2 million acres and the Northwest Territories lost 8.4 million acres in 2014. Northern wildfires too are interconnected with the melting of the Arctic as tons of carbon soot settle upon the Arctic regions ice and glaciers thereby absorbing more heat and further reducing albedo.
A more recent discovery that should be deeply disconcerting for any slight chance that the Arctic might revert its current course is the self-perpetuating effects of Arctic ice-loss on the climate of northern Europe and North America, including the United States. This concerns the powerful polar jet stream that steers weather systems around the northern hemisphere from the west towards the east. This air current establishes a boundary separating the cold and wet climes in the north from the warmer and drier southern climes. Research now shows that as the Arctic warms, the jet stream weakens, and this is contributing to the increases in severe extreme weather conditions. Jennifer Francis at Rutgers University headed up an NOAA study to determine the effects of a warming Arctic on extreme weather events, such as the recent superstorms in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. She concluded that “as the Arctic warms at twice the global rate, we expect an increased probability of extreme weather events across the temperate latitudes of the northern hemisphere where billions of people live.”
Across the entire Northern Hemisphere there has been an exponential leap in extreme weather events, including massive wildfires, severe droughts, heatwaves and flash floods. Witness the recent superstorms Harvey, Irma, Maria, Florence and Michael during the past 18 months; each has occurred in a temperate climate zone. The majority of the world’s food is grown in temperate zones such as Europe, the US and Canada, northern Mexico, China, the Middle East, and most of Russia. These zones, more than the tropics, have been the breadbaskets, particularly in cereals, for the majority of the planet. They are also regarded as the most critically sustainable for the future of global food security. But when we take into account the dramatic changes occurring in the Arctic, we may be confronted with a future when reliable sustainability becomes mere wishful thinking.
According to an article published in a 2007 issue of The Cryosphere, the melting of the Arctic’s summer sea ice has already passed its threshold. Today, the larger picture of climate change has replaced the more compartmentalized view of global warming, which is now understood as one phenomenon in the larger picture of climate change. The rapid changes in the global climate include many other destructive and environmental elements in addition to the warming of the Earth and the loss of sea ice. There is also the danger of a much greater threat with the release of perhaps billions of tons of methane that has been locked away for many millenia in the Arctic and polar North.
Global warming’s greatest and most frightening ticking time bomb is the release of methane held frozen in the tundras and permafrost in the Arctic and upper Northern Hemisphere. It is unfathomable to contemplate the full consequential weight of widespread permafrost melt. Ground-stored methane is the global warming bubble of our time. Unfortunately, the aftermath of bursting bubbles, including economic bubbles, are often far worse than anticipated. “The global warming bubble,” says environmental columnist Robert Hunziker, “is found in every remote corner of the planet but it’s most prominent in the Arctic, where temperatures are increasing 2-3 times faster than elsewhere on the planet.” Hunziker reminds us that unlike the 2008 Wall Street bank collapse, money cannot fix this. A blowout of a climate change bubble cannot be bailed out.
Compared to CO2, the IPCC estimates that methane is 86 times a more potent and warming greenhouse gas. Therefore, imagine the gradual release of a thousand gigatons more. The release of the Arctic’s trapped methane will lead to runnaway global warming. No amount of human ingenuity, technology or prayer will be able to slow or halt it.
Arctic methane release is not a far off scenario. It is happening at this moment. In 2009, researchers reported in Geophysical Research Letters that the past thirty years of a warming Arctic has triggered unprecedented emissions of methane beneath the Siberian seabed. Seamen traversing the polar ocean now observe vast methane plumes bubbling from the Arctic Ocean floor. The Eastern Siberian ice shelf, a region of approximately 810,000 square miles, has been melting more rapidly with methane release increasing by 9 million tons during a two year period. In response to the growing evidence of methane release, Jason Box, a renowned Arctic and Greenland scientist, tweeted, “if even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re f’d.”
With the advance of global warming, it is estimated that there are 50 gigatons of methane await a lit fuse to escape captivity in the frozen Arctic landscape and northern tundra. It is uncertain when the tipping point for the Siberian permafrost will be reached. For certain is not far off in the future. Arctic climatologist Prof. Anton Vaks at Oxford University suggested in a 2013 paper published in Science that it could occur once the 1.5 degree C threshold is reached, the same estimate published by the IPCC this year.
To make matters worse, there is an additional source of methane in the Arctic region is methanogens. These methane releasing microbes are plentiful in Arctic waters. Scientists still do not know the extent of the danger these organisms present. While the water remains at freezing temperatures, they are unable to proliferate. They have been there for many millennia. However, as the ocean surface warms, there is fear that methanogens will dramatically increase their bioactivity and start releasing methane into the atmosphere.
There are approximately four million people living along the Arctic Circle, including hundreds of thousands of indigenous people, whose livelihoods will be threatened. Very likely, most of the coastal communities will be forced to migrate in the near future as shorelines dependent upon ice, freezing temperatures and colder seasons start to crumble and disappear. Acceleration is also exasperated by the thawing permafrost and tundra, and the massive release of methane and nitrous oxide, in the Arctic North. In point of fact, the Arctic is collapsing.
Opponents of anthropogenic climate change argue that there was a pause in global warming that began in 1999 and continued into 2014. This period was marked by slowing global mean temperatures. This argument is still frequently voiced by climate deniers as evidence to support the view that current warming trends are nothing less than a natural cyclic, atmospheric phenomenon. However, 2014 through 2016 was a turning point as temperatures passed pre-industrial levels. These were record breaking years and 2017 and 2018 continued the warming trends. Consequently, scientists at the University of Alaska’s Arctic Research Centre returned to earlier data for reevaluation. Their findings concluded there never was a hiatus, a pause, in global warming. Rather than slowing down, it has continued to rise a approximately 0.112 degrees C per decade. In fact, warming never stopped.
On the face of it, an ice free Arctic might appear to have very little personal significance. But consider for the moment that under the Arctic waters lie 90 billion barrels of crude oil, 1.7 trillion cubic feet of gas and an additional 44 billion barrels of other natural gas liquids. All of this black gold now awaits the corporate wolves of Big Oil and Gas and those nation’s whose economies and market growth rely heavily upon fossil fuel-produced energy, especially Canada, Russia and the US. Rather than heed the warnings of climate scientists, the opening up of the Arctic is new frontier for territorial expansion. CNBC reported in February that Russia and China together are determined to beat out the US in the $35 trillion dollar race to control the Arctic. Russia has already diligently increasing its Arctic oil production despite western sanctions which will part of China’s newly announced “Polar Silk Road.”
This is all part of a new Great Game between the new forces in the 21st century Cold War, a replay of the late 19th century War of Shadows engaged between the colonial interests of the UK, Russia, France and Japan in Central Asia. Containing up to a quarter of the world’s untapped fossil-fuel resources, in addition to a wide range of minerals including gold, silver, titanium, graphite, uranium and rare earth elements, the Arctic will likely never return to the days as a frozen region. Nor will any successful effort be made to reduce fossil fuel emissions to lessen the onward march of climate change.
Jared Diamond, in his publication Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, identifies a theme common in all societies that eventually collapse under their own weight; that is, the isolated elite class that serves solely itself while ignoring or denying the consequences of the social, and environmental, disasters the country undergoes. Gross inequality ultimately explodes into runaway poverty, wars, revolutions, violence, and pestilence. We would also add civilization’s ignoring the voice of Nature and her warnings. The nations of the worlds determination to block their senses from all the dire signs before us imperil us all.