~by Robert Greer
Before I attempt to argue these apparently-contradictory things, let me point to an astonishing fact few people seem to be aware of: In June 2012, there was less than half as much sea ice (by volume) in the Arctic Circle as a mere ten years prior, and the downward trend has been rapidly accelerating.
I’ll let that sink in a bit.
“That can’t be right,” you might say. “The amount of ice up there is highly volatile, and couldn’t it all just be a temporary phase?” This line of thinking, while reassuring, is unfortunately incorrect. Over the past two decades (i.e, about two solar cycles), the ice has not fluctuated between patternless highs and lows, but instead has shown a consistently accelerating decline. Climate skeptics ritually decry the prognostications of climate scientists as alarmist, but when it comes to the Arctic, scientists actually underestimate the problem: Recent observations of Arctic sea ice have undercut all but the very most dire projections.
So how bad is the ice situation, really? I’ll be blunt: The Arctic could be ice-free by this October. I don’t say this as an attempt to guilt skeptics into action with a scaremongering figure, nor is it a possible but remote outcome hyped beyond reasonableness. Following the best-fit trend lines of the Arctic ice loss leads to an ice-free Arctic in the unimaginably-distant summer of, uh, three years from now.
So why do I say the Arctic could be ice-free three months from now? Because there are many reasons to believe the ice loss will outstrip the three-year naive extrapolation. First, ice melt begets more melt, because open ocean reflects only around 10% as much energy as does ice and snow. (Some scientists cite this as a major reason for the accelerating ice loss.) Second, there’s a record-low amount of snow cover in the terrestrial northern latitudes, which means that the Arctic region will reflect a lot less heat into space than in the years upon which the trend is based. Finally (and perhaps most dramatically), the thicker multi-year ice which has survived at least one summer and is therefore more compacted and difficult to melt, has almost completely frittered away. These are among the reasons that Peter Wadhams, a climate scientist at Cambridge, has pegged the date for complete melt for next summer.
Mercifully, melting sea ice in the Arctic doesn’t directly affect sea levels (except nearly-imperceptibly) because the frozen water was already in the ocean. However, an ice-free Arctic would nevertheless be catastrophic for several reasons. There’s the already-mentioned problem of increased absorption of solar energy. Another is that there are hundreds of millions of tons of hydrocarbons in the northern latitudes that are currently being stabilized by the low temperatures in the Arctic from the ice. Remove the ice cap, and those hydrocarbons will bubble away into greenhouse gases quite quickly. (This process has actually already started in earnest.) Worse, the greenhouse gas released by this process, methane, heats up the atmosphere about thirty times faster than does carbon dioxide. Yeah: thirty.
The prospect of a significant sea level rise in the near future is very real. Once the Arctic melts, the Earth will absorb a significantly higher amount of energy every year, and the increased methane in the atmosphere will heat the globe rapidly. The Greenland ice sheet is already showing adramatic loss of reflectivity, which would happen before a collapse. Moreover, increased solar absorption from an ice-free North Pole could destabilize the West Antarctic ice sheet, which scientists have already said may collapse at any time. A major event in either ice cap could raise the sea level by ten to twelve feet — enough to flood Manhattan, Corpus Christi, much of the California coast, and nearly all of Florida.
So… what do we do?
It should go without saying that it won’t be enough to simply curb emissions (although there are plenty of other reasons to do so, such as to reduce the acidification of our oceans). This year, the Arctic system is expected to absorb more energy from decreased reflectivity of the snow coveralone than will be used by the entire global economy. We could ban carbon emissions entirely and the Arctic would probably melt despite our efforts. Kyoto and other protocols simply cannot save us.
How about climate engineering? We could blast trillions of reflective particles into the air, which would theoretically reflect enough energy back into space to save us from baking ourselves. Nifty solution, right?
Unfortunately, climate engineering would be a terrible idea for several reasons. Only forty years ago, reflective particles in the atmosphere were exactly what scientists were trying to avoid: At the time, the fear was not global warming from greenhouse forcing, but rather global cooling from nuclear fallout or aerosols. So if we pump reflective particles into the atmosphere, it’ll be difficult if not impossible to tell if we’re overcorrecting — and we won’t know for sure that the stuff we’re using won’t mess up the environment through some other mechanism. If we’re ignorant enough of the climate’s workings to fail to anticipate the melt of an entire ice cap more than a few years away, then our understanding of the climate clearly can’t be a reliable basis for radical climate engineering. Climate engineering therefore suffers from a fundamental epistemic problem.
In the face of such an insoluble worries, conservatism offers a wiser set of prescriptions: skepticism of centralized action, restraint, and personal responsibility. Instead of forcing the planet to fit our liking (which would very likely only create more drastic externalities), we should adapt to its new state and await the globe’s self-corrective measures.
I do not prescribe here the oil company propaganda that we should continue to rely on a hydrocarbon economy; adapting to a warmer world would require a fairly drastic reorganization of priorities. We should immediately draw up plans to relocate or evacuate people in low-lying coastal regions if sea rise begins to accelerate or if the West Antarctic ice sheet fractures. We should also strive to live off of fewer food resources, because rapid climate change could reduce farm yields and access to drinking water dramatically.
During the hydrocarbon age, our economy has run on souls: a slurry of dead diatoms and dimetrodons. So it makes a certain cosmic-economic sense that the best way to atone for destroying the planet would be to switch, not only to renewable energy, but also to a diet comprised of more plants — which, holding other aspects constant, requires far less farmland and water than meat. Personal actions like these are not as sexy as the Jerry Bruckheimer climate engineering fixes, but they’re more robustly and less subject to fatal paradigmatic error.
We are an integral part of our environment. If we must change our environment to avoid apocalyptic effects on our way of life, perhaps the most natural conclusion is that we should start with the part of the environment we know best: ourselves.
(Image: Central Arctic Ocean, 7/11/12. Image maintained by NOAA)